Beitar in the Warsaw Ghetto: The untold story

While ideological conformity is often necessary for a state or people to survive, it should not be allowed to distort the writing of history.

April 19, 2015 22:31
4 minute read.
Polish Jews

Old gravestones are pictured at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (file). (photo credit: REUTERS)

It was January 1952 when Menachem Begin led a demonstration of 15,000 people in Jerusalem protesting the Knesset’s willingness to accept reparations from West Germany for the crimes of the Nazi state in the genocide of the Jews. Begin, representing the Herut party, stood in staunch opposition to David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionist dominance of Israeli life and politics. He opposed the acceptance of reparations from Germany as the acceptance of money stained with the blood of murdered Jews. The demonstration quickly became a riot and a melee of tear gas and stone throwing ensued, with the police out in full force.

Begin proved that he was still a viable force in Israeli politics, despite the fact the Ben-Gurion never referred to him by name in the Knesset.

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But Begin’s protest has greater implications than just the debate over Holocaust reparations. For the first time, the Revisionist heirs of Vladimir Jabotinsky could begin to tell their side of the story of the Shoah.

For more than a generation, Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists dominated the historiography of the Holocaust. This was especially so with the revolt against the Nazis by the heroic Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.

There were actually two fighting organizations in the ghetto – the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW). For decades, historians and biographers focused on the ZOB and neglected the important role of the ZZW in the revolt. The ZOB – comprised of leftwing Zionists’ pioneering youth movements such as Hashomer Hatzair, Dror and Akiva, as well as the Socialist Bund – first met on July 28, 1942, at the height of the Nazi deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to death in Treblinka. The Zionist heirs of Jabotinsky, on the other hand, represented by the Revisionist Zionist youth movement Beitar, formed earlier in the war, although not much is known about its formation. Until the groundbreaking investigations of Moshe Arens, a former minister in Likud-led governments, the story of Beitar and the ZZW in the Warsaw Ghetto remained untold and suppressed.

ZOB leaders Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman, Marek Edelman and Zivia Lubetkin survived the Holocaust and later wrote of the heroism of the ghetto revolt while living in Israel and Poland. They told the story of the ZOB. Pavel Frenkel and Leon Rodal, commanders of the ZZW, died in the fighting in April 1943. They did not survive to tell their side of the story. The ZZW was better armed than the ZOB and the tactics each organization used reflected that reality. The ZOB engaged in “hit and run” surprise attacks on the Germans then withdrew to their bunkers. The Beitar members of the ZZW settled to fight the Nazis in a prolonged battle in Warsaw’s Muranowska Square. The role of the Revisionists fighting in the ghetto was a “major role,” according to Moshe Arens.

One of the reasons that the Beitar heroism was not told until recently was that few of its members and leadership lived to tell their version of events.

But we can’t ignore the political dimensions of a Labor Zionist-dominated historiography of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.

There had always been bad blood between the Labor Zionists and the Revisionists.

The bitter rivalry between Ben-Gurion’s vision of Zionism as a pioneering movement and Jabotinsky’s emphasis on mass immigration and the military aspects of the Jewish return to Israel came to a head with the assassination of Chaim Arlosoroff on a Tel Aviv beach in the summer of 1933. Arlosoroff, a rising star in the Labor Zionist movement, was conducting complex and controversial negotiations with Nazi Germany to encourage the Hitler regime to allow German Jews to immigrate to Israel. Ben-Gurion always suspected that Revisionists who were opposed to the negotiations were responsible for the murder of Arlosoroff.

Ben-Gurion’s hate for Jabotinsky was so great that he called the Revisionist Zionist leader “Vladimir Hitler.” Jabotinsky’s emphasis on military exercises and parades for the Beitar youth earned his movement the label of “Fascist” by Zionism’s left wing. This bitter animosity was reflected in the failure of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters to unify as one fighting organization.

Beitar, with better military training and arms than the ZOB, wanted to assume command of the revolt. But these negotiations collapsed. Political allegiance, even in the most horrible of times, is a potent force. The two groups coordinated their efforts but never united.

Labor Zionist dominance of Israeli life and politics was necessary to lead a fledgling state under siege from Arab enemies and with the daunting task of absorbing immigrants from all over the world. But this dominance led to a monochrome version of history that neglected to tell the story of important figures who now need to be acknowledged as heroes.

In a series of articles and in his recent book-length study of the role of the heirs of Jabotinsky in the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto, Moshe Arens has begun to chronicle the important role of the ZZW. Aren’s corrective is critical.

While ideological conformity is often necessary for a state or people to survive, it should not be allowed to distort the writing of history. The full story of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt is finally being told.

The author is a rabbi and teacher living in Boca Raton, Florida.

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