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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.

Adam Horowitz

Adam Horowitz is Executive Editor of

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13 Responses

  1. yourstruly on April 19, 2013, 2:46 pm

    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 he felt it an honor to be among the last of the Polish Jews.

  2. kamanja on April 19, 2013, 3:12 pm

    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:

  3. Binyamin in Orangeburg on April 19, 2013, 6:02 pm

    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 the Warsaw ghetto fighters.

    That didn’t go over well.

    But he was not the only one who saw that the fight against oppression was indivisible. Just this past week, on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, one of the last surviving ghetto fighters, Chavka Folman-Raban (who made aliyah after the war), said: “Rebel against the Occupation. No–it is forbidden for us to rule over another people, to oppress another [people].”

    Of course, they understand full well there are no transports leaving Gaza, and the oppression of the Palestinians can not (yet) be described as genocide. But they understand ghettoization and ethnic cleansing when they see it.

    From the great Anielewicz:
    “Do not forget that the hardest thing in war is the battle within ourselves. Not to become accustomed to the degrading conditions that our enemies force upon us. One who becomes accustomed stops discriminating between good and evil, he becomes a slave both in body and soul to the degrading conditions. Whatever happens to you, remember: Don’t accept, fight against this reality”

    Was he talking about the Palestinians?

    • Xpat on April 20, 2013, 8:08 am

      About 20 years ago, Haaretz did an interview with Marek Edelman. One memorable quote he gave was in answer to the question: how did the leaders of the movements that formed the ZOB (Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto) decide to make Mordecai Anielewicz their leader? Anielewicz was the leader of the Zionist group and, in Israel, he personifies the Jewish uprisings in Warsaw. Since Israel set its national day of Holocaust commemoration on the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw a ghetto uprising, Anielewicz is a key figure in Israel’s memory of the destruction if European Jewry by the Nazis.
      Edelman’s reply was: we put Anielewicz in charge because he really wanted it.

  4. Ethan Heitner on April 19, 2013, 11:16 pm

    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 a reality.

    In “Mary Koszmary (Nightmares),” a youthful leader stands before a microphone in the abandoned National Stadium in Warsaw exhorting an invisible audience to return, build new settlements and plant trees. Upon finishing, he is greeted by a small delegation of children and teenagers, wearing red neckerchiefs, who could be Israeli, German or Soviet.

    In “Mur I weiza (Wall and Tower),” a horde of wholesome-looking young men and women, redolent of 1930s propaganda films, build a ’30s-style kibbutz in a once Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw, complete with watchtower and barbed wire that also conjure concentration camps. From the tower they unfurl a red flag whose motif resembles the German eagle.

    “Zamach (Assassination)” occurs after the assassination of the young leader in the first video: an enormous bust of him worthy of Lenin is dedicated in a city square as hundreds of demonstrators and helmeted police look on. “

    • tree on April 20, 2013, 4:38 am

      Ethan, you might also be interested in this, from Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”, about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 (not to be confused with the Ghetto Uprising in 1943).

      Polish soldiers in uniforms and armbands began their assault on on German positions in the afternoon of 1 August 1944…On this first day of the Warsaw Uprising, the Home Army secured a great deal of the downtown and Old Town of the city, but failed to capture most of the essential military targets. … The inexperienced and lightly armed troops had an especially difficult time with guarded and fortified objectives. Nevertheless, the mood among the fighters and in the city itself was euphoric.

      When and where Polish power replaced German power in those early days of August 1944, surviving Jews emerged from their places of shelter among Poles. Many asked to be allowed to fight. As Michal Zylberberg recalled: ” A Jewish perspective ruled out passivity. Poles had taken up arms against the mortal enemy. Our obligations as victims and fellow citizens was to help them.” Other combatants in the Warsaw Uprising were veterans of the ghetto uprising of 1943. Most of these Jews joined the Home Army, other’s found the People’s Army, or even the anti-Semitic National Armed Forces. Some Jews (or Poles of Jewish origin) were already enlisted in the Home Army and the People’s Army. Almost certainly, more Jews fought in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 than in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1944.

