On Sunday April 14, Moshe Arens, former Israeli Defense Minister, Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the USA, spoke at Netanya -AACI on his recently published book, “Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto.” This is a unique and novel work that rights a historic wrong in Jewish history. The date was appropriate since the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto started on April 19, 1943, the first day of Passover 69 years ago, and the date of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day in Israel. Until now the true history of what happened during that epic battle has been obscured, by lack of information and biased reportage. Finally due to Moshe Aren’s efforts, the true story can be told. This is my attempt to summarize his presentation.
The story starts in Vilna in Lithuania, which was one of the first areas to come under German control. Vilna had one of the largest Jewish populations, ca. 70,000 Jews, and within seven weeks of its occupation 30,000 had been killed by the Germans. A resistance movement grew among the Jewish youth that was unified, with all groups from left and right joined together. But, the Germans managed to learn the identity of the leader of the Jewish underground, Itzik Wittenberg, and they forced the Judenrat, the Jewish council to hand him over, and this was supported by the remainder of the Jewish population who feared further German reprisals. To avoid intra-Jewish strife, Wittenberg commited suicide and as a consequence there was no uprising in the Vilna Ghetto.
Emissaries were sent from Vilna to Warsaw to warn the Jews there of the German massacres, but some Jews refused to believe them and others were sure that such events could not occur in civilized Warsaw. The Jewish population of Warsaw was ca. 350,000, but many escaped east before the Germans arrived, and the Germans forced many Jews from surrounding areas into the Ghetto when it was established in October 1940 with a Jewish population of ca. 380,000, the largest Ghetto in Europe. In June 1942 the Germans began the systematic organized murder of the Jews of Warsaw. Every day the Jews were assembled at the Umschlagplatz and ca. 8,000 were forced into cattle cars and taken by train to an unknown destination. Many realized that they were going to their deaths and this was confirmed by sending men to follow the trains. It was discovered that they went to the death camp Treblinka and returned empty. The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat Adam Czerniakow commited suicide because of his complicity in these deaths.
When the Jewish population of the Ghetto was reduced to ca. 50,000 there was no longer any Jewish resistance to the formation of underground organizations to fight the Germans. Two ideologically separate organizations were formed, one was based on the left wing youth groups Dror and Hashomir Hatzair, that were Zionist, and the Bund and the Communists which were anti-Zionist. Out of socialist solidarity their strategy was to form an alliance with non-Jewish groups outside the Ghetto. But, in fact the Polish groups outside the Ghetto did not want to cooperate with them, for two reasons, first they were basically anti-Semitic and second they believed it was premature to counter the Germans then, although for the Jews time was running out The other group was the right wing Betar affiliated with Zeev Jabotinsky’s revisionist nationalist ideology. The two groups had been enemies for years, a situation that paralleled that in Eretz Israel (then Palestine). The left wing grouping was called the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and was led by Mordechai Anielewicz, the right wing group was called the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) led by Pawel Frankel and the two groups acted and fought totally separately. This seems insane given the weakness of the Jewish fighters, their lack of weapons and the over-whelming power of the German military, but such were the ideological hatreds that they could not be overcome even in extremis.
The basic story of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto is known from several survivors of the ZOB. This is the story that is to be found in the books “The Wall” by John Hershey and “Mila 18” by Leon Uris and in several movies and documentaries. This is not surprising, since Israel was governed by Labor socialist governments in its early years, and there was an ideological preferance for the story as told by the left-wing fighters. But, what of the ZZW? None of these fighters survived, they literally fought to the death! There was noone left to tell their story.
Compared to the ZOB, who had no military training, the Betar youths had extensive excercise and weapons training. At high cost they managed to acquire two submachine guns that were smuggled into the Ghetto through tunnels. The military tactics of the two Jewish groups was totally different, whereas the ZOB ambushed the German troops as they entered the Ghetto to liquidate it on Jan 19, 1943, the ZZW fought a direct confrontation with the German forces in Muranowski Square, the largest open space in the Ghetto. They also raised two flags over the Ghetto, that of the Jewish star of David, that became the flag of the State of Israel, and the flag of Poland. Sources of both the daily German military reports, including those of Gen Jurgend Stroop who commanded the German troops, and from other observers and reporters of the scene, indicate that the major fighting that occured in the Ghetto actually took place in Muranowski Square. This has never before been described in detail. The Germans were mortified that they could not take the Ghetto, and fighting continued for nearly a month, until finally the Germans burnt the Ghetto to the ground.
This book rights a historic wrong. The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto by Jewish fighting units was the first major organized resistance to German occupation throughout Europe. It deserves to go down in history as a foundational event of the State of Israel. All of those who fought and sacrificed themselves for the cause of good versus evil deserve to be appropriately commemmorated.