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The Montréal Review, June 2012

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"Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto" by Moshe Arens (Gefen Publishing House, 2011)

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My first evening in Jerusalem, Reuven took me to Ben Yehuda, an open air pedestrian mall, a  midrachov. Tables out on the cobblestones, buskers. A trendy spot to sit out with a latte and observe the passing crowd. It was named after Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who in the late 19th century revived Hebrew as a modern spoken language. Reuven didn't care for the mall. He objected to the bare-elbowed women and their exposed ankles.

The miracle of Israel, Reuven said, was that surrounded by 22 wolves, the nation has managed to survive. A long ago high school buddy, Reuven had been a Yeshiva bocher and, unknown to a disapproving mother, a flyweight Golden Gloves champion. Reuven represented Canada in international Olympic competition and won a boxing scholarship to an American university.

What of the internal conflict that seemed to be tearing the nation apart? Ehud Barak, the defense minister, referred to political opponents as "cancers", the same term Chaim Weizmann used in a 1944 reference to the Irgun. Reuven would only say that there was no political solution, that it was a condition Moshiach would resolve once he got here. I noticed that in Geula, Reuven would greet acquaintances with the words, "Moshiach Today!"

Reuven arranged an invitation for me to a dinner in a sukkah in Har Nof, a hilly area at the western edge of the city, the population exclusively orthodox, Haredi and Dati Leumi, observant  Zionists. A hood of splendid synagogues and study facilities. Enormous proud white stone buildings. Har Nof is the home of Shas party head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The conversation over dinner, led by the patriarch whose home this was and his son-in-law, ranged widely over the shortcomings of the Jewish nation's secular authority. I hear that the original pioneers were Russian communists, first generation Labour Party Zionists who had abandoned Judaic teachings, and merely sought a territory they could control, the proof being that some in 1903 agreed to establish a Jewish state in Uganda.

The talk abruptly turned to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943. Was I aware of how misleading the established history of the Warsaw ghetto struggle was? Did I not understand that the role of the Hashomer Hatzairnik Mordechai Anielewicz led ZOB, Zionists of the left, has been much exaggerated in relation to that the Revisionist ZZW fighters drawn from Betar, the educational youth movement founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky in 1923? The Anielewicz group, said the patriarch, had refused to cooperate with ZZW! I was startled. I regarded Mordecai Anielewicz as one of the great heroes of the 20th century. Was nothing sacred to these pious Jews?

Well, as Moshe Arens points out in his impressively researched account, there was indeed great friction between the two organizations of Warsaw ghetto combatants, Anielewicz's socialist-leaning ZOB (Zydoeska Organizacja Bojowa), the Jewish Combat Organization(JCO) and the Betar- Irgun Revisionist ZZW (Zidowski Zwiazek Woskowy), the Jewish Military Union. Key ZZW personnel, Pawel Frenkel and some others, did not survive. Members of the ZOB leadership who did, among them Yitzhak Zuckerman, provided an account of the uprising that included disparaging observations about the ZZW role. It is now known that ZZW was the more effective military organization, better armed and trained than ZOB. Many meetings and long negotiations did not succeed in achieving unity. ZZW had sought a merger of the two organizations. ZOB insisted that ZZW join as individuals not as a unit. Moreover, ZOB would not accept ZZW's Pawel Frenkel, by training and experience the most qualified ghetto military man, as overall commander.

So it was that the Warsaw ghetto fighters, outnumbered and out-gunned, battled the Nazis in isolation, the campaign uncoordinated. The flags referred to in the Arens book title are the Israeli flag and the Polish flag both raised by ZZW fighters on the roof of a building in Warsaw's Muranowski Square, an action that briefly challenged Nazi authority.

Is it possible that the received understanding of what transpired in the ghetto the better part of seven decades ago has been so utterly distorted? I put the question to a prominent Israeli personality.  "Arens," I was told," is, of course, a politican, not an historian, although he tried his best to find sources. The problem with the ZZW is, as Gutman pointed out many years ago, that there were practically no survivors, and no written documentation from the time of the uprising, or prior to that. Polish testimonies that Arens uses have been shown to be forgeries produced by Polish communist security organs in the 1960s. The one serious attempt to find out at least what actually happened during the uprising was made by two Israeli journalists, and they show that the ZZW cooperated, on the ground, with the mainstream JCO, in separate units, all over the ghetto. The ZZW did concentrate their main fighting effort on Muranowska Square, and they did raise the two flags - but that was published by Gutman and others decades ago. The fighting there lasted until probably April 23. The ZZW fighters escaped to a "safe house" outside the ghetto, but were betrayed by a Pole, and died. The JCO people almost met the same fate, but in the end some of them managed to escape and survive."

In a personal communication, Moshe Arens provided this rejoinder: "The most important and reliable account of what happened during the uprising are the daily operational reports submitted by SS General Juergen Stroop, who was charged by Himmler to destroy the ghetto, which were submitted to his superiors, plus his summary report. Everything is there. (They are in the appendix of my book).  They became available at the Nuremberg trials and had until now been examined only superficially or else selectively.  If you read the appendix in my book, "The Polish Connection", you will see my view of the Polish sources your source refers to - they are not complimentary and do not serve as sources for my book.  Your man is way off. I have never heard of the journalists that he refers to. The generally accepted narrative of the uprising until now assigns a secondary, if not a marginal role, to the ZZW.  Pawel Frenkel, the man who commanded the major battle of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, has remained unknown. During the uprising the actions of the ZOB and ZZW were not coordinated.  The fact is that ZOB fighters did not come to assist the ZZW during the battle at Muranowski Square which lasted for four days, even though they were not engaged in fighting during most of that time. Pawel Frenkel did not "die" in a safe house in Warsaw but fell, together with ten of his comrades in a battle with German soldiers in which four Germans were killed - it was the last battle of the uprising."

Moshe Arens served as Israel's Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Published in Hebrew in 2009, in Polish in 2011, his account of the uprising is, as he makes clear, intended as a corrective to Israel Gutman's  The Jews of Warsaw 1939 - 1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, 1976, English translation published 1989, which marginalized the ZZW and assigned ZOB the pivotal role. Gutman, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was a member of ZOB.

The greater ideological feud apparently dates from the assassination of Chaim Arlosoroff, a leader of Mapai, the left-wing Workers' Party, on a beach in Tel Aviv in 1933, apparently by Jabotinsky-inspired Revisionsists, though the finding of an inquiry established by Menachen Begin in 1982 was inconclusive.

Mordechai Anielewicz did not himself survive the ghetto battles. Known in the ghetto as  Motek,  he was originally a member of Betar, but quit to join the Hashomer organization because of what he judged to be the limited concern of Betar for matters of social justice.

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David Levy is author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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