While “No to Fear” often reads like a Wikipedia entry without 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. The previous summer, the Nazis had deported 300,000 Jews from the ghetto and murdered most of them in the Treblinka concentration camp. In January 1943, they had arrested and attempted to deport other Jews but were thwarted by 10 resistance soldiers, including 24-year-old Anielewicz.
Thus, in April, he rallies those who remain in the ghetto to fight back, even if it is a lost cause. Their goal is not to win, Anielewicz tells them, but to fight to the death. A chosen death, not one that would otherwise surely be forced upon them.
How we got here – the German invasion of Poland, the creation of the Jewish ghettos, the Aktions that rounded up the prisoners, the camps where they were killed – is explained in clear and chilling fashion, with barely any notes from footer. Well-placed flashbacks show how Anielewicz formed a gang as a child to protect his Warsaw neighborhood from anti-Semitic attacks and how he was expelled from a paramilitary camp for fighting back against persecution.
Like “No to Fear,” this story is told from the perspective of an observer, but here it’s someone in the same age group as the series’ intended readers: Feigele, 13, “a little messenger, a former smuggler”, who lost her whole family in an Aktion. Saved by Anielewicz on her return from an incursion outside the ghetto, she becomes his faithful follower and his constant companion.
In Feigele’s eyes, Anielewicz is “an angel”, his “brilliant” thought, their “sacred” quest. He is “pure of heart, heartbreakingly sweet, incredibly brave” and, of course, “a mensch”. At times, Feigele’s adoration feels more like an embarrassing teenage crush, but it’s a fine example of how Anielewicz was able to inspire hundreds of ghetto youths to join him in a hopeless cause.