Autor: Matěj Jungwirth (Beloit College, USA)

Introduction

It is not hyperbolic to claim that the foundation of the modern state of Israel has been supported, solidified, and inflamed by a vast canon of patriotic myths.[1] Among these, three historical events, all of them invariably and inevitably embedded within the context of armed struggle, have been preeminent in the formation of Israel’s national identity, both before and after the formal establishment of the state: the Siege of Masada during the first Jewish-Roman War in the first century AD; the Battle of Tel Hai that occurred in the early phase of the Zionist settlement of Palestine in 1920; and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.  Through a skillful reinterpretation that was sanctified and even led by the Zionist political establishment of the time, this triad has become profoundly resonant and ingrained within the patriotic consciousness of Israelis.

The reshaping of the historical facts to suit the political needs and goals of modern Zionism came with a great cost, for it incurred a significant loss of historic authenticity for the sake of an ideological charge. Historians nowadays contest the notion of the mass suicide of Masada’s defenders.[2] The armed struggle of the early settlers of Tel Hai, although later glorified by the Zionist settlers as the ultimate struggle for the land of Eretz Yisrael,[3] is viewed by scholars rather as a part of a particularly clumsy settlement campaign that was doomed from its very beginning.[4]

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the distortions in the historic reality of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  The reinterpretation of the uprising has two major strands: The recasting of the fight of the Warsaw rebels as a struggle for the remote and yet not established Eretz Yisrael, and the continuous attempts to depict the story of the fighters’ armed resistance as one worth exalting and following as opposed to the darker and incomprehensible destinies of Jews in death camps. The uprising’s survivors’ testimonies, and equally importantly, the popular reaction in Israel, will be discussed in order to unveil the striking level of artifice and political pragmatism behind both modes of reinterpretation of the Warsaw uprising.

2

“It is beautiful and fitting to die for one’s country”[5]

The popular retelling of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has become so effectively entrenched in the common understanding that it is necessary to succinctly summarize the actual historical facts and events. In military terms, the uprising carries a low-key significance. A few hundred poorly armed Jewish rebels, a fraction of the total number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, organized themselves and fought back the Nazi forces that were to deport them to the death camps. The rebels, desperate, starving, and faced with overwhelming German firepower, put up about a month of centrally organized resistance. No tangible goal was achieved through the rebellion; in fact, it actually accelerated the obliteration of the remaining Jews – the Ghetto was annihilated to rubble and its inhabitants either killed directly or deported to Treblinka.

Nevertheless, in non-military terms, the uprising carried a significance that has by far exceeded its feeble military gains. As Idith Zertal observes, this was the single most daring and extensive act of rebellion against the hitherto indomitable German war machine up to that date. [6]  Most importantly, this act of defiance was carried out by those despised and derided most by the Aryan supremacists – by Jews, the “rabble” and “subhumans,” to quote Jürgen Stroop, the chief commander of the suppressing forces.[7]

Given the prominent role that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising played in the general and secular consciousness of those fighting against, or suffering under, the Reich, it should come as no surprise that this act of defiance rose to a paramount role in the nascent Jewish society in Palestine. Nonetheless, that role has been shifted profoundly from the historical facts in order to fulfill the needs of the emerging Jewish nation as perceived by the Zionist political elite with David Ben-Gurion at its fore.

Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel and later its prime minister, himself played a key role in the process of remolding of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At a commemorative event at Tel Hai in early 1943, he claimed that the Warsaw fighters “have learned the lore of the new death decreed to us by the defenders of Tel-Hai and Sejera – heroic death.”[8] This is a crucial utterance, for it partially reveals the directions of reinterpretation that would follow. First, a stark dichotomy is suggested between ‘us,’ the true children of Eretz Yisrael, and ‘them,’ the diaspora Jews. Second, if the rebellion in Warsaw was merely a following of the glorious example of the early Palestine settlers, its fighters’ cause must have been identical with that of Jews in Palestine.

