The Other Revolt

Pavel Frenkel
By Roland S. Süssmann
For a well-informed visitor, a tour of what was the Warsaw Ghetto is a particularly gripping and emotional moment, an unforgettable experience. Our recent history and its horrors are everywhere, and there is a constant feeling of walking through a pool of Jewish blood. In certain places yesterday’s events are still physically tangible: particularly at the Umschlagplatz, from where 300,000 Jews were sent to their deaths when they had not been murdered on the spot because they were too weak to get into the cattle wagons for Treblinka; or at the memorial of the last bunker of the Jewish revolt, which with cynical euphemism the Germans dubbed Jüdischer Wohnbezirk, the Jewish residential quarter!
In Warsaw, Mila Street still exists, but Nr. 18 is no longer an address, no one lives there any more, and yet this place is redolent with a tangible presence, that of the last fighting Jews of the revolt. It was here, at the corner of Zamenhofa, that these last heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt died on May 8, 1943. Where 63 years ago was the center of Jewish resistance, today there is just a memorial built on the ruins of this famous house. The last fighters in the ghetto, 120 men and women, had gone to ground in a bunker bombarded relentlessly by German, Ukrainian and Latvian troops. In order to force the occupants to surrender, the position was attacked with tear gas. Confronted by the scale of the attack and unprepared to surrender, Mordechai Anielewisc, the commander of the revolt, and his comrades committed suicide there.
The battle of the Warsaw Ghetto ended at 8:15 am on May 16, 1943. The commander, Jürgen Stroop, celebrated his victory by blowing up the Great Synagogue on Thomacki Street, located outside of the ghetto. He then announced that 7,000 Jews had been killed in combat and that in all 631 bunkers had been destroyed, the last being the one at 18 Mila Street. During the battle 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
The history of the horror of the Warsaw Ghetto is known and has been documented, even though every day the testimony of survivors comes to light. Let us recall that there were 27,000 apartments in an area of 1.5 square miles (2.4% of the total area of Warsaw), with a ten-foot wall built over a length of 11 miles. At the beginning there was a density of 331,000 persons per square mile, which became 378,000, with 8 persons per habitable room. The ghetto wall was guarded outside by German police and on the inside by Jewish police. The “Grossaktion” started on 22 July 1942 with the deportation of 270,000 Jews from the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. To understand what this death industry was, one has to know that the murder rate was quantified as follows: 100 deaths per day per square meter in each of the three gas chambers, meaning the slaughter of 6,000 to 7,000 in three hours (a rate that in due course became two hours, and on some days one hour).
The history of the Warsaw Ghetto is comprehensively taught in all Jewish educational institutions, from the most orthodox to the most liberal. The names of Dr. Janusz Korczak and Mordechai Anielewicz are known by every young Jew. But who has heard of that other hero of the ghetto revolt, Pavel Frenkel and his comrades in arms? To enlighten us about this key subject, we questioned Moshe Arens, former Israeli Minister of Defense, who has just published the results of several years’ historical research on the role played by the Betar groups in the famous ghetto revolt, entitled, The Jewish Military Organizations in the Warsaw Ghetto, which Oxford University Press has published in its “Holocaust and Genocide Studies” series.

What was the role of Betar in the Warsaw Ghetto insurrection?

Before responding in detail to your question, I would like to first recall that among the long list of atrocities committed by the Germans against the Jewish people during the Second World War, the destruction of the Warsaw community was particularly heinous. This was the biggest Jewish community in Europe, and in a certain sense Warsaw was the capital of the European Jewish Diaspora. Apart from the horror of confinement in the ghetto, it must be recalled that within the space of seven weeks this flourishing community was massacred at the rate of 7-8,000 persons a day, who were sent from the Umschlagplatz to their deaths in Treblinka. We also need to know that at that time there was no resistance in the ghetto. Each of us asks ourselves the difficult question, why? Was what happened in Warsaw typical of the dilemmas faced by the Jews being led to their deaths? We can only imagine certain types of response that all might possibly live in hope of saving his family “despite everything”. However, there is one simple answer, which is that the communal leaders had left, were no longer there. The leadership of Polish Jewry had left Warsaw prior to the arrival of the Germans, and this also included the leadership of the Bund, Agudat Israel, the Zionist movements including Moshe Sneh (doctor and Chairman of the Central Committee of Polish Zionists from 1935-39), Menachem Begin and certain rabbis. They were all under the illusion that the Polish Army was prepared to resist the German advance, and none could imagine that such a powerful and flourishing Jewish community could be totally annihilated. Thus there was no one of the old leadership in Warsaw, and in any case there is no reason to think they would have been able to change the course of events. The head of the Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, committed suicide the day the Germans told him to prepare a daily list of 8,000 people intended for deportation. He knew what was awaiting them. Thus it was only after the “Grossaktion” of 1942 that the idea of a revolt was born. There only remained 50,000 Jews in the ghetto. These had been divided into three entirely separate sections, the central ghetto and two forced labor camps for the Germans.

