Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto Bunker: How It Began

These structures were hiding places, not compounds serving resistance, as historian Havi Dreifuss contends.

In an article published in Haaretz by Dr. Havi Dreifuss (“Don’t minimize the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt,” Dec. 27, 2013), in response to my article “The Warsaw Ghetto myth” (Dec. 19, 2013), she unintentionally strengthens my argument regarding the power of the myth of this revolt.

The myth was created in Israel after the Holocaust by scholars who came from a very specific political camp. It came to have a decisive influence on the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, and on shaping the memory of the Holocaust. It still dominates to a great extent in the awareness of their students and disciples – and is sometimes expressed in genuine historical naivete.

Of course, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto did everything in their power to avoid the Germans' attempts to eradicate them. Could anyone think otherwise? In 1943 the main means for doing this – a product of the Jews’ experience in previous aktions – was to hide during the mass deportations in places that families or groups had prepared for themselves, until the danger had passed.

In the eyes of Dreifuss, using high-flown, linguistic-symbolic language and historical anachronism, this survival tactic becomes “total disobedience,” “refusal,” “mass defiance” and evidence of “a popular uprising” – ostensibly terms describing collective, and even organized, civil rebellion.

Moreover, Dreifuss combines the ghetto inhabitants’ attempts to hide with the activity of the rebels into one entity – into complementary aspects of a larger movement, which is painted in the colors of revolt and “appended” to it via various expressions, concerning those in hiding, those who "entrenched" themselves, rebels. Central to this exposition is the issue of the “bunkers,” a term that perhaps more than any other concept relating to the uprising and the ghetto is often misunderstood.

Parsing 'bunker'

The meaning of the word "bunker" in the jargon of the Warsaw Ghetto was totally different from its usual meaning. The Jews simply used the word to describe the hiding places that they prepared for themselves.

Every residential building in Warsaw, as was common in Europe, had a basement covering the entire floor of the structure, divided into compartments and connected to the electricity, water and sewage systems. Also, the roofs were built with wooden gables. Every family or group of families could prepare a hiding place for themselves in such a basement or in an attic. In Warsaw hundreds of bunkers existed, some better equipped and some less so.

Use of the term bunkers created profound misunderstanding when it came to the memory of the Holocaust. It created the baseless impression that these were fortified structures used for fighting. So that in Dreifuss’ imagination, the hundreds of bunkers in the ghetto are seen as a huge complex where Jews were presumably “entrenched,” yet another baseless military term that she uses in the context of her story about the revolt and the armed resistance, whose dimensions she seeks to inflate.

These so-called bunkers were in effect hiding places that families and groups of individuals prepared for themselves – not compounds serving the combat and resistance efforts. In addition, the fighters, members of Jewish Combat Organization, planned hit-and-run missions perpetrated from the windows of the houses rather than from within the bunkers (an exception were the two bunkers of the revisionist Jewish Military Union, which had a different battle plan). After the efforts of the Jewish Fighting Organization failed, as described in my previous article, they were forced, contrary to their plan, to hide themselves in the bunkers, which served the general ghetto population.

For example, the bunker in which uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz and some of his friends hid, were discovered and committed suicide, was known as the “thieves’ bunker.” It was built by an underworld gang that agreed to provide shelter there for a group of resistance operatives, who were looking for a hiding place after their hope of waging a street war was dashed, at a time when other owners of said bunkers were afraid and balked at this. At this point, too, these structures were not used for combat.

According to Dreifuss:  “blaming the participants in the uprising for the deaths of tens of thousands of ghetto residents is a distortion of history and of morality.” I never made such an accusation: I claimed that in a horrible situation in which all the choices were terrible and the chances of survival were few, the uprising and the idea of dying with a weapon in hand contradicted the desire for survival and the rescue strategy of the masses of Jews in the ghetto, who as a result of the burning of that part of Warsaw by the Germans were forced to leave their hiding places or to die in them.

The revolt that was decided on and implemented by a small group of young people, and the hiding of the masses of Jews, were never complementary, never a movement where the Germans encountered “in addition to armed resistance by the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union and unorganized groups, total disobedience from the entire population.” Once again the Jews of the ghetto are "annexed" to the uprising without being consulted. That is the version of the myth in its present incarnation, which is apparently destined once again to find expression in a new book by Dreifuss.

Dreifuss also differs with me regarding the number of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, claiming that there were no more than 40,000. I can only describe that estimation as bizarre: In the labor and concentration camps in Germany alone – after the evacuation of the camps in Poland, the dismantling of the Auschwitz compound and its branches, and the death marches – hundreds of thousands of Jews survived, most of them of Polish origin. They later emigrated in large numbers to Palestine to other countries. These data are known, documented and not in dispute.

In conclusion, in light of many reactions to my article in Israel and worldwide, I would like to make it clear than I am neither a leftist nor a rightist, nor am I a post-Zionist. All I want is to presenting the true history of the Holocaust, as it was actually experienced by me and by other survivors.

Eli Gat is the author of the book “Not Just Another Holocaust Book.”

AP