The Jerusalem Post
THE CHANGING FACE OF MEMORY:
Who Defended The Warsaw Ghetto?
By Moshe Arens
Holocaust Day, April 29, 2003, will be the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The revolt, the first uprising against the Germans in World War II, and the most prominent act of Jewish resistance to the German slaughter of the Jews of Europe, has become a symbol of heroism. It was a desperate battle that pitted a small group of Jewish fighters against the might of the German Army, a battle for the dignity of man and the honor of the Jewish people.
Intense fighting in the ghetto between Jewish fighters and German army units assisted by Ukrainian and Latvian militias and Polish policemen lasted for about a month, while Jewish fighters who continued to hide in the many underground bunkers that had been built in the ghetto continued fighting for several weeks thereafter. The commander of the German assault on the ghetto was SS-Gruppenfuehrer Maj.-Gen. Juergen Stroop. He "declared victory" over the Jews on the evening of May 16 and to celebrate his victory he dynamited the great synagogue on Tomalckie Street, abandoned by its Jewish worshipers.
What remained of the ghetto - after the Germans had used flame-throwers to burn down many of the buildings - was dynamited, leaving only a heap of rubble where the ghetto that had once housed more than half a million Jews once stood.
The revolt was not one of the major battles of World War II - not Stalingrad or the Allied landing in Normandy.
But it is remembered as one of the most significant events of that war. It occurred when the war had reached the stage that Winston Churchill referred to as "the end of the beginning" - after Montgomery's defeat of Rommel in the Western Desert, after the American landing in North Africa, after the surrender of Field Marshal von Paulus at Stalingrad, while Allied bombers were raiding the cities of Germany night and day.
The German murder machine had by this time already moved into high gear. The Treblinka gas chambers were operating at full capacity. More than 300,000 of Warsaw's Jews had been dispatched there from the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942 in the "Great Liquidation."
News of the German campaign to exterminate the Jews in the areas under their rule had reached Washington and London. On August 1, 1942, while the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was already in progress, Gerhard Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, learned from a German industrialist that Hitler had ordered the extermination of the Jews of Europe, and that they were to be gassed. A week later, after having sought further confirmation of the information he had received, Riegner asked the US vice-consul in Geneva to transmit a cable with the information to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in New York, head of the American Jewish Congress. The message reached Wise only at the end of August.
On December 8, 1942, Wise, at the head of a delegation of American Jews met with president Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to put the awesome information before him. It was not the first time that Roosevelt had came face to face with news of the tragic fate of European Jewry. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground, working as a courier for the Polish government-in-exile in London, visited the Warsaw Ghetto in August of 1942, before succeeding in smuggling himself to London and from there continued to Washington.
In November 1942 Karski met Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, in London, and thereafter he met with Roosevelt in Washington. He described the horrendous circumstances of Polish Jewry to both leaders, but the response in London and Washington was, if not indifference, then apathy. The Allied leaders had greater concerns than the survival of the Jewish people.
WHEN THE revolt in the ghetto broke out in April 1943, all of Warsaw was aware of the fighting. The news of the revolt was transmitted to the Allied capitals by the Polish underground, but no help came for the Jewish fighters - not from the US or England, nor from the Soviet Union; not even a sign of recognition or an acknowledgement by the Allies of the battle raging in the ghetto. The Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto were unknown soldiers, isolated from the world. Only two years later, after the end of the war, did their valiant battle receive universal recognition.
Two organizations of Jewish fighters had been preparing themselves for the revolt. Best known by the initials of their Polish names, they were: ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) led by Mordechai Anielewicz, and ZZW (Zidowski Zwiazek Woskowy) led by Pawel Frenkel. Considerable rivalry and even animosity existed between the two groups, all attempts at uniting them having failed. Only a semblance of coordination between them was established prior to the revolt.
The formation of ZOB had been preceded by an anti-fascist bloc formed by Socialist Zionist youth groups in the ghetto in March 1943. In July 1943, after the start of the "Great Liquidation," a Jewish combat organization, ZOB, was formed by the Socialist Zionist youth groups, Hashomer Hatzair and Dror Hehalutz, and the General Zionist youth group, Akiva. They were soon joined by the other Socialist Zionist youth groups in the ghetto, as well as by the anti-Zionist Socialist Bund, and the communists.