Similarly, mainstream Zionist ideologists strived to create a retroactive impression that the Warsaw Ghetto was just another front of the universal struggle to establish a Jewish state in the land of Palestine: “’We fought here and they fought there,’ said the Palmach[9] commander Yitzhak Sadeh, creating an imaginary equation between “here” and “there.’”[10] Ben-Gurion himself vehemently pushed forward this notion at the General Assembly of the United Nations, claiming that the ghetto fighting and the Jewish struggle for a homeland were, in fact, two sides of one coin. If that had been the case, Zionists in Palestine could effectively “establish an uncontestable link between the fate of European Jewry in the war years, and the right to a Jewish state in Palestine after the war.”[11] And, as Yael Zerubavel observes, the ghetto fighters were not alone on the near-divine and exclusive pedestal of Israeli national heroes:

[T]he ghetto rebels were symbolically separated from the Holocaust and the Exile to serve as a symbolic bridge to modern Israel. Along with Masada and Tel Hai they became part of Israeli’s heroic past. Conversely, the rest of the Holocaust experience was relegated to Exile and associated with the ‘Other,’ the submissive exilic Jew.[12]

As Zerubavel suggests, this approach was particularly problematic with regards to the ‘others’, the non-resisting Jewish victims. Ben-Gurion and his associates devoted significant energy to efforts to convey a clear cut distinction between the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jews in death camps. The former valiantly sought a “beautiful death,”[13] actively fighting evil with arms in hand, whereas the latter meekly allowed themselves to be slaughtered, thus achieving a death “which is no way beautiful.”[14] For the Zionists in Palestine, largely ignorant of the true extent of the suffering of their European brethren, the uprising offered a glimpse of light in the dark, a unique rupture in the hitherto dishonorable and shameful story of European Jewry.3

It was clear to the Zionist establishment that the postbellum period could offer a window of opportunity to vehemently push forth the notion of Jewish state in Palestine and that that notion will be inevitably linked to the Jewish destiny in Nazi Europe. However, that association was not to be made with the destruction and annihilation of masses in the death camps, but rather with the rare act of Jewish resistance in Warsaw.  The rebellion was, unlike the death camps, something seemingly easy to explicate and exalt, a worthy legacy for the citizens of the future Jewish state. As Zertal acutely concludes:

At a time and place where it seemed that all human concepts were lost forever, they [Warsaw fighters] reestablished those concepts. At a time and place when it appeared impossible to rebel, they did so […] The uprising was also an event which allowed a kind of two-fold mental move through time, from an out-of-human-time present, to both familiar past and a reasonable future. From this stemmed the exceptional power of their story and its extensive dissemination.[15]

Another reason why the Zionist leaders of the time took the utmost care to drastically augment the meaning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lies in the fact that the higher echelons of Israeli politicians in Palestine had utterly failed with regards to helping and rescuing Jews from Europe. Naturally, the resources and options that Palestinian Jews had at hand were fairly limited, but Ben-Gurion actually never left the sphere of a most pragmatic realism when it came to rescue efforts and shunned them at large. Therefore, in order to divert attention from the blatant and shameful absence of activity in Palestine itself, it was necessary to cloak the Polish fighters as Palestine’s own. Ironically enough, when it came to rescuing the surviving fighters of the Warsaw uprising, who were swiftly elevated to the position of national heroes, a tremendous amount of effort and energy was promptly devoted to securing their safe escape.

The Yad Vashem monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, erected in 1975 and partly inspired by its Warsaw counterpart, offers a palpable embodiment of the Zionist reinterpretation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. First, a physical dichotomy is present, for on the right a relief depicts Jews being deported to the camps, whereas on the left a monumental sculptural group representing the rebels rises. On the right we see sickly and bent figures ‘taken like a sheep to a slaughter.’ These are the Jews who, supposedly, accepted a low, dishonorable death in the gas chambers. On the left, on the other hand, a cluster of young men inspiringly leaps into the action, facing their noble end heroically. Even an uninformed viewer must acknowledge that an attempt is being made to cast the latter group as a representative mode of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust. Second, the sculptural warriors are neat in appearance, heavily armed with machine guns and grenades, and emanate an air of dignity, resolution, and power. This representation neatly suits the highly idealized depiction of the rebels as it was disseminated by the official Zionist ideology.

