Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy, Opisywacze, Wokol Żydowskiego Związku Wojskowego (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zaglada Żydów, 2011) 635 pp.
One can only hope that this book, published in Polish, will soon appear in English so as to make it available to a much wider audience throughout the world. In English its title might be rendered as ‘Heroes, Imposters and Chroniclers in the Story of the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW)’. The focus of this work is not just on the participation of the Zionist Revisionists (and their youth wing Betar) in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943 but also on the convoluted way it went down in history. The Revisionists, of course, were strongly influenced by their charismatic Russian-born leader, Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, who pioneered the idea of Jewish self-defense, but who died in New York in 1940—before the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was obviously one of the most important events in Jewish history. As long as Jews cherish the memory of Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, ands as long as Jews remembers Masada, they will honor the heroes and martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto. Their unequal struggle against Hitler’s murderers was the foremost act of Jewish resistance in the Second World War. It was certainly one of the great milestones of the Shoah.
Historians Libionka (a Pole) and Weinbaum (an Israeli), carried out their project with a formidable scholarly and critical examination of a wide variety of sources: archival documents, accounts, and testimonies that they ferreted out in Israel, Poland and elsewhere, some of them hitherto unknown. They also interviewed the last survivors of that underground organization. In so doing, they challenged politically motivated denigrations of the ŻZWand its role in the uprising. They have also thoroughly deconstructed various self-serving, and often appalling, misrepresentations on the part of a number of Poles and Jews (these account for the "Imposters" in the book’s title and story and are the subject of a chapter called ‘Apocrypha’). The authors, recipients of a grant from the Jabotinsky Institute—which is to be praised for supporting such research—have also meticulously evaluated the works of others who have written on the subject, most notably, Moshe Arens, August Grabski, Maciej Wójcicki, Marian Apfelbaum and the late Bernard Mark and Chaim Lazar. Given the places and events it examines, this book is not merely interesting. It makes for highly absorbing, and undoubtedly, for many, including this reviewer, emotionally charged, reading.
After all, to revisit the struggles waged by Jews on such now famous streets as Miła, Gęsia, Nalewki, Franciszkanska and Muranowska is a national analogue to Corregidor, Mamayev Kurgan, and the Red October Factory. There are many details here of how young Jewish fighters, ardent Zionists and others, fought and died in the critical hours and days of their doomed defense of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the book’s pages, one encounters personages ultimately vanished in the flames and later better remembered under their wartime aliases than their real names: people like ‘Rudy Paweł’ [Red-haired Paul] or ‘Czarny Julek’ [Black Julian], ‘Jurek’ or ‘Kazik.’ Some, who actually survived the ghetto, were relegated to relative obscurity. One particularly vexing example is that of Ruben Feldschuh (Ben-Szem), an extraordinary eyewitness who left vast writings but was shut out of the Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat activities and never entered the mainstream historiography (pp. 267-280, 388-390).
Here one finds descriptions of how the Jewish resistance fighter acquired their weapons, how they prepared for the fight and anticipated death. One learns how they sought escape through underground tunnels and ruins, as their manpower, ammunition, space, and time steadily diminished. The action around Murnanowski Square at the beginning of the uprising, with Revisionist fighters flying both Polish and Jewish flags, (white and red but also blue and white) from the roof of a fortified building, gives the reader a sense of seeing and hearing the events just as they unfolded.
The authors take note of Menachem Begin’s role as leader of Betar in Poland beginning in early 1939 and his controversial decision to leave Warsaw for Vilna. The Russians imprisoned Begin and he only reached Palestine by joining the Polish army led by GeneralWładysław Andersin the Soviet Union (pp. 253-262). Begin’s absence from Warsaw, together with that of other prominent Revisionists, was to create a leadership void within the Betar organization in the first few months of the war (pp. 249-285). The principal leader of the ŻZWwho emerged during the critical period of German deportations of Jews and eventual destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto was PawełFrenkel.
Frenkel was, according to the evidence gathered by Libionka and Weinbaum, a relatively young man of outstanding intellect and character. Yet, his name is still relatively unknown, certainly compared to that of Mordecai Anielewicz. According to the authors, he was killed in a fire fight with the Germans in a bunker where he and several of his colleagues had been hiding after the destruction of the ghetto.
Libionka and Weinbaum hasten to explain that they ‘do not know the date and place of [Frenkel’s] birth, the community from which he emerged, or the schools in which he studied. No document verifying his existence has ever been found, nor any photograph, and we cannot identify him in photographs which are known… We are not even sure that Pawełwas his real name (rare even among assimilated Jews ….) rather than a pseudonym.’ But many ŻZW activists, among them David Wdowinski and Perec Laskier, saw Frenkel as a great hero and a gifted young leader. According to Laskier, he was only a little over twenty in 1941-1942 (p. 332-333). On the other hand, Libionka and Weinbaum prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Mieczysław Apfelbaum, whose name appears in numerous history books as (or even the) commander of the ŻZW—and for whom a square has been named in Warsaw—was an artificial construct who never existed.
