A form of revisionism?

In a new history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Moshe Arens argues that Betar’s part in the battles was deliberately left out by leaders who lived to tell the tale.

Warsaw ghetto 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Gefen)
Warsaw ghetto 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Gefen)
The uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, a landmark in Jewish history, is a tale oft-told.
But only half-told.
The narrative that emerged after the war about the ghetto Jews who chose to fight rather than go passively to their deaths omitted mention of a group that played a prominent part in the battle but whose role was subsequently ignored – in part, at least, for political reasons.
In his book, Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto, Moshe Arens sets out to put the record straight. A former Israeli minister of defense and foreign affairs and and professor of aeronautical engineering, Arens’s foray into the writing of history and historiography is persuasive and moving.
The men and women he rescues from the oblivion of non-history were members of the right-wing Betar youth movement. They formed the smaller of the ghetto’s two fighting groups, but were better armed and better trained. Their arsenal included two machine guns, whereas most of the ghetto fighters had no more than pistols and grenades. The fight they put up would be remembered by the SS commander who destroyed the ghetto, Juergen Stroop, as the stiffest his forces encountered in the month-long operation. Yet their part went unnoticed for decades and is still left out of the conventional narrative.
Statues have been erected in memory of Mordecai Anielewicz, the commander of the main fighting force, the ZOB, which included members of all the political movements in the ghetto except Betar. The commander of the Betar fighters – Pawel Frenkel – remains a ghostly figure without a photograph or any resonance in the public mind. He was 21 when he assumed command of the Betar underground a year before the uprising, about the same age as Anielewicz. He was described by those who knew him as a charismatic, modest and highly effective leader. Arens succeeds in bringing him to life by piecing together testimony of those who knew him and even giving him a face by having an artist draw a composite portrait.
Warsaw’s vibrant prewar Jewish community of 370,000 – second in size only to New York’s – had been marked by intense ideological rivalry. There were Zionist groups of various stripes, with a Hebrew orientation; Bundists (anti-Zionist, Yiddish speaking, socialist), Orthodox (Aguda), Communists and Revisionists (to which Betar, the largest of all Jewish youth movements in Poland, belonged), each group a world apart from the others in its worldview. The Revisionist movement’s founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, advocated a militant form of Zionism that made him anathema to the more moderate mainstream Zionist leaders who regarded him as a dangerous adventurer. Ideological differences took on a bitter new dimension with the political murder in 1933 of prominent Labor Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff on a Tel Aviv beachfront. Two Revisionists were arrested but were found not guilty after a lengthy trial. Nevertheless, the label of “fascists” was pinned to the movement.
In assuming Betar’s leadership, Frenkel was in effect filling the role of his counterpart Menachem Begin, who was the Revisionist leader in Poland. With the German invasion in September 1939, leaders of all the Jewish organizations in Warsaw, including Begin, fled eastward to Lithuania. In time, leaders of other groups made the dangerous journey back to Warsaw to rejoin their organizations. The Revisionist leaders, however, were focused on getting to Palestine even though letters from Jabotinsky’s headquarters in London admonished Begin for not returning to his people in Warsaw.
Only in the crucible of the ghetto, after the bulk of the population had been sent to Treblinka – 270,000 men, women and children in seven weeks – were most of the political factions able to put aside their differences and organize an uprising that would permit them to die honorably. Even then, the Revisionists were not invited to join the unified military command, so great was the animosity toward them.
The only coordination was acknowledgement by the ZOB command – including its founder, Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, and Anielewicz, its operational commander – that the area of Muranowski Square on the northern perimeter of the ghetto, where Betar had already built up its fighting base, would remain Betar’s exclusive sector in the upcoming battle. Betar, whose military wing was designated the ZZW, had fighting groups in other parts of the ghetto as well, which operated near ZOB cells with whom they had no coordination.
FROM MURANOWSKI Square, Frenkel’s men dug a 50- meter-long tunnel under the ghetto wall to an apartment building on the Aryan side, from which contact was made with a branch of the Polish underground to acquire arms. Polish instructors even crawled through the tunnel to provide training in the use of weapons and explosives. The ZOB had its own arrangements for acquiring arms and smuggling them into the ghetto. In both camps it was the youth movements that took the initiative in organizing military action after their political elders had remained passive during the mass deportations that ended temporarily in September 1942.