 

To Outwit God

Although the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were few in number, their uneasiness with, and even outright opposition to, the official Zionist re-telling of their own experience was numerous. Most tellingly, many of the Ghetto’s survivors refused the offer of a safe escape to Palestine and, facing the nearly certain prospect of death, stayed in Nazi Europe. The desire to stay and continue their desperate fight was only one reason, for, as Hayka Klunger testifies, the surviving fighters believed that avoiding the common destiny of European Jews would nullify their cause: “Without a people, a people’s avant-garde is of no value. If rescue it is, then the entire people must be rescued. If it is to be annihilation – the avant-garde too shall be annihilated.”[16] Perhaps the most awe-inspiring tale in this regard is that of the Ghetto survivor Frumka Plotnitzka, who refused to accept an already arranged escape plan to Palestine and died in a shootout with the Nazis soon afterwards. The Warsaw Ghetto survivors were so highly valued by the Zionist establishment for their great potential as national symbols and heroes that it was even proposed to ‘repatriate’ the unwilling rebels by means of coercion. [17]

The historic facts also countered the mainstream Zionist interpretations of the uprising, such as that the rebels were without exception devoted Zionists fighting for the future Jewish state. The very opposite was true, for the ranks of the Warsaw fighters included politically differentiated organizations. True, there were some professed Zionists, especially in the ranks of the Jewish Military Union, but the members of non-Zionists groups clearly prevailed in numbers. The General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, whose members dominated another major rebel outfit – the Jewish Fighting Organization -, was pronouncedly anti-Zionist and staunchly opposed the very idea of the Jewish return to Palestine. The fighters were certainly aware of the existence of Jewish settlements in Palestine, but their relationship to it was largely platonic and dormant, if not disapproving, and certainly not as close and passionate as later suggested by Ben-Gurion and others.

The survivors also repeatedly objected to the exalted and glorified ranks to which they, and their slain comrades, were elevated in contrast to the passive Jewish majority. Not a single Jewish representative from Palestine had visited Poland in the war years and the knowledge of the extent of misery and horror inflicted upon European Jewry was fairly limited in Palestine. Moreover, Palestine itself was a quite safe and prosperous haven during the war years, remote and alienated from the horrors of Holocaust. Precisely because of this detachment, the survivors proclaimed, the new Israeli state has no right to retroactively tie their fight to the cause for Israeli’s establishment. Many even argued that attempting to assign the Holocaust any meaning is deeply fallacious in itself: “[T]he Holocaust could have no meaning, ever, either in Israel or elsewhere.”[18]

It was undoubtedly Marek Edelman who voiced the single most outspoken opposition to the official Zionist lore of the Warsaw Ghetto. Edelman, an active bundist and a deputy commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization, was the highest-ranking survivor of the uprising. Having written one book about his experience, The Ghetto Fights (1945), and having provided background for another, To Outwit God (1977), Edelman effectively debunked the matrix of half-truths and myths that was interwoven with the Warsaw legacy.

First, Edelman sternly refuted every attempt to assign any kind of political objectives to the insurgents’ actions. However, he professes that Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the fighters, himself tried to do so, if only a little unconvincingly: “’We are all going to die,’ he would yell, “there is no way out, we’ll die for our honor, for our history…’ All the sort of things one says in such cases.”[19] Obviously, every rebel was acutely aware of the fact that the chances of his survival were virtually nonexistent. Unlike Anielewicz, Edelman insisted that for the vast majority of fighters, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was rather a unique, albeit for an outsider an incomprehensible, type of suicide; it was “a choice as to the manner of dying,” because “[a]fter all, humanity had agreed that dying with arms was more beautiful than without arms. Therefore we followed this consensus.”[20] Edelman’s comments shift our understanding of the fighters’ motivation profoundly; from an exalted, otherworldly heroism to a desperate resolution to determine at least the time and manner of one’s death.

