Where Were our Historians?

The full history of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto still remains to be written 60 years later.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 29, 2003.)

The 60th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto is an opportune moment to look back at this heroic and tragic chapter in Jewish history.

It does not take extensive historic research to realize that the myth built up over the years of a single Jewish resistance movement, the Jewish Fighting Organization, comprised of the workers’ and progressive movements under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, does not fully correspond with reality as it existed in those desperate times, and bypasses the other resistance movement, the Jewish Military Organization, led by members of Betar, which played an important role, and possibly the major part, in the battle against the Germans.

In 1965, it was Dr. Yosef Kermish – the head of the archives at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum at the time – who pointed out the scarcity of Jewish and Polish sources regarding the uprising and suggested that they must, out of necessity, be complemented by German documents, and especially the reports of General Juergen Stroop, the man charged with the task of suppressing the revolt.

From Stroop’s summary report, it is clear that the fiercest battles of the uprising, lasting several days, were fought by units of what he referred to as “the main Jewish combat organization” at Muranowski Square. This was the Jewish Military Organization, led by Pawel Frenkel and other members of Betar. It was here, over their headquarters, that the Jewish and Polish flags were raised – an act seen in much of Warsaw as a symbol of resistance against the Germans.

Stroop returns to the flags and their symbolic importance in his conversations after the war, and relates the order he received from Himmler to remove the flags regardless of the cost.

Just the circumstantial evidence regarding the role of the Betar fighting organization in the uprising is compelling. The organization’s youngsters had undergone paramilitary training in Betar; many of them had received weapon training in the IZL cells that had been established in Poland prior to the war; a number of their leaders had served as officers in the Polish Army during the German attack on Poland; and they had succeeded in acquiring more and heavier weapons than Anielewicz’s organization. In addition, the topography of Muranowski Square was such as to make it possible to establish fortified positions that would effectively resist a German assault on the area for an extended period of time.

Anielewicz’s organization was made up of courageous, idealistic youngsters who were poorly equipped and had no prior military training. They were strongly motivated by socialist ideals that prevented the unification of the two organizations, even during this terrible period.

It is little wonder that two of the leaders of Anielewicz’s organization who survived the war – Yitzhak Cukierman of the Dror youth movement, and Marek Edelman of the Socialist anti-Zionist Bund – had a political agenda and spoke disparagingly of the Betar combat organization giving it little, if any, credit for the fighting in the ghetto. The senior commanders of the Betar organization all fell in the revolt. The political discourse regarding the revolt after the war was therefore essentially one-sided.

But what about our historians, whose task it was to reconstruct the course of the revolt as accurately and as objectively as possible? Rachel Averbach, who had been a member of Emanuel Ringelblum’s documentation team in Warsaw at the time of the revolt, pointed out in her book, “The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt,” published in 1963, that the chapter of the Betar fighting organization had, “unfortunately, not yet been researched at all.” Some 40 years have passed since then and that research seems to have been neglected by our historians.

Ryszard Walewski, who although not being a member of Betar, had joined the Betar combat organization at the head of an armed group, vividly describes the fighting at Muranowski Square, “the battle for the flags” in his book, “Jurek.”

“We knew,” he wrote, “that we would not be able to withstand the murderous onslaught of the German machine-guns for long. We will retreat from the ghetto. The ghetto will go up in flames. The fighters will fall. But the legend of the flags will go around the world. The flags will go down in history.”

That history, and the full history of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto still remains to be written 60 years later.

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