Last Tuesday a plaque was placed in Warsaw at the location where Pawel Frenkel, the commander of the Jewish Military Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, fell with his comrades 69 years ago, in a battle against superior German forces.
The impressive military ceremony was attended by the mayor of Warsaw, representatives of the Polish government, Israel's education minister and the Israeli ambassador. It was a long overdue tribute to a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: the young man who led the central battle of the uprising at Muranowski Square. In that desperate battle fought for the honor of the Jewish people, the Zionist flag and the Polish flag were unfurled on the roof of the highest building in the square as a symbol of the uprising against the Germans.
Two months after the outbreak of the uprising, Frenkel and his fighters, cornered by German forces, fought the last battle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at 11 (now 5a ) Grzybowska Street. Frenkel had been a member of Betar, Jabotinsky's youth organization in Poland, and had been recruited into Israel's pre-state underground militia, Etzel, which had established a network of underground cells in prewar Poland.
But who has heard of him, and why has his name been forgotten - or has it been deliberately erased from the pages of history?
In the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, and for almost 20 years thereafter, the Labor Party largely controlled education and influenced the formation of collective memory, and it was not in its interest to glorify those fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising who had been adherents of Jabotinsky. The Labor Party willingly adopted the narrative of the uprising that was brought to Israel by "Antek" Zuckerman and Zivia Lubetkin, survivors of the Mordechai Anielewicz-led Jewish Fighting Organization, a narrative that left little room for the part played by Frenkel and his fighters.
In a May 1945 letter sent by Zuckerman and Adolf Berman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto underground, from German-occupied Warsaw to London through the channels of the Polish underground, the seeds were sewn for the politically correct narrative of the uprising. "The struggle in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in other ghettos and camps, was initiated, organized, and carried out by our organizations, and first and foremost by the workers' movements and the youth movements of Labor Eretz Yisrael," they wrote.
Sixteen years later, in their testimony in the Eichmann trial about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Zuckerman and Lubetkin made no mention of the part played by the Jewish Military Organization in the uprising. Their narrative has for years been taught in Israel's schools, has been embedded in Israel's collective memory and that of the world at large, and is displayed in the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem.
"He who controls the present controls the past," wrote George Orwell in his dystopian novel "1984." Those who controlled the present in Israel for many years manipulated the history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to suit their ideological goals.
It has recently been suggested that the part played by Marek Edelman in the uprising had not been given full recognition in Israel. Edelman was a member of Anielewicz's Jewish Fighting Organization who fought valiantly in the brushmakers' workshop area during the uprising. But he had been a member of the anti-Zionist Bund, which was the senior partner in Anielewicz's organization, and primary credit for the uprising has naturally been given in Israel to the Zionist groups in that organization.
Edelman, a Bundist to his dying days and a fierce opponent of the Jabotinsky movement, let his ideological leanings get the better of him when it came to speaking about the uprising. Throughout the years, he did not miss an opportunity to deny that Frenkel and his fighters contributed significantly to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. They were no more than "a gang of porters, smugglers and thieves," he has been quoted as saying. Bundists or Socialist Zionists, it did not matter when it came to effacing Pawel Frenkel's fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Emanuel Ringelblum, a Marxist Zionist who chronicled life in the Warsaw Ghetto, was impressed by the military precision and bearing he noted during his visit to Frenkel's headquarters at 7 Muranowska Street, but nevertheless remarked that the movement's ideology was similar to "Italian-style fascism."
An animosity based on ideological differences kept the two underground organizations from uniting in the Warsaw Ghetto and continued after the war, in attempts to manipulate the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to suit political goals.
Pawel Frenkel and his fighters were the victims of this attempt to control the past. It is high time to set the record straight.