Heroes, Hucksters, and Storytellers: On the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW)

, December 31, 2013

Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy, Opisywacze, Wokol Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego [Heroes, Hucksters, and Storytellers: On the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW)], by Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zaglada Żydów 2011, 635 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Seeman

This book is written by two historians, one a Pole, Dariusz Libionka, and the other an Israeli, Laurence Weinbaum. Dr. Libionka is the director of the Majdanek State Museum Research Department and chief editor of the journal, Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały [Holocaust Studies and Materials], published by the Polish Academy of Science Center for Holocaust Studies. Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is editor-in-chief of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, published by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations of the World Jewish Congress, and an adjunct lecturer at the Ariel University. Receipients of a research grant from Israel’s Jabotinsky Institute, the two authors analyzed a massive amount of previously unmined source material in both Israel and Poland.

Libionka and Weinbaum’s book presents both a scrupulously detailed examination of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, focusing on the smaller and less well known of the two resistance movements and a comprehensive collection of survivor, bystander, and perpetrator accounts. The authors trawled official archives, diaries and correspondence from the period and the years that followed. They carefully evaluated the secondary sources that accumulated over the years, including, for example, works by Chaim Lazar, Dan Kurzman, Israel Gutman, and Moshe Arens. Significantly, their research is as much about the evolution of the narrative as the actual events. Indeed, the first half of this hefty volume is devoted to a painstaking deconstruction of the story as it evolved over time.

The prevailing image of Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust is one of persecution, humiliation, mass murder, and submission. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising (which took place in April/May 1943) is the best-known act of Jewish resistance during the Shoah. There were, in fact, many other forms of resistance, and a number of other, smaller uprisings. Individual acts of defiance took place in ghettos other than Warsaw, such as the full-fledged revolt in Białystok (August 1943). There were other smaller, though no less heroic, armed confrontations. Attempts at armed resistance erupted in three extermination camps: Treblinka (August 1943), Sobibór (October 1943) and Auschwitz-Birkenau (October 1944). Thousands of Jews escaped from the ghettos and joined partisan groups in the forests of Poland and Lithuania. Resistance took many forms in other parts of Europe. Nevertheless, resistance without arms and some degree of support from sympathetic non-Jews was all but impossible. Arms cost money, and the Jews had almost none. Assistance from outsiders was difficult to come by and took time to develop. Tragically, time was something that during the German occupation Jews in Warsaw lacked.

As part of “Operation Reinhard,” approximately 300,000 residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were rounded up from July to September 1942 and deported to Treblinka, where they were gassed on arrival. It was only after this massacre that the Jews of Warsaw began to organize resistance. On 18 January 1943, a second deportation began, but this time met with unexpected armed action. Hundreds of individuals in the Warsaw ghetto, armed with a few handguns and Molotov cocktails, caused substantial German casualties and brought a halt to the proceedings. Five thousand Jews were sent to their deaths, instead of the original 8,000 scheduled for slaughter.

Two resistance organizations, the ŻZW (Żydowski Związek Wojskowy or Jewish Military Union) and the ŻOB (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa or Jewish Combat Organization) took control of the ghetto. They built bunkers and fighting posts and executed a number of collaborators, including Jewish police officers and members of a resistance organization called Żagiew, which was used by the Germans as a trap to ensnare Jews.

On the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, German troops entered the ghetto to liquidate it and were met with gunfire. The initial relative success of the revolt is usually attributed to the efforts of ŻOB. In large measure, this is due to the fact that the revolt was first recounted by two ŻOB leaders who survived: Yitzhak “Antek” Zukerman, who was ŻOB’s liaison to the Polish underground, and Marek Edelman, deputy commander of ŻOB, who wrote The Ghetto Fights, a work that appeared in the immediate post-war period.

