Mila 18

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Novel by Leon Uris, 1961

Leon Uris's novel Mila 18 (1961) is a fact-based treatment of the heroic resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during their uprising against the Nazis in 1943. The Nazis had been systematically emptying the ghetto, promising the inhabitants that they were being shipped to labor camps but actually shipping them to Treblinka for extermination. After word reached the ghetto of the Jews' real fate, some of the ghetto dwellers decided to confront the Nazis. On 18 January a group led by the Jewish Combat Organization met a Nazi attempt to round up Jews with armed resistance. Not until 16 May did the Nazis manage to defeat the defenders of the ghetto, even though the Nazis had at their disposal almost limitless manpower and one of the best-trained and best-equipped armies in the history of the world, while the Jews had on their side a group of largely untrained volunteers, many of whom were children, with few arms, most of which were homemade. The Germans eventually used artillery fire and aerial bombing to level the ghetto, but still the defenders fought on. That they held out for as long as they did demonstrated to the world that the Nazis could be defeated and that the Jews could fight. Uris extensively researched this historic episode both in archives and by interviewing survivors.

Uris's novel begins before the Nazi conquest of Poland. His protagonist, Andrei Androfski, is an officer in the Polish army who leads his horse-mounted regiment against the Nazi panzer troops. He manages to achieve a short-lived victory but is eventually forced to flee back to Warsaw when his outmanned and outgunned troops are defeated. After the surrender of Warsaw he and the other Jews of the city and, eventually, of the surrounding area are put into a walled-off ghetto the Nazis have created. While Androfski argues for the Jews to arm themselves and tries to join the Free Polish Forces, other groups, especially the Zionists, preach patience, having no idea of the fate that lies in store for them. After it is too late, Androfski wins the argument, and the Jewish command sets up its headquarters at Mila 18, from which it directs attack after attack against the Nazis and their allies.

Uris shows that, although some non-Jews help the inhabitants of the ghetto, most turn their backs on them. The Free Polish Forces refuse to aid the ghetto dwellers, even stealing some of the money being directed from the United States and England to the ghetto. The Nazis feed on preexisting Polish anti-Semitism to make the populace feel that the problems of occupation are the fault not of the Nazis but of the Jews.

In the book Uris also depicts Jewish characters who collaborate with the Nazis either for the illusion of power or for wealth, which they quickly lose when they are deported. He also depicts some who collaborate in the misguided idea that they are helping the Jewish people survive. Believing that the Nazis are determined to exterminate the Jews, they feel that working with the Nazis will make things easier on the Jews. He also indicates that many inhabitants of the ghetto cannot grasp what is happening to them and do not believe the reports that they are being deported for mass extermination.

Nonetheless, Uris focuses on the heroic resistance fighters, involved in what they know is a losing battle but nonetheless willing to sacrifice their lives to show the world that defiance of the Nazis is possible. He treats the idea that immense pressure brings out the worst in some people but the best in others. He also deals with the importance many of the ghetto dwellers place on recording the story of what is happening to them and of getting their story to the rest of the world. His book is in part an attempt to tell that story.

Through no stretch of the imagination is Mila 18 a great piece of literature. When it appeared, many reviewers attacked it for stereotypical characterization and superficiality. Others compared it unfavorably to John Hersey 's The Wall (1950), also about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Even those who attacked the work, however, tended to praise Uris's plotting and his passion. Like most of Uris's works, it was written for a popular audience, and it was a best-seller. It tells a gripping tale of both human perfidy and sacrifice, self-delusion and clear sight, and cowardice and heroism. And it attempts to illustrate the idea that individual actions can make a difference even in the face of modern destructive technology.

—Richard Tuerk