is a 1961 historical fiction novel by Leon Uris. Loosely based on the crisis caused by the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II and the ensuing uprisings, Uris fuses elements of fantasy and history to present the fraught historical period in which the Nazis committed a systematic genocide. The book’s title refers to the address—18 Mila Street—of the secret underground headquarters of Jewish resistance fighters. The novel’s protagonists stay undercover, using the site as their last bastion of hope, as the city of Warsaw is gradually reduced to rubble.
The book begins with the onset of World War II in 1939 and the invasion of German troops into Poland. It describes the anti-Semitic laws that immediately go into effect against the Jews, depriving them of many basic dignities and rights that are afforded to Polish citizens. These indignities soon compound into worse atrocities, culminating in the rounding up of Jews to be sent to a guarded community in a dilapidated part of the city called the Warsaw Ghetto. The ghetto quickly becomes extremely overcrowded, housing over half a million Jewish people in a region as small as a few city blocks. The Nazis build a wall to keep them contained and post security at all entrances and exits. At this time, the Nazis have not yet conceived of death camps or what Hitler announces to be the “Final Solution” and instead leave the Jews in this place of uncertainty.
The book’s narrator is revealed to be an Italian-American journalist named Christopher de Monti. De Monti is assigned to cover Warsaw after his coverage of the Spanish Civil War. Though he is ostensibly in Warsaw to give a neutral, objective account of the events taking place, he soon finds it impossible to remain emotionally detached. He falls in love with a woman who is married to a Jewish community leader and they carry on an affair during the ghetto’s organizational chaos.
Soon enough, the Nazis realize that confining the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto affords them an opportunity to shepherd them into concentration camps. Using the euphemism “resettlement” the Nazis herd the Warsaw Jews onto trains and send most of them to the camp called Treblinka, where most of them die. Uris dredges up a wealth of historical knowledge about this process, using figures from Germany including Globocnik and Stroop who were responsible for deporting Jews from the ghetto. Where no direct witness is available, he creates fictional German characters who relay decisions from Nazi-occupied Berlin.
Uris describes the Polish underground world, where Jewish freedom fighters trawl in search of weapons and face the scrutiny of Poles who largely unsympathetic, offering little assistance and even refusing to include Jews in their coalition to retake Warsaw. Many of the Poles blame the Jewish people for Germany’s invasion, arguing that they deserve their consequences.
After the wall is built around the ghetto, the artificial community quickly degenerates. Jewish women become prostitutes, children are sent to crawl through sewer pipes to retrieve food from outside the walls, and disease becomes commonplace as Jews are exposed to many new pathogens without public sanitation. De Monti has various run-ins with sex workers. Meanwhile, the chance of collaborating with the Germans dwindles more and more. In fact, German soldiers point to their conditions as if they are natural symptoms of Jewish identity they promoted as contagious.
As organized rebellion begins to stir in the ghetto, de Monti allies with the Jewish defenders. Armed with scavenged weapons, they augment their stockpile with homemade weapons such as knives and Molotov cocktails. When they hear news that all of them are destined for Treblinka, in a final test of their faith, they rebel against the Nazi regime. Over 13,000 join in the rebellion, waging a heroic but futile onslaught that holds off the German troops for several weeks despite the Ghetto’s virtual destruction. De Monti manages to survive and escape the ghetto with a woman named Gabriela, who is carrying the baby of a Polish officer named Andrei Androfski.
Though the rebellion that builds throughout Mila 18
is in vain, the stories of its survivors engender hope that atrocity cannot crush the human spirit. The narrator’s escape at its conclusion suggests that there are always powerful prevailing stories about these traumatic experiences. Uris expertly weaves together well-researched historical detail with vivid character construction to illuminate the human struggle at the core of the Holocaust.