Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - A ReviewCategory: Literature Issue No. 162
By Moshe Arens
Gefen Publishing House. ISBN: 978-965-229-5279. Paperback, 400 pages.
A Jew becomes shipwrecked and finds himself stranded on an uncharted desert island. The island is tiny, with only one palm tree. The Jew stays alive by eating the coconuts that drop from the palm tree, and from drinking the coconut milk. Years go by. Finally, one day a ship appears on the horizon, sees the Jew waving and sends a couple of sailors in a lifeboat to rescue the castaway. To their surprise, the rescuers discover that the Jew has passed the time by building not one but two synagogues. Why two synagogues, they ask him? The Jew tells them, “Well, one I go to, and the other I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
We have all no doubt heard a variant of this joke—“Ask two Jews, get three opinions”—or something with a similar message: our people have all too often demonstrated greater skills in quarreling and dividing than in compromising and uniting.
Now, we have a new book by Moshe Arens, former Israeli Defense Minister, Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United States, which shows in vivid detail how our chronic inability to set aside our internal differences was evident even at a time when Jews desperately needed to unite. In his recently published Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Arens outlines in painstaking detail how ideological differences prevented two separate, mutually hostile groups of ghetto fighters from joining forces against the Nazi SS soldiers who had come to “liquidate” the ghetto and murder its remaining Jewish population.
Arens says, “The truth about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising begins with the existence of two resistance organizations in the ghetto that did not unite despite the desperate battle they were facing. The rivalry between these two organizations—the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), led by Mordechai Anielewicz, and the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW), led by Pawel Frenkel—was rooted in past ideological differences that had become completely irrelevant in the ghetto. Nevertheless, these ideological differences prevented the two organizations from uniting even after most of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto had been sent to the Treblinka gas chambers.”
According to Arens, it wasn’t bad enough that the Jewish community of Warsaw was divided on the eve of the Holocaust by the bitter quarrels among different groups of religious Jews, between religious and secular Jews, between Jewish nationalists and assimilationists, and between Zionists and anti-Zionists, but even among the Zionists there was a crippling and irreconcilable schism between the mainstream labor Zionist movements and the Revisionists led by Zeev Jabotinsky. The rift between these two groups, which began at the World Zionist Congress in 1931—where Jabontinsky proposed a militant brand of Zionism—worsened with the assassination of Labor Zionist leader Chaim Arlozoroff on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933.
Arens notes that this rift between the two streams of Zionism—Zionism’s left and right wings—persists to the present day. His main point, however, is that it caused the creation of two groups of fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto who could not bring themselves to work together, even at the height of the uprising, because the Labor Zionist ZOB fighters would not join forces with the Revisionists, whom they considered to be “fascists”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Arens’ book is as much a polemic as it is a history of the uprising. His primary purpose, he says, is to “set the record straight” and give due credit to the Revisionist ZZW, whose contribution to the fighting has been either overlooked or deliberately downplayed. He says, “In their reminiscences, the surviving members of the ZOB recorded their personal experiences and almost totally suppressed mention of the existence of ZZW in the ghetto. The leaders of the political organizations to which members of the ZOB belonged were intent on giving credit for the valor of their members, and had no interest in drawing attention to the part played in the uprising by members of rival organizations. As for the ZZW, all of its senior members fell in battle with the Germans. There was no one left to tell their story. And yet, the facts were there—they only needed to be examined.”
Arens examines and documents those facts in an admirably clear and well-written narrative, with copious notes, citations and appendices for the historian, and a vivid, fast-paced storytelling style for the reader. By no means, however, is this an introductory textbook on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The author assumes a degree of prior knowledge and does not dwell on subjects that have been treated extensively elsewhere.
The fact that not one, but two flags flew over the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, that not one, but two groups of fighters were involved, may not be a big issue now for many contemporary readers. Yet those of us who have derived most of our knowledge of the uprising from such novels as The Wall by John Hersey and Leon Uris’ Mila 18 will no doubt appreciate finally knowing who the ghetto fighters actually were, how they were armed and organized, and who commanded them in battle. Many of us will also be fascinated by the daily and summary reports of SS Brigadefuehrer Juergen Stroop, tasked by SS head Heinrich Himmler to crush the revolt and clear the Warsaw Ghetto of all its inhabitants. By providing these reports, Arens is doing more than just being fastidious about the completeness of his research. Sadly, it is Stroop—eventually tried, convicted and hanged for his crimes on the site of the destroyed Warsaw Ghetto—who provides us with our most detailed account of the uprising.
Anyone interested in the Holocaust, and especially in the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, will want to read and discuss this important new book. Although clearly representing one side of the rift between Zionism’s left and right wings, Arens’ discussions about the fractiousness of Jewish politics and the need to unite in difficult circumstances will certainly resonate with anyone contemplating modern-day Israel and our current challenges.