There were some 50,000 Jews in the ghetto at this point, many of whom had only been spared so they could make uniforms and other goods for the German war effort. In the half year between the end of the mass deportations and the final battle, residents of the ghetto, guided by the engineers among them, created a vast warren of camouflaged underground hideouts stocked with water and food – some fitted with electricity and even toilets – in which they hoped to hide at least temporarily when deportations resumed. Zuckerman ruled out shelters for the ZOB lest its fighters seek shelter after days of combat instead of steeling themselves for a fight to the end. Instead, the fighters prepared an elaborate network of passageways that would enable them to move from building to building through walls and cellars and across rooftops without descending into the street.
During this period, several meetings were held between the leaders of the ZOB and Betar but they could not come to an agreement regarding a merger of their forces.
On the morning of April 19, 1943, the final German operation began when 850 troops marched into the ghetto, singing, accompanied by a light tank and armored cars. The next day was Hitler’s birthday and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto was to be his birthday gift. As they penetrated deep into the ghetto, the force was surprised by a hail of bullets and grenades from surrounding buildings. Molotov cocktails set fire to the tank. The German troops temporarily withdrew. That night was the first of Passover and residents marked the Seder – for almost all of them their last – in the underground hideaways and abandoned apartments.
At Muranowski Square, a Star of David was raised over the highest building on the first day of fighting. The Polish flag would be raised alongside it the next day, both easily visible on the other side of the ghetto walls. For four days the ZZW fighters held out in their stronghold, Arens writes. Artillery and tank fire and flamethrowers finally brought down all the buildings surrounding the square. But it would take the Germans and their auxiliaries 28 days before snuffing out the last resistance by burning down the entire ghetto.
In his diary, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wrote a week after the battle began: “Some very hard battles are taking place there. It shows what one can expect of the Jews if they have arms.” According to Stroop, “the resistance put up by the Jews and bandits could be broken only by relentlessly using all our force and energy by day and night. Over and over again, new battle groups consisting of 20 to 30 or more Jewish fellows, 18 to 25 years of age, accompanied by a corresponding number of women, kindled new resistance.” Stroop took special note of the women fighters. “Not infrequently these women fired pistols with both hands.”
IN VIRTUALLY the last skirmish, a ZOB fighter and a Betar fighter died alongside each other. Scores of fighters managed to escape through the sewers but many were killed on the Aryan side. Among them was Frenkel, who was killed two months later in a shootout with German soldiers. Anielewicz was killed in the ghetto but Zuckerman, who had been sent out of the ghetto to obtain arms a few days before the German incursion, survived the war as did his future wife, Zivia Lubetkin, a member of the ZOB high command and one of the last to escape through the sewers.
Zuckerman’s reports to the outside world were what set the parameters of the public narrative of the uprising. During the fighting, he issued regular communiqués from the Aryan side, broadcast by a Polish underground station. He described the uprising as being carried out by the ZOB, “which encompasses all active elements of the Jewish community” He made no mention of the Betar fighters then nor in a subsequent report written by him and a comrade, Adolf Berman, which received wide distribution. “It seems,” writes Arens, “that Zuckerman and Berman, both well aware of the existence of the ZZW and the combat of its fighters, had decided to efface the ZZW from the history of the uprising.” The description of the uprising presented in the books and lectures of Zuckerman and Lubetkin, who were among the founders of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot (the kibbutz of the ghetto fighters) after the war, dominated the public narrative.
The prewar political divide had survived intact. After the war, each of the groups that had participated in the uprising emphasized, naturally enough, its own role. The Revisionists were sometimes mentioned, but only as a marginal group. The Revisionists themselves did not make an issue of it since all their leaders in Warsaw had been killed and there was no one to present their case. “The few surviving ZZW fighters who reached Israel,” writes Arens, “had held no position of importance in the Revisionist movement, or else had not been affiliated with the movement, and consequently their voices were not heard.”The socialist Zionist factions that had participated in the uprising melded into Israel’s Labor Party, which had no interest, says Arens, in beating the drums for the Revisionists who were now deployed against them on the political front as Begin’s Herut Party (a forerunner of Likud). As for the Revisionist leadership, says Arens, the issue “did not seem to have been anywhere near the top of Begin’s political agenda.”
In his highly readable book, Arens does not attempt to boost the memory of the Betar fighters by belittling the contribution of the ZOB whose members constituted the bulk of the ghetto fighters. He even creates a virtual joint-command by dedicating his book “to the memory of Pawel Frenkel and Mordechai Anielewicz who led a few hundred Jewish youngsters in a desperate battle against far superior German forces in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April, 1943, the first uprising against the German conquerors during World War II. They fought for the honor of the Jewish people.”