Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising remains one of the best-known chapters of the Shoah, and the heroism of the insurgents continues to inspire. However, scholarly treatment of the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy or Jewish Military Union, which was founded in the ghetto by elements of the Zionist Revisionist Movement, is still incomplete. Revisionist circles especially have long claimed that the ideological rivals of the ZZW have deliberately prevented its enshrinement in the national pantheon. Although there is validity to that charge, the reality is more complex and nuanced. Establishing the ZZW’s rightful place in the historical narrative will require a thorough deconstruction of the existing historiography and, in particular, the shadowy Polish sources that have figured so prominently in its evolution.
Simcha “Kazik” Rotem, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, recounts in his memoirs that in the spring of 1944 – a year after the ghetto revolt but some months before the outbreak of the general uprising – the survivors of the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) or Jewish Combat Organization, the mainstream resistance group that drew support across most party lines, had gathered in an apartment in Warsaw to record their experiences. That information was later transmitted to party comrades in Palestine and elsewhere.
One of the most important activities of the ZOB was documentation. Its leaders had a strong sense of history and felt that they were the last remaining Jews. Hence they assumed the responsibility to preserve, and to tell, the story of Polish Jewry in the “days of destruction and revolt.” Many accounts were written in that ZOB apartment; Yitzhak Zuckerman, alias “Antek,” was the group’s life force, devoted to collecting the accounts. 1
Indeed, for many of those who survived, the task of recounting the story of what they had undergone was treated as a sacred obligation for future generations. And well before the war was over, the first documentation filtered out of Poland and the first publications on the subject appeared.
Of course, it would have been naïve to expect that adherents of a movement deeply rooted in a particular political ideology who had seen their compatriots suffer and die, would suddenly rise above all parochial considerations in telling their story.2 Naturally they sought to glorify the memory of their fallen comrades-in-arms, even if it was at the expense of historical accuracy and balance. For the most part, they were not professional historians but eyewitnesses to, and actors in, an extraordinary drama. Hence, it quickly became evident that the various factions that had fought in the ghetto were jockeying for their place in history. This was true among the survivors themselves as well as the representatives of their movements outside Poland.
Before the Embers Went Cold
In Palestine, on the basis of the first reports that trickled out, Melech Neustadt, general secretary of the World Union of the Labor Zionist Movement, recorded the story of the uprising in the Davar Yearbook for 5704 (1944-1945). That account gives a clear view of the struggle between the rival groups that had already begun:
documents disclose … beyond a shadow of a doubt, the social forces which initiated, prepared and conducted the rising – a feature which has unfortunately been ignored hitherto in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles. We prefer to believe that this omission was not intentional but was due merely to the absence of adequate and reliable information….
The truth of the matter is that we have felt all along that injustice is being done to our comrades of the Palestine Labor movement. We had in our possession indubitable evidence of the active and often the guiding role played by the Zionist-Socialist groups in the organization of the Jewish Underground in the face of the Nazi oppression, and particularly in the building up and carrying into effect of the resistance movement in the Warsaw Ghetto. We have, however, hitherto refrained from drawing attention to this aspect of the matter, nor have we reacted in any way to certain reports which have not merely failed to credit our comrades with their organizing and directing part in the rising, but in many cases have not even mentioned them at all. They endeavored, with a measure of success, to create the impression that others had done this work….3
Citing a report received from the Jewish National Committee in Poland in May 1944, Neustadt wrote:
From information reaching us from abroad we have the impression that the “Bund” abroad are endeavoring to place the battle of the Ghetto in Warsaw to their own credit by ascribing to themselves the predominant, if not the exclusive role. In the name of historical truth you must explode this false legend and undeserved merit. The battles in the Ghetto of Warsaw, like those in the other ghettos and concentration camps, were initiated, organized and conducted by our organizations, in the first place by pro-Palestinian organizations of workers and youth…. These organizations took the leading part in the battles, they supplied the largest number of fighters, and offered the greatest sacrifice of blood.4
Neustadt went on to claim that: “Even during the days of the Ghetto Battle itself [the Bund] party spirit still prevailed, leading them to pervert the facts of this sacred and wonderful event.”5
In explaining the Bundists’ alleged appropriation of the glory, Neustadt noted:
A letter from the headquarters of the [Bund] party in Poland written in May, 1944 adds: “The boasting of certain elements with deeds which were not theirs for purely political reasons is so grotesque, and at the same time, in the light of our tragedy, so macabre, that any controversy on this subject would seem a disparagement of the greatness and dignity of the cause.”6
Finally, regarding the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (ZZW) or Jewish Military Union, which was founded in the ghetto by the Zionist Revisionist Movement and was clearly not seen as a serious contender for the glory like the Bundists, Neustadt observed:
As for the Revisionists, out of all the material relating to the Warsaw Ghetto rising which is available, there is only one reference to their participation, namely in a report dated the 22nd June, 1943, which reached the “Bund” delegation abroad only at the beginning of 1944. This report states: “The Revisionists who founded their own small organization under the name of ‘Nekama’ (Revenge) discontinued their activities after two days.” The same report mentions that both the “Aguda” and the Revisionists did not belong to the Jewish Fighting Organization.7
Most other works that appeared contemporaneously with that of Neustadt also failed to mention the ZZW.8
Those in power in the Yishuv in Palestine and later, in the state of Israel, as well as those in so-called “People’s Poland,” set the tone of the rapidly evolving narrative of the uprising, once again confirming Orwell’s observation that those who control the present control the past.
