April 19 is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Here are five stunning facts about the revolt that most histories of the Holocaust hardly ever include.
- Mordechai Anielewicz was not the sole leader of the ghetto fighters.
After the naming of the Yad Mordechai kibbutz, with its physically stunning Memorial to Mordechai Anielewicz, and the heroic story of its defenders in the 1948 War of Independence battle fought there, the name Anielewicz became forever cemented in the public’s mind as the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. However, Anielewicz led only one of the two main armed resistance organizations in the ghetto. Anielewicz led the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization). The other organization was the ZZW (Jewish Military Union), and its frontline commander was Paweł Frenkel (also spelled Frenkiel). The ZZW’s chairman was psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. David Wdowinski, who survived the war and testified against Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Two years later, he published a short, personal account about the uprising called And We Are Not Saved (1963). Both the ZOB and ZZW are best described as Zionist organizations, and the majority of their leaderships and fighters came from Zionist youth movements.
- The fighters only had bricks, Molotov cocktails and a few pistols with which to launch their revolt.
On Jan. 18, 1943, the first armed Jewish resistance action in the ghetto by an organized force occurred. It is believed that this first round of fighting was conducted by the young Zionists with pistols and improvised explosive devices such as homemade grenades. Many reports claim that for the first-time resistance fighters were able to take rifles from the Nazis they killed. Whether or not that is true, what is known is that the ZZW was able to obtain machine guns and other rifles from both criminal sources and from contacts in the Polish resistance Home Army (the AK).
- Some Jewish fighters in the ghetto falsely considered other Jewish fighters to be fascists.
The ZOB was organized and led by members of leftist Zionist youth organizations and connected to the kibbutz movements. Many of these Zionists looked to David Ben-Gurion as the Zionist movement’s leader and considered their right-leaning political opposition, led later by Menachem Begin and inspired by the Betar organization’s founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), to be fascists. This false accusation of fascism is practically 100 years old now and was able to be weaponized for political purposes due to several factors, among them Betar’s practice of paramilitary training, as well as military dress and other militaristic trappings. What is more, Jabotinsky’s followers honored him with admiration and esteem unseen on the Zionist left. Finally, Jabotinsky’s embrace of capitalism gave the Jewish left another reason to oppose him and his organizations.
- The uprising never really ended.
While many accounts of the revolt in the ghetto report that the uprising ended with the destruction of the main ZOB command bunker at Mila 18 on May 8, 1943, the truth is that fighters in the ghetto continued to strike at Nazis well into 1944. That address was used as the title of the novel by Leon Uris, which may be entertaining but strayed far from the true narrative. In 1979, Dan Kurzman’s popular book The Bravest Battle: The 28 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was published, and it solidified in the minds of many that the uprising lasted less than a month in total. Ghetto fighters who hid in other bunkers beneath the rubble carried out sporadic armed attacks on Nazis until the Warsaw Uprising began in August 1944. Hundreds of Nazis were killed by ghetto fighters in all.
- The two major Jewish resistance groups only agreed on a strategy right before the Nazi attack.
It was just hours before the Passover seder, and both the ZZW and the ZOB knew that it was urgent that they agreed to coordinate their efforts. Hitler’s birthday was April 20, and a final deportation action was scheduled to be completed before that date.
A more balanced look at the history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising can be found in the 2011 book Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto by Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister who was a senior Betar leader in the United States in his younger years. Both that and the Wdowinski volume will leave you inspired and awed by the courage of the young Zionists who chose to fight the Nazis against all odds.
Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020.