The word “decoration” might bring to mind all manner of trivial things: patterned pillows, oddly shaped vases, or balloons, flags and confetti. These are the furthest things from my mind as I think of my uncle Natan’s decoration.
Natan is yet one more, in a long list of close family members, who I never had the privilege of meeting. The Holocaust deprived me of them all. But, Natan is one I know well through my father’s vivid stories. He was four years older than Nachman and a source of great inspiration to my father. He was the brother who championed Nachman’s enrollment in the socialist Vladimir Medem school, which he himself could not attend. Natan was the one who came home with the latest editions of the Yiddish newspapers and spoke of labor unrest and protests by working people, and clubbings by the repressive Lodz police. Young Nachman listened intently to every word and regarded his older brother with awe.
Anti-Semitism in Germany
By the 1930s, the intense wave of anti-Semitism in Germany caused many German Jews to seek their fortune elsewhere. One such family was that of a young woman Dora Kociolek. Her father was an editor of an influential socialist newspaper in Berlin. When the Nazis passed a law in 1933 that Jewish journalists and newspaper owners had to leave immediately to make the field racially pure, the Kociolek family emigrated to Warsaw, Poland. By then Joseph Goebbels himself, The Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, supervised 3,600 newspapers. He would meet with editors and tell them what they could and could not write.
World War II and Nazi Death Camps
Natan met the fiery, blond Dora and married her shortly before the outbreak of World War II. After only three years of a happy life together, the young couple became interred in the infamous Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 more then a quarter of a million Jewish ghetto inmates were sent to their death in Treblinka and news of the systematic extermination had finally reached much of the ghetto population. The remaining Jews, especially those who were young, wanted to fight the Germans despite being weakened by starvation and disease. They established the Jewish Fighting Organization whose acronym in Polish was ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa.) Their leader was a young man, Mordecai Anielewicz. Natan Libeskind joined this courageous group whose meager supply of weapons did not bode well.
Against all odds, they fought valiantly for the first four months of 1943. The resistance surprised the Nazis and made deportations to the death camps more difficult. The Nazis retaliated by slaughtering 1,000 Jews on the main square on a single day in January, but stopped the deportations for a short time. By spring the resistance stiffened and so did the Nazi reprisals and deportations. The ZOB members resisted till the very end, keeping the uprising going even when it was clear that few would survive. The Germans, unable to quiet the resistance, set the entire ghetto on fire, building by building.
Natan’s Bravery and Exceptional Courage
Natan and his wife Dora perished, but Natan’s bravery and heroic resistance in the face of evil incarnate was recognized posthumously by the Polish government. Nachman accepted the decoration on behalf of his fallen brother. This medal, the Virtuti Millitari (Military Virtue in Latin) had been my father’s most prized possession.
This highest military decoration is given to heroes for exceptional courage in the face of the enemy at war. Created by a Polish king in 1792, it is the oldest military decoration in the world still in use today.
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