In particular, the early accounts by Zvia Lubetkin – and later those of her husband Yitzhak “Antek” Zukerman and other ZOB members – formed the bedrock testimony on which much of that narrative was based, whether schoolbooks, stage and screen productions, and even the plastic arts.9
Consequently, the significance of these accounts transcended history alone. The uprising became etched into Jewish consciousness as the outstanding example of Jewish heroism and resistance in the Holocaust, and was used to refute the often-heard canard, even in Israeli circles, that Jews had “gone like sheep to the slaughter.”
Especially in Israel, the early works on the uprising had a profound impact on society. As noted by Israel Gutman, one of the foremost Israeli Holocaust scholars:
Books by ghetto fighters and partisans that appeared in the first five years after the war were lauded as classics of the road to Jewish resistance and Jewish national revival. Young people in Israel avidly read about the heroic deeds of the fighters, and these works…were absorbed into the ethos of the nascent state as an object of the nation’s respect and admiration.10
In the popular narrative that developed over the years, the ZOB was depicted as the predominant underground organization of the Jewish insurgents. The ZOB insurgents, it was stressed, encompassed most of the disparate remnants of the various Jewish movements that were active in prewar Poland, with the Zionist youth groups in the forefront.
One could find occasional references to the fact that the Revisionists, and their youth movement Betar, also participated in the ghetto uprising, outside the framework of the ZOB. The ZZW, however, was generally mentioned in passing, mainly as a small group that played only a nominal role in the actual fighting or simply fled the ghetto when it began. There are exceptions, but they only prove the rule. As for those who did take up the story of the ZZW, they were often politically engaged and hence, justifiably or not, their writings were not always regarded as authentic “history.” Of course, those who focused on the story the ZOB were not generally subjected to such scrutiny, though they too were certainly not above reproach in that regard. But, outside Revisionist circles and the scholarly community, the ZZW was little known.
However, even a cursory look at the secondary sources raises many questions about the ZZW that go unanswered in the negligible treatment it has received in the history books. This is especially so as German documentation, in particular the accounts of SS General Jürgen Stroop, indicate that the heaviest battle of the uprising was fought on Muranowska Square – precisely the sector of the ghetto in which the ZZW was concentrated.11 According to most historians – no matter how little attention they paid to the ZZW – the Revisionist underground was the most heavily armed unit in the ghetto and maintained a tunnel connecting it with “Aryan” Warsaw. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that Jewish and Polish standards were flown over the ZZW headquarters, arousing the ire of the Germans and the admiration of many of the Polish bystanders. In the German accounts the ZZW fighters generally have no political identification, the Germans having had limited knowledge of the various ideological distinctions among the Jewish insurgents.12
Significantly, in December 1943, little more than half a year after the destruction of the ghetto and shortly before his own death, the great historian of the ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, in correspondence with Adolf Berman, a leader of the left-wing Po’ale Zion and founder of the Anti-Fascist Bloc in the ghetto, wrote: “And why is there no information on the ZZW in the history. They must leave an imprint, even if in our eyes, they are unsympathetic.”13 In his opus on Polish-Jewish relations, Ringelblum described his visit to the ZZW headquarters before the outbreak of the revolt. He was clearly impressed by the group’s substantial arsenal and supply of German uniforms, “all of which was used to the full in the April ‘action.'”14
Nevertheless, his observation went unheeded. It did not then, or later, prompt a concerted search. Over the years, political considerations often trumped the objective writing of history. Gutman, who has often been criticized by Revisionists for failing to devote more attention to the ZZW, conceded that point:
It must also be emphasized that ongoing political and ideological feuds have led to discrepancies in the reconstruction of the historical picture. The most outstanding example is the neglect, almost to the point of total omission, of the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) founded by the Revisionists and members of the Betar in the Warsaw Ghetto, which took an active part in the fighting during the revolt…. This is the most obvious but by no means the only case in which tendentious political considerations have led to the distortion of the true picture, the revision of accounts, and even resort to fabrication in an attempt to write rival camps out of history while magnifying the contribution of one’s own….15
But Gutman was quick to point out the dangers of overcompensation: “As a result, the writers who wished to redress the balance by extolling the Betar force largely drew upon dubious testimonies and descriptions that lacked any firm historical foundation.”16 Today, as will be discussed below, it is clear that much of the source material that was eventually used to document the story of the ZZW, and particularly much of the Polish testimony, does not stand the test of objective, scholarly scrutiny. This became especially evident after the collapse of Communism when scholars were finally granted unfettered access to archival material in Poland.
