JERUSALEM — The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was one of the turning points of World War II.
It was the first armed revolt by European civilians subjected to the brutality of Nazi Germany’s occupation. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler feared that it would generate more uprisings elsewhere in his previously obedient domain. Because of the courage and determination of the outnumbered, poorly equipped Jewish fighters, there was indeed a subsequent uprising by non-Jewish Poles outside the destroyed ghetto.
There also were revolts in other occupied countries, but not on the same scale as those that occurred in Warsaw.
Himmler wanted the ghetto revolt to be crushed by April 20, 1943 — a day after it had gone into high gear — but his forces were unable to suppress it until May 16.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens has just come out with the English edition of his excellent book, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto” in which he points out that actually there were two Jewish fighting organizations — the ZOB and the ZZW. The former initials stand for Zydowska Oganizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization) and the latter, Zydowskie Zwiazek Wojskowi (Jewish Military Organization).
They failed to unite despite months of fruitless negotiation. Their inability to overcome ideological and political differences exacted a heavy price. Most of the ghetto’s Jewish population, which had exceeded 300,000 when it was established shortly after the German conquest of Poland in 1939, had been deported to Treblinka or executed individually or en masse by the contending parties. The ZOB and ZZW resigned themselves to waging separate (though parallel and sometimes coordinated) campaigns.
Barely 70,000 remained in the ghetto by early 1943, when the first armed operations took place. However, by April 19, the anti-Nazi resistance had assumed significant proportions — so much so that Himmler’s desire that it be crushed by April 20 (Adolf Hitler’s birthday) proved impossible to realize. The fighting persisted until May 16. The Nazis had to deploy artillery, armored cars and hundreds of soldiers to defeat the Jewish rebels, whose arsenal was limited to a relatively small array of pistols and homemade grenades and mines. Most of this equipment was either stolen from the Nazi forces or smuggled into the ghetto by couriers who maintained contact with the Polish underground outside its perimeter. In any case, there were very few rifles and machine guns in Jewish hands.
Arens stresses that because of its affiliation with the Zionist Revisionist movement and its offspring in Palestine, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (which was at loggerheads with the Jewish political establishment there headed by the Jewish Agency), the ZZW has not been given the credit it deserves for resisting the Nazis. In contrast, he points out that the ZOB, which was comprised mainly of Socialist-Zionists and the leftist, non-Zionist Bund, has been hailed since the end of World War II for its heroism.
Its heroic status was emphasized especially and consistently by the Socialist-Zionist Mapai party, which governed Israel almost single-handedly from the Jewish state’s independence in 1948 until 1977, when it was defeated in a national election by the Zionist-Revisionist Likud party.
By the same token, the ZZW’s charismatic commander, Pawel Frenkel, is virtually unknown in Israel, while his ZOB counterpart, Mordechai Anielewicz, is venerated here as one of the outstanding figures of modern Jewish history.
Arens noted in an interview granted on the occasion of the English edition’s publication, that both men were only 23 years old when they led their organizations’ respective operations (ZOB and ZZW) against the SS, the latter under the command of the virulently anti-Semitic Gen. Juergen Stroop. The reason, he said, was that the older Jewish leaders, Zionist and non-Zionist, managed to leave Poland before the mass deportations began.
Among the many heartbreaking aspects of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the opposition of the main Polish underground groups based outside the ghetto walls, the AK (Armia Krajowa) to ZOB and ZZW requests that it wage a simultaneous campaign against the Nazis.
The AK was against the very idea of a revolt by the Jews inside the ghetto.
On April 19, when the uprising went into its final and most violent phase, Frenkel and his ZZW comrades decided to fly the Zionist flag (now the blue and white flag of Israel) from one of the ghetto’s tallest buildings. Arens pinpoints the location at Muranowska 19, a few doors away from ZZW headquarters at Muranowska 7. The next day, they hoisted the red and white Polish flag alongside it. Both could be clearly seen by the ghetto’s population as well as those in the city districts beyond the walls.
This was a source of profound aggravation and dangerous provocation for the Germans, who responded with an all-out effort by Stroop’s SS personnel to bring down the offending flags. But this objective was not accomplished until the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising finally was overcome.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)