Leon Uris’ Mila 18 may be the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It’s based on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the events leading up to. To anyone who knows their history, it’s a nail-biting and heartbreaking read because you know exactly what’s going to happen and that the odds of any of the characters surviving is pretty much nil.
We meet our cast of characters in 1939, a scant handful of days before the Germans invade Poland. Some of the characters serve in the Polish Army, which was shockingly outdated. (One of the main characters was even in a cavalry regiment. They were ordered to go up against Panzers.) Before long, we’re in a besieged Warsaw. About a third of the way through, the anti-Jewish laws and directives start to get passed and the ghettos are established. While most descriptions of Mila 18 that I’d read before I started the book make it seem like the book is primarily about the Uprising, it’s actually mostly about how people survived in the ghetto. On the one hand, you’ve got the puppet Jewish Civil Authority who try to save lives by compromising. On the other, you’ve got the Zionists and the Communists and other political groups who form a kind of shadow/underground government.
Not only does Uris show us characters in both of these organizations, but he also shows us characters on the Nazi side. At first, the book seems very Zionist. I thought for the first hundred pages or so that it was going to be a rah rah book for the Jews, like Inglourious Basterds but without the humor or the revenge fantasy. But the characters grew more complicated as the book rolled along. There were cynical Nazis who knew that what they were doing was a crime, Jews who were out to save their skins and make money while others suffered and died, and Poles and Catholic priests who both helped the Jews in the ghetto and turned their backs on them. Some characters start out good and slowly drift towards being self-serving and cowardly. Others go the other direction. Meanwhile, there is the history telling you that no matter what any of them do, a lot of people are still going to die. This complexity helps make the book terribly real.
Uris, especially in the last quarter of the book, works hard to not only get the reader to see what life in the ghetto was like, but also to hear and smell it, too, especially when most of the Jewish characters have to move permanently into their bunker at Mila 18. While nothing can compare to what it was actually like to be in the ghetto, Mila 18 was, at times, almost unbearable to read because you always know that the horrible, soul-crushing things that Uris is describing really did happen.
Whenever I read or watch something about the Holocaust, I always end up asking unanswerable questions. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did people let it happen? Why didn’t more people help the Jews and other people targeted by the Nazi regime? But one thing that makes Mila 18 different from other books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched is that it describes one of the times that the Jews fought back. Even though I new most of them were doomed, I also know that some of them survived. Some of them, even made it to Israel. At the end of the Uprising, these escapes became more important that fighting back the Germans and their allies. One of the characters comments, “There is a line which we cross when it is no longer our duty to die but to live” (512*).
Mila 18 is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read, but I would recommend it to strong readers who want to experience a slice of history.
* Bantam Books paperback edition.