Who were the first insurgents?

Young people who had the courage, vision and audacity to imagine that some type of resistance could be envisaged and organized. What’s more, only young people without family attachments were prepared to throw themselves into this type of challenge, because they were not worried about endangering their relatives’ lives. In point of fact, there were two resistance movements: the first, known by its Polish initials “ZOB” (Irgun Yehudi Lochem, the Jewish fighting organization), led by Mordechai Anielewicz, who was then 23, and the other, known by the Polish initials “ZZW” (Irgun Hatzva’it Hayehudi, the Jewish military union), led by Pavel Frenkel, also 23 years old. The ZOB had members from almost every Jewish organization, including the Bund, the Zionist movements and even the communists. The ZZW was largely made up of members of Betar as well as a certain number of people who wanted to fight the Germans and who had weapons. So it is important to stress that contrary to what is generally known, the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto was not led by a single organization but by two, which of course in no way detracts from the courage and greatness of Mordechai Anielewicz and his men.

Did Betar play an important role in the revolt?

Between 19 and 28 April 1943, the biggest battle of the revolt took place on Woranowsky Square under the command of Pavel Frenkel. At the end of the first day of fighting, having repulsed the Germans, the Betar fighters raised the Zionist flag (that of Israel today) and the Polish one on the tallest building in the quarter. The Germans tried to dislodge them, considering that this represented a dangerous symbol since they could be seen from many places in Warsaw. Himmler then telephoned Jürgen Stroop to liquidate the ghetto and above all that he do everything to remove the flags. The battle raged for four days before the Germans, who were more numerous and better armed, were victorious. Unfortunately, up until today no plaque or any form of commemoration marks this major battle, and I am currently taking various steps with the Polish government so that a plaque be put up on Woranowsky Square, where a hotel now stands.

How many were members of the Frenkel group?

The two organizations together did not number more than 300. What determined the number of fighters was the amount of weapons each organization had. The most common weapon was the pistol, which was facing the German army’s automatic weapons, machine guns, light artillery and smaller tanks.

How do you explain that the two bodies in the revolt were not unified?

The ZOB was made up above all of left-wing organizations with socialist and Marxist leanings, including the Bund, which was essentially anti-Zionist and socialist but nevertheless Jewish. Incidentally, members of the Bund joined the ZOB very late; they had not wanted to join a Jewish fighting organization, just a socialist one that included Polish socialists. This just goes to show how far old ideologies were still predominant among people in the Warsaw Ghetto, even after the big wave of deportations. All these associations reckoned that Betar was just made up of a bunch of fascists, thereby perpetuating the division that already existed between Jabotinsky and the socialist Zionists. In fact, from the word go Betar was excluded from the organization of resistance groups. In the weeks before the outbreak of the revolt, after the majority of the Jewish community had been deported, there had been a question of unification, but the idea of joining together with men considered fascists was unacceptable to ZOB. Since Frenkel and his men had more weapons, Mordechai Anielewicz’s representatives suggested to them joining not as a group but individually. As Frenkel’s men had superior military training to that of the ZOB members, this offer was unacceptable to them. In the circumstances all these offers seem fairly surprising since the Germans made no differences between the various rebels. It’s interesting to note just how far these fighters were attached to their groups. After the war, when the lists of fallen heroes were published, next to each name was the ideological group to which he or she was affiliated.

How did Pavel Frenkel’s life end?

Most of his comrades fell during the battle of Woranowsky Square. Frenkel survived and accompanied by a few fighters managed to leave the ghetto. At the end of the revolt he was hiding in Warsaw itself and was uncovered by the Germans in June 1943. A fierce battle ensued, during which he was killed along with all his men.

The Warsaw Ghetto revolt only took place after the deportation of over 270,000 Jews. Why did the insurrection take place so late?