As in all fine books, one can learn from the authors both in terms of the larger picture—the big theme of the story—and also in terms of related issues that are explored in a more subsidiary way. In terms of the larger picture, the authors point out that in Cold War Poland, i.e. before 1989, there was a tendency to denigrate the role of Zionists. Beginning (at least) with Stalin in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Communists viewed ‘Zionism’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ as two Jewish ‘diseases.’ In Israel, too, domestic politics, and especially Labour’s dominant position in society, played a role in the denigration of the historic role of ŻZWin Warsaw, as compared with the more leftist and larger ŻOB, the Jewish Fighting Organization, led by Mordechai Anielewicz. The relationships of power in both post-war Poland and in Israel had an impact on what was published and what was emphasized with respect to the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In addition, the truth of ‘what really happened in the Warsaw Ghetto’ was to some extent distorted by stories of people who, likeHenryk Iwański, who shamelessly sought (and often succeeded in gaining) for themselves glory that they most certainly did not deserve (see pp. 103-105 especially).
Libionka and Weinbaum connect the symbolic act of Jews displaying both Polish and Jewish flags at the Muranowska Street building at the beginning of the Ghetto revolt to a larger and potentially very important matter: ‘The Jews, harking back to the Polish tradition of romanticism and Polish patriotism, expected solidarity from the Polish side, and if not actual help then at least sympathy and understanding. To this appeal, they did not receive an answer’ (p. 491).
Although there were, of course, occasionally helpful and even heroic responses of individual Polish figures, there was no perceptible, positive mass response from the surrounding larger Polish community toward the Ghetto Uprising. Underground newspapers of the traditionally antisemitic, and historically numerous Polish nationalists maintained an openly unsympathetic attitude. One nationalist writer, Franciszek Wyszyński, opined in one of the clandestine publications that the accumulation of seemingly ‘so much weaponry’ in the hands of Ghetto Jews probably indicated an intention on their part of seizing some opportune moment to introduce a Communist order in Poland. Another right-wing publication concluded that what was happening to Warsaw’s Jews (their destruction) was simply ‘historic justice.’ Communist sources, including Radio Moscow, actually did not even report a Jewish flag appearing over the Ghetto. However, the Polish Socialist Party organ Robotnik did provide a full and sympathetic account. (pp. 484-489).
Especially important for any possible large scale assistance to the Ghetto fighters was the attitude of the underground movement, especially the so-called Armja Krajowa [Home Army] under the control of the Polish Government-in Exile stationed in London. According to sources examined by the authors, the leadership of the mainstream Polish underground, was, alas, also concerned, at least to some extent, about the potential damage in strengthening the influence of Communists in Poland by supporting, or reinforcing, Jewish resistance efforts (p. 485).
One can only add here that from the leaders of the Allied nations, and especially from the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain (whose ability to influence the posture of the Polish Government and its military arm in Poland was transparently considerable) not a word was forthcoming—not a word at the time and never a word after the fact, that is, after the collapse of Jewish Warsaw resistance in mid-May 1943. Unfortunately, this message—the meaning conveyed by what amounted to a studious silence about the tragic fate of the Jews—by the Allied leaders was bound to have a chilling effect on any Polish disposition, however hesitant, to assist Jews in any substantial way. Harsh as it may seem, logic alone suggested that the Allied silence implied either approval of what the Nazis were doing, or, at the least, indifference. The mass murders in Warsaw did not seem to matter to the Allies.
The reader may reflect on the fact that Allied attitudes were very different toward the Polish Uprising in Warsaw fifteen months later, in August-September 1944. One of the ways in which the Allies helped Polish freedom fighters in September 1944—something that did not involve the expenditure of a single dollar or the sacrifice of a single airman’s life—was Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s declaration in the House of Commons that the Allies expected all surrendering Polish freedom fighters to be treated as regular prisoners of war; an unmistakable warning to the Nazis (See Stanisław Mikołajczyk’s 1948 bookThe Rape of Poland, p. 90). Ironically, one of the lives thus saved was that of the Commander, General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, who in his book Armja Podziemna published in Britain in 1950 observed that the Allies never really demonstrated any interest in periodic Polish reports forwarded to London and New York about the suffering of the Jews in Poland (p. 100). In 1943, was the British Cabinet much too busy to think of people like PawełFrenkel, Mordechai Anielewicz, their young comrades, and all the other Jews still left alive in the Warsaw Ghetto?
A brief review can hardly do justice to this very substantial, analytically sophisticated, and masterfully written volume by Libionka and Weinbaum. That it is an absolutely indispensable addition to the library of anyone seriously interested in the most dramatic act of Jewish resistance in World War II, or the Holocaust as a whole, is a matter quite beyond dispute.
Alexander J. Groth, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of California, Davis