Mila 18 – Leon Uris

As far as historic fiction goes, Mila 18 is for me THE definitive book in the genre. The story is based on a real-life incident (the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943) and is the only book where I as a reader identify with not one but two characters, with both of them ideologically on opposing sides of the war. It’s rare that a book can make you feel that.

After his initial success with Battle Cry, Leon Uris as an American Jew went deeper into his Jewish roots and explored a lot of material for writing about Jewish history, causes and current events. His bestselling work, Exodus, was a result of more than two years of research into the creation of the State of Israel. The story goes that as part of his research he travelled around Europe, USA and finally Israel, interviewing the survivors of the Holocaust, a lot of which were Polish and Baltic Jews who had either passed through or heard of the Warsaw ghetto; from here was Mila 18 born – the story of a handful of survivors who had finally had enough and rose up against their oppressors.

The story unfolds simultaneously on two fronts – one through the diary entries of a prominent Polish-Jewish historian Alexander Brandel (modelled after the real Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum) and through the events occurring before or after the entries. Woven through this narrative is a crash course on the history of Jews in Europe and the rise of anti-Semitism as a combination of Christianity becoming the dominant religion on the continent and the socio-economic undercurrents present.

The history lesson starts in the Middle Ages, with the persecution of Jews in Bohemia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We see the reasons for Jews banding together for protection as their rights to own land are taken away from them; forcing them to turn to trading, moneylending and working as middlemen as a means of survival. This leads to them being hated, feared and attacked by both the peasant class as well as the gentry and the scapegoat for any perceived wrongs. They have a brief moment of peace and tranquility when the Kingdom of Poland is formed, and the King invites them to migrate and create a much-needed middle- and merchant class with equal rights and privileges as Polish citizens. This however soon vanishes as Poland adopts Christianity as the state religion and competition arrives in the form of German merchants; giving rise to the very first of the ghettos culminating in “a sordid, almost thousand-year parade of oppression against the Jews which never stopped but only varied in intensity from time to time” as quoted by Uris.

Uris concludes by bringing us to the current time period (late 1930s) where the Jews still live more or less as second-class citizens in their own communities apart from the rest of the Poles. The very few Jews who are accepted into Polish society are those like the protagonist Andrei Androfski (based on the leader of the Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz) who must keep proving over and over again that he is faster, stronger, better than the Poles, or Paul Bronski who is Andrei’s brother-in-law but has converted to Christianity and left Judaism behind him. Also gaining steam is the Zionist movement, the core tenet of which is that the Jews must establish their own homeland, an ever-present source of friction between the religious conservative Jews and the Zionists.

Andrei and Paul are opposites in terms of prowess, physical and mental, as well as ideologies. This conflict introduces us to some of the other important characters caught in their crossfire – Deborah, Paul’s wife and Andrei’s sister; Gabriela, Andrei’s Catholic partner; and Christopher de Monti, a jaded but brilliant newspaperman who is having an affair with Deborah and is Andrei’s best friend. We meet them all just before the eve of Poland being attacked by Hitler, with Uris describing events through the point of view of almost all these characters. He also establishes their backgrounds in a masterful way, showing their present courses of action being shaped by the events of their past.

Thus, we see Andrei leading one of Poland’s crack cavalry brigades, his refusal to bow down to the Germans no matter what, his leading cavalry charges against armoured Panzers, his capture, escape and return to Warsaw, and his underlying fanatical desire to simply be accepted as a Pole living in Poland. Along with this, the orchestrated circumstances that lead to the invasion of Poland, the resistance by the proud but ill-equipped Polish armed forced in the face of an obviously superior foe, and the final capitulation of the city of Warsaw are written in broad, brutal stokes; each occurrence a literal body blow.

Uris then takes the reader into the world of the Polish Jews after Poland’s defeat. He narrates how the Nazi propaganda machine slowly begins their machinations; first by having the clergy demonize the Jews as the reason for Poland being invaded in the first place, thus effectively riling up the already anti-Semitic Polish majority; then through a series of directives that begin by segregating the Jews from the rest of the population, continues with physically separating them into a ghetto, and finally by having members of the Jewish Underworld build the wall that marks the ghetto as a twisted explanation of “the Jews are doing it to the Jews”. All of this is shown as a process of dehumanizing the Jews and making the Germans and Nazis look superior by comparison.

By Unknown author – http://fotopolska.eu/foto/314/314374.jpg File: Warsw_Ghetto_Map_-_1940-10-15.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48322745

Another example of the Nazis explanation of “Jews doing it to Jews” is shown through the Jewish Council. The ruling Germans create the Council comprising some of the prominent Jews (Paul Bronski among them) and through them govern the Jews by proxy. All the dirty work such as imposing and collecting fines, monitoring the number of Jews in the ghetto, rationing their food allowance is published as a Jewish Council directive, thereby allowing the Germans to keep their hands clean in the eyes of the world Press.