In subsequent years, and despite the vast number of publications on various aspects of the Shoah, and in particular on the Warsaw Ghetto, only a scant literature arose on the ZZW, most of it not the work of trained historians but of journalists and publicists. There was no rush by historians to interview surviving ZZW members, most of whom were not commanding figures in the Revisionist underground but mainly simple insurgents. Only Dawid Wdowinski’s testimony was regarded as a reliable source, and his contention that the ZZW arose only in the latter half of 1942 was and continues to be widely cited as proof that the Revisionist underground organization could not have come into being before that time, and hence did not predate the establishment of the ZOB as is sometimes claimed.
The fact is that the great majority of the ZZW fighters perished in the fighting or immediately afterward on the Aryan side. With notable exceptions, those who did survive the fighting in which the ZZW was engaged, or at least claim they did, left little in the way of written documentation. The memoirs of those who did write them reveal the influence of postwar historical texts, and in some instances even a considerable degree of fantasy.17
In “People’s Poland”
Meanwhile, in Communist Poland, over the years a very different set of circumstances produced two distinct versions of the ghetto uprising that influenced the writing of history outside its borders. On the one hand, it was natural that the story of the uprising would reflect the prevailing Weltanschauung: the role of the Zionists was downplayed in favor of the Bund and, of course, the Communists. Marek Edelman, the last surviving ZOB commander who remained in Poland, chose to focus on the deeds of his Bund comrades and has continued to do so until the present day.18 Part of that tendency was to censure the “reactionary” Home Army (Armja Krajowa) for failing to come to the aid of the Jewish insurgents, while glorifying the People’s Army (Armja Ludowa). Thus, the ZOB appeared almost to the exclusion of the ZZW.
On the other hand, after 1956, when the nationalist elements in the Polish Communist Party gained the upper hand, there was a sudden shift toward glorifying hitherto discredited underground organizations, most notably the Home Army. This affected the approach to the ghetto uprising as well: the Zionist youth movements could now receive a greater measure of glory, as could the ZZW.
Subsequent editions of the works on the uprising by Bernard Mark, the director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, reflect the changes in the political climate.19 In the late 1950s, a small group of Poles who claimed to have been involved in a little-known underground organization called the Korpus Bezpieczenstwa (KB), which they claimed to have spawned the ZZW, gained Mark’s trust and that of some of his colleagues, and clearly influenced his writings.
Since that time, the history of the ZZW has been clouded by this small and enigmatic cadre of Poles who presented themselves as the heroic patrons of the Revisionist underground and whose accounts serve as the basic source material of much of what has been written on the organization. Significantly, that testimony was corroborated by Kazimierz Majdanowski-Mendelson, a Jew who remained in Poland, who in much of the literature on the ZZW is identified as its only surviving commander.
The most influential of the Poles was Henryk Iwanski who, together with his wife Wiktoria, was later (1966) honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, and whose story eventually found its way to the West, including even the pages of the New York Times.20 Another was Tadeusz Bednarczyk, who arrogated the role of chronicler of the ZZW, and wrote and published prolifically of his contacts, whether real or imagined, on behalf of the Polish underground. These included the ZZW and even the head of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniakow.
However, declassified secret-police documents now housed in the Institute of National Remembrance indicate that these Poles were associated to some degree with security organs, and were regularly utilized to implement the agenda of the Interior Ministry. Clearly, and perhaps most blatantly with respect to Bednarczyk, much of what they wrote lies in the realm of confabulation and must be treated with the utmost circumspection.
In 1968, amid the notorious witch-hunt directed against the Jewish remnant in Poland (and even in earlier years), an effort was made to refute the Western charges of Polish anti-Semitism by publicizing the story of the “brotherhood of arms” between the KB and the ZZW. The same Polish Communist newspapers that printed anti-Semitic diatribes offered a spate of interviews with, and testimony by, the “heroes of the KB.” Such articles continued to appear throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mainly on the anniversary of the uprising.21
In the case of Bednarczyk, and especially in his later years, his increasingly vitriolic writings contained wild charges about widespread Jewish collaboration with the Germans, and assertions about the extraordinary scope of Polish assistance to the ghetto.22 By now, Bednarczyk’s works have been so thoroughly discredited that most historians treat his works as belonging to the realm of anti-Semitic literature rather than history.
