Rescuing Pawel Frenkel from Oblivion

Today, May 16, only back in 1943, the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto ended. After almost 30 days of fierce fighting, the resistant Jews of the ghetto fell, crushed by the German war machine under the command of the Nazi officer Jüergen Stroop. We know the epic story of this uprising and the heroism of the fighters, we recognize their names — Mordejai Anielewicz, Simcha Rotem, Yitzhak Zuckerman, Tzivya Lubetkin and Marek Edelman, among others — and their group, the socialist Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB). Less familiar are the names of Pawel Frenkel and Leon Rodal, leaders of the revisionist Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW), who died during the revolt.

For example, the 2001 Spanish edition of The Holocaust Chronicle has more than 765 pages, a 10-page bibliographic section and more than 2,000 photographs. Only its index extends for 45 pages, and there are no references to the ZZW, Frenkel or Rodal. By contrast, the ZOB is cited in 28 pages, while Anielewicz, Zuckerman and Lubetkin are mentioned in 15 pages as a whole.

The first attempt to mark their participation in the uprising was made during the war by Emmanuel Ringelblum, the great chronicler of life in the Warsaw ghetto, who was active in Poalei Zion and was a member of ZOB. When, in November 1943, the Jewish National Committee in Warsaw sent to London a list with the names of 224 ZOB fighters who had died, indicating the respective party affiliation of each one, and omitted all members of ZZW, Ringelblum queried about this absence in a note sent to his colleague Adolf Berman a few weeks later: “And why is there no data regarding ZZW? In the history we must leave their tracks, even when they are not sympathetic in our eyes.” A few days later, he reiterated his concern in another note sent to Berman: “As for the Revisionists, I have no data on them … an effort should be made to complete the list. I have only two names: Rodalski [Rodal] and Frenkelowski [Frenkel] … One of them should be found or one of their commanders.”

The first post-war publication that sought to vindicate the role of the ZZW in the revolt was authored by David Wdowinski, one of Betar’s leaders in pre-war Poland. He was a psychiatrist trained at the universities of Vienna and Warsaw who did not participate in the fighting but had a role in the fruitless negotiations between the ZZW and the ZOB to unite both groups. In April 1946 he published an article in the Palestinian right-wing daily Hamashkif titled “The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt” in which he mentioned the role of the ZZW. His book And we are not saved about the ZZW was published in 1985. That same year, another revisionist survivor, a non-combatant but related to the ZZW, Adam Halperin, wrote a chapter titled “The part of Betar in the revolt of the Ghetto” in the short book The Truth about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, edited by the Betar World Executive in Tel-Aviv. Later, Ber Mark, director of the Institute of Jewish History in Warsaw, investigated the period of the uprising and wrote several books in Yiddish and Polish about it. As his books were published in communist Poland, from 1947 onwards, he underlined the role of the communist fighters, however he mentioned both the ZOB and the ZZW and their commanders.

In 1963, Haim Lazar published in Israel what was regarded then the most resounding work on Betar’s participation in the uprising. Lazar had made Alyah in the postwar period after leaving the Vilna ghetto to join the partisans in Russia. Originally written in Hebrew as The Masada of Warsaw: The Jewish Military Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it was translated into English in 1966 as Muranowska 7: The Warsaw Ghetto Rises. In the introduction, Lazar wrote: “It would have been better if this book, which relates the actions of the national movement founded by Jabotinsky, had not appeared; in other words, if there had been no need for it. But what choice was there, when it had to be proven by testimonies and documents, that almost everything that has been written so far -and much was written in hundreds and thousands of books and articles- about the resistance of the Jews of Warsaw, is a deliberate falsification by those attempting to glorify themselves while ignoring others … above all, ignoring deliberately and stubbornly the other fighting underground, the ZZW -Irgun Zvai Yehudi- founded by Betar and other organizations from the Jabotinsky movement.”

Also in 1963, Rahel Auerbach, who collaborated with Ringelblum and survived the Holocaust, published The revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto in Hebrew. She wrote: “A separate chapter, that unfortunately has as yet not at all been researched, is the existence of a parallel combat organization, which in some of the sources is called ZZW (Irgun Zvai Yehudi) … Unlike the ZOB, ZZW had among its members expert military men, former officers in the Polish army. The ZZW also had weapons. It even had a machine gun, and that evidently accounts for the effectiveness of its combat actions during the first days of the revolt.” In 1965, the head of Yad Vashem’s archives, Yosef Kermish, wrote in the preface to a book that was a compilation of documents about the uprising, titled in Hebrew The Rebel and the Revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto: “As for the revolt itself and the actual preparations for it, the Jewish and Polish sources are regretfully not sufficiently adequate. They do not cover all the aspects of the revolt. A number of points, which if cleared would add greatly to research of the revolt, have only been dealt with in general terms.”

In 1986, Pawel Besztimt, a member of the ZZW, wrote an account of the revisionist resistance in the magazine Dapim. Two other surviving fighters of the ZZW who participated in the revolt wrote books about it: The Survivors by Jack Eisner and Caged: The Landau Manuscript by David Landau (published posthumously by his family in 1999).

Finally, in 2009 emerged in Hebrew Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by prominent Likud politician Moshe Arens –possibly the most significant academic effort to set the record straight to date (and the main source upon which this article is based to show the chronology of the decades-long effort to preserve the memory of the fighters of the ZZW). It was translated into English and Polish in 2011. The eminent historian Saul Friedländer in his book The Years of Extermination briefly quotes the ZZW from the Arens´s book. In 2017, the film documentary The Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story by Yuval Haimovich-Zuser and Simon Shechter appeared, interviewing surviving combatants of the ZZW and Arens himself.

Paradoxically, in his reports to Berlin Stroop did mention the ZZW: “Already on the night of the first day we ran into a rather fierce resistance. Those people were organized in a movement called a-Jalutz, which I believe was also called Betar.”

During the war years, deep ideological divisions between leftists and rightists among the Warsaw ghetto fighters prevented their union, and in the postwar period this gap consolidated a narrative that excluded the participation of the revisionists in the fighting. More than seven and a half decades later, and despite the valiant efforts already made, we still have a debt to the truth.

About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He lectures on World Politics at the University of Palermo and is a regular contributor to Infobae and Perfil. He is the author of The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family, Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.