While “No to Fear” often reads like a Wikipedia entry with no hyperlinks, “Mordechai Anielewicz: No to Despair,” by Rachel Hausfater (“The Little Boy Star: An Allegory of the Holocaust”), also translated by Alison L. Strayer , is a thrilling biography with the immediacy and emotional impact of a novel.
“No to Despair” begins on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. By the previous summer, the Nazis had deported 300,000 Jews from the ghetto and killed most of them in the Treblinka concentration camp. By January 1943, they had arrested and attempted to deport more Jews, but were thwarted by 10 resistance soldiers, including 24-year-old Anielewicz.
So in April, he calls on those left in the ghetto to fight back, even if it’s a lost cause. Their goal is not to win, Anielewicz says, but to fight to the death. A chosen death, not the one that will otherwise surely be forced upon them.
How we got here – the German invasion of Poland, the establishment of the Jewish ghettos, the Aktions that took prisoners, the camps where they were murdered – is explained clearly and chillingly, with hardly any footnotes. Well-placed flashbacks show how as a boy Anielewicz formed a gang to protect his Warsaw neighborhood from anti-Semitic attacks and how he was expelled from a paramilitary camp for retaliating against persecution.
Like “No to Fear,” this story is told from an observer’s point of view, but here it’s someone in the same age group as the series’ intended readers: 13-year-old Feigele, “a little messenger girl, a former smuggler” , who lost her entire family in an Aktion, rescued by Anielewicz on her way back from a trip outside the ghetto, she becomes his devoted follower and constant companion.
In Feigele’s eyes Anielewicz is ‘an angel’, his thinking ‘brilliant’, their quest ‘sacred’. He is ‘pure in heart, heartrendingly gentle, incredibly brave’ and of course ‘a human being’. Sometimes Feigele’s adoration comes across as an embarrassing teenage love affair, but it’s a prime example of how Anielewicz inspired hundreds of young people in the ghetto to join him for a hopeless cause.