By Sneha Roychoudhury
“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.”
— HANNAH SZENES
We write our history on the shores of reality, let the tumultuous waves of time devour on the stories of our past. We etch our tales on the solitary rocks- set firm amid the noisy froth-and let the sea unleash its whipping fury, washing away our dreamy hopes, till our verses fade away and our stories are lost with the retreat of the waves. And then, from time to time, there comes along a chronicler who pulls out the dusty, tattered books of record from the hidden shelves of dark, solemn libraries, to sing of the forgotten lore and remind the world of fallen heroes, brave souls, and broken hearts- all blurred images of men and women who have fought and struggled for dignity and courage and perished in the fight. Smudged images of courage and pain, tinted with the hues of war. Such is the unheard melody of the Warsaw of 1942, whose war-stricken orchestras, smoke-laden piping and blood-curdling screeching of human plight have been finally taped and played to the numb ears of a world now rather comfortable with the constant rendition of battle-cry.
Mila 18, by Leon Uris, is one such story. Written by one of my personal favourite war-authors, the book seeks to narrate the horrors of The Jewish Holocaust, chronologically highlight its growth and most importantly tell an otherwise untold story- the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Lives entwine and the ends a tied to the truth of gory events, as the book unveils stark realities in bloody detail. The stories of the various characters in the book bring together a kaleidoscope of awe-inspiring stories which talk of revolt and submission, fright and fight, internal conflict and self-loathing, love, desire and compulsions. But most importantly, most conspicuously these stories breathe and live for one united aim- the aspiration of dignity in death, the solitary dream of embracing their end with their heads held high, refusing to go down without resistance.
Silhouetted against the fragile despair of destitution, hunger, emaciated existence culminating in ultimate annihilation of a people, Mila 18 minutely and closely discusses some of the major historical events with precise accuracy, intricately highlighting the relevance of each small occurrence when related to the higher scheme of things. Through the dairy of fictional character Alexander Brandel, a sincere Jewish Historian stuck among the perils of a conflicted Poland, we trace the historically testified truth in events that had occurred, tasting the flavours of interesting takes and dynamic turn-of-events in the volatile age of war and bloodshed. “The streets of Warsaw trembled beneath the treads of hundreds of tanks moving up Jerusalem Boulevard and the Third of May Boulevard in a parade array. These were followed by tens of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers moving in absolute precision, and overhead, squadron after squadron of planes flew in elements at house-top level…”- the lines sketch the grand announcement of doom in the Polish capital, marking the beginning of Hitler’s terrorising reign and the ill-fated future that lay ahead for the collective Jewish population of Eastern Europe, in general, and Poland, in particular.
As a contrast to Brandel’s policy of passive resistance, stands tall the ideas of aggression and revolt that grow and churn in the heart of soldier and radical Andrei Androfski , who believed- and not without reason- that the true salvation of European Jewry lay in putting up a front, bleak as it may be, for the heart of a warrior did not allow him to be raised to the ground without one. It is from here that rose one of the most resilient organised revolt that mankind has ever witnessed. Though the brush of oblivion has persevered to sweep the events of this revolt into a faint, unnoticed existence, its importance and brilliance has held its own in the carved edifices of human archives. Young souls, fuelled by the adrenalin of rightful vengeance and aspirations of getting a little of their own back, joined hands to bring down all the rules and fatal measures that the Nazi regime stood for. This culminated into the final uprising, when the Jewish underground held the Warsaw Ghetto for an entire week, against the vicious German tanks, with absolutely nothing more than home- brewed explosives and a dozen smuggled riffles of different calibres. They held their fort by the sheer power of determination, the ultimate force rendered to their spirit by the fires of hapless revolt- all the fight they had in them, the final vestige of courage put into the ultimate quest for their diminished prestige, claimed by the blood they shed in their very own battle with fate.
“If the Warsaw ghetto marked the lowest point in the history of Jewish people, it also marked the point where they rose to their greatest heights… Isn’t it odd that the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man also produced the epitome of man’s nobility?”(-Alexander Brandel)
Entangled in this is the poetic recitation of young love tortured by uncertainty and passion, pious belief helping reconciliation to faith, dreary childhood, collapsing under the tremendous weight of vindictive reality and the little twinkling of hope in the night of Ghetto-life. This book brings home the shuddering truths of human shame, some of which makes the heart cringe and the soul recoil. So what must we do? Turn our heads away once again, I’m sure. Walk away, like the human community had in these disgraceful years of genocide. Yes that is easy. That is perhaps the inevitable, as the pragmatist would reason. And we shall all nod our heads in wise agreement. Complacence shall prevail.
The view of the third person, the onlooker, has been aptly represented through the character of Christopher De Monti. Chris, as he is referred to, is a Swiss situation caught paralysed in Nazi Poland, unable to aid these crippled masses, or inform the world of their agony as a journalist, finds himself to be as much the perpetrator as the Nazies themselves. And such was the case with all of his kind, who like the audience of a public execution, watched six million people being led to the slaughter-houses of gruesome extermination and said not a word. They watched, cowed by the radiance of evil, vary of getting their hands dirty with the murky ideas of one man who changed the course of all that mankind stood for, and left the coming generations with a legacy of undeniable dishonour and remorse.
This story inspires me, and even within its omnipresent pain and ordeal, there lies a slight ray of gleaming faith. There is the dream of a life, however utopian, and the stretching hand desiring to acquire it. Uris breathes life into his brilliant tale, and ignites in us all a flickering and yet determined light of new-found fight- a fight for our identity, an unapologetic demand of our pride and our struggle with life much more than that with death. Alexander Brandel’s dying words were- “I die, a man fulfilled. My son shall live to see Israel reborn… And what is more, we Jews have avenged our honour as a people.” What can be a better way to lead and perish in a rebellion for the natural rights of a human life?
Sneha Roychoudhury is a student of History with a passion for words and can be best described by the collection of books stacked on her shelves and the little doodles made on tattered ends of these volumes. She dreams, and she protects them in a lexical fortress- some of it built and quite some imagined. Music renders her free and literature entwines her being- each mending the chipped pieces of her imperfect soul. Travel and the written word are her soul mates, the world a box of woes and wonder and the untold stories of the nameless millions her singular passion.