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Anielewicz, Mordekhai

(1920?–1943), Zionist youth leader and commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ŻOB) in the Warsaw ghetto. Born in Wyszków, Poland, Mordekhai Anielewicz was initially a member of the Revisionist youth movement Betar but shifted allegiance to the left-wing Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, where his powerful personality, rhetorical skills, and sports prowess marked him as a leader.

When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Anielewicz fled to eastern Poland along with most Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir leaders. After an abortive attempt to escape to Palestine via Vilna, he returned to German-occupied Warsaw in early 1940 and began rebuilding the Ha-Shomer organization. The movement’s new headquarters on 22 Nalewki Street became an educational and cultural center, with an underground press, seminars, and a library. In debates about the future course of Ha-Shomer, Anielewicz and Shmuel Breslav argued for a more pro-Soviet orientation.

When the first news of mass killings of Jews reached the Warsaw ghetto in late 1941, Anielewicz became a fervent advocate of armed resistance, supporting the Antifascist Bloc. In July 1942, when mass deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka began, Anielewicz was in Zagłębie, where he urged local Jewish youth movements to prepare to fight. Upon learning in September 1942 of the murder of two Ha-Shomer leaders (Breslav and Yosef Kaplan), he returned to Warsaw. Shortly thereafter he became commander of ŻOB.

While encountering occasional friction with leaders of other groups in ŻOB, Anielewicz earned general respect as he procured arms, liquidated collaborators, and raised money. On 18 January 1943, during a German incursion into the ghetto, Anielewicz’s fighting group attacked. Although most of the fighters were killed, Anielewicz managed to escape.

Between the so-called January Aktion and the outbreak of the ghetto uprising on 19 April 1943, Anielewicz and his comrades charted plans for a final showdown. He now expressed regret that his movement had earlier emphasized educational and cultural work instead of preparing to fight. On 18 April, the day before the uprising began, Anielewicz told the ŻOB command that when the battle came the Jews would first employ surprise to shock the Germans. Then they would use a maze of bunkers, tunnels, and roofs to carry on extended partisan warfare. With enough arms, Anielewicz believed, the Jews might be able to fight for months.

On 23 April, Anielewicz wrote his associate Yitsḥak Zuckerman that the results of the initial battles had exceeded his wildest expectations. Still, the Germans systematically burned the ghetto. Anielewicz and other ŻOB fighters found refuge in a large bunker on Miła 18 that had been built originally by Jewish criminals. On 8 May 1943, after the Germans uncovered the entrances to the bunker, Anielewicz and other fighters committed suicide. His longtime companion Mira Fuchrer shared his fate. In his last letter to Zuckerman, Anielewicz wrote, “Be well my friend. Perhaps we shall meet again. The main thing is the dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see a Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.”

Suggested Reading

Raya Cohen, “Against the Current: Hashomer Hatzair in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jewish Social Studies 7.1 (2000): 63–80; Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Boston, 1994); Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory, trans. and ed. Barbara Harshav (Berkeley, 1993).