Iwanski, however, was far more successful in telling the ostensible story of the KB and the ZZW. Significantly, of the KB group only he and his family members were recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the Nations.” Accounts of his own family’s sacrifices appeared in the works of reputable Polish and Western journalists and historians who then had no reason to disbelieve them, and few means of verifying them.23 Notably, the only two comprehensive studies of the ZZW, those by Chaim Lazar24 and Marian Apfelbaum,25 heavily rely on testimony of Iwanski and the KB group. Their accounts are also cited in the few other books and articles on the uprising that give extensive coverage to the ZZW.26
Thanks to this coverage, over the years Iwanski’s story especially garnered considerable sympathy in Jewish circles, and the American journalist Dan Kurzman even contacted Prime Minister Menachem Begin about the need to aid this “heroic Pole” who lived in modest circumstances.27 Behind the scenes, however, already in the 1970s the Claims Conference advised Yad Vashem that in 1968 it had cut off aid payments to Iwanski; the representative of the Joint Distribution Committee in Geneva had advised them that Iwanski was engaging in anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda on radio and television.28 It also turns out that Iwanksi met with Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna and then relayed information on him to his handlers, who used the tips to “unmask the espionage activities” of the celebrated Nazi-hunter. Iwanski also served as an informant on happenings at the Jewish Historical Institute.29
The Polish testimonies on the ZZW still await further elucidation. However, their provenance and the many inconsistencies that appear in them, already cast great doubt on their credibility.30 Nevertheless, in the new millennium the KB cause found a prolific advocate in the person of Maciej Kledzik. A journalist and historian, he wrote on the ZZW in the conservative Warsaw daily Rzezpospolita, heavily relying on the testimony of Iwanski, Bednarczyk, and others. He called for a revision of the existing narrative of the ghetto uprising to give greater emphasis to the ZZW and especially its purported ties with the KB.31
A Blank Spot in History
According to the Polish-born, German Jewish historian Arno Lustiger, who cannot be suspected of partisan political considerations:
After 1945, many books, documents, films, and radio broadcasts about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto were produced and published. In nearly all publications only one resistance organization is portrayed with glory and precision – the [ZOB]. Whoever knows the enormous body of literature does not realize that another fighting organization existed in the Warsaw Ghetto – the [ZZW]. Until the present day, few historians have treated it in their research. Also in Israel, almost all the institutes and archives that deal with the Holocaust and the resistance ignore it. The reason for this blank passage in the history books is ideological in nature.32
Certainly there is a degree of truth in that contention, which gained wide credence in Revisionist circles. Most scholars, however, have refused to wholeheartedly endorse it. At least for the first decades after the war, the Israeli political and social ambience was largely determined by those who were ideologically closer to the ZOB than the ZZW. Undoubtedly, the ruling Labor movement used its control over national institutions to promote the story of those with whom it sympathized.
Nevertheless, despite their occasional and heartfelt expressions of bitterness, the leaders of the Revisionist movement hardly strove to rectify this situation. Whereas the ZOB veterans were the subject of intensive interviews and public glorification, the Revisionists made little effort to tell the story of ZZW. Instead they were struggling to secure the place of their own underground movement, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, in the story of resistance to British rule in Palestine. Survivors of the ZZW have complained that even their own party leaders demonstrated little interest in their role in the ghetto uprising.33 In contrast, Kibbutz Lohamei haGettaot, which was established by Zuckerman, Lubetkin, and their comrades, recorded the testimony of ZOB survivors.
In some respects, in popularizing their account, the ZOB fighters had another advantage – a significant head start. In Palestine, immediately after the war, the movements from which the ZOB arose could operate legally and were free to conduct their research and publicistic activities. Much of the Revisionist movement was operated underground and most of its leaders were in hiding. With the establishment of the state of Israel, those who could tell the story did not have the resources to do so. Most of the ZZW survivors did not go into politics, and certainly did not engage in historical writing and research; none of them had the stature of Lubetkin or Zuckerman. As a result, their story remained largely untold. Not until twenty years after the uprising, when the narrative had already been embedded in public consciousness, did the earliest book-length memoir from a ZZW perspective appear.34
Why were the Israeli heirs to the Revisionist legacy so lax in creating their own chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, even after they won political power in 1977? One possible reason was that Begin, who before the war was leader of the Revisionist youth movement Betar, did not himself participate in the struggle in Poland. Along with other Revisionist activists, he left Warsaw at the outbreak of the war and sought safety in the east, fleeing the advancing German forces in the hope of ultimately reaching Palestine. Begin wound up, however, in Vilna, where he was arrested by the Soviets after they occupied Lithuania. His correspondence indicates that he was plagued by guilt for leaving Warsaw and not returning there as did the leaders of other youth movements.35 Hence, he may not have been especially eager to draw attention to the heroism of his party comrades who remained behind.
The results of this neglect, whether deliberate or inadvertent, are not far to seek. When the first integrative works on the Final Solution appeared, they naturally relied mainly on earlier published and unpublished accounts of the ghetto uprising, including interviews or correspondence of people identified as leaders of the revolt. This, inadvertently, also reinforced the early survivor accounts and even granted them the status of historical canon.
