Text size

In September 2006, Polish President Lech Kaczynski made a state visit to Israel. Among the subjects raised during his meetings here was the creation of a monument to commemorate Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW), the Jewish Fighting Union, the Revisionist militia that fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Although the ZZW operated alongside the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), the Jewish Fighting Organization, it has often been overlooked in the historical narrative. Where the ZZW has been mentioned, it has generally been misrepresented.

The ZZW became part of the Polish president's agenda largely thanks to Moshe Arens. After his retirement from politics and aeronautics, Arens devoted himself to researching the Revisionist underground. He authored several articles on the ZZW that were published in Yad Vashem Studies, Haaretz and elsewhere.

President Kaczynski demonstrated interest in the matter, declaring, "The commander of the ZZW, David Moryc Apfelbaum, is my hero." In 2004, while mayor of Warsaw, Kaczynski had a square named for Apfelbaum in the city's Wola district.

The president raised hopes that a plaque commemorating the ZZW would finally be installed where Plac Muranowski once was. As a result of the wartime devastation and post-war reconstruction, there is no trace of the ZZW's former headquarters, or the site where the militia waged a long and bloody fight against the Germans and their supporters. However, before any decision is taken, it would behoove those responsible to carefully evaluate the narrative of the organization.

Among the most compelling questions is what to make of the story of David Moryc (Mieczyslaw or Mietek) Apfelbaum, who, at least as it stands now, is slated to enjoy pride of place in the planned commemorative installation. Yet, there are serious questions that need to be answered before his name is engraved on the new plaque. (It already appears on a memorial stone at the former ghetto.

In Poland, Apfelbaum's name repeatedly appears in scholarly publications, in encyclopedias, in the high-brow and the popular press, and on the Internet (Wikipedia is an especially good example). In Israel, too, Apfelbaum's name appears - though less frequently - both in scholarly and popular publications. One example is a large photo journal published by Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot for the 60th anniversary of the revolt.

Apfelbaum was described most extensively in a book published in France in 2000 (published in Hebrew by Yad Vashem) by the Warsaw-born Paris physician Marian Apfelbaum. Strangely, the author, who claims to be related to David Apfelbaum, provides practically no biographical information on him. All we learn is that Apfelbaum (pseudonym "Kowal") was a product of the middle class, "imbued with Polish culture," and that in 1939 he was 38 years old. Surely Apfelbaum, hailed as a great hero by both Poles and Jews, warrants further study.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The majority of the ZZW insurgents, including the commanders, perished in the uprising or immediately afterward, while on the so-called Aryan side. Accounts by survivors are often imprecise. The fact that the ZZW was created by the Revisionists - outside the military and political apparatuses of the Jewish underground (the ZOB, the ZKN, the Jewish National Committee) - deprived it of contacts with the AK (Home Army) and the Delegatura, which represented the Polish government in exile. For that reason, the archives of the Polish underground offer very little information on this group.

The history of the ZZW was written based on the accounts of Poles who claimed to have been the Revisionists' "brothers-in-arms," as well as several Jews who said they were ZZW members. This material was first used extensively by Chaim Lazar, who was assisted by his wife Chaja, who traveled to Poland in 1962 in search of traces of the ZZW. Lazar authored the first monograph on the ZZW in 1963. It was later published in English as Muranowska 7. In his diary, Lazar wrote that Chaja discovered the identity of the ZZW commander after interviewing Poles who presented themselves as patrons of the militia. More recently, both Marian Apfelbaum and Moshe Arens have drawn upon this documentation. In Poland, historians and journalists from across the political spectrum, such as Maciej Kledzik and Stefan Bratkowski, have penned glowing accounts of the Polish-Jewish "brotherhood-in-arms" based on the same testimonies. However, none of them have produced a critical evaluation.

Unfortunately, the reliability of the majority of the most widely cited Polish accounts is, to put it charitably, questionable. This is true not only with regard to the context in which they were created, but also the time and place in which they were published, and the agenda they advanced. In the late 1960s, they were extensively used in the anti-Semitic campaign that gripped Poland in order to "prove" that during the Final Solution, Polish society had stood by Polish Jewry.

