The Unsung Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

It is time to recognize the role of Pawel Frenkel and the fighters of the Jewish Military Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Moshe Arens
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Captured Jews being led by German troops to the assembly point for deportation following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.Credit: wikimedia
Moshe Arens

This week flags will fly again over the area in Warsaw where the ghetto stood before it was destroyed by SS General Jurgen Stroop on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. The Israeli flag and the Polish flag will be raised there in commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising 73 years ago, in April 1943. And in the Jewish cemetery a symbolic tombstone will be unveiled in memory of Pawel Frenkel and the fighters of the Jewish Military Organization who fought a four-day battle against German and Ukrainian troops in Muranowski Square, where the Zionist and Polish flags were raised on April 19, as a symbol of the uprising. It was the central battle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

The most detailed description of the fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto is provided by Stroop’s daily reports and his summary report of May 16, 1943. They contain a description of the fighting in Muranowski Square including the raising of the flags there. Their contents became public knowledge toward the end of 1945 when they were introduced as evidence in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, was evidently aware of them when he spoke at the ceremony marking the admission of Israel to the United Nations when the Israeli flag was raised there in May 1949. “This blue-white flag which was unfurled over the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto during the desperate uprising,” he said, referring to the flags in Muranowski Square.

The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The ZZW resistance organization has been sidelined in the commonly accepted narrative of the ghetto uprising.Credit: AP

But all this was not to be included in the narrative of the uprising as it was adopted in Israel. That narrative was brought to Israel by Tzivya Lubetkin, a fighter in the ranks of the Jewish Fighting Organization led by Mordechai Anielewicz. Lubetkin, together with over 80 of Anielewicz’s fighters was led out of the ghetto through the sewer system by Simcha Rotem, and survived the war, unlike Frenkel and the leaders of the Jewish Military Organization who fell in battle.

On June 7, 1946, shortly after arriving from Europe, she spoke at the annual convention of Hakibbutz Hameuhad in Yagur. To an attentive audience of thousands thirsting to hear not about six million, that were presumably “led like sheep to slaughter,” but about Jews who fought the Germans, she told about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a tale of daring, courage and heroism. But the tale she told was less than half of what happened during the uprising – she did not mention Frenkel and his fighters, she did not tell about the battle at Muranowski Square, nor about the flags that were raised there in defiance of the Germans.

It’s not that she did not know about the important part they played in the uprising. She, together with Anielewicz and Marek Edelman, participated in the unsuccessful negotiation held with Frenkel and Leon Rodal about merging the two fighting organizations. Like Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, and thousands of others in the ghetto and in Warsaw beyond its walls, she had seen the flags flying high in the ghetto sky and heard the sound of battle in Muranowski Square. But she was a member of the socialist youth organization Dror, affiliated to the Kibbutz Hameuhad movement, whose members were at the time hunting down the fighters of the Etzel militia led by Menachem Begin.

This was hardly the time to sing the praises of the Jewish Military Organization, led by members of Jabotinsky’s youth organization, Beitar. Fifteen years later, at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she repeated the same partial narrative. It was a narrative which suited the Labor government that practiced the motto made famous in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” “Whoever controls the past controls the future.” Manipulating history was fine as long as it served ideological ends.

At Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, the clock seems to have stopped on June 6, 1946. Look at the exhibit of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the Yad Vashem museum. Anielewicz is presented as the leader of the uprising. Frenkel and the fighters of the Jewish Military Organization, although not completely effaced, have been marginalized. After 73 years it is time that Yad Vashem finally presents the facts of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in their true light.