ZOB was organized into individual squads, each composed of fighters all belonging to the same youth movement. It was felt that the ideological affiliation and familiarity between members would strengthen the fighting ability of each fighting unit. Anielewicz was chosen as the commander, to be supported by a staff composed of representatives of the major constituent groups, the leading members of which were Yitzhak Cukierman of Hehalutz-Dror, and Marek Edelman of the Bund. According to Cukierman, ZOB's deputy commander, its entire weapons store at the beginning consisted of one revolver. ZOB had great difficulty in acquiring the weapons needed for the revolt, receiving only minimal assistance from the Polish underground.
Just how difficult the situation was is demonstrated by a letter Anielewicz wrote on March 13, 1943 to the Polish underground Home Army command: "Are we prepared? Materially, very badly. Of the 49 pieces allocated to us, only 36 are serviceable, and this because of lack of ammunition This is a catastrophic situation." On the fourth day of the uprising he wrote to Cukierman, who at the time was the ZOB's liaison outside the ghetto with the Polish underground, that the pistols were of little importance and that "we badly need grenades, rifles, machine-guns, and explosives."
ZZW WAS headed by Pawel Frenkel of the Revisionist youth movement Betar; his deputies were David Apfelbaum and Leon Rodal. It was better trained and better equipped. It had been founded almost immediately after the German conquest of western Poland and included a number of men who had served with the Polish Army as officers during the German invasion in September 1939, as well as members of Betar who had received military training in the cells established by the IZL in Poland prior to the war.
Apfelbaum had been a Polish officer and through his acquaintance with Major Henryk Iwanski, who had commanded his regiment during the battles against the invading German army, he had already arranged the first acquisition of arms for ZZW at the end of 1939. Iwanski was a member of the Polish underground Security Corps (KB), which subsequently became a part of the Polish underground Home Army (AK). He and his unit assisted ZZW in the training and acquisition of weapons and ammunition and participated together with ZZW fighters in some of the battles of the revolt.
Frenkel had succeeded in establishing contact with Captain Cezary Ketling, one of the leaders of another Polish underground group, PLAN, which also provided assistance to ZZW. ZZW had succeeded in digging two tunnels under the ghetto walls providing contact with the outside and allowing smuggling of arms into the ghetto.
Thus, when the revolt broke out on April 19, 1943, ZZW was better prepared than ZOB.
Anielewicz, in his early 20s at the time, had been a leading member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland and had continued educational work among his movement's members under the German occupation up to the time he took command of ZOB. He had had no prior military training, but was endowed with leadership qualities that made him the obvious choice to command ZOB. Frenkel, also in his early 20s, had been a member of Betar in Warsaw for a number of years before the war and received some military training in one of the IZL cells. To both organizations it seemed obvious that leadership under the circumstances must be entrusted to young fighters rather than to the older political leadership that was present in the ghetto.
ONLY THOSE who are acquainted with the fratricidal animosity that characterized the relationship in the years leading up to the war, between the Socialist Zionist parties and the Revisionist Zionist party headed by Zeev Jabotinsky, can begin to comprehend the inability or unwillingness to unite the two Jewish military organizations at that desperate time. The movements that founded ZOB and its precursor organization, the anti-fascist bloc, considered Betar to be a semi-fascist movement, whereas they saw themselves as representing all the workers' parties and progressive movements in the ghetto.
The Socialist Zionist movements, like Hashomer Hatzair, Hehalutz-Dror, Left Poalei Zion, and Poalei Zion, found it easier to bring the anti-Zionist Bund and the communists into their ranks than to unite with ZZW. They all seem to have been united in their disdain for the Revisionist youth. Edelman, after the war, referred to the ZZW as "a gang of porters, smugglers, and thieves." Cukierman, as well, spoke of them in most uncomplimentary terms, claiming that they had cooperated with reactionary Polish organizations. The initiative undertaken by senior Revisionist leaders in the ghetto to unite the two fighting movements was rejected by the ZOB.
