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The Jewish Holocaust, Unsung Heroes And Untold Stories: All That Makes “Mila 18” A Must Read

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By Sneha Roychoudhury:

“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.”
– Hannah Szenes

mila18We write our history on the shores of reality, let the tumultuous waves of time devour on the stories of our past. We etch our tales on the solitary rocks- set firm amid the noisy froth-and let the sea unleash its whipping fury, washing away our dreamy hopes, till our verses fade away and our stories are lost with the retreat of the waves. And then, from time to time, there comes along a chronicler who pulls out the dusty, tattered books of record from the hidden shelves of dark, solemn libraries, to sing of the forgotten lore and remind the world of fallen heroes, brave souls, and broken hearts- all blurred images of men and women who have fought and struggled for dignity and courage and perished in the fight. Smudged images of courage and pain, tinted with the hues of war. Such is the unheard melody of the Warsaw of 1942, whose war-stricken orchestras, smoke-laden piping and blood-curdling screeching of human plight have been finally taped and played to the numb ears of a world now rather comfortable with the constant rendition of battle-cry.

Mila 18, by Leon Uris, is one such story. Written by one of my personal favourite war-authors, the book seeks to narrate the horrors of The Jewish Holocaust, chronologically highlights its growth and most importantly tells an otherwise untold story- the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Lives entwine and the ends are tied to the truth of gory events, as the book unveils stark realities in bloody detail. The stories of the various characters in the book bring together a kaleidoscope of awe-inspiring stories which talk of revolt and submission, fright and fight, internal conflict and self-loathing, love, desire and compulsions. But most importantly, most conspicuously these stories breathe and live for one united aim- the aspiration of dignity in death, the solitary dream of embracing their end with their heads held high, refusing to go down without resistance.

Silhouetted against the fragile despair of destitution, hunger, emaciated existence culminating in ultimate annihilation of people, Mila 18 minutely and closely discusses some of the major historical events with precise accuracy, intricately highlighting the relevance of each small occurrence when related to the higher scheme of things. Through the dairy of fictional character Alexander Brandel, a sincere Jewish Historian stuck among the perils of a conflicted Poland, we trace the historically testified truth in events that had occurred, tasting the flavours of interesting takes and dynamic turn-of-events in the volatile age of war and bloodshed. “The streets of Warsaw trembled beneath the treads of hundreds of tanks moving up Jerusalem Boulevard and the Third of May Boulevard in a parade array. These were followed by tens of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers moving in absolute precision, and overhead, squadron after squadron of planes flew in elements at house-top level…”- the lines sketch the grand announcement of doom in the Polish capital, marking the beginning of Hitler’s terrorising reign and the ill-fated future that lay ahead for the collective Jewish population of Eastern Europe, in general, and Poland, in particular.

As a contrast to Brandel’s policy of passive resistance, stands tall the ideas of aggression and revolt that grow and churn in the heart of soldier and radical Andrei Androfski, who believed- and not without reason- that the true salvation of European Jewry lay in putting up a front, bleak as it may be, for the heart of a warrior did not allow him to be raised to the ground without one. It is from here that rose one of the most resilient organised revolt that mankind has ever witnessed. Though the brush of oblivion has persevered to sweep the events of this revolt into a faint, unnoticed existence, its importance and brilliance has held its own in the carved edifices of human archives. Young souls, fuelled by the adrenalin of rightful vengeance and aspirations of getting a little of their own back, joined hands to bring down all the rules and fatal measures that the Nazi regime stood for. This culminated into the final uprising, when the Jewish underground held the Warsaw Ghetto for an entire week, against the vicious German tanks, with absolutely nothing more than home- brewed explosives and a dozen smuggled riffles of different calibres. They held their fort by the sheer power of determination, the ultimate force rendered to their spirit by the fires of hapless revolt- all the fight they had in them, the final vestige of courage put into the ultimate quest for their diminished prestige, claimed by the blood they shed in their very own battle with fate.

“If the Warsaw ghetto marked the lowest point in the history of Jewish people, it also marked the point where they rose to their greatest heights… Isn’t it odd that the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man also produced the epitome of man’s nobility?”(-Alexander Brandel)

Entangled in this is the poetic recitation of young love tortured by uncertainty and passion, pious belief helping reconciliation to faith, dreary childhood, collapsing under the tremendous weight of vindictive reality and the little twinkling of hope in the night of Ghetto-life. This book brings home the shuddering truths of human shame, some of which makes the heart cringe and the soul recoil. So what must we do? Turn our heads away once again, I’m sure. Walk away, like the human community had in these disgraceful years of genocide. Yes that is easy. That is perhaps the inevitable, as the pragmatist would reason. And we shall all nod our heads in wise agreement. Complacence shall prevail.

The view of the third person, the onlooker, has been aptly represented through the character of Christopher De Monti. Chris, as he is referred to, is a Swiss situation caught paralysed in Nazi Poland, unable to aid these crippled masses, or inform the world of their agony as a journalist, finds himself to be as much the perpetrator as the Nazis themselves. And such was the case with all of his kind, who like the audience of a public execution, watched six million people being led to the slaughter-houses of gruesome extermination and said not a word. They watched, cowed by the radiance of evil, vary of getting their hands dirty with the murky ideas of one man who changed the course of all that mankind stood for, and left the coming generations with a legacy of undeniable dishonour and remorse.

This story inspires me, and even within its omnipresent pain and ordeal, there lies a slight ray of gleaming faith. There is the dream of a life, however utopian, and the stretching hand desiring to acquire it. Uris breathes life into his brilliant tale, and ignites in us all a flickering and yet determined light of a new found fight- a fight for our identity, an unapologetic demand of our pride and our struggle with life much more than that with death. Alexander Brandel’s dying words were- “I die, a man fulfilled. My son shall live to see Israel reborn… And what is more, we Jews have avenged our honour as a people.” What can be a better way to lead and perish in a rebellion for the nature rights of a human life?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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