The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is testament to the fact that not all Jews went meekly to their deaths during the Holocaust. However, retelling and academic interpretations that have influenced popular memorializing of the event have been subject to ideology and the propensity for audiences to project their own values onto historical figures and events. Before we get to this, some understanding of the Uprising itself is required.
The Germans marched through Poland with an agenda to solve the Jewish problem. In October 1940 Warsaw’s Jewish population was herded and walled into the infamous ghetto and forced to live on starvation rations. In 1942 the Nazis began deporting the inhabitants to Treblinka where they were gassed upon arrival. By September only 10% of the population remained.
Against the backdrop of these deportations the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB) was formed. A lesser known group already existed called the Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (ZZW). While the former was made up of mostly left-wing political youth organisations, the latter was comprised of former Polish Army officers and right-wing Revisionists. They never united due to ideological differences.
On 18 January the Nazis failed in their attempt to liquidate the ghetto after ZOB forces staged an attack. This paved the way for the April Uprising which began on 19 April. On 8 May the few ZOB survivors escaped through the sewers. The ZZW had escaped the ghetto earlier but most were killed on 19 June when their safe house was discovered.
During the postwar period, particularly in the United States, positive stories within the Holocaust were sought out overshadowing the passivity of European Jewry. The genocide posed a problem to Jewish educators in the US as to how to inspire Jewish pride in their students. The deaths of six million were relegated to the background while focus was placed on the heroism of the Uprising. This is how the Uprising became ‘the central symbol of the Holocaust, as Markus Meckl put it.
But the nature of the Uprising’s heroism has been called into question by surviving ghetto fighters. Commentators have judged the decision to take up arms against a militarily superior enemy as heroic but those within the ghetto walls lived under tragic circumstances in which basic human values were warped. Thus it is arguable that the heroism in choosing to fight didn’t actually occur to the fighters. In her interview with surviving ZOB fighter Marek Edelman, Hannah Krall observed that it is easier for us as judges of history to comprehend the Jews’ deaths ‘when they are shooting’ rather than when ‘they are digging a hole for themselves.’ This accounts for the focus heaped on the Uprising as part of the Holocaust’s history.
In historians’ accounts, the ideological differences between the ZOB and ZZW was carried over. The ZOB plight is the most renowned because more of them survived than the ZZW. Their respective versions became the authorities on the Uprising because there were comparably few ZZW survivors to dispute them.
Israeli politician-turned-historian Moshe Arens claims that the ZOB version was perpetuated by the influence of surviving ZOB commanders Yitzhak Zuckerman and Zivia Lubetkin and the situation in Palestine at the time. During the 1940s the British Mandate faced attack from the right-wing IZL paramilitary group. The Jewish Agency cooperated with the British in turning over IZL fighters before constituting the Mapai Party which then became the leading government of Israel for 29 years. Given that the ZZW were of the same ideology as the IZL, the Mapai government were hardly inclined to give them any credit for their contribution to the Uprising. So the ZZW was ignored for the duration of Mapai rule.
Meanwhile, Zuckerman and Lubetkin had already become the authorities on the Uprising. For the rest of the war they remained in hiding and sent many cables to London and Palestine. These cables were the only sources of information about the Uprising outside of Poland until the end of the war. Furthermore, they had many contacts within the Mapai government.
An important thing to consider is that most of the renowned historians of the Uprising have a personal stake in the event. Zuckerman and Lubetkin were, of course, directly involved but even secondary historians also have a stake. Hannah Krall, who interviewed Edelman, survived the Holocaust in hiding. Moshe Arens was of the same ideology as the ZZW, having been a member of the YZL.
It is also necessary to consider the influence of postwar communist Poland. Sources have been criticized as prone to bias because the communist government legitimized its power by emphasizing its struggle against the Nazis. So they tended to exaggerate their underground assistance to the Jews. Furthermore, these sources weren’t available until the end of the Cold War and even then they are neither well catalogued nor have they been translated.
Nevertheless, the Uprising proved that amid the destruction of European Jewry, some were willing to put up a fight. However the validity of popular memories of the event are compromised by the romanticisation of the fighters, ideological difference and the limitations of Polish sources.
Moshe Arens, Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2011)
Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
Markus Meckl, ‘The Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,’ in The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms 13(2008)
Hannah Krall, Sheilding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, The Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, trans. by Joanna Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1986)