Second, Edelman’s narrative unveils the not-so-glorious details of the rebels’ lives. Edelman’s heroes of Warsaw are youth plagued by lice, dirty beyond recognition and, most of all, constantly starving. They were dressed in rags and poorly armed, unlike their monumental representation in Warsaw and at Yad Vashem, which did not escape Edelman’s attention:

[T]here stands a monument: an upright man with a rifle in one hand, a grenade upraised in the other one, he has a cartridge pouch sashed about his waist, a bag with maps at his side and a belt across his chest. None of them [fighters] had ever looked like this: they didn’t have any rifles, cartridge pouches or maps; besides they were dark and dirty. But in the monument they look the way they were ideally supposed to. On the monument, everything is bright and beautiful.[21]

Nevertheless, the erection of wistful and unfaithful monuments was not the only foul of Israeli politicians and intellectuals. Dissenting voices, including Edelman’s, offering an explication of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that diverged from the generally accepted mythology were constantly discredited and refuted, even when they belonged to the survivors of the uprising. Tellingly, Marek Edelman, who lived in Poland ever since the war, had certainly not been welcome in Israel. His book The Ghetto Fights was not translated into Hebrew until 2001, a full 56 years after its original publication. Moreover, his writing is still widely distrusted by Jewish Holocaust scholars and even though he received the highest military decorations from the French and Polish governments, no Israeli government had ever officially recognized his valiant role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

 

Conclusion

Massive monuments, national holidays, commemorative speeches or popular songs – these are but a few examples of how the originally historical events of Masada, Tel Hai and Warsaw Ghetto had been reverberating in the Israeli culture. However, as explicated above, these offer at best a simplistic, and more often purposefully distorted, version of truth. As the production of myths constitutes an essential part of nation-building, the kind of reaction that emerges in response to attempts to desacralize and denounce those very myths betrays a nation’s degree of maturity and self-confidence. It follows that it is an indication of maturity for a nation when it becomes increasingly willing to listen, and eventually accept, the poignant arguments that aim to reveal the artifice of its national myths.

As the shameful and widespread absence and neglect of both Edelman and his works in Israeli public discourse reveals, Israel as a nation has been greatly insecure and vulnerable. Had it not been so, such a long-lasting, determined and furious reaction against those who call for an extensive revision of patriotic myths of Eretz Yisrael, including, but not limited to, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, would certainly not emerge.

Endnotes



[1] This naturally does not apply only to Israel, as Yael Zerubavel observes: “[T]he creation of myths is particularly important during the formative stage of a nation, when the need to foster social solidarity is acutely felt.” Zerubavel, Yael. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995. Print. p. 147.

[2] See Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1995. Print. p. 45-46.

[3] The Hebrew term Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) directly refers to the Old Testament and as such had been used widely before and after the foundation of modern Israel.

[4] The animated political discourse that raged over the legacy of Tel Hai battle deepened the rift between the Socialist and Revisionist movements of the 1920.’

[5] A moralism directly taken from Horatiu’s Odes that, according to traditional lore, constituted last words of Josef Trumplemador, a commander of Tel Hai defenders and national hero. However, according to revisionist Israeli historicism, his last words were quite different, acutely illustrating the rupture between a historical reality and its mythical rendering.  Zerubavel writes that “when Trumplemador realized that he was about to die, he uttered a rather juicy curse in Russian, most often identified as ‘fuck your mother.’”  Zerubavel, Yael. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995. Print. p. 160.

[6] Zertal, Idith. Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print. p. 27.

[7] Stroop, Jürgen. The Stroop Report: The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More! New York: Pantheon, 1979. Print. April 26th.

[8] Quoted in Zertal, Idith. Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print. p. 25.

[9] An elite striking force of Jewish underground army, Haganah, in Palestine.

[10] Quoted in Zertal, Idith. Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print. p. 26.

[11] Ibid. 32.

[12] Zerubavel, Yael. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995. Print. p. 76.

[13] A term that was actually used at the time and that carries a deeper philosophical meaning: “Those who die [beautiful death] for the sake of a goal greater than themselves, for the sake of a homeland […] gain a perpetual name, an eternal life.” Quoted in Zertal, Idith. Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print. p. 26.

[14] Zertal, Idith. Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print. p. 26.

[15] Ibid. p. 28.

[16] Ibid. p. 33.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. p. 35.

[19] Krall, Hanna. The Subtenant ; To Outwit God. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1992. Print. p. 135.

[20] Ibid. 140.

[21] Ibid. 207. Emphasis added.

 

Bibliography

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Krall, Hanna. The Subtenant ; To Outwit God. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1992. Print.

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