The contacts between some of the authors and the Communist secret police also raise questions. However, the most serious doubts about the veracity of these testimonies lie in the documents themselves, which are permeated with blatant contradictions and absurd assertions. Unfortunately, this material entered the scholarly discourse and has remained there, deforming the narrative of the ZZW.

Apfelbaum's story emerges exclusively through the accounts of Henryk Iwanski and those close to him. Iwanski, known as "Bystry" (1903-78), claimed to be an officer in an underground Polish formation called the KB (Security Corps). In Communist Poland, Iwanski evolved into a national hero and a living symbol of Polish-Jewish solidarity during the German occupation. Bernard Mark, the long-time director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, played a leading role in casting Iwanski as a figure of mythical dimensions, furnishing him with an array of affidavits attesting to the veracity of his story.

In 1963, based on an assessment by Mark and other documents of dubious provenance, Iwanski was awarded the silver Virtuti Militari cross, one of Poland's highest decorations. Later, in 1964, he was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the first Righteous Among the Nations. No other Righteous Gentile in Poland received such extensive media attention. This is confirmed by The New York Times' coverage of the awards ceremony held at the Israeli embassy in Warsaw in November 1966. Iwanski appears as the main hero, and he overshadows the other Polish honorees, including Irena Sendler and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski - meritorious members of the underground Zegota group created specifically to aid Jews. A report in the influential Polish weekly Polityka did not even mention Sendler or Bartoszewski.

Over the years, Iwanski was sought out by foreign journalists, including the American correspondent Dan Kurzman, author of a popular book on the uprising, "The Bravest Battle" (1976). Even Menachem Begin, while premier of Israel, expressed interest in the fate of Bystry, who was said to be subsisting in exceedingly difficult circumstances.

However, documents in Poland's Institute of National Remembrance reveal a very different Iwanski. In the early 1960s, this ostensibly infirm elderly man acted as an informer at the Jewish Historical Institute. According to documentation in Yad Vashem, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee quietly cut off humanitarian aid payments to Iwanski because it was believed that in 1968 he had engaged in anti-Zionist propaganda.

The first reference to Apfelbaum appears in a comprehensive account by Iwanski that the Jewish Historical Institute received in 1948. That notarized document contains a detailed description of Bystry's purported contacts with Jews from 1939 to 1943. Apfelbaum did not yet appear as commander of the ZZW, but merely as a member of a nameless Jewish underground organization in the Warsaw Ghetto. According to Iwanski, the transfer of arms and ammunition took place through the sewage canals at 49 Zlota Street and on Sliska Street, opposite Komitetowa Street. "On the Jewish side, possession of the supplies was taken by Polish Army platoon leader and porter Federbusz Boruch, Chaim Goldberg, Moryc Apfelbaum, Sobelson Henryk and others," he is recorded as having said. Even more interesting is the second reference: "After the collapse of the Jewish uprising, Jews left the ghetto through a tunnel from the church on Leszno Street to the houses on the Aryan side ... At the request of Major Apfelbaum Mieczyslaw, two Soviet paratroopers ... were let through." There are no further references to Apfelbaum.

New elements were introduced to Apfelbaum's biography by Wladyslaw Zajdler-Zarski, who, at the end of the 1950s, penned an article entitled "A sally in the ghetto. A fragment of the struggle on Plac Muranowski," which was published by the news organ of the veterans organization ZBOWiD (Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy). The theme of that story, quickly canonized, was the epic "battle" fought by Iwanski's unit. Iwanski and his men, it was claimed, entered the ghetto on April 27, 1943 to bolster the ZZW fighters under Apfelbaum's command, who were battling the Germans at Muranowski Place. During a battle that lasted several hours, Iwanski was said to have lost a son and his brother. Zarski, who introduced himself as Iwanski's "adjutant," described a conversation with the mortally wounded Apfelbaum: "Why don't you go, Mietek?"

"You see I'm wounded, but as long as my head works, I have to stay here. I have my people here and I can't leave them."

Strangely, Iwanski's testimony from 1948 contains no mention of any battle on April 27; nor does it mention the loss of any family members, Apfelbaum's death or Zarski. Contemporaneous underground reports also do not mention any such conflict. Zarski's description also runs contrary to the report of SS General Juergen Stroop.

