LOS ANGELES, Oct. 28 (JTA) — On April 18, 1943, as the German army marched in to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, a few hundred Jewish Resistance fighters, armed with pistols, rifles and homemade Molotov cocktails, confronted the Nazi soldiers and held them at bay for almost a month.
The ghetto fighters “chose to live and die honorably in a dishonorable world and to take control of their own destiny when the world had abandoned them,” says filmmaker Jon Avnet.
As director, executive producer and co-writer, Avnet has been the driving force behind the miniseries “Uprising,” which will air in the United States in two two-hour segments on Nov. 4 and 5, from 9-11 p.m. over the NBC-TV network.
The completion of “Uprising” wraps up an intensive seven-year campaign by Avnet, a successful commercial filmmaker.
Cleaving closely to the actual facts, the makers of this docudrama have based their story mainly on the memoirs of the few who survived the destruction of the ghetto.
The film’s timeline starts at the beginning of 1943, when the 450,000 Jews once crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been reduced to 60,000 by deportations, starvation and disease.
Among this remnant was the nucleus of the Jewish Fighters Organization.
Except for a handful of “older” leaders in their mid-20s, most of the fighters were between 18 and 21 years. Their attempts to enlist the help of the Judenrat, the Jewish council appointed by the Nazis, failed and the organization drew first blood on Jan. 18, attacking German soldiers escorting a column of deportees.
During the next few weeks, the surprised Germans were repeatedly beaten back, until they systematically leveled every ghetto building and flushed out holdouts with gas and fire. The last organized stand came at a bunker at Mila Street 18, although some fighters escaped to the “Aryan” side through Warsaw’s sewers and lived to fight as partisans and tell their story later.
The dominant figure in “Uprising” is the Jewish commander Mordechai Anielewicz, a 24-year-old teacher, who was killed in the final battle at Mila 18.
He is portrayed by Hank Azaria, up to now mainly known for his voices in “The Simpsons” television show. Here, Azaria displays a forcefulness and intensity that is central to the credibility of “Uprising.”
Other Resistance fighters are played by Leelee Sobieski as Tosia Altman, Stephen Moyer as Simha “Kazik” Rotem and John Ales as Marek Edelman.
Donald Sutherland gives a finely nuanced performance as Adam Czerniakow, the conflicted head of the Judenrat, while Jon Voight commendably avoids playing Gen. Stroop as a one-dimensional villain.
The only miscasting appears to be David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame, who portrays Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman. Even with a willing suspension of disbelief, it is difficult to imagine the well-fed and neatly combed Schwimmer as the Jews’ chief operative on the “Aryan” side and as the organization’s commander after Anielewicz’s death.
“Uprising” has moments of sheer elation, as when the ghetto fighters raise a hand-made flag with the Star of David over one building, in the teeth of Nazi artillery. In counterpoint, educator Janus Korczak, head of an orphanage, tells his charges that they are going on a picnic, and they climb into the cattle cars on the way to Treblinka, singing “The Sun Is Shining.”
Among the most harrowing scenes are those of German soldiers pumping water into the rat-infested sewers, to flush out the remaining fighters.
“Uprising” is likely to raise protests from Polish-American organizations for its unsparingly harsh view of the Polish people.
In one particularly damning incident, an Easter mass is celebrated in a Warsaw cathedral, while the smoke of the ghetto’s burning buildings and bodies drift into the church. The priest’s response is to close the windows and continue the service.
At other dramatic points, the Polish underground refuses to aid the embattled Jews, and a Polish worker, paid to guide the Jews through the sewers, tries to renege on his bargain.
Avnet remains unfazed by possible negative reactions. “I wasn’t nearly as tough on the Poles as I could have,” he says. Without Polish collaboration with the Germans, “many thousands of Jews could have been saved, and we can say the same of the Ukrainians and Latvians.”
Avnet has directed and produced more than 50 motion pictures and television movies over the last 20 years, including such box-office hits as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Risky Business.”
One of his grandfathers was a cantor in the Ukraine, but Jon was raised in a Reform family in Brooklyn and on Long Island.
Among his most formative memories was attending a Yom Kippur service as a 7- or 8-year old, during which the rabbi solemnly recited Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” commemorating the murder of more than 30,000 Jews by the Nazis outside Kiev in 1941.
Avnet filmed “Uprising” in the Slovak city of Bratislava, a 73-day project he describes as “very difficult — physically, emotionally and financially.”
The shoot had some moments of high emotion, as when Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who served as consultant on the film, led cast and extras in the singing of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
Avnet originally intended “Uprising” as a feature motion picture and there is a good chance, he says, that Warner Bros., the studio that backed the project financially, will distribute it in that format to other countries, including Germany, Poland, Britain and Israel.
But mainly, Avnet hopes that “Uprising” will show the world the courage of many Jews during the Holocaust, and he does not hide his anger at those “who have inflicted the final indignity” on the 6 million by drawing a picture of complete Jewish passivity.
“I cannot understand” why historian Hannah Arendt “perpetuated this image,” he says. “And shame, also, on the journalistic community, which has really blown it.
“This film is a clarion call to unblow it.”