Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, 19 April to 16 May 1943

In a sukkah in Har Nof, Jerusalem Sukkot 2008 the conversation abruptly turned to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Was I not aware of how misleading the established history of the Warsaw ghetto struggle was? Did I not understand that the role of the Hashomer Hatzairnik Mordechai Anielewicz-led ZOB, Zionists of the left, has been much exaggerated in relation to that the Revisionist ZZW fighters drawn from Betar, the educational youth movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky in 1923? The Anielewicz group, said the sukkah patriarch, had refused to cooperate with ZZW!

I was startled. I regarded Mordecai Anielewicz as one of the great heroes of the 20th century.

A few years later I saw an ad for Moshe Arens account of the Warsaw ghetto insurrection Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Gefen Publishing House (2011).

Arens pointed out that there was great friction between the two organizations of Warsaw ghetto combatants, Anielewicz’s socialist-leaning ZOB (Zydoeska Organizacja Bojowa), the Jewish Combat Organization(JCO) and the Betar- Irgun Revisionist ZZW (Zidowski Zwiazek Woskowy), the Jewish Military Union. Key ZZW personnel, Pawel Frenkel and some others, did not survive. Members of the ZOB leadership who did, among them Yitzhak Zuckerman, provided an account of the uprising that included disparaging observations about the ZZW role. It is now known, Arens wrote, that ZZW was the more effective military organization, better armed and trained than ZOB. Many meetings and long negotiations did not succeed in achieving unity. ZZW had sought a merger of the two organizations. ZOB insisted that ZZW join as individuals not as a unit. Moreover, ZOB would not accept ZZW’s Pawel Frenkel, by training and experience the most qualified ghetto military man, as overall commander.

So it was that these two organizations of Warsaw ghetto fighters, outnumbered and out-gunned, battled the Nazis in isolation, the campaign uncoordinated. The flags referred to in the Arens book title are the Israeli flag and the Polish flag both raised by ZZW fighters on the roof of a building in Warsaw’s Muranowski Square, an action that challenged Nazi authority.

Is it possible that the received understanding of what transpired in the ghetto the better part of seven decades ago has been so utterly distorted? I put the question to Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer.  “Arens,” I was told,” is, of course, a politician, not an historian, although he tried his best to find sources. The problem with the ZZW is, as Prof. Israel Gutman pointed out many years ago, that there were practically no survivors, and no written documentation from the time of the uprising, or prior to that. The one serious attempt to find out at least what actually happened during the uprising was made by two Israeli journalists, and they show that the ZZW cooperated, on the ground, with the mainstream JCO, in separate units, all over the ghetto. The ZZW did concentrate their main fighting effort on Muranowska Square, and they did raise the two flags – but that was published by Gutman and others decades ago. The fighting there lasted until probably April 23. The ZZW fighters escaped to a “safe house” outside the ghetto, but were betrayed by a Pole, and died. The JCO people almost met the same fate, but in the end some of them managed to escape and survive.”

From Moshe Arens: “The most important and reliable account of what happened during the uprising are the daily operational reports submitted by SS General Juergen Stroop, who was charged by Himmler to destroy the ghetto, which were submitted to his superiors, plus his summary report. Everything is there. (They are in the appendix of my book).  They became available at the Nuremberg trials and had until now been examined only superficially or else selectively.  The generally accepted narrative of the uprising until now assigns a secondary, if not a marginal role, to the ZZW.  Pawel Frenkel, the man who commanded the major battle of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, has remained unknown. During the uprising the actions of the ZOB and ZZW were not coordinated.  The fact is that ZOB fighters did not come to assist the ZZW during the battle at Muranowski Square which lasted for four days, even though they were not engaged in fighting during most of that time. Pawel Frenkel did not “die” in a safe house in Warsaw but fell, together with ten of his comrades in a battle with German soldiers in which four Germans were killed – it was the last battle of the uprising.”

Moshe Arens served as Israel’s Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Published in Hebrew in 2009, in Polish in 2011, his account of the uprising is, as he makes clear, intended as a corrective to Israel Gutman’s  The Jews of Warsaw 1939 – 1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, 1976, English translation published 1989, which marginalized the ZZW and assigned ZOB the pivotal role. Prof. Gutman, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was a member of ZOB.

In December 1943, Emanuel Ringelblum, acknowledged master Warsaw ghetto chronicler, reputed to have been no supporter of the Betar group, is reported tp have written: “And why is there no information on the ZZW in the history? They must leave an imprint, even if in our eyes they are unsympathetic.”

Mordechai Anielewicz did not himself survive the ghetto battles. Known in the ghetto as Motek, he was originally a member of Betar, but quit to join the Hashomer organization because of what he judged to be the limited concern of Betar for matters of social justice.

About the Author
David Levy was born in Montreal where he has lived most of his life. He earned a communications studies at McGill University. He has worked in cinema, television and radio, done journalism. He has travelled in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia, created a very successful radio series for teaching English in China. Work in journalism includes an essay on media co-authored with Art Spiegelman for Raw magazine. Taught courses in cinema at McGill University. Published books include: Stalin's Man in Canada(2012), The Zionist Entity: The Jewish State in the 21st Century(2015).