This period has us meet the German characters in the story. Uris tries to keep his prejudice against Germans and Nazis aside as he creates the antagonists, but cannot help casting them all from the same mould. They all are, with one exception, sadistic individuals with a penchant for violence, of low intelligence and lower morals, and keep parroting the Nazi Party line of Aryan superiority and Jewish inferiority. The one character that is different and has been carefully created is Horst von Epp. He is an intellectual with an aristocratic background, openly derisive of both the guidelines and the people from the Nazi Party. He is narcissistic, self-centered, but extremely good at what he does (interaction with the world press) and his only motivation is money. As he confides to Christopher de Monti, “Speaking with realism, I am committed to Hitler’s policies. If he wins, I shall be an enormous man. If he loses, I’ll become a gigolo on the Riviera.” And yet, for all his decadence, he is shown to have a streak of conscience which is pivotal to the story later.

From here on, the main theme of the story is played out – survival versus self-defense. In the beginning, survival gains the upper hand as that is all the cowed and herded Jews want to do, while calls for self-defense from the likes of Andrei are viewed as fruitless gestures, much to his chagrin. Brandel, through a Zionist organization he heads called the Bathyrans forms the Jewish Self-Help Society, to help the masses with the basic necessities of food and shelter. His opinion, that if they take care of themselves they will survive till the end of the war, is the emotion displayed by the majority. This also causes a rift between him and Andrei, as the latter believes in answering the Germans in their own language. Brandel forbids this as he fears German reprisals would be brutal, and as the person controlling the flow of funds he has the wherewithal to enforce it. An angry and frustrated Andrei is shown searching for alternate sources of funds and means of insurrection, but with the exception of his girlfriend Gabriela, almost everyone else thinks just like Brandel.

As time goes on, survival becomes a distant dream. With daily atrocities by the Germans – beatings, fines, people being carried off from the streets and forced into factories owned by ethnic Germans – as well as deportations to “labour camps” increasing, it dawns on the remaining Jews that survival is a moot point. Their attempts to alert the outside world of the existence of the extermination camps too, are met either with open disbelief or with indifference. This attempt also provides an excellent character arc for Christopher de Monti, who till then refuses to get drawn into the conflict, and establishes him as an important player. The shift happens gradually, and the tipping point from survival to self-defense is a poignant scene where Andrei rescues Brandel from SS soldiers.

From here on, the Jewish fighters know they are already dead, but refuse to go quietly into the night. Though equipped with a handful of pistols and homemade bombs, they keep the tanks and machine guns of the Germans at bay for more than a month through sheer will and ingenuity. Simultaneously, there are frantic efforts to get Christopher out of the country, as he is the only one with the knowledge of where Brandel’s diaries (expanded to include an accounting of almost all the happenings since the invasion) are hidden. The fighters may be about to die, but they want to make sure their story is told. He does manage to escape, but not before a lot of the fighters die in order to make that possible.

By Unknown author (Franz Konrad confessed to taking some of the photographs, the rest was probably taken by photographers from Propaganda Kompanie nr 689.) – Image:Warsaw-Ghetto-Josef-Bloesche-HRedit.jpg uploaded by United States Holocaust Museum. This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: Restored version of Image: Stroop Report – Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 06.jpg with artifacts and scratches removed, levels adjusted, and image sharpened.., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17223940

The story ends with Christopher writing the last entry in the journal he has carried with himself; vowing to come back, unearth the hidden diaries and branding all of mankind with their words. He ends with a memory of a conversation with Brandel and quoting him, “If the Warsaw ghetto marked the lowest point in the history of the Jewish people, it also marked the point where they rose to their greatest heights . . . I die, a man fulfilled. My son shall live to see Israel reborn, I know this. And what is more, we Jews have avenged our honour as a people.”

As a fighting man himself, it is apparent which of the two themes Uris favours. Yet, he creates a compelling case for survival too; survival being the carrier of hope for the future and ingrained into our being by evolution. Even as he describes the determination and bravery of the fighters, he reminds us gently that this is devoid of hope, of a future. All the fighters can look forward to is a quick death as opposed to a long drawn out, lingering one. But he also tells us that there does come a point in a person’s life where the choice between the two must be made, and each individual must make it for themselves.

As a story, Mila 18 is simple. As a means of perceiving people and events around you, it offers a kaleidoscope of views to choose from. If you are a lover of character sketches, pick it up; I’d love to hear what you think of it.