Even more interesting is a long interview with Iwanski published in the newspaper Prawo i Zyczie on December 4, 1966. In response to the interviewer's mention that Iwanski's unit operated close to the place where on April 19, 1943, the ghetto wall was breached by a unit of the Warsaw Kedyw (the AK Subversion unit) under the command of Jozef Chwacki (the most significant action of the AK on behalf of the ghetto insurgents), Iwanski asserted: "We fought a little longer and on a different day. It was April 27, 1943. The units of the Jewish Military Union commanded by the legendary [our italics - D.L. and L.W.] Kowal, or Maurycy, were in an extraordinarily difficult situation."

It is clear that Apfelbaum's story was necessary to authenticate Iwanski's own account. Significantly, the "commander of the Jewish fighting group David Apfelbaum" was posthumously awarded the Grunwald Cross medal, III Class at the same ceremony where Iwanski received his Virtuti Militari.

Iwanski's story is told in Lazar's book Muranowska 7: "One day in November 1939, four young Jews came to me at the St. Stanislaw Hospital. They were all officers in the Polish Army: David Moricz Appelbaum [sic], with the rank of lieutenant, Henryk Lifszyc, second lieutenant, Bialoskora, a master of laws, and Kalman Mendelson. I knew Appelbaum well, for he had fought in my regiment during the siege of Warsaw and shown outstanding courage and bravery ... Captain Iwanski, the former lieutenant, addressed me: 'We are not prepared to obey the German order to present ourselves at the officers' prison camp. You must help us organize the Jewish youth. There are difficult days in store for us.'" Iwanski, after instructing his interlocutors that henceforth he should be addressed only by his pseudonym Bystry, not only directed them to prepare for battle, but also, and in the name of the underground organization KB, presented each one with a Vis pistol.

However, in Iwanski's 1948 account, none of the "officers" described in this interview are even mentioned. What's more, there is no mention of the founders' meeting of the ZZW. In the 1970s and 1980s another version of the "life" of Apfelbaum appeared. This one was in the "memoirs" of Kazimierz Madanowski (also Kalme Mendelson, b. 1902), who introduced himself as the "last surviving ZZW officer." These texts were published in newspapers with a decidedly reactionary-nationalist character, such as Argumenty (1973) and Rzeczywistosc (1983). Mendelson's account of the ZZW was penned only in 1959. Obviously, the testimony of Mendelson, purportedly the only surviving Jewish eyewitness, was crucial to corroborate the veracity of the claims by his Polish "comrades-in-arms." However, Mendelson's name has never been mentioned in any testimony by surving ZZW fighters.

At this juncture, it should be emphasized that deconstructing the story of Apfelbaum and his purported Polish patrons in no way detracts from the heroism of the ZZW. Just the contrary. To be sure, the ZZW fought heroically and played a major role in the revolt. Unfortunately, after the uprising was put down, the ZZW was sentenced to drown in the waters of Lethe.

The deliberate erasure of the Revisionists from the uprising's memory is attested to by two letters Ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in hiding in Warsaw. On December 13, 1943, he wrote to Adolf Berman: "I have received the list of members of the firm [ZOB]. I have biographical information on a whole series of people." At the same time, he asked: "Why is there no information on the ZZW? ... some trace of them should remain, even if we see them as unsympathetic."

Even more interesting is a second letter Ringelblum wrote on December 23, 1943: "As to the Revisionists, I have no information. In T. [the concentration camp at Trawniki, near Lublin - D.L. and L.W.] I spoke with Mr. Cwikowski ... I know only two names: Rodalski and Frenklowski. The last (brunet) was the director of the firm. They, or one of their colleagues, have to be found." Ringelblum used pseudonyms in his correspondence. Cwikowski was Revisionist lawyer David Szulman, a ZZW member. In the first days of the uprising, he, like Ringelblum, was taken to Trawniki. Ringelblum, one of the best-informed individuals about happenings in the ghetto, names the two real commanders of the ZZW: Leon Rodal and Pawel Frenkel - after consultation with one of the members of the ZZW. There was not a single word about Apfelbaum.

