The heroes and hucksters of Muranowski Square

The final, complete story of the Warsaw ghetto still remains to be written.

Old gravestones are pictured at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (file) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Old gravestones are pictured at the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw (file)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new book published in Polish by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences reveals the true history of the Jewish Military Union JMU (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy--ZZW), and challenges the veracity of many legends that arose around the fighting at the Warsaw ghetto’s Muranowski Square. Laurence Weinbaum, the director of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations of the World Jewish Congress and chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, and Dariusz Libionka, an historian who is affiliated with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, have written widely on Polish Jewry and the Holocaust and have combined forces to sum up what is known about the JMU and its part in the history of the Warsaw ghetto. The title of the book is Heroes, Hucksters and Storytellers—The Jewish Military Union. Both scholars were recipients of a grant from the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv, which helped finance their research.
I knew this square quite well, since I lived close by. During the cold winters of the ‘30s a tent was spread there at one of its corners in which the unemployed artists performed sang and danced in order to survive.
Entry cost you a few cents only and you could sit inside for hours and enjoy yourself. They even composed a song praising the square that kept them working and warm while cold winds howled outside.
I never suspected that this, an otherwise almost empty square in the center of one of Warsaw’s poorest quarters (and the connected Muranowska Street) would, on April 19 and 20, 1943, become the symbol of a heroic, but far too little known Jewish struggle against a powerful German force; the last stage of the ghetto’s elimination.
And then came the war, the German occupation and in the years 1942-43 the square became the center of the Revisionist and Betar resistance (JMU). The battle left no survivors, except for a score of pretenders, Jewish and Polish, who exploited the bravery of the fallen for their own advancement.
In their new history the authors expose all those who jumped on the wagon of the JMU, wrote books, got medals and distinctions, pensions and even the Yad Vashem recognition, all because it was difficult to find out the naked truth. People wanted to believe – Poles wanted to show how they assisted Jews during the Holocaust, Jews were proud of any acts of armed resistance. The fact that all underground activities were conducted in utmost secrecy, under false identities, quite frequently changed under varying circumstances, helped later the unscrupulous individuals to exploit and tell legends to their own advantage.
Thus the authors undertook to write a new and more accurate version of JMU history. This was a most demanding and often frustrating task, since as they frankly admit, many facts will never be known, while some are impossible to explain. The underground operated under a tight conspiracy, witnesses perished in deportations. It was a tremendous job to gather all available material from hundreds of testimonies, Polish, Jewish, German and other sources in order to arrive at a more substantiated story.
Patience and courage were needed to weed out facts and deny what could not be proved. Did David Moryc Apfelbaum, the reported leader of the Jewish Military Organization, exist at all? Who were the leaders of the JMU? The meeting of the Warsaw ghetto representatives on July 23, 1942, which created the Jewish National Committee and a week later the Jewish Fighting Organization (JFO) included all organizations from Aguda to Communists, but excluded Revisionists, who created their own fighting unit, “The Avengers” or JMU. They set up their HQ at Muranowski Square and at various points in the ghetto.
A major part of the book indicates the tense relations between Zukerman, Lubetkin, and Edelman representing JFO and the representatives of JMU, like David Wdowinski, Pawel Frenkel or Leon Leib Rodal.
As a matter of fact all top Revisionist and Betar leadership, including Menachem Begin, left Warsaw for Vilna, Lithuania, already in 1939, and almost none of them returned to Warsaw. Thus we know very little of who commanded the Muranowski Square underground.
Emanuel Ringelblum’s visit to the Muranowski Square HQ on the eve of the uprising shows that the JMU was already well organized, armed and prepared for the battle ahead.
Why were there two military organizations, JFO and JMU? One of the witnesses and experts on the Warsaw ghetto, Israel Gutman, answers thus: “I don’t know why.” There was no separation of JFO and JMU in Bialystok and other places. But there were deep political differences which separated the left-inclined JFO and the right-thinking JMU up to April 23, 1943, when Germans set fire to the ghetto’s buildings.
The book is divided into two main parts: The Deconstruction and the Reconstruction. In the Deconstruction the authors expose the semi-historical biographies plagued by many improbable details, like “the inspiring and true history” of Jack Eisner, “I was taking care of Jan Karski” by David Landau or the “spine-tingling” memories of Maurice Sheinberg.
Both JFO and JMU sought contacts with the Polish underground, or with individual Poles who would sell them arms and whatever was needed. Many Poles who participated in such transactions later exploited their contacts and told stories which should have been taken with a grain of salt.
The authors ask: How was it possible that the best Polish scholars showed so much trust in the accounts of the Polish Security Office, an organization with an unclear and constantly changing structure, directed by various adventurers, who shamelessly awarded themselves officers’ ranks and who after the war became involved in various doubtful practices? And this explains how such JMU “official” theories “provided excellent documentation to strengthen the thesis that substantial military assistance was provided by the Polish underground and the Polish Church in the Warsaw ghetto... For many years, the story of the Polish Jewish brotherhood of arms assumed a life of its own.”
In the Reconstruction part the authors endeavor to show what really happened at the Muranowski Square. They freely add that sometimes they face a “black hole” of memory. But even German records prove that the fight at the square was tough, that the resistance lasted at least several days and was desperate.
Polish and Jewish flags were flown, and the fact that there were no survivors speaks for itself. When the few remaining fighters could no longer hold their ground they escaped through an underground passage to the Aryan side, but were betrayed and killed. Those who escaped to a nearby village were again betrayed by Poles and also killed. In contrast to the fighters of JFO who escaped through the tunnels (a few of them even arriving in Israel after the war), almost none of the JMU fighters remained to tell their stories.
The book proves that the final, complete story of the Warsaw ghetto still remains to be written. One can only hope that this important book, which clears the air, will soon be available in Hebrew, English and other languages as well.