For example, among the general works on the destruction of European Jewry, Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War against the Jews was considered one of the most outstanding in its time, the 1970s. Describing political life in German-occupied Poland, she wrote:
the two great parties of prewar Polish Jewry, the Aguda and the General Zionists, as well as small parties like the Mizrachi, Folkists, and Revisionists, disintegrated as political entities…. Only the left-wing parties and the socialist Zionist youth movements succeeded in maintaining their primary political character and on transforming their prewar apparatus – or its remnants – into functioning underground organizations.36
This, of course, precluded the possibility of any serious efforts by the Revisionists to engage in significant underground activity. Regarding the ZZW, Dawidowicz maintained:
Negotiations were conducted also with the Revisionists who agreed to join both the ZKN [Jewish National Committee, the political arm of the ZOB] and ZOB, though their membership was short-lived. They failed to maintain security among their members, and a more serious charge leveled against them was their unilateral contacts with right-wing Polish military groups outside the ghetto. They refused to share the weapons they had obtained and tried to bully their way to ZOB leadership. They later formed their own organization, [the ZZW].37
Dawidowicz attributed her information to: “Yitzhak Zuckerman in a 5-page typed Yiddish letter, December 31, 1972, in response to a series of questions I put to him about the organization of, and political relationship within, ZOB.”38 The fact that a scholar such as Dawidowicz did not feel it necessary to investigate the issue any further, and was willing to rely on Zuckerman without question, indicates the extent to which the prevailing view was entrenched. Indeed, the surviving ZOB fighters who engaged in public activity in Israel, in particular Zuckerman and Lubetkin, were put on a pedestal and in most circles their reliability was considered beyond question.
In Dawidowicz’s account of the uprising itself, she writes that: “ZOB fighters remained exultant, their morale high. On one roof they flew the red-and-white Polish flag alongside the Jewish blue-and-white banner.”39 Yet, in his own memoirs published after the appearance of Dawidowicz’s opus, Zuckerman averred: “anyone who tries to attribute the flags to the ZOB is distorting them and history.”40
Dawidowicz’s work, however, was by no means an exception. In her book The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry 1932-1945, Leni Yahil entrusted Israel Gutman with researching and writing a chapter titled “The Armed Struggle of the Jews in Nazi-Occupied Countries.”41 The chapter mentions the ZZW in a few sentences. The impression is that the ZZW was but a marginal group of disaffected Jews with Revisionist sympathies who played an insignificant role in the uprising. In Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust,42 one of the most popular general histories of the Shoah in part because of its author’s use of individual accounts, the ZZW does not even get a mention in a long, vivid chapter called “Warsaw, April 1943: Hopeless Days of Revolt.” Gilbert’s notes include not a single source that would provide any information on the Revisionists’ activities.
There are, to be sure, notable exceptions. In his three-volume work The Destruction of European Jewry, Raul Hillberg wrote:
Not all the parties veered to a resistance policy with the same speed. The movement began in two extreme camps that had no contact with each other: the Moscow-dominated Communists (PPR) and the self-reliant nationalists (Revisionist party). From there the idea spread to the Zionist youth groups (Hechalutz), the socialist trade unionists (Bund) and the Left-Labor Zionists (Poalei Zion).43
The notion that the ZZW could have been in existence before the ZOB has been anathema to those associated with the ZOB, and also to most historians who refute the contention by quoting Wdowinski. Hilberg, of course, remains something of an iconoclast in the field and his distinguished writings have had less impact on the popular narrative.
Thus, the student who attempts to delve into the history of the ZZW faces a real dearth of literature. What he does find is the study by Chaim Lazar, who was ably aided by his wife Chaja. In the early 1960s, in an attempt to reconstruct the story of the ZZW, Chaja Lazar traveled to Poland. There, she culled Polish archives for material and interviewed survivors of the Polish underground who were credited with aiding the movement. She held lengthy discussions with Kalman Mendelsohn-Majdanwski, purported to be the only surviving ZZW commander. But Chaim Lazar’s work, sponsored as it was by the Jabotinsky Institute and not Yad Vashem or Lohamei HaGettaot, and which was also an impassioned J’Accuse against the Zionist establishment that he believed had attempted to obscure the ZZW’s role, was not taken seriously and is rarely cited by scholars. If anything, Lazar was considered, at least by his detractors, as a partisan dabbler in history.44
Forty years after the appearance of Lazar’s work, Marian Apfelbaum, author of a recently published monograph on the ZZW that relies heavily on Polish sources, repeated Lazar’s charge. A Polish-born Paris physician who was related to Dawid Apfelbaum, a figure whose precise role in the ZZW remains unclear, Marian Apfelbaum devotes an entire chapter to “Lies and Their Reasons” in which he writes of a deliberate attempt to excise the ZZW from the history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.45 The very fact that this book, whatever its flaws, was later published in Hebrew translation with the imprimatur of Yad Vashem indicates a new openness to the ZZW.
