(This review of Leon Uris’s Mila 18 is edited from the much-longer review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire page around 2004.)
Some people find the title misleading, since most of the major characters live at 19 Mila Street for most of the story. Only less than 150 pages from the end do they move into Mila 18. Some people also feel it’s unfair to never mention the real people in the Ghetto. Well, hello, it’s fiction. If we wanted to read about real historical personages, we’d read a non-fiction account! The journal entries of Alexander Brandel may have been inspired by the real-life Warsaw Ghetto diarist Emmanuel Ringelblum, but that doesn’t mean there was only one Ghetto diarist. However, it would’ve been a nice touch to mention heroes like Mordechai Anielewicz and Dr. Janusz Korczak.
The characters start out with different aims and goals, but in the end come to the same conclusion, that to fight and resist is the right, moral thing. It probably will be a losing battle, but at least they’ll have shown those Nazis they’re not weak and going to be pushed around forever. They’ll show the world they’re a potent fighting force, maybe finally get help from the underground, and avenge their honour after nearly two thousand years of being treated like crap.
The conditions in the Ghetto, which was organised in October of 1940, get worse and worse. Rations are continually cut; diseases and starvation run rampant; people are taken beyond the wall to be shot in the old cemetery; some of the runners are captured and imprisoned or shot; and the underground does almost nothing to help.
On 23 July 1942, the roundups to Treblinka start. At first, many go willingly, but almost right away residents are urged to stay home and hide, to avoid a trick. After people are sent to discover what’s going on and they come back with horrifying reports of six death camps, protests become even stronger and the Nazis have to start taking people by force. They find excuses for deportation everywhere, like suddenly invalidating a ration book or work card, or rounding up everyone working in any given factory. People flee into bunkers, making it harder to find fresh victims.
In January 1943, the Nazis make a raid on Mila 19 and some other bunkers, marching the people out to the Umschlagplatz to board the train going to Treblinka, when they’re suddenly ambushed from the rooftops and flee in panic upon seeing their men murdered. Following this, the Ghetto comes under the control of the Jewish Fighters (the real-life ZOB).
The Nazis try to enter the Ghetto for more victims on 19 April 1943, the beginning of Pesach. They’re stunned and repelled by the strength and courage of the ZOB, and flee in disarray. These people have only homemade grenades, bombs, guns smuggled in from outside, knives, rocks, and fists. In the book, the fighters are led by Andrei Androfski, a former officer of the Seventh Ulanys, and Simon Eden, his commander in spite of being somewhat pessimistic and afraid. I totally have a changed opinion of the name Simon after reading this book—he was a bit weak in the beginning, but ultimately proves to be a courageous fighter.
They successfully stave off the Nazis for nine days, until the Ghetto is set on fire. It burns for ten days, including Easter Sunday. After the fire dies out on the nineteenth day, the ZOB is still undefeated. They come out of their charred bunkers ready for more warfare, and once again repulse the Nazis, complete with individual acts of heroism and martyrdom. In the end, the Ghetto holds out for 42 days and 42 nights, longer than any other place the Nazis had tried to conquer. (The uprising was 28 days and nights; the 42 figure refers to how long they had control of the Ghetto.)
This might be a minor detail, but the names aren’t really Polish. Andrei should be Andrzej; Alexander should be Aleksander, nickname Alek; Paul should be Paweł; Ana should have two Ns; Stephan should be Stefan; Sylvia should be Sylwia; Susan should be Zuzanna; and Simon should be Szymon. I also doubt anyone in Poland uses the spelling Rachael. And Rachael and Deborah’s surname should be Bronska, not Bronski. Minor details in comparison, but they do slightly take away from the authenticity.
All in all, though, it’s a really powerful, moving story about a homegrown revolt against a mighty military power; how disparate parties managed to put their differences aside and come together to take on their common enemy; how the Nazis’ “superman” theories were dealt a devastating blow; and how, despite the eventual defeat, it showed the world we could fight and avenge our honour.