AFTER THE "Great Liquidation," only about 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto. They now lived in three unconnected Jewish sectors, the central sector that contained the houses inhabited by part of the surviving Jewish population, and two German workshop areas where Jewish slave-laborers were producing goods for the German war machine - the Brush Workshops and the Toebbens-Schultz factories. In each of these areas there were ZOB and ZZW fighting units. The ZOB units at the Brush Workshops were commanded by Edelman. The headquarters of both organizations were located in the central sector: ZOB was headed by Anielewicz at Mila Street 39, ZZW headed by Frenkel, Apfelbaum, and Rodal at Muranowski Street 7. They were prepared to meet the German assault.
On orders from SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler to bring about the total liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, SS Obergruppenfuehrer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krueger, the higher SS and police leader of the general-government the Germans had established in occupied Poland, charged SS Oberfuehrer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, commander of the SS and the police in the Warsaw district, with the task.
On the morning of April 19, 1943, Sammern-Frankenberg led his force into the central ghetto area. Ambushed by ZOB fighters as they entered the ghetto, the Germans fled in panic. Sammern-Frankenbergg was promptly removed and the following day, SS Gen. Stroop was in charge of the German attack on the ghetto.
Only scant documentation is available regarding the fighting in the following days and weeks. Dr.Yosef Kermish, at the time head of the Yad Vashem archives, wrote in 1965 in his preface to a collection of documents on the Warsaw Ghetto revolt: "As for the revolt itself and the actual preparations for it, the Jewish and Polish sources are regretfully not sufficiently adequate . As for the development of the revolt, these sources only describe the street-fighting of the first days that occurred in the area, and unfortunately even these reports are no more than fragmentary What is missing in the Jewish and Polish sources regarding the revolt must necessarily be complemented from German sources that were written by the enemy himself. The most important of the German documents regarding the revolt are the reports of SS Brigadefuehrer Juergen Stroop, that were written at the time of the events themselves".
STROOP WAS the archetypal Nazi - a sadistic anti-Semite who took joy in hunting Jews, whom he considered sub-humans. He remained unrepentant right up to his execution in Warsaw, after being convicted of war crimes. In the Warsaw Mokotow prison awaiting his trial, he regaled his cellmates with stories of how he had succeeded in liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto. One of them, Kazimierz Moczarski, a Pole accused of activity against the Polish Communist regime, relates in his book Conversations With The Hangman, that when describing how he had dynamited the great synagogue on Tlomackie Street his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm.
"What a wonderful sight! I called out Heil Hitler! and pressed the button. A terrific explosion brought flames right up to the clouds. The colors were unbelievable. An unforgettable allegory of the triumph over Jewry. The Warsaw Ghetto has ceased to exist. Because that is what Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler wanted."
Stroop was awarded the Iron Cross first class, for his suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt.
Stroop sent daily reports on the action in the ghetto to Krueger. A summary report was written by Stroop on May 16 and read on May 18 in Krakow before an assembly of SS and police chiefs presided over by Krueger. It is from these reports that a picture begins to emerge on the course of the revolt.
In examining Stroop's reports one's attention is drawn to the following statement that appears in his report: "The main Jewish combat group in which participated also Polish bandits, retreated already on the first or second day to a place called Muranowska Square. There it was reinforced by a significant number of Polish bandits. The group wanted to fortify itself in every way possible in order to prevent us from penetrating. On the roof of a concrete building they raised the Jewish flag and the Polish flag, as a signal of war against us . In this firefight with the bandits fell SS Untersturmfuehrere Demke."
Stroop returns to this battle in his conversations with Moczarski in the Warsaw prison cell: "The matter of the flags was of great political and moral importance. It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and united the population of the General-Government, but especially Jews and Poles. Flags and national colors are a means of combat exactly as a rapid-fire weapon, like thousands of such weapons. We all knew that - Heinrich Himmler, Krueger, and Hahn [Obersturmbannfuehrer Ludwig Hahn, commander of the Security Police in Warsaw]. The Reichsfuehrer [Himmler] bellowed into the phone: 'Stroop, you must at all costs bring down those two flags.'"