      “Bloodlands”, page 301, or location 5592 in the Kindle Edition.

      This instance of Jews fighting alongside other Poles in Warsaw is never mentioned, even though, as Snyder says, more Jews were involved in this Uprising than in the Ghetto Uprising. It probably doesn’t get any mention because it runs counter to so many Zionist myths.

      • tree on April 20, 2013, 4:50 am

        A further note from Bloodlands:

        In early August, as the Home Army failed to take the important German positions in Warsaw, its soldiers did register one victory. Officers gathered volunteers for a dangerous attack upon a heavily guarded position. On 5 August, Home Army soldiers entered the ruins of the ghetto, attacked Concentration Camp Warsaw, defeated the ninety SS-men who guarded it, and liberated its remaining 348 prisoners, most of them foreign Jews. On of the Home Army soldiers in this operation was Stanislaw Aronson, who had himself been deported from the ghetto to Treblinka. Another recalled a Jew who greeted them with tears on his cheeks; yet another, the plea of a Jew for a weapon and a uniform, so that he could fight. Many of the liberated Jewish slave laborers did join the Home Army, fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with “complete indifference to life or death,” as one Home Army soldier recalled.

        page 302

        Marek Edelman fought in the Warsaw Uprising as well as the Ghetto Uprising.

      • Ethan Heitner on April 20, 2013, 10:05 am

        Fascinating indeed. In the Zionist history I was given growing up, we were always told that with the notable exception of the Vilna partisans, Jews were not welcomed in Polish anti-Nazi partisan units— that in fact they turned over Jews they found to the Nazis, even as they were fighting the Nazis.

    • Citizen on April 20, 2013, 10:19 am

      Another Israeli artist is involved in exploring German myth and archeology, especially as it pertains to the Externsteine site in Germany and the Nazi period obsessions with it and neo-Nazis of Germany today:

      She obviously seeks to understand the connections precisely because she’s Israeli and sees this pervasive mysticism connected to land sites, and lackey archeologists also at work– back home in Israel.

    • piotr on April 20, 2013, 10:24 am

      “Mur I Weiza” should be “Mur i Wieża” (muhr yh vyezha).

  5. kalithea on April 20, 2013, 1:06 am

    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.

  6. yrn on April 20, 2013, 8:49 am

    A large proportion of Polish schoolchildren are openly anti-Semitic, a shocking new survey suggests today.
    The study, carried out at schools across the capital Warsaw, showed more than 60 per cent of those asked would be ‘unhappy’ if they discovered their boyfriend or girlfriend was Jewish.

    Read more:
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

    The number of Jews in Poland on September 1, 1939 amounted to about 3,474,000 people. One hundred thirty thousand soldiers of Jewish descent served in the Polish Army at the outbreak of the Second World War/
    Between 40,000 and 100,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland by hiding or by joining the Polish or Soviet partisan units. Another 50,000–170,000 were repatriated from the Soviet Union and 20,000–40,000 from Germany and other countries. At its postwar peak, there were 180,000–240,000 Jews in Poland mostly in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków, Wrocław and Lower Silesia, e.g., Legnica, Dzierżoniów and Bielawa
    Anti-Jewish riots broke out in several Polish cities and hundreds of Jews were murdered in anti-Jewish violence (see: Anti-Jewish violence in Poland, 1944-1946). The best-known case is the Kielce pogrom of 1946, in which thirty-seven Jews were brutally murdered. Kielce antisemitic riot, amidst the raging civil war in postwar Poland, discouraged many survivors from rebuilding their lives there and convinced them to emigrate.
    3,200 Jews live in Poland today…………………

  7. Citizen on April 20, 2013, 10:12 am

    I dunno. A major point of subject article is that Edleman was not fighting for a Jewish state, never bought into it, and appeared to equate Gaza fighters with Warsaw ghetto fighters?

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