Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

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Marci Shore, an associate professor of history at Yale University, has a fascinating Op-Ed in today’s New York Times on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The article uses the uprising to show how official history distorts and elides for political reasons. Shore focues on Marek Edelman who she notes is not fully embraced within Israel because he rejected Zionism:

He is remembered with more ambivalence in Israel. “Israel has a problem with Jews like Edelman,” the Israeli author Etgar Keret told a Polish newspaper in 2009. “He didn’t want to live here. And he never said that he fought in the ghetto so that the state of Israel would come into being.” Not even Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister and an admirer of Edelman, could persuade an Israeli university to grant the uprising hero an honorary degree.

After the war, Yitzhak Zuckerman and Zivia Lubetkin, who had survived with Edelman, founded a kibbutz in Israel in memory of the ghetto fighters. Edelman remained close to them until they died.

Zionism, however, remained unappealing to him. Nor did he fantasize about reviving the diaspora nationalism of the Bund. He believed the history of Jews in Poland was over. There were no more Jews. “It’s sad for Poland,” he told me in 1997, “because a single-nation state is never a good thing.”

Mondoweiss contributor Ethan Heitner sent it along this morning with the note, “They were my heroes growing up, and my path to anti-Zionism was definitely strongly influenced by identifying with the ‘heroes of my people’– those who fought against the extermination and shamed the world for not taking action to prevent the destruction of a people.” Read the whole thing, but here’s an extended excerpt:

The ghetto uprising was even more important to the nascent state of Israel, which sought to monopolize the history as a battle for the new Jewish state. The desire was understandable: for a long time Israelis — like Jews elsewhere — preferred to identify only with that tiny fragment of the Jewish population who fired shots during the Holocaust.

Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day was established in 1953 to mark the anniversary of the uprising. “Some Israeli leaders looked back on the Holocaust with fear and sometimes with shame,” wrote the Yad Vashem historian Israel Gutman. “The only usable past, the only history of that period that they adopted for the image of the future was the heroic chapter of resistance.” The struggle for a Jewish state, Gutman explained, was cast as an extension of the uprising.

IN the Israeli version, the uprising was carried out by Zionists — that is, by “New Jews,” who were vigorous, muscular and productive. The diaspora had produced the pale yeshiva boy bent over his books, who was unable to defend himself, and the Jewish council, who, confronted with Hitler’s Final Solution, could do nothing but continue a long tradition of accommodation and hoping for the best.

By contrast, the New Jew envisioned by the Zionists would be bound to his own land and capable of working it himself. He would overcome the emasculation and degradation of the diaspora. It was this New Jew who could transform a humiliating past into a proud future and redeem a unified Jewish nation.

But there was no unified nation, and the ghetto uprising was not a purely Zionist affair. The Jews who found themselves sealed within the ghetto, like the millions of other Jews living in Eastern Europe, were deeply divided — by language and religiosity and class, by national identification and political ideology. Inside the ghetto were Polish speakers and Yiddish speakers; Orthodox, Hasidic, secular Jews; assimilated Jews and nationalists. The Zionists ranged from radical right to radical left. And most politicized Jews were not Zionists; some were Polish socialists, some Communists, some members of the secular socialist Bund. A debate raged between Zionists and the Bund over the issue of “hereness” versus “thereness” — and the Bund believed firmly that the future of the Jews was here, in Poland, alongside their non-Jewish neighbors.

Today, the teleological deceptions of retrospect make it seem a foregone conclusion that the Zionists would win that debate. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund’s program seemed much more grounded, sensible and realistic: a Jewish workers’ party allied with a larger labor movement, a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish, the language already spoken by most Jews, a future in the place where Jews already lived, alongside people they already knew. The Zionist idea that millions of European Jews would adopt a new language, uproot themselves en masse, and resettle in a Middle Eastern desert amid people about whom they knew nothing was far less realistic.

In 1942, it took time before Bundists and Communists joined Zionists in the creation of the Jewish Combat Organization. They organized themselves into fighting divisions according to political party. Even then, the better-armed Revisionist Zionists — the Zionist far right — remained apart, and fought the Germans separately during the ghetto uprising. The parties had very different ideas about the political future. But the uprising was less about future life than present death.

Edelman, who had survived by escaping through the sewers, was the last living commander of the uprising. After the war, in Communist Poland, he became a cardiologist: “to outwit God,” as he once said. In the 1970s and ’80s he re-emerged in the public sphere as an activist in the anti-Communist opposition, working with the Committee for the Defense of Workers and the Solidarity movement. He died in 2009, and to this day, he is celebrated as a hero in Poland.

He is remembered with more ambivalence in Israel.

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Twenty some years ago on a visit to Poland I met Dr. Marek Edelman. It was at a Jewish museum next to where the main synogogue in Warsaw had been before it was leveled by the Nazi invaders. I don’t remember much of our conversation but he impressed me with his determination to remain in Poland, rather than immigrate elsewhere. Having fought the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto and survived, it seemed to me that… Read more »

I was reflecting earlier, after having heard this:
that it was the kind of story would probably not make the grade for Holocaust Memorial Day reminiscences in Israel either:

I tried to post this on the NYT comments section for Shore article: The author does us a great service by rescuing from an unwarranted oblivion one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century, Marek Edelman. But it was not just Edelman’s “hereness,” that caused his unpopularity in Israel. It was his strong support for the Palestinians. Indeed, in 2002, he published a letter addressed to “the Gaza fighting organizations,” thereby analogizing Hamas to… Read more »

Also caught my eye in the NYT today was this review of what sounds like a very interesting art exhibit exploring themes of Zionism, counterhistory and the fates of Polish Jewry, from Israeli artist Yael Bartana: “The narrative that unfolds among the three videos concerns a kind of reverse Zionism, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, initially a fictive campaign to rebuild the Jewish population of Poland that Ms. Bartana is apparently turning into… Read more »

Why do I find this article more enabling of Zionism than disabling?

Maybe because “anti-Zionism” is mentioned just once and Zionism and the perfect excuse for it is all over the place.