A hopeless fight by the very young

The Warsaw ghetto uprising should not be used by politicians when discussing contemporary events, argues Yehuda Bauer


So, what else is new? The amount of political speeches about the Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw, which started on April 19, 1943 — the eve of Pesach — and lasted for a number of weeks at least, probably more, is legion. No self-respecting Jewish Israeli politician of whatever hue can resist talking about “Never Again”, and “We Shall Always Remember.” We then hear about the so-called ‘lessons’ of the rebellion, which are always interpreted as relating to contemporary issues — Iran, Jihadism, Jewish strength (or weakness, depending on one’s politics), usually ending with a call for Jewish unity, in the name of the 1943 rebels.

Nonsense. True, the past does, up to a point, inform the present and, presumably, the future, but the instrumentalisation of the Holocaust generally, and of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising specifically, is a distortion of both the past and the present.

New researches have corrected, though not changed, our understanding of the rebellion. The story we told is of perhaps some 750 fighters, poorly armed, fighting for the honour of the Jewish people against impossible odds. The charismatic leader was Mordechai Anielewicz who stood at the head of a coalition of all non-religious political groupings in the ghetto with the exception of the Right-wing Zionist Revisionists and their Betar youth movement (no religious Zionist groups existed in the underground, and the ultra-orthodox Agudah opposed armed resistance). The movement was called the Jewish Fighters’ Organisation (Zydowska Organisacja Bojowa or ZOB). After the first few days of a successful fight against impossible odds, by about April 23-24, the Germans began setting fire to the ghetto, forcing the resisters to resort to night-time guerilla tactics. Originally, no underground bunkers had been prepared, because the assumption was that the fighting would take place in the houses. Now they needed the bunkers. The ghetto population, probably some 50,000 or so, supported the fighters, and this is a central factor in the rebellion. The Jewish underworld, the smugglers, thieves, and criminals, who had the best-equipped bunkers, opened them to the fighters.

There was a second, smaller, armed group: the Jewish Military Organisation (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy or ZZW), most probably founded two or three months after the ZOB. The ZZW would join the ZOB only if the command of the united group would be in the hands of the ZZW. The ZZW also objected to the participation of the Communists and the Bundists (the Allgemeyner Yiddisher Arbeterbund, the major Jewish political party on the eve of the war, with its anti-Zionist and anti-religious platform); by late October, 1942, both were part of the ZOB structure.

The ZZW had obtained more and better arms, which of course they would not share with others. The ideological differences were deep: the ZOB, or at least most leading personalities in it, saw the ZZW as fascists; the ZZW saw the ZOB as a haphazard group of politicos who could not represent a fighting Jewish people. At the last moment, before the actual fighting began, the two groups agreed on separate, but loosely coordinated efforts. ZZW concentrated their main action on Muranowska Square in the main ghetto, and had two small groups in two other parts of the ghetto. The ZOB acted in all areas.

In the post-war era, most of the writing about the rebellion was about the ZOB. The ZZW was occasionally mentioned, but the problem was that whereas remnants of the ZOB, including some of its leaders, had managed to escape through the sewers, led by ‘Kazik’ (Simcha Rotem), who managed to do so with the help of some Polish sewage workers. There were almost no survivors of the ZZW, and no one that had taken part in the fighting at Muranowska Square. Today, Kazik, a wonderful man, is old and frail, the only survivor of that group still alive.