Lazar and Apfelbaum’s view found an eloquent and perseverant advocate in the person of Moshe Arens, Israel’s former defense and foreign minister and an outstanding figure in the Revisionist Movement. Retired from aeronautics and politics, Arens has sought to expose what he considers a flagrant act of injustice and has publicly lobbied for a belated recognition of the ZZW’s role. He prevailed upon President Moshe Katzav to mention the ZZW along with the ZOB at the sixtieth annual commemoration of the uprising. Arens has also been a driving force behind efforts to create a monument to the ZZW on the site of Muranowska Square in Warsaw. He publicly castigated those responsible for the existing historiography and in an attempt to correct the historical record, he also conducted his own research on the ZZW. His findings, which take an uncritical view of the KB testimony, were published in leading scholarly journals.46
Where, then, does the truth lie? How can we characterize the evolution of the historiography of the ZZW? The question defies a simple answer. No doubt, the ZZW has received scant attention, but to claim that it has been written out of the narrative entirely is an exaggeration. There is no denying that, to the extent that it is mentioned at all, the Revisionist underground generally appears as a poor relation of the ZOB. Political considerations have clearly shaped the narrative that emerged, to the detriment of the ZZW. But the Revisionist underground has also suffered from the fact that the documentation is indeed sparse, and what does exist is of questionable value. Moreover, the fact that a charlatan such as Bednarczyk arose to champion the ZZW, instead of serious scholars, did not add to its luster.
In assessing the work of a journalist who wrote on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Lucy Dawidowicz declared: “In writing history, uncritical transmission of sources is a major methodological flaw – a journalist, not a historian – accepts all accounts and discrepant versions of incidents, absorbing everything into history, with scarcely a hint that some sources are politically motivated or personally self-serving, that some have long been in dispute and that others have never been corroborated.”47
Overcoming that flaw is the task that awaits those who attempt to chronicle the story of the ZZW and its evolution. Ultimately, only a thorough deconstruction of the existing documentation on the ZZW will pave the way for a new and unambiguous narrative, one that will determine the group’s place in history – and, eventually, in collective memory.
1. Simha “Kazik” Rotem, Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: The Past Within Me (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. xi.
2. A notable exception was the Revisonist leader Dawid Wdowinski, who wrote in his memoirs And We Are Not Saved (New York: Philosophical Library, 1963):
If in the course of this story I write only of the Irgun Zwai Leumi [i.e., the ZZW], which consisted basically of the Betarim, the Revisionist youth, it is because I knew this organization best and it is closest to my heart. But I must emphatically stress that the other organization [i.e., the ZOB] was no less honest and no less heroic, as was proven later during the revolt. It deserves the same recognition and the same respect as my organization. (p. 79)
The Hebrew name of the ZZW was actually the Irgun Zwai Yehudi, but Wdowinski chose to use the name of the Revisonist underground in Palestine, the Irgun Zwai Leumi.
3. M. Neustadt, The Warsaw Ghetto Rising (as Told by the Insurgents) (Tel Aviv: World Union Poale Zion-Hitachduth, 1945), pp. 4-6. This booklet was translated from a survey appearing in Hebrew in the Davar Yearbook for 5704 (1944-1945).
4. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
5. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
6. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
7. Ibid., pp. 26-7. Significantly, Simha Rotem wrote of his meeting with Neustadt: “My meeting with Melech Neustadt, one of the first people I met here [in Palestine], concerned the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. I was interrogated about everyone who had been killed, but I was never asked, even remotely, about those who had survived” (Memoirs, p. 152).
8. See, e.g., Jozef Kermisz, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim (19 kwietnia-16 maja 1943 r. ) (Lodz: Centralna Zydowska Komisja Historyczna w Polsce, 1946) (Polish). One of the first books in.English about the uprising, No Traveler Returns, was written by Henry Shoskes and edited by Curt Riess, who was close to Revisionist circles (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1945). However, in that volume only the story of the ZOB appears.
9. For example, in “The Last Days of the Warsaw Ghetto,” published in Commentary in May 1947, Lubetkin presented her account of the revolt. The editor of the magazine wrote: “So far as we know, Zviah Lubetkin’s is the only first-hand account extant of the aftermath as well as the actual events of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.”
10. Israel Gutman, ed., The Historiography of the Holocaust Period (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem: 1988), pp. 656-57.
11. See The Report of Jürgen Stroop Concerning the Uprising in the Ghetto of Warsaw and the Liquidation of the Jewish Residential Area, ed. B. Mark (Warsaw: Jewish Historical Institute, 1958).
12. In an account written by Stroop while in American captivity in Wiesbaden, before his extradition to Poland, he described some of the ghetto insurgents thus: “These people had organized themselves into what was called a pioneer movement which I believe was called Betar” (Jabotinsky Institute Archives, K7Z-20).
13. Emmanuel Ringelblum, “Michtavim mi-HaGetto: Pirsoom HaRishon,” Yalkut Moreshet, No. 75 (April 2003): p. 83 (Hebrew).
14. Emanuel Ringelblum, Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War, eds. Joseph Kermish and Shmuel Krakoski (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1974), pp. 169-70.
15. Gutman, Historiography, p. 666.
17. See, e.g., Jack Eisner, The Survivor (New York: William Morrow, 1980); Maurice Shainberg, Breaking from the KGB: Warsaw Ghetto Fighter…Intelligence Officer…Defector to the West (New York: Shapolsky, 1986). A seemingly more credible account is offered by David Landau in Caged (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 1999). But this book also shows evidence of being written under the influence of other published accounts, particularly the work of Chaim Lazar.
