The Warsaw Ghetto Myth

The ghetto fighters may have been brave, but they didn’t fight as long as has been depicted. And what right did they have to decide the fate of 50,000 others?

Like many Holocaust survivors, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the way the memory of the Holocaust has been shaped. The myth of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is an excellent example.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the very name is deceptive. The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto never revolted. In the summer of 1942 some 300,000 Jews from the ghetto were sent to Treblinka and murdered. Around 50,000 people were left in the ghetto; they were spared death at the time because they were skilled professionals who worked in German factories both inside and outside the ghetto. These people never thought about revolt, they thought about survival.

Only a small group of young people revolted, whose size and efforts were inflated to mythic proportions in Israel after the state was established in 1948. More importantly, the uprising, which started on April 19, 1943, contradicted the survival strategy of the masses of Jews who remained in the ghetto.

The idea of the revolt and armed warfare jibed with the ethos of the prestate Jewish community in Palestine and the young nation. It was exaggerated by the activist part of the Labor movement – the Ahdut Ha'avoda party and its affiliated kibbutz movement – which also laid claim to the uprising while repressing the memory of  other movements that took part, like the Bundists, Communists and right-wing Revisionists.

Due to pressure from this part of the Labor movement, the memorial day for the destruction of European Jewry was named Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, as if there was any proportionality between the two parts of the phrase. Ahdut Ha'avoda attacked David Ben-Gurion and Mapai –  another precursor to the Labor Party – and waved its banner of military activism: In Israel the Palmach, in the Holocaust the ghetto fighters.

The uprising was also inflated by a blurring of the numbers: the number of German casualties, the number of ghetto fighters and the length of the uprising. In the first works after the Holocaust, writers talked about hundreds of Germans killed. But the daily reports sent out by the commander who destroyed the ghetto later came to light. Based on these reports from SS Gen. Jurgen Stroop, which no one questions, 16 Germans were killed in the fighting. After these reports came to light, the original writings on the uprising were filed away and never mentioned.

A second murky figure is the number of people who took part in the uprising, in which two umbrella organizations participated. One was the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB), which included groups from movements with socialist and communist leanings, both Zionist and non-Zionist. The second consisted of the people from right-wing Beitar, which operated within the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, or ZWW).

Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman (Icchak Cukierman) was a ZOB leader and a key figure in building up the uprising's image after the war in Israel . He claimed that around 500 fighters took part in the revolt. Another participant in the uprising, Stefan Grayek, put the figure at 700.

Among historians, Prof. Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem states (without giving details) that there were some 750 to 1,000 fighters, while Prof. Israel Gutman, who took part in the uprising and wrote a book after doing separate research, put the number at only 350. None of these numbers – except it seems Bauer’s – include the fighters of the right-wing organizations from which there were no survivors to provide testimony and whose contribution was met with thunderous silence for many years.

The most reliable testimony on many points about the uprising, including the number of participants, was given by one of its leaders, Marek Edelman. Edelman, a Bundist, remained in Poland after the war and therefore became an untouchable as far as the institutions that organized the remembrance in Israel were concerned.

Edelman put the number of ZOB fighters at about 220. When asked what he based his figures on, he responded: “I was there and knew everyone. It’s not hard to know 220 people.” As for the gap between this figure and Zuckerman’s, Edelman said: “Antek had political motives and I didn’t.”

Assuming that the number of fighters in the right-wing organization – for which there are no clear numbers – was smaller, it’s reasonable to assume that the total number of participants in the revolt was less than 400 people, out of some 50,000 people in the ghetto.

Just two days of hard fighting

The figures on the length of the real fighting were also inflated. Gutman stretches out the uprising to a month. But Stroop’s reports, as well as the testimony of the uprising’s leaders, show that the actual battles took place over only two days.  This was because the ZOB’s battle plans were never carried out in full. Their conception was to take positions in windows, fire guns and throw grenades, and then take new positions.

At the start of the revolt on April 19, the Germans were surprised by the armed resistance and retreated from the ghetto. But after they reorganized, they had no intention of chasing the Jews from house to house and suffering casualties. Instead, they decided to destroy the ghetto and set it ablaze.

The members of the ZOB who thought the fate of the Jews in the ghetto was set in any case – to die –  had planned to fight and die with their guns in their hands. But they found themselves hiding and searching for an escape from the destruction and flames. In the end, they were forced to flee and burned up with the ghetto’s inhabitants, in opposition to their original plans.

Zivia Lubetkin, a leader of the revolt, wrote about it this way: “We were all helpless, shocked with embarrassment. All our plans were ruined. We had dreamed of a last battle in which we knew we would be defeated by the enemy, but they would pay with a great deal of blood. All our plans were ruined, and without any other opening the decision was made: We would leave. It was no longer possible to fight.”

Zuckerman wrote: “We knew all the exits very well, all the rooftop passages. If the war had been carried out ...  without flamethrowers, thousands of troops would have had to be sent into battle to defeat us.”

The first group of ZZW fighters left the ghetto on April 20, the revolt’s second day, through tunnels prepared in advance. A second group left on April 22 and a last group on April 26. Most if not all were killed when they were discovered on the Polish side.

The ZOB fighters, who had not intended to leave the ghetto, had not prepared escape routes. Only thanks to the sewage tunnels and help from the Polish side could they leave the ghetto. On April 28 a first group left. On May 8, Mordechai Anielewicz, the ZOB’s commander, committed suicide after his group’s basement hiding place was revealed. On May 9 the remnants of the ZOB left the ghetto. All told, some 100 ZOB fighters fled.

Within a few days the two military organizations left (or fled) the bombed and burned-out ghetto and its 50,000 inhabitants, leaving the residents to the terrible revenge of the Germans. It is thought that the Germans murdered 10,000 ghetto residents; they sent the rest to camps near Lublin.

Ruining a survival strategy

The uprising thus interfered with the survival strategy of the masses of Jews in the ghetto. To understand this, one must first understand the change in the situation between the mass transports in 1942, when the vast majority of Jews in Poland were exterminated over a short period of time, and the situation in 1943.

During this time came the turning point of World War II. In November 1942 the Russians broke through the front around Stalingrad and by the beginning of February 1943 the entire Sixth Army had surrendered. At the same time the Germans were defeated at El Alamein in the Egyptian desert, and the Allies landed in French Northwest Africa.

These routs breathed hope in occupied Europe for a relatively quick defeat of Germany. Even the Jews’ hopes were buoyed. If they could somehow hang on another day, maybe they could be saved.

There was even something of a change in the German policy toward the Jews. The destruction of every last Jew may still have been the highest priority, but the urgency eased a bit after most of the goal had been reached and in light of the war’s economic needs. The Germans needed workers for its factories after the entire fit German workforce had been drafted for fighting. Forced labor was used all over Europe.

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining.

Many historians of the Holocaust and the uprising came from a political camp enlisted for political purposes. Their influence on the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum was great. They wrote our history books and shaped our remembrance of the Holocaust.

Their influence on their students and followers is still greatly felt today. Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Eli Gat is a Holocaust survivor and the author of “Not Just Another Holocaust Book.”

AP