The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt Is No Myth

Historians should have corrected the exaggerated narrative that developed in Israel about the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943, but the fact remains that there was a revolt, and it was heroic.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

The article by Eli Gat, “The Warsaw Ghetto myth,” is an important commentary on the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt and the Jewish tragedy during World War II, but its conclusion is wrong: The Warsaw ghetto uprising is no myth. It is a compelling tale of Jewish heroism against insuperable odds, the first major uprising against German occupation during World War II, and has rightfully taken its place in the history of World War II.

The narrative of the uprising, as defined by Zivia Lubetkin, a ghetto fighter, at her passionate speech in Kibbutz Yagur in 1946, and repeated by her husband, Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman, at Kibbutz Na’an in 1947 – and reiterated by both at the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, and accepted in Israel as the defining narrative of this important event – strays quite far from what really happened in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943. It is this narrative that is a myth.

Gat is correct in stating that, of the 50,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto who had succeeded in evading the deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, only a few hundred participated in the fighting that broke out in the ghetto on April 19, 1943.

Marek Edelman’s estimate – quoted by Gat – that the Jewish Combat Organization (aka ZOB), led by Mordechai Anielewicz, consisted of some 220 fighters, is probably close to the truth. About 100 perished with Anielewicz in the bunker at Mila 18 on May 8, and about 100 successfully escaped from the ghetto through the sewers.

The number of ZOB fighters was necessarily limited by the weapons the organization had been able to acquire, and by the political structure of the organization – which refused admittance to anyone who did not belong to one of the [left-leaning] political groups that constituted ZOB.

The number of fighters of the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) – the rightist, Beitar-led fighting organization – was probably larger, since, by all accounts, it had succeeded in acquiring more and heavier weapons than ZOB. Its commander, Pawel Frenkel, had also opened its ranks to all who wanted to participate in the uprising – regardless of their political affiliation.

Gat is also correct when he states that organized fighting against the Germans lasted for only a few days. However, his statement that the fighting lasted for two days is wrong. There was organized fighting for 10 days, starting on April 19. ZOB participated in the fighting during the first two days: on the first day, in the central ghetto area; on the second, in the brushmakers’ workshop area. Afterward, its forces took shelter in bunkers. Some were discovered by the Germans, others left the ghetto through the sewers. ZZW fought the Germans for some 10 days, primarily in the area of Muranowski Square, before most of its surviving fighters left the ghetto.

The uprising by a few hundred Jewish youngsters against the might of the German army was a unique heroic feat, which needs no further embellishment by exaggerating the length of the fighting or the extent of German casualties.

An important comment by Gat that nonetheless misses the mark is his claim that the uprising “interfered with the survival strategy of the masses of Jews in the ghetto.” The fact is that what Gat calls “survival strategy” was simply a desire of Jews who were witnessing the murderous actions of the Germans to try and save themselves and their families as long as that seemed possible. Sauve qui peut.

The recognized Jewish leadership of all the political and religious parties had fled Poland as the German army approached Warsaw in the first week of the ground invasion, leaving Polish Jewry leaderless. In the absence of a recognized Jewish leadership that would determine a national strategy of survival or resistance, and communicate it to the Jews facing mortal peril, most individuals or families naturally followed their instinct of self-preservation. It was under these circumstances that the youth movements assumed the leadership of the uprising.

The fact is that, unlike Charles de Gaulle, who instructed the French resistance in occupied France from his headquarters in London, and the Polish government-in-exile in London, which commanded the Polish underground from London, the Zionist leadership in Jerusalem did not choose to assume the role of leadership and provide guidance to Jews who were under German occupation. The Jewish Agency had an office in Geneva throughout the war and was in communication with Jews in occupied Poland, but it did not issue guidance of a general nature, a call to resistance, or a call for unity of the different political groups in the face of the German onslaught. Each family was left to its own devices. That’s what Gat calls a “survival strategy of the masses”.

Gat’s description of the uprising, including the part played by ZZW, will probably be rejected immediately by those Israeli historians who dismiss out of hand any writings about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt by those not considered “professional” historians. However, these “professional” historians fail to explain why, with all the relevant evidence before them for many years – the daily communiqués of SS General Jürgen Stroop; his final report; the report he gave to the U.S. military in Wiesbaden on May 1, 1946; the transcript of his conversations with survivors of the Warsaw ghetto while awaiting trial in Warsaw for war crimes committed during the destruction of the ghetto; and his testimony at the trial prior to his execution – they did not correct the partial narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt as it had been presented by Lubetkin and Zuckerman on their arrival in Palestine after the war.

German SS soldiers lead a group of Polish Jews away for deportation after the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt in 1943.Credit: AP

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