18. See, e.g., the interview with Marek Edelman in Anka Grupinska, Ciagle po kole: Rozmowy z zolnierzami getta warszawskiego (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Ksiazkowe Twoj Styl, 2000), pp. 17-37 (Polish).
19. See B. Mark, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim (Moscow: Zwiazek Patriotow Polskich w ZSRR, 1944) (Polish), Powstanie na tle ruchu oporu w Polsce, geneza i przebieg, 1st ed. (Warsaw: Zydowski Instytut Historyczny 1953), 2nd ed. (1954) (Polish), Walka i zaglada warszawskiego getta (Warsaw: MON, 1959) (Polish), Powstanie w getcie warszawskim (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Idisz Buch, 1963) (Polish).
20. Henry Kamm, “Israel Honors 12 Polish Heroes for Aid to Jews during the War,” New York Times, 4 November 1966. Significantly, almost the entire article is devoted to the story of Iwanski and his wife. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who was also honored at the same ceremony, receives only a sparing mention.
21. See, e.g., Zbigniew Damski, “Nikt nie chial przeciez umierac,” Zolnierz Wolnosci (1968), Nos. 116, 122 (Polish); H. Iwanski, “Czy mozna bylo ratowac ludzi…? Mowi major ‘Bystry,'” Kultura (1968), No. 16 (Polish); Wladyslaw Zarski-Zajdler, “Pomoc walczacym,” Za wolnosc i lud (1968), No. 8 (Polish); Kalman Mendelson, “Ci ktorzy byli z nami…” Argumenty (1973), No. 15 (Polish); Tadeusz Bednarczyk “Getto warszawskie i ludzie jakimi ich znalem: Powstanie,” Rzeczywistosc (1983), Nos. 12, 13 (Polish); Adam Hempel, “Za wspolna ojczyzne,” Perspektywy (1983), No. 15. Even the more reputable newspapers and journals such as the highly regarded independent Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny and the journal Wiez devoted, on occasion, attention to the ZZW as seen through the eyes of those who claimed to be its patrons.
22. See, e.g., Tadeusz Bednarczyk, Zycie codzienne warszawskiego getta (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Ojczyzna, 1995) (Polish); Obowiazek silniejszy od smierci, 2nd ed. (Warsaw: Spoleczno Wydawnictwo “Grunwald,” 1986) (Polish). Significantly, the publishers of both these books were well known for disseminating anti-Jewish views.
23. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski was a hero of the Zegota, an AK unit created jointly by Jews and Poles whose mission was rescuing Jews. Together with Zofia Lewin he compiled a major account of rescue efforts on behalf of Jews, and he was a leading opponent of the Communist regime. Bartoszewski did not question the veracity of Iwanski and his comrades’ account. See “O Henryku Iwanski i jego grupie,” Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej: Polacy z pomoca Zydom 1939-1945(Krakow: Znak, 1969) (Polish). Nahman Blumental, onetime head of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, wrote:
One of the most mysterious figures during the period of the holocaust and the uprising, having perhaps a decisive influence on the development of the Z.Z.W. was Henryk Ivanski, an officer in the Polish army before the war to whom Chaim Lazar devotes much space in his book, although in my opinion, not as much as he deserves. This courageous underground fighter, truly one of the Righteous among the Gentiles, who more than once endangered his life in the rescue of Jews, was in the habit of visiting my home in Warsaw during the first years after the war, and reminiscing of his assistance to the Jews, of the tunnel dug under Muranowska Street, etc. I used to listen attentively to what he said, sometimes doubting the veracity of his stories. It appeared strange that I did not know how to accept this man and his reminiscences, He used to quote passages from the New Testament, that he used to carry under his arm, pointing to the rebirth of Israel, which would herald a new period for humanity as a whole. He was an adherent of the sect known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Swiadkowie Jehowy); if I’m not mistaken, he was the priest and preacher of the sect.
Nachman Blumental, “New Books on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” Yad Vashem Bulletin, No. 16, February 1965, p. 36.
24. Chaim Lazar-Litai, Muranowska 7: The Warsaw Ghetto Rising (Tel Aviv: Massada P.E.C. Press, 1966), first published in Hebrew as Metzada shel Varsha: Ha-Irgun Ha-Tzavai ba’Mered b’Getto Varsha (Tel Aviv: Machon Jabotinsky, 1963).
25. Marian Apfelbaum, Retour sur le Ghetto de Varsovie (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 2000) (French).
26. See, e.g., Dan Kurzman, The Bravest Battle (New York: Putnam, 1976); Reuben Ainsztein, The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt (New York: Holocaust Library, 1979).
