An attempt by a half way educated Kiwi, who reads just a bit, to get his puny mind around the great world of literature!!
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Mila 18 - Leon Uris
It seems fitting to follow Leon Uris with Leon Uris! Mila 18 is probably his third best novel. It isn't quite in the league of Exodus, but if Exodus was a ten then Mila 18 is a 9.5. It isn't as long either, but then the Warsaw Ghetto uprising isn't quite the historical event that the birth of a nation is either.
So Mila 18 isn't Exodus, but it is an unforgettable novel all the same. In many respects I have written my reviews the wrong way round as I should have written this first and followed it with Exodus to mirror the chronology of the events themselves. Whilst they are separate novels and no characters are carried over it would pay to read Mila 18 first as it is based during the war. To do so would clarify so much of Exodus for the uninitiated in this period of history.
The Warsaw Ghetto and its destruction actually happened. Uris though takes the reader back in time to the start of the war in 1939 and the coming of the Germans. The novel moves from the initial anti-Semitic laws imposed on the Polish Jews, then onto their round up and placement into the Ghetto. It is all historically accurate, and again Uris must be commended for his research and accuracy. The fate of European Jewry is too important and tragic to be played around with, and Uris is extremely sensitive to the history of the Holocaust ( It must be remembered that Uris researched, and wrote this novel only 15 years after the actual Uprising. Many books and documents have since surfaced that only emphasise Uris's care on the subject within the material he had to work with that was available to him).
A great visual aid to this story is the fine film The Pianist. What you see in that film is what Uris describes in Mila 18. The Germans crowded upwards of half a million Jews into an area of several city blocks and built a wall around it to keep them in. At the time this was done the Germans were still debating what to actually do with them. The death camps weren't an instant decision and the Ghettos became a simple way of keeping the Jews together. Unfortunately, as they were an administrative problem, genocide became the preferred option to deal with them. The Ghetto itself made it easier for the Germans to herd them together quickly, and onto trains, which 're-settled' them the camps ( most of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews were were gassed at Treblinka ).
All this historical fact Uris goes into, and like Exodus he tells it from both sides of the fence. He uses actual German figures like Stroop, Globocnik, etc, who were directly involved in deporting and eradicating the Ghetto. But he also adds fictional Germans to tell of decisions from Berlin and to mirror the reactions of those orders in Poland.
We see the Polish underground visited by Jewish fighters who wanted weapons, and the Polish attitudes to the Jew's plight exposed. They had little sympathy and gave as little help as they could, even refusing to take Jews into the partisan movement. Uris shows the reader how the Warsaw Jews were left to their own fate. Very few Poles did ever lift a finger to help them. To be sure the Polish people themselves were under Nazi tyranny to, but many also blamed the Jews for the fact that Germany invaded their country, and felt they deserved their fate, ( This of course was a feeling mirrored by many right throughout Europe. See the film Sarah's Key for a French take on the Holocaust ). The Polish Jews thought of themselves as Poles but were never really accepted as such by the general Polish population Again a feeling mirrored right throughout Europe).
As the wall shuts out the rest of the world they are left to their fate, Uris goes into how quickly things degenerated. Jewish women prostituted themselves, children were sent through sewers to the outside to get food, disease became rampant, as did collaboration with the Germans. Anything went just to survive and it is brutal reading in seeing how low humanity got just to survive. Of course the Germans actually used this as a pretext to show to the world that the Jews really were scum and needed to be dealt with.
As the Germans systematically start to ship batches of Jews off eastward the rumours of their fate reach the rest. It is haunting as they realise they are left to their fate and will be eventually wiped out. The choice comes down to one of succumb and go meekly, or fight and die with dignity. This of course divides them all and many have their faiths tested. It must be remembered that the uprising was by only a small number of Jews and not the whole Ghetto. The fighters received word that the Germans were going to make one last major sweep and transport he last fifty thousand survivors to Treblinka. It was this news that triggered the uprising by the approximately thirteen thousand Jewish fighters.
They were poorly armed with captured weapons of differing calibres and sometimes only a few bullets per gun. They manufactured home made weapons and used extensive use of Molotov cocktails. Knifes, bare fists, whatever, these Jews showed a courage that was unbearably futile, but extremely heroic. They died in their thousands but held off the Germans for many weeks even though the Ghetto was virtually destroyed. It was an incredible achievement. Doomed from the start it has gone down in history as a stunning statement of sacrifice against tyranny. Leon Uris has put into a novelised form, an unpolished, and uncompromising book, which no reader will ever be able to forget.
This may be a novel with many events fictionalised, but Uris has provided the world with as close as possible look at the times and atmosphere of a people who knew their fate, and stood up to it. It is a brutal, searing read, and Leon Uris was the best in the business at putting such events onto paper. Mila 18 is an unforgettable, and extremely important novel. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising is a part of the Holocaust, and one of it's most horrific, and yet inspiring events. If you really want to know what it was like to live through it all then you can't go past this book.
Absolutely brilliant, and still as relevant today as it was when written. I guarantee that this is a novel that once read will never be forgotten, and in fact will you probably read it again. It is like nothing else you can possibly imagine, and again Leon Uris shows us his mastery of the historical novel.
Mila 18 was an actual address. The book states it was the last bastion of Jewish resistance in the Ghetto but Jurgen Stroop, the German commander designated to wiping out the ghetto, states in his after action report that over thirty points of resistance were destroyed after Mila 18 on May 12th 1943 alone. It has become myth that Mila 18 was the last and even today tour guides state this historical error. Below are some good links of interest pertaining to the uprising.