How a Distorted Narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Has Established Itself to this Day

By Moshe Arens


April 24, 2017

In Israel we mark the day dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust as the Holocaust and Heroism Day. In those desperate times many were heroes in the way they faced certain death, like Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, who led the children in his orphanage to the railroad cars that were to transport them to the gas chambers at Treblinka. But in Israel, quite naturally, heroism is associated with the men and women who used weapons resisting the Germans.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising has become the symbol of such resistance, and the date of Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day has been chosen to coincide with the period of that uprising. It began on April 19, 1943, and was the first uprising in the areas of German occupation during World War II. It is an event of great significance not only in Jewish history but also in the history of World War II.

Two organizations, each numbering a few hundred young men and women, dared to face the might of the German army when its troops entered the ghetto that morning – the Jewish Military Organization led by Pawel Frenkel, and the Jewish Fighting Organization led by Mordechai Anielewicz. They are also known by the initials of their Polish names, ZZW and ZOB. They knew they could not defeat the Germans and believed they were facing certain death. They fought for the honor of the Jewish people; they fought for a page in history.

Why were there two organizations and not one? The answer lies in the ideological and political hostility that characterized the politics of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. Projecting the class struggle that characterized much of Europe in the pre-war days onto the Jewish community in Palestine, the socialist Zionist parties saw in Jabotinsky’s adherents enemies of the proletariat, fascists. The allegation that they had been responsible for the murder of the socialist Zionist leader Haim Arlozoroff had also turned them into murderers in the eyes of their opponents. These views were propagated by emissaries who came from Palestine to instruct the socialist Zionist youth groups in Poland. Under the German occupation, years after the emissaries had returned to Palestine, that was still the political education that the members of the socialist Zionist youth groups in the Warsaw ghetto – Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia – continued to receive.

The youth groups were the only organizations to survive the chaos imposed on the Jews in the ghetto by the Germans, and were the basis for preparations for resistance. In forming ZOB the socialist Zionists were prepared to reach out to other “proletarian” groups in the ghetto, but not to those they considered fascists. Thus the adherents of Jabotinsky organized their own fighting organization, ZZW. They were better armed and trained than the fighters of ZOB. They fought the main battle of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in Muranowski Square, where they raised the Zionist and Polish flags as a symbol of resistance to the Germans.

Why are Pawel Frenkel and his comrades left out of the uprising as taught to this day in the schools in Israel, and why are they sidelined in the Yad Vashem museum? Had all traces of their heroic battle disappeared?

On December 14, 1945 in the opening stages of the Nuremberg trials, assistant counsel Maj. William Walsh read from SS Gen. Juergen Stroop’s dispatches to Heinrich Himmler on the fighting in the Warsaw ghetto: “The main Jewish combat group retreated to Muranowski Square and there they raised the Jewish and Polish flags.” It was reported in the Hebrew newspaper Davar that same day. On May 11, 1949, the day Israel was admitted to the UN, as the Israeli flag was raised before the UN building, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett referred to it as “[this blue-and-white flag] that was unfurled above the walls of the Warsaw ghetto in the desperate uprising.”

The facts were there for all to see. But as George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” That is how a distorted narrative of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has established itself to this day.