The young people who organized the revolt were in the ghetto during the “Grossaktion”, except for Mordechai Anielewicz, who had been sent by his movement, Hashomer Hatzair, to another Polish town. That, by the way, is how he became the commander of the revolt, because those who had stirred the revolt had been killed at the beginning of the fighting. Further, it has been historically proven that the places where Jewish resistance against the Germans could organize and achieve some success were only where the fighters had the virtually complete support of the local Jewish population. So in many cases they were considered madmen who by their provocations were inciting the Germans to increased harshness and reprisals, placing their chances of survival in danger. In Warsaw, up until the “Grossaktion”, everything indicated that the population did not support a revolt and fought against the resisters. It was only after the deportation of 270,000 Jews and that there remained just 50,000 that people realized that the Germans had the firm intention of murdering everyone. And lastly, the members of the old leadership who had still been in the Ghetto at the start of the deportations had been murdered. Thus the youngsters who had taken over the torch could at last act as they wished.

What were the relations between the revolt’s movements and the Polish partisans?

These latter were extremely anti-Semitic, they murdered many of the Jews who joined their ranks. Incidentally, there were partisan units that were entirely Jewish. However, it was not just on account of anti-Semitism that the partisans had not so to speak assisted the revolt. Quite simply on the one hand they were not very strong or well equipped and on the other hand they were active quite far from Warsaw, mainly in the Vilna area. The groups known as White Russian partisans were close to the movements of the clandestine resistance organizations of the Vilna Ghetto and many Jews joined their ranks, notably Abba Kovner (see Shalom Vol. 36). What’s more, in Warsaw the fact the Polish partisans were anti-Semitic was known and so the Jews were not interested to be in contact with them.

Do the Ringelblum archives (see article) mention the role played by Betar during the revolt?

In the Ringelblum archives there are two important items directly related to this question. We have found a very comprehensive report of Emmanuel Ringelblum’s visit to the Irgun center, which he described saying, “They are well armed and afraid of nothing”. However, since he was a left-wing Zionist he ended his report by saying that it was a group “of fascists of the Italian school”. Now everyone knew that in Eastern Europe the fascists were the enemy and that in the war they were similar to the Germans. Recently I published a note of Ringelblum’s written when he was in the Aryan part of the ghetto, where he was murdered in the end by the Germans, along with his wife and son. He was there with two friends, Itzhak Zuckerman and Adolf Abraham Berman, in order to collect as much information as possible on the revolt to flesh out the archives and to include in it a list of the names of the members of Mordechai Anielewisc’s group. In this note that he addresses to Zuckerman and Berman, he asks if the members of the “other organization” are also listed. He emphasizes that he has no sympathy for them but that they are part of what is going on and that their action should not be consigned to oblivion. On the one hand we have Ringelblum the militant, left-wing Zionist, and on the other hand the historian who manages to overcome that.

When one speaks to Poles, the first thing one hears is, “Poland was above all a victim of Nazi Germany”. But the fact is that the largest Jewish community in Europe was annihilated on its soil. Do you think this “victim” status is fully justified?

The answer is neither yes or no. There can be no doubt that the Poles were victims of the Germans, who to say the least had a hostile attitude to the Polish population. Further, during the Polish revolt of 1944, almost 200,000 people lost their lives and Warsaw was totally destroyed. Having said which, most Poles were virulent anti-Semites and many Jews, especially in Warsaw, survived the was by passing for Poles. Their greatest fear was to be discovered and denounced by their compatriots. Many Poles spent their time tracking down Jews and reporting them to the Germans. What’s more, the Poles effectively gave no help to the revolt in the ghetto.

Why did you get involved in this study?

I believe that the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto represents a unique element in the history of the Shoah, because it was the first revolt against German occupation anywhere in the Second World War. Having retired from politics and as a former member of Betar, I realized that the role played by Betar in this revolt had not received the historical acknowledgement it deserved. I also felt that when one hears the history of Mordechai Anielewicz and his fighters, the question that comes to mind is, where are the men of Betar, the largest Zionist youth movement in Poland? What’s more, it was a militant organization, of which some members, including Pavel Frenkel, had received real military training. These questions had intrigued me so much for many years that I decided to do in-depth research. I also wanted to reestablish a truth about the history of the revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto, which had been misrepresented for over sixty years. For me it was simply an act of justice.