On This Tisha B'Av, It's Time to Set the Record Straight About the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

It is seemingly incomprehensible: two separate resistance organizations existed in the Warsaw Ghetto. One combining all the socialist movements there, Zionist and anti-Zionist; the other led by members of Betar, the Revisionist youth organization.

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

Seventy-three years ago on Tisha B'Av (the Jewish fast day marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples), which fell on July 22 that year, the mass deportation began of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka gas chambers. Within seven weeks 270,000 Jews, men, women and children were sent to their death.

On the morning of that day, in 1942, Hermann Höfle, an SS deportation and extermination expert, accompanied by a retinue of Gestapo officials, arrived at the office of the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow. They dictated instructions, telling him “to prepare for resettlement of non-productive elements that very day.”

The Germans had deliberately chosen the day of Jewish mourning for the beginning of the murder of Warsaw’s Jews. The following day, Czerniakow, anticipating the tragedy in store for the residents of the ghetto, committed suicide.

The day he took his life, 16 of the leading representatives of the organizations and political parties in the ghetto met to deliberate on how to respond to the draconian measures ordered by the Germans. They were all represented there – the Socialist Zionists, the Religious Zionists, Agudat Yisrael, the Bund, and the communists, as well as representatives of Hashomer Hatzair and Dror, the Socialist Zionist youth movements. All except the Revisionists, who were not invited.

This reflected an ideological chasm which existed even in the ghetto, and that was to lead eventually to two separate resistance organizations that arose to fight the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: one led by Pawel Frenkel, the other by Mordechai Anielewicz.

The ostracizing of the followers of Ze'ev Jabotinsky reflected the chasm that existed between Jewish socialists – Zionist and non-Zionist – and the Zionist-Revisionists, in the years before the outbreak of the war. It was not mitigated in any way by the war. Not in Jewish community in Palestine, and not even in the ghetto.

A clear indication of the hostility displayed toward the Revisionists is provided by an article published in June 1942, a month before the beginning of the great deportation, in the publication of the Dror movement in the Warsaw Ghetto. Its author was Mordechai Tenenbaum, a leading member of Dror, one of the founding members of the socialist resistance movement in the ghetto, and later the leader of the uprising in the Bialystok Ghetto.

In memory of the Italian socialist leader Giacomo Mateotti and the Zionist socialist leader Chaim Arlosoroff, Tenenbaum wrote: “The same hand put an end to their lives. Mateotti was murdered by killers hired by Italian fascism; Arlosoroff – by men sent by the fascist organization that has arisen among Jews. The deaths of the martyrs, Mateotti and Arlosoroff, and the death of thousands of unknown fighters, cry out for retribution. And the day of reckoning will come.”

It is against this background that we can understand the seemingly incomprehensible: the existence of two separate resistance organizations in the Warsaw Ghetto. One combining all the socialist movements there, Zionist and anti-Zionist; the other led by members of Betar, the Revisionist youth organization.

The resistance organization, the Jewish Military Organization, known by its Polish initials ZZW, was better armed, better trained and better organized. It fought the central battle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising at Muranowski Square, where the Zionist and Polish flags were raised over as a symbol of the uprising, and brought down by the German forces only after days of combat.

And yet Pawel Frenkel and his fighters have been sidelined in the commonly accepted narrative of the uprising, as related by Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman, members of the leadership of the organization headed by Anielewicz, who survived the uprising. Their narrative has been adopted by the educational institutions of the State of Israel, including Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, charged with preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

This day of mourning for the victims of the catastrophes that have been visited upon the Jewish people is an appropriate time to finally set the record straight as to what really happened in those desperate days in the Warsaw Ghetto.