The Warsaw Ghetto revolt and the Iwanski myth

WREATHS ARE seen next to a sculpture during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem (photo credit: REUTERS)
WREATHS ARE seen next to a sculpture during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the current populist Polish government rewrites the story of the relationship between Poland and its Jews in World War II – making it a criminal offense to accuse Poles of murdering Jews as part of the Shoah – we should be reminded that this descent into Orwellian revisionism began many years ago in Communist Poland. The story of Polish nationalist Henryk Iwanski’s significant role in supporting the Jewish Military Union – the Betar ZZW combatants whose story was long ignored – turned out to be fiction and propaganda. Poland has yet to confront its past. The Ivanski myth is just one example of this failure.
I first read, as a teenager, of Henryk Iwanski and his heroism in Reuben Ainsztein’s chronicle The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt (1979). Ainsztein’s work has great merit, especially in its description of the resistance of followers of Jabotinsky in the revolt.
Until the groundbreaking work of Moshe Arens – I will discuss this in more detail toward the end of the essay – Betar’s role in the rebellion against the Germans was ignored by a narrative that highlighted the heroism of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) to the exclusion of Betar.
The ZOB was a resistance organization created years after the ZZW and comprised of Labor Zionists and the Bund. For a number of reasons having to do with Israeli politics and the reality that none of the Betar leadership in the ghetto survived, the role of the ZZW was ignored for decades.
But Ainsztein’s work is flawed when it comes to the story of Iwanski and his important assistance to Betar in the revolt. Let us address the role Iwanski played in the revolt, a narrative that was only debunked recently.
According to legend, Iwanski was a “Righteous Gentile” who played a significant role in supplying Betar with pistols and ammunition in January 1940. Iwanski was an officer in the Polish Army. Ainstzein states that Henryk and his wife Victoria “were deeply religious people without the bigotry that was all too common among Polish Catholics” and this motivated them to provide assistance to Betar and its leader David Mordechai Apfelbaum. Iwanski was a “chief ally” of the ZZW. By the beginning of the revolt in April 1943, Major Iwanski and his sons fought alongside Apfelbaum and Betar in the ZZW stronghold in the Warsaw Ghetto’s Muranowska Square.
Ainstzain’s account of this battle included the death of Iwanski’s son and brother in the fighting. After running out of ammunition, the Poles evacuated wounded fighters, the sick, and children back to the Aryan side of Warsaw. Iwanski later recounted his continued support of the rebellion, even in its last stages.
It is an inspiring story that recounts Jews and Poles as comrades in the war against Nazism. But it likely never happened.
In his Flags Over The Warsaw Ghetto – originally published in Hebrew in 2009 and later appearing in English translation in 2011 – Arens explores the major role of Betar and the ZZW in the April 1943 revolt. As I mentioned, the role of Betar in the ghetto fighting was ignored for years and all the glory was claimed by the Left in the ZOB. His study is an important corrective to a narrative that was incomplete and inaccurate.
Buried in the back of Arens’ book is an appendix that questions the heroism of Iwanski and suggests that his story was Polish propaganda meant to paper over the truth. Few ZZW members survived the fighting in the ghetto. Iwanski’s account of the revolt “reveals a glaring inconsistency” with the testimony and memories of Betarniks who survived the uprising. Pawel Frenkel was the commander of the ZZW. No survivors of the heroic uprising ever mentioned a “David Apfelbaum” as the Betar leader. Emmanuel Ringelblum, the heroic chronicler of ghetto life and death, makes “no mention of Apfelbaum.”
The Jewish source of the Iwanski legend – Kalman Mendelson – is contradicted by ZZW survivors, who do not mention Apfelbaum or Iwanski. The Jews, for the most part, fought alone, with minimal support from the Poles.
Arens concludes: “It is possible that the Polish Communist government, in an attempt to create the impression that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising benefited from significant Polish assistance, encouraged these Poles to publish accounts that were in the realm of fiction. Utilizing the fact that, whereas a number of leading ZOB fighters had survived, all of the ZZW personnel had fallen in the uprising, the published accounts were limited to presumed Polish assistance to ZZW.”
Yes, the Poles were victims of the German occupiers and rose up against them in Warsaw more than a year after the ghetto uprising.
But the picture that the Poles paint today regarding their attitude to Jews during the Shoah is propaganda meant to soothe the conscience of those who betrayed and murdered Jews, and a Polish underground that gave little assistance to ghetto fighters. The time has come to set the record straight. Instead, Poland seems to be moving backward to a time when Communist propaganda fed the world lies.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.