Pulling the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to the Right

Could it be that current political perceptions influence Israelis' Holocaust narrative?

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Zivia Lubetkin, a founding member of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, was a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that broke out on Passover, April 19, 1943. She was born in 1914 in Byten, Poland, and joined the Socialist Zionist movement “Freiheit” at the age of 16. Three years later she was among the initiators of the move to unite Freiheit with "the Young Halutz" that trained and prepared youngsters for emigration to Palestine, and moved to Warsaw when the new movement was established. When World War II broke out, she moved to Bialystok and was active in the Halutz underground. In December, the movement decided to send one of its leaders to the German-occupied area, and Lubetkin volunteered for the mission.

Together with her partner, Yitzhak Zuckerman, who during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the lieutenant of the uprising's leader, Mordechai Anielewicz, she was among the founders of the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) that led the uprising. She became a charismatic, unforgettable leader, impressing all those who met her.

In the beginning of 1946, shortly after immigrating to Palestine, the 15th convention of the Kibbutz Hameuhad movement took place in Kibbutz Yagur and Lubetkin was called to speak about the movement's activities in Warsaw, leading to the uprising. She stood in the center of a huge tent and spoke for hours. She talked passionately of the public, social and cultural activities, the decision to take up arms, the huge uprising that broke out on Passover, brave military actions by fallen friends, traveling through the sewerage system and how the survivors of the uprising regrouped in the woods to continue the resistance. The chairs and benches in the tent in Yagur weren't enough for all those who wanted to hear her speak. The audience was spellbound, despite the early-summer heat.

In 1961, Lubetkin testified in Adolph Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. She was one of more than 100 witnesses, most of them survivors, who told the tale of the destruction of European Jewry. Her testimony was most impressive, focusing mainly on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: "I saw the thousands of Germans who surrounded the ghetto armed with machine guns and cannons, and they starting entering – thousands of armed soldiers, as if they were on their way to the Russian front. And we stood against them, 20-something young men and woman. Our weapons? Each of us had a pistol and a hand grenade, two rifles between us and some primitive hand-made bombs whose fuse we had to light with a match, and one Molotov cocktail.

"It was strange to see the 20-odd young Jewish men and women standing happy and in high spirits opposite this huge armed enemy. Why happy and in high spirits? Because we knew their end would come. We knew they would defeat us first, but we also knew they would pay a dear price for our lives. And they did. It's hard to describe, and many won't believe us, but when the Germans approached and marched below us, and we hurled the grenades and bombs and saw German blood in the streets of Warsaw, after so much Jewish blood and tears had flowed through the streets of Warsaw – we were filled with happiness and didn't care what would happen tomorrow."

This testimony left a deep impression. "I said 'to arms' and Zivia came," the poet Haim Gouri wrote in Facing the Glass Booth: the Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann (1962), and began his column in the newspaper Lamerchav, which told the story of that day's testimonies, with a quote from Haim Nahman Bialik: "Why should we fear death, if its angel rides on our shoulders?" True, as in the present, the public did not identify "bravery" only with bearing arms, but since it was a woman who did so, she received special honor. Lubetkin gained mythological status.

Years later her speech at the Yagur convention, together with another lecture in Jerusalem, was printed in the (Hebrew) book "Days of Annihilation and Rebellion." Modest as she was, she requested that the book be published only after her death. Lubetkin died in July 1978, at the age of 64. Zuckerman died soon after.

The 27th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the official Holocaust Remembrance Day determined by the Knesset in a special law in 1959, is linked to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an uplifting event that featured young heroes and heroines led by the Jewish Combat Organization that united most of the youth movements in the ghetto. In the first years of the state of Israel there were arguments as to the uprising's leaders' political affiliation, which can be found in the Knesset's minutes and the press at the time. The Zionist left adopted the event and stressed the political affiliation of the uprising's leaders to contemporary political parties. Still, even when the arguments took place, the right-wing parties did not question Lubetkin and Zuckerman's role in the events. Even the mouthpiece of Menachem Begin's Herut party hailed Lubetkin as a national heroine.

Still, in later years the arguments took a twist. The role of the revisionists began to assume a central part in the story of the uprising. One of the major players in promoting this concept is former minister and MK Moshe Arens, who wrote a book on the uprising and published numerous articles claiming, among other things, that Lubetkin and Zuckerman told only "half the tale," (Likud's version of collective memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising , by Ofer Aderet, Haaretz in Hebrew, March 5, 2013). Several years ago, Arens initiated the production of a reconstructed portrait of the leader of the Revisionist Jewish Military Union (ZZW), Pawel Frenkel, with the assistance of ZZW veteran Fella Finkelstein. Slowly but surely, the story of the right wing in the uprising is moving to the center.

Lately it seems that correcting a possible injustice might have gone a step too far: In the Knesset's website, the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union are presented as two equal underground movements, with both due equal credit, and on the Hebrew Wikipedia entry "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising", ZZW precedes ZOB. Hard to believe, but Pawel Frenkel precedes Mordechai Anielewicz.

This move has been encouraged in recent years by the government as a whole and the Education Ministry in particular. One can already assume who will star in Holocaust memorial speeches of right-wing leaders such as the prime minister and Knesset speaker. Still, to regain some optimism, one cannot be blamed for hoping that they won't forget the most important fact, and hopefully learn something from their political forefathers.

Sharon Geva teaches history at Seminar Hakibbutzim College and is the author of To the Unknown Sister: Holocaust Heroines in Israeli Society.

A group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, 1943.Credit: AP

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