The Ghetto Fights

Marek Edelman, Bookmarks /book review by Tony Greenstein in RETURN, December 1990

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stands as one of the finest symbols of humanity's capacity to resist oppression, no matter how powerful the enemy seems. Even today, it stands as a beacon of light for those without hope.

From July to September 1942 the Nazis deported three-quarters of the ghetto, over a quarter of million Jews, to the Treblinka death camp. The left political groups in the ghetto had stood by, impotent with rage, without arms, as the Jewish Police hunted down their fellow Jews.

In the months that followed the beginnings of physical resistance took shape. There had always been political opposition within the Ghetto, the Bund (Jewish Workers Party) putting out regular bulletins and newssheets. In January 1943 an Aktion was met by armed resistance. With only a few revolvers, the SS and their Latvian and Ukrainan helpers were driven back. The Nazis backed off for 3 months and the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB) took control of the streets. When the Nazis moved in on April 19, 1943, it took them longer to conquer the Ghetto than it had to conquer all of Poland.

History is written and re-written from the standpoint of those in power. Thus it is that the Jewish Establishment whose equivalent in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Judenrat (Jewish Council) was one of the main obstacles to resistance, today pay homage to the Resistance. Likewise all those Zionists who negotiated and collaborated with Nazism, even to the extent of conducting profitable trade with the murderers, now make an obscene comparison between the fighters of the Ghetto and Israeli militarism.

Hollywood films such as The Wall would have us believe that the goal of the fighters was to reach Palestine. In fact ZOB took particular care to ensure that no preparations were made for refuge in the 'Aryan' part of Warsaw, for fear of undermining the will to fight. In fact there was but one goal, namely to inflict the maximum amount of damage on the Nazi beasts. The desire to revenge those who had murdered their loved ones and starved the ghetto into submission (the amount of food allowed by the Nazis in the Ghetto meant deliberate starvation).

The Uprising is claimed by the Zionists today as proof that they resisted. It is true that the left-Zionist groups, especially their youth wings, fought valiantly. Yet in such a situation, it was hardly their Zionism which was responsible for this. Indeed it was when these same groups had abandoned any practical commitment to Zionist goals, eg. the maintenance of kibbutzim on farms from which Poles had been sent for forced labour in Germany, that they turned towards resistance. They fought not because of, but despite their Zionism.

If not for the Bund and the Communists, resistance would not have occurred. Only the Left had developed relations with the non-Jewish parties. The Zionists, having always preached that Jews should keep themselves apart from non-Jewish Poles and, with the exception of Left Poale Zion having abstained from the fight against the anti-Semites in pre-war Poland, had to rely on the Left parties in order to obtain the arms which were so necessary for resistance to begin.

This book was first published in 1946. Marek Edelman, deputy leader of ZOB, was a member of the anti-Zionist Bund, which in last pre-war elections in Poland captured a majority of the vote in every major Polish Jewish community. An activist in Solidarity and heart-surgeon who decided to stay in Poland after the war.

This book tugs at the whole range of human emotions - despair, joy, grief and hope. How was it possible for people to resist the most powerful army on earth armed with little more than pistols, having been starved for two years? When a loaf of bread had enticed so many into the death trains only months before.

For me the most searing account is that of the escape of Edelman's band of fighters into the Central ghetto. He commanded the group in the shops area - where the German factories were situated - which was set alight by the Nazis in order to smoke out the resistance. A decision was taken to flee and in one fell swoop, they darted through the flames and fiery ruins. As they crossed over, a searchlight was trained upon them. A shot rang out and the darkness returned and the fighters were safe.

Edelman's political integrity is in itself a testimony to the struggle of the human spirit. Contrary to the assertions of Zionist historians he states that the reason ZOB had so few arms was not because of the anti-Semitism of the Polish resistance but because they too had so few. The precondition for resistance was the elimination of the Jewish collaborators and the terrorising of the Jewish establishment in the ghetto. Ironically this is exactly what the Palestinians are doing today in the Intifada.


Elaborating on this subject here is a Letter to the editor by Prof. Israel Shahak, published on 19 May 1989 in Kol Ha'ir, Jerusalem:

Falsification of the Holocaust

I disagree with the opinion of Haim Baram that the Israeli education system has managed to instil a 'Holocaust awareness' in its pupils (Kol Ha'Ir 12.5.89). It's not an awareness of the Holocaust but rather the myth of the Holocaust or even a falsification of the Holocaust (in the sense that 'a half-truth is worse than a lie') which has been instilled here.

As one who himself lived through the Holocaust, first in Warsaw then in Bergen-Belsen, I will give an immediate example of the total ignorance of daily life during the Holocaust. In the Warsaw ghetto, even during the period of the first massive extermination (June to October 1943), one saw almost no German soldiers. Nearly all the work of administration, and later the work of transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths, was carried out by Jewish collaborators. Before the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (the planning of which only started after the extermination of the majority of Jews in Warsaw), the Jewish underground killed, with perfect justification, every Jewish collaborator they could find. If they had not done so the Uprising could never have started. The majority of the population of the Ghetto hated the collaborators far more than the German Nazis. Every Jewish child was taught, and this saved the lives of some them "if you enter a square from which there are three exits, one guarded by a German SS man, one by an Ukrainian and one by a Jewish policeman, then you should first try to pass the German, and then maybe the Ukrainian, but never the Jew".

One of my own strongest memories is that, when the Jewish underground killed a despicable collaborator close to my home at the end of February 1943, I danced and sang around the still bleeding corpse together with the other children. I still do not regret this, quite the contrary.

It is clear that such events were not exclusive to the Jews, the entire Nazi success in easy and continued rule over millions of people stemmed from the subtle and diabolical use of collaborators, who did most of the dirty work for them. But does anybody now know about this ? This, and not what is 'instilled' was the reality. Of the Yad Vashem (official state Holocaust museum in Jerusalem - Ed.) theatre, I do not wish to speak, at all. It, and its vile exploiting, such as honouring South Africa collaborators with the Nazis are truly beneath contempt.

Therefore, if we knew a little of the truth about the Holocaust, we would at least understand (with or without agreeing) why the Palestinians are now eliminating their collaborators. That is the only means they have if they wish to continue to struggle against our limb-breaking regime.