IT WAS in Muranowska Square and the neighboring houses on Muranowski Street that ZZW fighters armed with rifles, sub-machine guns, machine guns, and Molotov cocktails, had established fortified positions and succeeded in holding up the advance of the German forces during an entire day's fighting on the second day of the revolt, April 20, 1943. It was the scene of recurrent fierce battles between ZZW and Stroop's forces. This is corroborated by testimony given after the war by a number of Iwanski's men who participated in these battles.
Here heavy casualties were sustained by the ZZW, losing many of its leading fighters. Apfelbaum and Rodal were mortally wounded in fighting that raged on April 27 and 28. Iwanski's brother, Edvard, fell in Muranowska Square, his son, Roman was mortally wounded, and Iwanski himself was wounded during those days.
Many years later, in 1993, a Polish woman, Alicja Kaczynska, who had lived during the war on the even-numbered side of Muranowski Street outside the ghetto, opposite ZZW headquarters, published a book of war-time reminiscences, At The Gates Of Hell. In it she recalls the flags the ZZW had raised over the ghetto.
"On the roof opposite we could see people coming and going, and we could see that each of them was armed with some kind of weapon. At one moment we witnessed an exceptional sight on that roof - a blue-and-white flag and a red-and-white flag were raised. We all cheered. Look! Look! The Jewish flag! The Jews have taken Muranowska Square! Our voices echoed on the stairs. We hugged each other, hugged and kissed."
After the war Edelman questioned Stroop in Mokotow prison, asking him in which location aside from Muranowska Square there had been fierce fighting. Stroop replied: "Today I cannot say with the same precision as I said about Muranowska Square. I also remember the Brush Factory, but I cannot retell it precisely."
During the entire revolt there was fighting throughout the ghetto by ZOB and ZZW fighters. The fiercest and possibly the most important battle of the revolt, lasting several days, seems to have been waged by ZZW in the area of Muranowska Square. Yet the story of the heroic struggle in the Warsaw Ghetto, the myth of Jewish heroism that has captured the imagination of so many, has left little room for the participation of the fighters of the ZZW in the revolt. Maybe this was inevitable, since none of the leaders of the underground organized by Betar survived the revolt.
TO THE best of our knowledge, after surviving the fighting at Muranowska Square, Frenkel, together with some of his comrades, fell in a battle with German troops and Polish police on May 11 in Warsaw. Apfelbaum and Rodal did not survive the revolt. Most of the ZZW fighters, including all but one of its senior commanders, were killed in the revolt. Kalman Mendelson, a former officer in the Polish Army and one of the founders of ZZW, never fully recovered from the wounds he sustained in the fighting at Muranowska Square and in the Polish uprising in Warsaw in August 1944, and spent the rest of his life in Polish hospitals and convalescent homes.
The story of the revolt has come down to us primarily through two ZOB leaders who survived the fighting - Cukierman, who was the ZOB's liasion to the Polish underground outside the ghetto during the revolt, and Edelman. In his book, The Ghetto Fights, published shortly after the war, Edelman makes no mention of the ZZW in his description of the revolt. Cukierman, on arriving in Israel after the war, spoke disparagingly of the ZZW, claiming that they had left the ghetto on the third day of the revolt.
Political considerations appear to have colored their reports of the fighting in the ghetto. Indicative of this is a report sent by The Jewish National Committee in Warsaw to the London Representation of Polish Jewry on May 24, 1944, signed by A. Berman, Yitzhak Cukierman, Shimon Gottesman, and Yosef Sak, which contains the following passage: "Let the Workers' Movement throughout the world know that the organizers of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and its leadership were The Workers' Movement for Labor Eretz Yisrael and that hundreds of the fighters struggled and fell inspired by this ideal, so that their death will be one of the foundations for a socialist future of the Jewish masses in Eretz Yisrael."
For the ZZW there was nobody left to present their side of the story.
Sixty years have passed since the outbreak of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. As it becomes a legend it should be freed of political bias and made to conform as closely as possible to the actual course of events. This is a debt we owe to the heroes of the revolt.