At the climax of Mila 18—the late Baltimore-born novelist Leon Uris’s epic retelling of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—a fat and bumbling SS minion is dispatched to negotiate with the leaders of the Jewish resistance. “So you are a superman,” a Joint Jewish Forces commander sardonically inquires as the Nazi cowers, feeling “inept before the lean, black-eyed young Jew who could obviously rip him to shreds.”
Exhaustively researched and sweeping in scope, the beloved 1961 novel contributed immeasurably to awareness of this historic revolt, whose seventieth anniversary is this month. But more than that, in its unashamedly pulpy depiction of Jewish heroes who are physically powerful, vengeful, and determined to stand up to their Nazi persecutors, Mila 18—named for the address of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) nerve center—has ensured the enduring symbolic power of those heroes’ efforts in the Western collective conscience. A mere blip in the trajectory of World War II, the Uprising was nevertheless the first act of violent resistance against the Nazi genocide. “For the first time, German plans were frustrated,” Marek Edelman, the deputy commander of the ŻOB and one of the few survivors, would later say. “For the first time the halo of omnipotence and invincibility was torn from the Germans’ heads.” The stereotype of the Jew as, to quote Primo Levi, “a mild person, a scholar . . . unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back,” was invalidated, and the warrior spirit necessary for the formation and survival of modern Israel re-ignited.
On Passover Eve—April 19th, 1943—at 4 AM, more than 2,000 SS troops entered the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. Originally home to 400,000 Jews squeezed into 1,000 acres, the population had dwindled to around 60,000 as people perished of starvation or disease, were randomly murdered, or deported to Treblinka on the pretext of being taken to work camps. That spring morning, the latest instructions of Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Final Solution, were underway: the “liquidation” of the entire ghetto, ideally in time for Hitler’s birthday on the 20th. But those remaining in the ghetto, by now aware that deportation meant death, had painstakingly prepared to resist being taken, by whatever meager means they had at their disposal.
Thus the Nazis, to their amazement, were met with showers of bullets and hand grenades. Two armored vehicles were set on fire with petrol bombs, and many German soldiers were killed. Fierce fighting—between a band of starving young Jews with no military training, only a small cache of homemade or smuggled-in weapons, but absolutely nothing to lose, and the enormous might of the SS army—lasted for ten days, at which point the ghetto fighters retreated into secret bunkers and the sewer system. Eventually, a month after the battle began, the entire ghetto was razed to the ground, but a few survivors, including Marek Edelman, escaped through the sewers and were spirited away by Gentile collaborators.
Uris’s portrayal of that incredible journey through the sewer pipes, some of which were only three feet wide, is the most harrowing section of Mila 18: up to their faces in sewage, deprived of sleep, food and water, and expecting the Nazis to send poison gas bombs down at any moment, the valiant group spend more than twenty-four hours inching along hand-in-hand until they’re pulled out of a man-hole by friends on “the Aryan side,” while “children stopped and gawked at the things emerging from the sewer.” Uris had a firsthand source for this experience: Ziviah Lubetkin, the only woman on the ŻOB high command, whom he met at the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz in western Galilee, and who described her escape from the ghetto “in the canals in pitch blackness.”
In the course of researching Mila 18, Uris interviewed survivors of the ghetto in Warsaw and London, and studied the testimonies at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Significant among them is Emanuel Ringelblum's Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, an extensive archive of diaries, letters, essays, and notes gathered and maintained by Ringelblum, a historian and teacher who, once the ghetto was sealed in 1940, foresaw the importance of recording German crimes for posterity. In Mila 18, Ringelblum becomes Alexander Brandel, the guardian of the works composed by “the Good Fellowship Club,” whose journal excerpts are scattered throughout the novel.
Mila 18 doesn’t, by a long shot, qualify as great literature—the characterization is mostly crude, everyone inexplicably speaks in the cadence and idioms of 1950s America (“Heck!” says a teenage boy during his first romantic tryst. “This isn’t the way I figured it would be"), and the style is serviceable at best—but as a sensational yet historically accurate account of a pivotal episode in history, its value cannot be underestimated. Contemporary audiences certainly read it in droves: it became a Book of the Month selection, spent thirty-one weeks on the bestseller lists, and forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his debut novel from Catch 18 to Catch 22. Of course, the melodrama of Uris’s stark rendering of good against evil elicited critical disdain, with various reviewers dismissing the story as simplistic and sentimental. More recently, literary critic Adam Kirsch identified Uris’s writerly flaw as his disproportionate focus on Jewish toughness, which “becomes something monomaniacal and amoral—an obsession with proving that Jews can and will use violence.”
Yet for better or worse, it is precisely this quality in Uris’s work that has fundamentally influenced American Jewish identity. “Suddenly for us there was this new Jewish way of thinking,” filmmaker Harvey Weinstein once reflected on reading Uris as a boy. “Instead of growing up to be a professor, a lawyer or a doctor, you could grow up to be a soldier, you know, for your people. You can be tough. You can be John Wayne, too.” When Uris published Exodus—his 1959 blockbuster about the founding of the State of Israel, which sold over seven million copies in the US—the state’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion remarked archly: "As a literary work it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel." In 2008, Barack Obama told Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg that Uris was one of the Jewish writers “who helped shape my sensibility”—namedropping Uris being “a kind of code Jews readily understand,” thought Goldberg.
And in Mila 18, it is not simply violence, the willingness to fight to defend oneself, which is prized. Rather, the importance of dying with dignity is emphasized: not stepping into a cattle car headed for the gas chambers, or collapsing from hunger, but exiting the world on one’s own terms. “Our boys and girls still fight fiercely,” writes Alexander Brandel in his final diary entry. “The enemy cannot claim the ghetto. I will die with pride.” With clarity and vividness, Uris conveys how the primary motivation for staging an armed resistance against the Nazis wasn’t survival, but an exigent impulse not to submit to barbarity. As Marek Edelman recalled: “We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths.”
Emma Garman is a writer and critic in London