27. Telephone convesration with Dan Kurzman, March 2004.
28. Yad Vashem Archives, Department for the Righteous among the Nations, dossier on Henryk Iwanski, letter from A. J. Sherman, secretary, to Vera Prausnitz, head of the Department for the Righteous, Yad Vashem, 18 July 1977.
29. Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (AIPN), 01224/993, microfilm 11922/2.
30. In the case of Iwanski, for example, those inconsistencies extend to whether he lost a brother, a son, two sons, or no relations at all in the ghetto uprising. Especially skeptical of the Iwanski group’s claims was Yitzhak Zuckerman. See A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 410-12, 415.
31. “Apfelbaum w cieniu Anielewicza,” 12 October 2002; “Zapomniani zolnierze,” 12 June 2004 and “Bialo-czewona opaska z gwiazda Dawida,” 12/13 March 2005.
32. Arno Lustiger, Zum Kampf auf Leben und Tod! Das Buch vom Widerstand der Juden 1933-1945 (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1994), p. 103 (German). In describing the ZZW Lustiger also cites the testimony of Iwanski.
33. See, e.g., recorded testimony by Ziuta Hartman and Emilia Kossower Rosenzweig in the Jabotinsky Institute archives. Historian Roni Stauber has confirmed that assessment. See Roni Stauber, Ha-Lekah l’Dor:Shoa v’Gvurah b’Makshava Tziburit b’Aretz b’Shnot Ha-Chamishim (Jerusalem: Itzhak Ben-Zvi Institute and Ben-Gurion University, 2000), p. 107 (Hebrew).
34. Wdowinski, And We Are Not Saved. The most relevant part of Wdowinski’s account first appeared in June 1946 in the New York Revisionist publication The Answer and is quoted in Philip Friedman’s Martyrs and Fighters (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954). Another survivor, Adam Heilprin, penned a booklet titled The Truth about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt that was published by the World Betar Executive in Tel Aviv in 1946, but this, of course, had little impact on the evolution of the narrative outside Revisionist circles.
35. This question was explored by, among others, Amos Perlmutter in The Life and Times of Menachem Begin (New York: Doubleday, 1987) and Moshe Arens (see n. 46).
36. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews 1933-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1975), pp. 262-63.
37. Ibid., pp. 316-17. Notably, Dawidowcz’s other references to the Revisionist movement are disparaging. She charged, for example that: “The only Jewish political party from which a sizeable proportion of police was drawn was the Zionist Revisionists, perhaps because they put a high value on military training and militarism. For the most part, the left-wing parties interdicted their members from joining the police” (p. 234).
38. Ibid, p. 431.
39. Ibid, pp. 337-38.
40. Zuckerman, Surplus of Memory, p. 412. Earlier in the book he wrote: “there is the story of the waving of flags. That was something the Revisionists did on Muranowska. I don’t know if they had two flags there. There was a blue-and-white flag. Maybe they also hung out the Polish flag. There certainly wasn’t a red flag there” (p. 370). Kermisz in Powstanie w getcie warszawskim also attributes the raising of the flags to the ZOB.
41. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
42. (New York: Henry Holt, 1985).
43. (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), pp. 499-500.
44. Interestingly, in a review in Yad Vashem Bulletin historian Nachman Blumental examined Lazar’s book and compared it with Israel Gutman’s The Revolt of the Besieged: Mordechai Anielewicz and the Fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Blumental noted:
The authors endeavor to base their works scientifically by incorporating documentary material, testimonies, etc. Both authors have chosen from among the whole complex of problems connected with this subject, the one nearest to their heart, namely, the role played in the revolt by the party to which each of them belonged during the period of the holocaust, and in which they are active to the present day: Chaim Lazar in the Revisionist Party and Israel Gutman in “Hashomer Hatzair.”
But as Blumental pointed out: “We are not dealing here with research workers, treating certain problems sine ira et studio, with objectivity, calm and equanimity. The two authors regard their respective parties as the embodiment of all their ideals – personal, national, and human.” Blumental, “New Books,” p. 36.
45. Apfelbaum, Retour.
46. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprisng: A Reappraisal,” Yad Vashem Studies, No. 32 (2005); “The Jewish Military Organization (ZZW) in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2005). In an interview, Arens asserted that he is today perhaps the most knowledgeable authority on what actually happened in the ghetto uprising. See Yossi Achimeir, “Ha-Hoker Moshe Arens: Betar Haya Ha-Gorem Ha-Merkazi b’Mered b’Getto Varsha” (interview with Moshe Arens by Yossi Achimeir), Hadashot HaMachon, No. 30 (March 2005), p. 6 (Hebrew).
47. Lucy Dawidowicz, “The Bravest Battle,” New York Times, 28 November 1976.
DR. DARIUSZ LIBIONKA is a historian associated with the Institute of National Remembrance in Lublin and the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
DR. LAURENCE WEINBAUM is director of research at the Institute of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem and an adjunct lecturer in history at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel. Drs. Libionka and Weinbaum are together writing a book on the ZZW. Their research is supported by the Museum of Combatants and Partisans in Tel Aviv.