Holocaust Scholar: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Had Many Heroes

'The story is far more complicated than we’ve been led to believe'; argues a leading Israeli Holocaust scholar. It is time to step back and look at role of tens of thousands of Jews in famous uprising.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

If the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt symbolizes Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, then its commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is the person who has most come to epitomize the event.

On the 70th anniversary of the uprising, though, a leading Israeli Holocaust scholar says it may be time to step back and reexamine the roles of Anielewicz, his brothers- and sisters-in-arms, and tens of thousands of other ghettoized Jewish civilians in this first major act of resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe.

“The story is far more complicated than we’ve been led to believe,” argues Dr. Havi Dreifuss, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University and head of the new Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem. “Israelis have a tendency to apply the military terms they know from their own lives to this revolt, so they like to talk about an organization, a commander, a commander handing down orders, civilians and fighters, but it simply didn’t work like that.”

Based on her latest research into the final months of Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto ‏(a project funded by the Israel Science Foundation‏), she says it emerges that Anielewicz was not a military commander in the conventional sense, but rather a leader known for his abilities to organize and motivate others, who assumed this position almost by chance − and contrary to conventional wisdom − at a rather late stage in the game.

The uprising began on April 19, 1943, Passover eve, when the Germans entered the ghetto with the intention of rounding up and deporting its 50,000 or so remaining residents. Instead, though, they were ambushed by Jewish resistance fighters. With the pistols and handmade weapons at their disposal, these insurgents held out for more than a month, by which time most of them, including Anielewicz, had been captured and killed on the spot or deported to the Treblinka death camp and other Nazi labor camps near Lublin ‏(to be killed later in November 1943‏).

According to Dreifuss’ latest findings, she says 23-year-old Anielewicz, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, only assumed command of the Jewish forces in the ghetto about a week or two before the start of the uprising, somewhere between April 6 and April 13, around the time that Antek Zuckerman, another member of the top command, had relocated to the Aryan side of the city.

She reports that, unbeknownst to many − and based on new evidence Dreifuss has unearthed − Anielewicz, widely regarded as the quintessential Jewish hero, also had his weak and very human moments. “If you read the testimony of some of those who were there at the time, there is evidence that he was under great mental stress,” she says.

“If he had been a commander in the classic sense, the fact that he went through something like this would have affected everyone around him, and that didn’t happen. A leader is something different.” Even more importantly, Dreifuss adds, she believes he was not operating in a void but in collusion with other brave men and women whose contributions to the resistance effort have been somewhat overlooked by history, as has the role of tens of thousands of so-called Jewish civilians living in the ghetto during the final months.

“These civilians played a far more active role in the resistance than was previously known,” she notes.

Based on testimonies Dreifuss has gathered ‏(with the aid of Noam Rachmilevitch from the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum‏) over the past few years, not much discussion or controversy preceded the decision to appoint Anielewicz as head of the Jewish Fighting Organization ‏(ZOB‏), the bigger of the two main Jewish resistance groups in the ghetto; in a sense, it just happened.

Anielewicz’s last letter from the ghetto, once assumed to have been written on April 23, but in fact written even sooner after the uprising began − either on April 20 or 21, according to Dreifuss, and addressed to Zuckerman, who was the ZOB representative in the Aryan part of the city − carries these famous words: “The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”

Except that not all these words were written by him, says Dreifuss, after comparing various Yiddish and Polish translated versions of the original Hebrew. In fact, she says, the last two sentences were later inserted by Adolf Berman, who headed the Jewish Nation Committee at the Aryan side − perhaps, she speculates, as an attempt to win over support and weapons for the ghetto fighters from the Polish government in exile and its underground representatives.

Polish soldiers carry hurt comrade during Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, 1944.Credit: Reuters

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