Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Popular Memories versus Facts

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.


Further Reading:

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)


4 comments on “Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Popular Memories versus Facts

  1. danielknowles2014 says:

    This is a very interesting perspective on Jewish Genocide! It is good to know that there was resistance to such a horrible practice and that not all Jews just ‘went along’ so to speak. Being an educator this research would be highly useful in delivering the WWII core study 🙂

  2. Wow, what an interesting topic. I must confess, a large part of my understanding of the uprising comes from watching films like The Pianist and Uprising, so it is interesting that you have chosen to concentrate on popular memory verses fact. I like how you have chosen a particular element of Jewish WWII history to narrow in on and you seem to have a very good grasp on the subject. The point you make about how memory has played a part in the politicisation of the uprising, which as you describe, seems to be quite a complex matter. During your research, did you find that those involved in the uprising were aware of what was happening to jews elsewhere in the concentration camps? Is there the possibility that post war accounts have incorporated new knowledge into the narrative once they were aware of wider events? I’d also be interested to know why the Warsaw ghetto saw an uprising, while other deport areas didn’t see the same thinking. I wonder if there were due to different circumstances.

  3. sophthom2014 says:

    Thanks for the questions. In order

    -Yes the Jews in the ghetto knew what was happening to their compatriots in the concentration camps. There are some records of deportees managing to jump off the trains bound for Treblinka and make their way back to the ghetto and tell everyone they could. The knowledge of the concentration camps was the main motivation for waging the Uprising. They knew they were going to die anyway so they chose to die with dignity.

    – The narrative as most people know it has remained unchanged for the most part since the end of the war. Most of the survivors were from the ZOB so there were more people to perpetuate the narrative according to Zuckerman and Lubetkin and not enough to challenge it.

    -There were Uprisings in other Polish ghettos. My guess is that they weren’t on a larger scale enough as to be as memorable as that in Warsaw. There was an Uprising in the Lublin ghetto. Interestingly, in the Vilna ghetto ZOB and ZZW forces united and fought together.

    One aspect of the 2001 film Uprising that I explored in my essay was the raising of the Polish and Israeli flags. It was actually the ZZW that raised the flags but the film portrays the ZOB as having done this. In fact the film completely omits the existence of the ZZW, conveying the ZOB as the only fighting organisation. I concluded that the producers behind the film probably included the raising of the flags for dramatic value.

  4. This is a very interesting topic. Despite having travelled to Warsaw, my knowledge of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is very basic. I was not aware of how the broader political situation involving Israel had implications of how the Warsaw uprising was portrayed. I think a retrospective assumption of heroism of the fighter is an easy conclusion to draw, however questioning this notion due to the political implications of such as portraying is interesting. I have certainly heard numerous historians ask the question of why European Jews were so passive in Holocaust and why more of them did not fight back. Do you think that irrespective of the whether the history was told through the eyes of the former ZOB members or the ZZW, as active perpetrators of the uprising, it would be difficult for them to see how their actions could be seen as heroic?

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