Leon (Arie/Lejb) Rodal (b. 1913) was a well-known journalist for Moment and Die Tat. He probably perished on April 20, 1943. Pawel Frenkel was a pre-war Betar activist. A Polish underground report of June 19, 1943 indicates that he lost his life at the building on 11 Grzybowska Street.

The names of both Frenkel and Rodal, as commanders of the ZZW, repeatedly appear in the first accounts of surviving ZZW members. Particularly important are the memoirs of physician-psychiatrist David Wdowinski, who worked at Warsaw's Jewish Hospital Czyste. Wdowinski was one of the leaders of the pre-war Revisionist Party in Poland. Although his memoirs "And We Are Not Saved" appeared only in 1963, the parts about the ZZW were published almost immediately after the war. At that time, Wdowinski noted that he was a member of the ZZW political committee along with Dr. Michal Strykowski and Rodal. The commander of the military organization was Frenkel ("one of the most beautiful, the most honest and the most modest figures I have ever met in the course of a long political life.")

Similarly, in a booklet entitled "Haemet al Hamered b'Getto Varsha" (The Truth About the Warsaw Ghetto uprising), published immediately after the war, Adam Halperin, one of the insurgents, wrote unambiguously of Frenkel as commander of the ZZW. Neither Wdowinski nor Halperin even mentioned the name Apfelbaum. In fact, it does not appear in any of the autobiographical material on the Warsaw Ghetto, except those that demonstrate ummistakable signs of having been penned under the influence of Chaim Lazar's book on the ZZW.

Moreover, Apfelbaum is not mentioned in any of the accounts by members of the rival ZOB. In the memoirs of Anielwicz's second-in-command, Itzhak 'Antek' Zuckerman, only Frenkel's name appears. Finally, Apfelbaum is not mentioned in the account by the one Pole who, according to AK sources, really was in contact with the ZZW, Janusz Ketling-Szemley of the underground PLAN organization. On the other hand, the previously cited 1948 document mentions "Pawel" twice.

A diligent search through the archives of Yad Vashem, the Jabotinsky Institute, Lohamei Hagettaot and various Polish institutions reveals nothing about Apfelbaum. Thus far, only a listing for a Mieczyslaw Apfelbaum in the 1938 Warsaw telephone directory has been found, but the search continues.

In the meanwhile, vistors to Yad Vashem can see the only relic of the ZZW: Iwanski's contact ring. It wound up on display thanks to Dr. Sara Ozacky-Lazar, daugher of the late Chaja and Chaim Lazar. The Lazars received it from Iwanski, who decided to send it to Israel shortly before his death.

The story of the ring, including the symbols engraved on it, is told in Chaim Lazar's book and in articles by Chaja Lazar. In a 1966 interview with the Polish daily Zycie Warszawy, the story of the ring (pictured on page 20, top) was discussed at length. As the Polish journalist Andrzej Tewiaszew explained: "While still at the Israeli embassy [at the ceremony in which Iwanski received the medal from Yad Vashem - D.L. and L.W.] ... I noticed a strange ring on Henryk's finger. When some time later, I visited the Iwanskis at their home, I immediately asked about that gold ring: 'There were two such rings during the occupation. I had one and Moryc Apfelbaum, the commander of the ZZW, the other. They were used for communication.'"

Not surprisingly, this relic is not mentioned in Iwanski's 1948 testimony. It appears for the first time in Mendelson's November 1959 account: "Our symbols were two identical rings in the possession of Mietek and Bystry."

Given what we know now, the authenticity of that ring must also be called into question. While initiatives to commemorate the ZZW's gallantry are laudable, further glorification of the "legendary" Apfelbaum and his apocryphal Polish "comrades-in-arms" can only lend credence to the arguments of those who belittle the valor of the Revisionist underground. The genuine leaders of the ZZW, together with the men and women who fought under their command, deserve their rightful place in the pantheon of heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Deconstructing the fables of Iwanski and his cohorts can only hasten that long-awaited, and hopefully eternal, recognition.

Dr. Dariusz Libionka is a historian associated with the Polish Academy of Sciences and Lublin branch of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is a lecturer in history at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel. The authors are preparing a book on the narrative of the ZZW and have received a grant from the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv.