The Politics of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Today, the New York Times features on op-ed on the anniversary of the first shots of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is significant that it is written by a professor of intellectual history who specializes in “the history of literary and political engagement with Marxism and phenomenology”. We are told by this lady, Marci Shore, that the Uprising was led by an assortment of Zionists, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, joined by the non-Zionist socialists of the Bund like Marek Edelman, all under the banner of the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB). We are told of their brave battle from the bunkers of the Ghetto, and the raising of the Zionist and Polish flags on its tallest building. We are told that the ” Zionist far-right” had its own resistance organisation, the Jewish Military Union (ZZW), but nothing else is said of them.

There we have it: the standard, misleading, fairy-tale account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, from the original paper of record.

The Real Story of the Uprising

What you wont know from reading the New York Times is that this mysteriously absent group, the ZZW, was roughly the same size as the ZOB. It was they who raised the Jewish and Polish standards on the Ghetto’s tallest building in Muranowski Square. They kept those flags flying under days of bombardment, much to the ire of the Germans and the awe of the city’s Poles. The longest, fiercest fighting during the the three weeks of the Uprising took place on this square, in the district defended by the ZZW. This is clear from the report of Jürgen Stroop, the SS man in charge of the Ghetto’s liquidation. After the war, Marek Edelman, given a prominent place in the New York Times account, was told by unequivocally by Stroop that “the strongest defense was at Muranowsi Square”. He could vividly recall the fighting there, but not at other areas like the Ghetto’s Brushmaker’s workshop, where Edelman and most of his colleagues were positioned – even when Edelman tried to remind him of it.

So, who were the ZZW? They were mostly composed of Jewish veterans of the Polish armed forces. They were politically to the right: anti-Communist and followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s brand of Revisionist Zionism. The ZOB, on the other hand, were dominated by labor Zionists like their leader, Anielewicz. Therein lies the issue: for a long time, there was no powerful political constituency to raise awareness of the ZZW’s struggle. There were plenty who wanted to suppress it. It is amazing to think that even in the face of such a ruthless enemy and imminent death, there were especially vicious and disastrous political animosities among the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the rivalries were still at work many years after the event.

It is also remarkable that as early as December 1943, the great historian of the Ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, a left-wing Zionist who denounced the ideology of the Revisionists, complained that the ZZW were being written out of history. In a letter to a colleague he asked “[W]hy is there no information on the ZZW in the history? They must leave an imprint, even if in our eyes, they are unsympathetic”.

First, a little more background.

The ZZW was founded in November 1939, much earlier than ZOB, which was founded in the summer of 1942. It was better armed and had better military training, given the veterans in its ranks and the militaristic nature of Revisionist youth movements like Betar that were attracted to it. They had much better contact with the Polish Home Army than the ZOB, because so many were former comrades in arms. The ZZW was able to secure machine guns, while other Jewish groups were not.

In fact, prior to the war, the Polish government had been secretly transferring arms to the Irgun, the Revisionist militia in the British Mandate of Palestine. The extent of this cooperation is demonstrated in a very moving story told by Moshe Arens in Flags Over The Warsaw Ghetto. During the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw in September 1939, Lili Strassman, founder of a group of Jewish intellectuals in the city who supported the Irgun, was confined to a bomb shelter while her husband, Henryk, was fighting. He would become one of the officers murdered under Stalin’s orders at Katyn. Strassman knew there were arms stored in the city that had been transferred to the Irgun but not yet shipped. She braved intense bombing to find these arms and take them to the commander of the defense of Warsaw, General Walerian Czuma. She received a receipt for the weapons and wrote of her happiness to help the Poland in its hour of need.

While the leadership of the ZZW was right-wing, they stressed they were foremost a fighting organisation. They welcomed leftists into their ranks if they were skilled enough fighters. One of their men was even nicknamed Moshe the Bolshevik.

The same could not be said of their rivals. The ZZW approached the ZOB about uniting the efforts of the Jewish Resistance. They could not get the ZOB to accept this, partly because the ZZW proposed that the leadership should have some combat experience. This suggestion seems entirely reasonable. However, because combat veterans were disproportionately involved with the ZZW, the ZOB saw this as an attempt at a power grab. Some socialist factions under the ZOB umbrella slandered the ZZW as “fascists”. They put the welfare of their own people behind left-wing ideology, even at that moment in history.

Such behavior gives you a good indication of why the Polish Home Army was less inclined to assist the ZOB. They saw them as political demagogues, many too sympathetic to the Bolsheviks to be trusted.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the ZZW, Pawel Frenkel and Leon Rodal, died in the fighting. The story of their amazing bravery was forgotten. These people were offered the chance to escape the doomed Ghetto and take up the fight with the Home Army, but they insisted on fighting and dying with their people. During the Uprising, Rodal was able to don an SS uniform, join a group of Germans, and lead them right into an ambush.

But their story was not only neglected after the war. It was covered up.

Myth and Memory

One of the conspirators here was Marek Edelman, praised extensively in today’s New York Times. The other was the Soviet Union, and to Shore’s credit she mentions their distortion of the record.

Edelman had an agenda in his famous book, The Ghetto Fights. He sought to downplay the role of the Revisionists and the Jewish right-wing, and play up the role of socialists and socialism. Firstly, he lied about the size of the ZZW, depicting it as far smaller than it actually was. Most unforgivably, he claimed at one point in the book that they fled the fighting almost as soon as it began. None of this was true. The German reports completely contradict it. As do the accounts of non-Jewish Poles, many of whom saw the Jewish and Polish standards being raised by the ZZW and being flown during the fight. Left-wing extremists of Edelman’s ilk also sought to portray the Polish Home Army as an anti-Semitic force that failed to adequately assist the Jews.  It suited the agenda of the new Soviet occupiers to paint the Polish Home Army as anti-Semitic and reactionary, after Stalin had so blatantly betrayed them. This was a communist caricature, but it has a hold on the popular image of the Uprising even today.

It must also be mentioned that successive Israeli governments, dominated by Labour Zionists for about 30 years, were in no hurry to correct false portrayals of their political rivals in the Revisionist camp.

It is a shame for ideological agendas to distort the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is sad that this happened in the 1940’s, but its truly pathetic that it goes on 70 years later in the New York Times. I cannot help but recall the words of Ghetto fighter and ZZW leader Leon Rodal said to his comrades on the eve of battle:

During that far-off period of slavery, when the Roman legions trampled almost the entire ancient world, and the whole world kneeled before them, only one small Roman province, Judea, took up arms, rose up to fight for freedom and in defense of the honour of man, against a world of injustice. And this is the reason why Judea is inscribed in the history of man as a symbol of the fight for the spirit of man… Maybe, some day, after many years, when the history of the struggle against the Nazi conquerors is written, we also will be remembered, and who knows, we will become – like small Judea in its day, which fought mighty Rome – the symbol of man’s spirit that cannot be suppressed, whose essence is the fight for freedom, for the right to live, and the right to exist.


The defense of the Warsaw Ghetto was based on a triangle, whose apex was Muranowski Square. The corners of the base were to be the Mila -Zamenhofa and the Gensia-Nalewki intersections. ZZW was to hold Muranowski Square and the ZOB the two angles of the base.