8 thoughts on “Mila 18 – Leon Uris

  1. For the lack of a better term, did it all start because Bohemia & Austro Hungarian Empires & later Poles and Germans were Jealous of Jews & their capabilities? And that Jealousy warranted Genocide???
    Or did I oversimplify it?

    Are Authors known to do this level of extended research or is Leon Uris among the rare few ones that shows up in his storytelling.

    I don’t think he was biased when he described most Germans as been “sadistic individuals with a penchant for violence, of low intelligence and lower morals, and keep parroting the Nazi Party line of Aryan superiority and Jewish inferiority”
    Why you ask? I see the same in my country who parrot similar ideological beliefs.
    I guess, some learn to be better humans when they learn history, and others intend to repeat it

    I can possibly imagine real life characters like Paul, Brandel & even Christopher for that matter, but not Andrei

    Andrei feels too idealistic & pure. Do such people exist? Or do we not have causes worth putting up a fight at the cost of our lives anymore?

    Do you like Christopher for the shift seen in him with time?

    On another note: I wish I had history professors like you, when I studied it!

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    1. I wouldn’t call it jealousy, more like a combination of religious zealotry, commerce and greed.

      I know a lot of authors that do extensive research for their books, specially in the Historic Fiction genre.

      I guess you could also say that some people learn history precisely with the intent to repeat it, only they want to be the ones controlling it.

      Yes, Andrei feels too idealistic and pure. But just like Major Dick Winters (you can read about him in my earlier post on Band of Brothers) I would say the time was different and there were causes worth putting up a fight for. There still are causes like that. But the difference now is, it’s a long drawn out battle, and the population in general has a very short memory.

      Christopher starts out idealistic, loses it and gets jaded, and finds his values back again. So yes, somewhere the idealist in me likes that journey!

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  2. Your blog has provoked a few thoughts. That the Jews lived in ghettos, not out of choice but by compulsion. That a whole class of people being painted as villains and scapegoats has remained a very convenient proposition through the ages for the ruling class. It is so easy to hide your own faults and blunders behind this popular facade. That the weak and the mighty could and do change their roles through the cycle of time is conveniently brushed into the dustbin of history. Where have all the so called mighty rulers, conquerors and empires gone……

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    1. I couldn’t have put it better myself. We see all of this and more even today, with the roles of the weak and the mighty being reversed but the weak not learning and behaving just like the mighty did before them; thereby creating the very cyclical nature of history they purportedly want to break. And at the end of it, in the larger scheme of things, all this wouldn’t even be a split second on the cosmic timeline.

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  3. To understand this terrible tragedy one has to understand the events that led to it. This was not the first time it happened and it will not be the last time either. The Allies were responsible for many of the deaths of Jews (for example, the genocidal bombing of Dresden which killed twice as many civilians in one day as were killed in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined), but as Nehru wrote, “The victor writes history to suit himself.” As Uris points out, in the middle ages, Jews took over the banking industry when “Christians” were exhorted to not touch “filthy lucre.” A few banking families like the Rothschilds of England became ultra wealthy and today they control 99% of the world’s Central Banks, including the Reserve Bank of India. The money that they “steal” from countries is in the trillions of dollars annually, but fortunately for them, taxpayers are oblivious to this theft. Google-search Nathan Rothschild’s quote regarding his control in 1815 of the British Empire and his mother’s quote about sponsoring war.

    In the early 1930s Jewish businessmen took control of the German economy by slowing their supply chains (exactly what is happening today in the world) and the Nazis reacted violently. According to Der Spiegel of Feb 23, 1933, (front page) Jewish business “declared war” on Germany on that date. They strangled the German economy similar to what is happening in America today. Unfortunately, the many relatively innocent Jews paid the price for the sins of the few ultra wealthy businessmen and bankers. Simultaneously the Jews were moving their hard assets to New York hurting Germany and that made the Nazis madder still. The same thing is happening in America today and now as the US slowly dies a painful death, they are movng their assets to India. A repeat of the Holocaust will happen if and when the sleeping, ignorant, Americans wake up to find their country no longer belongs to them. Again, when the worshippers of Lakshmi realize that the worshippers of the Golden Calf have appropriated all their wealth, the same thing will happen in India. Americans at least have one excuse for being stupid – fluoride in the drinking water affects one’s ability to think. What excuse do Indians have?

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    1. The article was quoted incorrectly. It was not “Der Spiegel” of Feb 23,1933. Der Spiegel did not exist at that time. The correct reference is “The Daily Express” of London, dated March 24,1933. The title of the article is “Judea Declares War on Germany”.

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