There were many underground factions in the Warsaw ghetto, representing all walks of pre-war Jewish political life (left, right, and centrist, Zionist, Bundist, assimilationist, religious, and secular). After the summer deportations of 1942, the many youth groups coalesced under the banner of ŻOB, with the exception of the Zionist right which remained separate and formed its own armed formation, the ŻZW. That group traced its roots to the prewar Zionist youth movement Betar, founded by the Odessa-born Jewish leader, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In the years before the war, Betar was one of the largest Zionist movements in Poland: Menachem Begin was one of its leaders. However, with the outbreak of the war and the rapid German advances, he and many of his colleagues headed east in the hope of making their way to Palestine. Libionka and Weinbaum point out that the lack of leadership on the right influenced the course of its further development. The Betar underground group was subsequently bolstered by a number of politically unaffiliated fighters, and even by some leftists not yet absorbed by the ŻOB. Among the other aspects of its evolution, the authors pay close attention to the fate of the Betar members who were dispatched from the ghetto to work on farms in the area of Hrubieszów.

The ŻZW and ŻOB did not share their arms; each maintained a separate hierarchy of command. But they did co-operate, at least to the extent that each demarcated its territory and waged war against the Germans from specific coordinated zones. Very few ŻZW fighters, and none of the senior leaders, survived the uprising. Because of this, their role in the resistance was initially underappreciated. No less significant in this regard was the left-wing dominance of Israeli political life. Accordingly, documents that suggested that the longest-lasting defense action in the uprising took place around the ŻZW stronghold at Muranowski Square were ignored.

Jürgen Stroop, the Nazi commander in charge of putting down the uprising, reported in his infamous official description of the event that two flags (the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white banner of the ŻZW) waved over the ghetto. Stroop sent daily reports on the German “aktion” in the ghetto, plus a final summary report in which he noted that the flags not only motivated but also unified Poles and Jews. Himmler apparently ordered him to bring down the flags as a top priority. The Libionka-Weinbaum book gives the reader a vivid sense of the appropriation of the story of the two flags, and specifically how it has been used to symbolize the ZZW story. It is debatable whether the Polish underground fighters aided ŻZW (who tended to be more “Polish”) more than they did ŻOB, or even if they helped at all. Of course the Polish underground had its own internal political divisions, and the extent of Polish aid to any of the Jewish groups is difficult to determine with certainty.

No consensus even exists as to who led the ŻZW. The authors dispense with the idea, popular in Poland, that a certain Dawid Moryc Apfebaum—for whom a square is named in Warsaw—was the key personality in the group. They maintain that there is no evidence that Apfelbaum ever existed or, if he did, that he played any role in the formation of the ŻZW. They write that the commanders were actually Leon Rodal, a well-known Yiddish journalist and Revisionist activist from Kielce, and Paweł (Paul) Frenkel. An additional difficulty in clarifying roles is that both Jewish and Polish fighters are referred to by code names in the various documents. This is especially noteworthy in the case of Pawel Frenkel, about whom almost nothing is known, not even his precise age.

Libionka and Weinbaum demonstrate that a large number of the documents are unreliable; many are blatant falsifications or fabrications rooted in personal or ideological motives—including several memoirs penned by survivors. Many of the reports that were (and still are) considered trustworthy contradict one another, and, as is typical, many of the survivors’ stories have changed over time. Thanks to Libionka and Weinbaum, some of the original sources have now been definitively discredited and can be discarded. The authors emphasize that neither Poles nor Jews have a monopoly on confabulation. Indeed, both individual Poles and Jews contributed to the distortion of the history of the ŻZW.

During the battle, the ŻZW lost all of its commanders, and, on April 29 the surviving fighters escaped the ghetto through the Muranowski tunnel. On May 8, the Germans uncovered the main command post of the ZOB. Most of that organization’s leadership, including the chief commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, took cyanide. Two days later, Marek Edelman and a few comrades escaped through the ghetto sewers. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943, when Stroop personally pushed a detonator button to blow up Warsaw’s Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street.

In the book’s survey of the factual and alleged contributions of the ŻZW to the ghetto uprising, some of what has been reported about its role is exposed as fraudulent or, at least, exaggerated. The authors are careful to explain that this in no way detracts from the very real and heroic contributions of this organization to what stands as the foremost display of Jewish courage in World War II. Libionka and Weinbaum have succeeded in setting before us the real story of the ŻZW. Their book is not yet available in English, but will, no doubt, be soon translated.

Mary Seeman

Mary V. Seeman is Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, was born in Lodz, Poland. She has received numerous awards, including an honorary degree from the University of Toronto and appointment as Officer in the Order of Canada.