Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest acts of heroism in the history of the world. On April 19, 1943, SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final “liquidation” of the enclave in which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been herded. But instead of rounding up the tens of thousands of starving Jews, they were attacked by Jewish resistance forces that stalled their advance and set off a battle that would last for weeks. Two separate groups organized the resistance. One was the ZOB—The Jewish Combat Organization—a coalition that was largely led by left-wing Zionists. The other was the ZZW—the Jewish Military Union—led by right-wing Zionists. Both fought bravely in a struggle that could not alter the fate of the Jews of Warsaw but which nevertheless reminded the world that the honor of the Jewish people had been redeemed in even the most hopeless of circumstances.
Resistance to the Nazis was expressed in many ways, and we now understand that those who stayed with the elderly and children as well as those who died with dignity in other ways deserve to be remembered just as do those few who were able to take up arms against their murderers. But we rightly remember the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and all those who were able to resist the Nazis because their efforts were a symbol of heroism that has inspired subsequent generations of Jews to stand up against those who seek to carry on the hate of Hitler and his legions. The most famous moment of the revolt was the raising by the ZZW of the flag of Poland and the blue and white banner of Zionism over Muranowski Square. This was an event that even the Germans considered of immense importance since it showed their opponents were part of a nation they could not kill–a nation that would be reborn five years later as the State of Israel.
But in a curious act of revisionism, the New York Times commemorated the Ghetto Uprising today with an article that seeks to push back against this narrative and to replace it with one that downgrades the importance of Zionism in both the story of the Warsaw revolt and its place in Jewish history.
Yale University scholar Marci Shore’s “The Jewish Hero History Forgot” focused on Marek Edelman, one leader of the ZOB who was not a supporter of Zionism. While Edelman deserves to be honored as a hero, her attempt to debunk the traditional view of the uprising tells us more about the left’s animus toward Israel than it does about the events of 1943 or the Jews of Poland. Though all those who resisted and even those who did not should be memorialized, the idea that Edelman’s distaste for the Jewish state should be the last word about the Holocaust is as offensive as it is a distortion of Jewish history.
Edelman was a member of the Bund, the Jewish Labor Party, a socialist group dedicated to preserving Jewish life and culture in Poland and which rejected Zionism. The argument between the two movements is an interesting chapter of the Jewish past, but surely not one that needs to be re-fought in light of what happened. Yet Shore argues that the Bundist position was actually reasonable:
Today, the teleological deceptions of retrospect make it seem a foregone conclusion that the Zionists would win that debate. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund’s program seemed much more grounded, sensible and realistic: a Jewish workers’ party allied with a larger labor movement, a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish, the language already spoken by most Jews, a future in the place where Jews already lived, alongside people they already knew. The Zionist idea that millions of European Jews would adopt a new language, uproot themselves en masse, and resettle in a Middle Eastern desert amid people about whom they knew nothing was far less realistic.
But the problem with this attempt to rehabilitate a failed ideology is that even in the 1930s, the idea that there was a viable Jewish future in a virulently anti-Semitic Poland set in a Europe where Nazism was on the rise was the fantasy, not the burgeoning and successful effort to rebuild Jewish life in what was then called Palestine.
As Shore notes, after the war when almost all of the survivors of the revolt found their way to Israel, Edelman stayed in Poland and served as a doctor. But his subsequent life in a Poland where those few Jews who stayed behind were subjected to a new wave of anti-Semitism from the Communist government merely demonstrated anew how wrong the Bundists had been all along. While she writes of him as someone celebrated today as a Polish hero, anti-Semitism is alive and well in contemporary Poland.
She chides Israel for not treating Edelman with the honor he deserved, but that is also a distortion of the record. It was he who disdained Israel more than it slighted him, as she indicates with her concluding quote in which he says “a single-nation state is never a good thing.”
But it is difficult to understand how one can think about what happened in Warsaw 70 years ago as well as the rest of the Holocaust without concluding that creating a national home for the Jewish people where they could defend themselves was a good thing.
Jews of every conceivable religious and political belief lived, fought and died in Warsaw. But their plight illustrated that the Zionist idea that Jews must take their fate into their own hands was correct. What the Zionists understood in the pre-Holocaust era was that the belief that Europe could remain home to millions of Jews was an illusion. Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky told the Jews of Warsaw on Tisha B’Av—the date on which Jews commemorate the destruction of their ancient Temple—in 1938 that “the catastrophe is coming closer” and they and the rest of European Jewry must be evacuated. Rather than working with him to save European Jewry, the Bundists mocked Jabotinsky.
From the perspective of 2013, the Zionist critique of pre-war Jewish complacence is still compelling. Today, even the U.S. State Department has concluded that a troubling wave of anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. In France, the largest Jewish community on the continent is under siege with many leaving for Israel. The concept that the Jews must have a state of their own where they can stand against the still-vibrant forces of hate remains irrefutable.
Contemporary leftist critics of Israel may also view the Jewish state with distaste and wish to somehow separate it from the sacred memory of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. But the attempt to replace the Zionist narrative with one in which the revolt is detached from subsequent Jewish history is utterly fraudulent. The Ghetto fighters were the forerunners of those who have fought to preserve Jewish life and sovereignty during the 65 years of Israel’s existence. For the New York Times to choose to devote its only coverage to this subject by publishing Shore’s thinly veiled critique of Zionist historiography is a disgrace.