The ideological heirs of the ZZW are the right-wing Zionists of today’s Likud. From the early sixties, some of their adherents, and, later, mainly politicians (such as former Cabinet Minister Moshe Arens) took up the cudgels in support of the ZZW story, arguing that it had been disregarded by the leftist heirs of the ZOB for political reasons. This does not quite hold water: for instance, Yad Vashem, in 1964, recognized a Pole, Henryk Iwanski, as a Righteous because he claimed that a group of 16 Poles, led by himself, had fought for one day alongside the ZZW at Muranowska; his son had died in the fight. Thus, Yad Vashem early on recognised the ZZW as such. The problem was that, as it was later proved, Iwanski, a cheat and a liar, never had a son (only an illegitimate daughter), never set foot in the ghetto, and had invented the whole story, probably at the behest of the postwar Communist regime in Poland in order to set one group of Jews against the other. Two excellent historians, Dariusz Libionka of Poland and Laurence Weinbaum of Israel, collaborated in writing the history of the ZZW, the translation of its Polish title being Heroes, Hucksters, and Storytellers (Warsaw, 2011); hopefully a Hebrew and an English translation will appear before long. They identified the ZZW commander as a young man (probably 21 or 22 years old) who went by the name of Pawel Frenkel, whether that was a pseudonym or not. The weapons the ZZW obtained came from a shady group of Polish wheelers and dealers, called the “Security Corps” (Korpus Bezpeczienstwa, or KB), who may have maintained some contact with the Germans, and in any case were treated with great suspicion by the mainstream Polish Underground, the “Home Army” (Armja Krajowa or AK). KB were out to get money, and the ZZW paid for the arms by forcing Jewish smugglers to cough up money (the ZOB did the same, with the blessing of the treasurer of the Joint Distribution Committee in the ghetto, David Guzik). One light machine gun, and small arms in some quantities, were obtained. The ZOB was initially refused all help by the AK command, and then given a number of handguns, and instruction how to make hand grenades and electrically activated mines.

The ZZW fought valiantly at Muranowska, for three days; according to German sources, one German was killed, as were quite a number of ZZW fighters. After three days, the ZZW retreated through a tunnel to the Aryan side, but they were there betrayed by a Polish collaborator, possibly by someone of the KB, and many were killed by the Germans. The survivors then retreated to an area outside of Warsaw, but were soon found and killed by the Germans. No one survived, which is the basic reason for the silence about them. There were two other, smaller, groups of ZZW in other areas of the ghetto. The number of ZZW fighters is estimated to have been about 80 at Muranowska, and a few dozen in the other places, together probably some 120-130 at most.





ZOB comprised, not as we had thought (and I for one had written), 400 to 500 fighters, but probably 250 to 300. We wrote that it comprised 22 or 23 groups, organised by political of movement affiliation, and that the structure was a top-down military one. We now know that the number of the groups was in flux, the figure of 22-23 being an invention, and that while Anielewicz, aged 23/24, was certainly the charismatic leader, he (just as, probably, Frenkel of the ZZW) was the head of a committee that made the decisions. Within the ZOB, the most influential person, next to Anielewicz, was Zivia Lubetkin. She was the wife of Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman who was on the Aryan side trying, unsuccessfully, to get weapons to the ZOB from the Polish AK. Even that structure slowly became irrelevant, as ZOB groups, after the first few days, became increasingly isolated from the command post (at Mila Street 18), and had to act on their own, at night. Party and Movement membership became totally irrelevant, and the ZOB and the remnant of the ZZW merged as time went on.

The source for the original story of the ZOB were, as we now know, documents and pleas directed first and foremost at the AK command which, contrary to its claims, had enough weapons to supply the Jews with considerably more than it did. In order to impress the Poles and get more arms, ZOB described itself as a typically military organisation, with a command and organised units. It was not, and could not be. Both Jewish groups were underground movements run by committees at whose centre stood charismatic personalities, first among equals. It was precisely this loose, yet at the same time effective structure, that made it possible to withstand the tremendous German onslaught. ZZW, in effect, participated in it for three or four days, whereas ZOB units held out for months.

The overall picture has not changed. A hopeless fight, fought not for victory but, as a fighter in Cracow aligned with the ZOB said, for “three lines in history”. There are many more than three lines. It was not a legend, but a real event, done by very young and very real people who decided that radical evil must be met with resistance, armed if there is no other choice. That, basically, is the story. Kazik is still there to remind us.


Yehuda Bauer is professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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