The Politics of Memory – Guest post by David Rosenberg

This post was written by Guest Post on April 29, 2009
Posted Under: Jewishness,London,Minorities,Racism/Fascism

Twenty people gathered in London’s East End on April 19th for a typically low key but poignant memorial ceremony. The Friends of Yiddish were marking the 66th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the vastly unequal battle that began on that day in 1943. Led by the youth, Jewish resistance forces in the ghetto had resolved to win “a beautiful death” as the Nazi military machine entered to unleash a final act of destruction. Fighting a guerrilla battle for three weeks as the ghetto burnt to a cinder around them, many of the fighters opted for suicide rather than be captured by the Nazis. Incredibly a few escaped through sewers.

It has become commonplace for many Israeli and ultra orthodox commentators to describe Poland as merely “a Jewish graveyard” allowing what happened there under Nazi occupation to obliterate hundreds of years of coexistence by Jews and non-Jews and centuries of Yiddish cultural creativity.

Still less are they interested that some 500 Warsaw Jews saw out the rest of the war in Warsaw itself hidden by non-Jews who risked death at the hands of the Nazi occupiers to hide them. And the sole remaining leader of the ghetto fighters, Marek Edelman, is persona-non-grata in Israel for choosing to continue to live in is homeland, Poland, after the war, and maintaining his pre-war ideological opposition to Zionism.

Mainstream commemorations by conservative Jewish institutions emphasise suffering and heroism but are replete with references to the “miracle” of modern Israel as if it is some sort of compensation for the suffering that occurred. Warmongering politicians hypocritically intone “never again”, while the Chief Rabbi and assorted worthies regularly seek to draw lessons, which usually amount to “the whole world let the Jews down. Antisemitism is still everywhere. Israel must be strong.

The Friends of Yiddish ceremony is remarkable and unique for several reasons. The contributions – songs, poems, reflections, with some English translations, are delivered in Yiddish, the daily language of the vast majority of Hitler’s Jewish victims but a language still looked down upon with contempt in Tel-Aviv. The emphasis is on resistance. Wlodka, a 77-year-old survivor of the ghetto recalls being helped over the ghetto wall a few weeks before the uprising with her twin sister – they were 11 at the time – to be hidden in a flat belonging to a Catholic family. She talks mostly about the man who bribed the guards and helped her escape, who stayed in the same flat. He was Mikhal Klepfisz a 30-year-old engineer who repeatedly smuggled weapons into the ghetto, choosing to make his last delivery as the fighting started, knowing that by going in that time he would not survive. There is no Israeli flag-waving at this ceremony. Quite the opposite. The chair of the Friends of Yiddish invokes an imaginary conversation with the victims of the Nazis as they ask those who remember them today “What have you learned from our experience?” He reminds the audience that “Resistance to occupation is not a crime” and talks about how nationalism continues to breath life into today’s hatreds.

The event concludes with participants standing not for any national anthem, Israeli or English, but to sing a defiant paean to the continuation of diaspora – Mir Zaynen Doh (We are Here), penned in the war years by Hirsh Glik, a partisan who had been incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania.

The Warsaw ghetto has been in the headlines many times this year – but not in its own right – rather as a point of comparison for the horrors suffered in Gaza. Politics by analogy often fails to do justice to the detail either of the situations it aims to highlight or of those which it opportunistically calls into service. Perhaps more apposite is a reflection by a critical Israeli thinker, Boaz Evron a few years back, who observed that two tragedies had befallen the Jewish people in the 20th century – the Holocaust and the interpretation of the Holocaust. Many Jewish leaders had drawn the conclusion after the Nazis that “never again must this happen to the Jews”, while many Jewish and non-Jewish humanists, anti-racist and anti-fascists understood that this must never again happen to anybody. The Friends of Yiddish memorial was far more in tune with the latter.

Wlodka Blit-Robertson, Warsaw ghetto survivor will be reflecting on her experiences at a meeting of the Jewish Socialists’ Group on Sunday May 10th at 7.30pm at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy Square, London W1.

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Reader Comments

Really interesting post. It should be remembered that most of the units involved in the Uprising came from Zionist youth groups, such as the socialist HaShomer HaTsayir, and even the nationalist Betar movement in conjunction with its contacts in the Polish underground. The Polish branches of the Bundists,however, had argued strongly against armed resistance, and only began to organise as such from late 1942. I guess that provides an insight into how and why Zionist history has subsequently managed to appropriate the resistance narrative of the Uprising into the broader story of the Israeli “miracle”. Still, as you say with that excellent Boaz Evron observation, the unjustified use of the Holocaust in any political propaganda is one of the greatest of abuses.

Written By Mike on April 29th, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

Mike, thanks for the general comment about the post. But I have to disagree with your comments regarding the relative roles of the (anti-Zionist) Bund and the Zionists, and I wanted to add a bit of historical perspective from the years just preceding the war.

When antisemitism became stronger in Poland from the mid’30s onwards, especially with the activities of the far right Nara, the fight against antisemtism was led by two closely cooperating defence forces of the Bund and the Polish Socalist Party (PPS) Left. The only Zionist faction to take part in this work in the 1930s were “Left Poale Zion” (who incidentally also supported the Bund’s pro-Yiddish stance). Other Zionist parties from left to right took no part at all in the fight against antisemitism before the war and concentrated on preparing “pioneers” for Palestine.

The Zionist parties paid for this neglect at the last municipal elections in Poland before the war when their vote was decimated, with the anti-Zionist Bund being the main beneficiaries- winning 60-70 per cent of Jewish votes in many cities.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, again it was the PPS/Bund alliance that organised workers battalions to try and defend Warsaw. Inside the ghetto the Bund maintained an underground militia and produced a regular underground publication calling for resistance. it was not until deep into 1942 that courageous Zionist youth groups responded to these calls in revolt against the older Zionist leaderships, and made common cause with Commnists who were up for resistance.

The Bund had an unbroken and consistent position of resistance, fro the 1930s, though they initially stayed aloof from the Zionist and communist groups that they had had longstanding ideological battles with. They put more trust in the contacts they were trying to maintain outside the ghetto with the PPS.

In July 1942 a Bundist “courier” with cooperation from a railway worker (who was a member of the PPS) smuggled themselves on to a train and found out that the deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto were being transported to Treblinka to be murdered en masse. The underground Bund paper published this news with a call to resistance but it still took a while for that call to bear fruit.

By late autumn 1942 the political differences were set aside and in Warsaw (and in other ghettoes) varying combinations of left-Zionists, Bundists and Communists led the armed resistance (in Warsaw the commander was the left wing Zionist, Mordechai Anielewicz).

Significant Bundists such as Marek Edelman (2nd in command in the uprising) and Bernard Goldstein remained hidden in Warsaw after the uprising and took part as organised Jewish resistance fighters in the ’44 Polish uprising too.

Right wing Zionist organisations were well connected with Polish gangsters and right wing Polish army officers outside the ghetto and procured a decent number of arms but their actual involvement in resistance was relatively limited and short lived.

There have been many attempts by Zionist historians to play up the role of Zionists and downplay or marginalise the role of the Bund but the evidence is there in the memoirs of participants such as Goldstein, Edelman, Vladka Meed and in the archives of the Jewish Labour Movement (held at the Yiddish Institute (YIVO) in New York.)

Written By DavidR on April 30th, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

An interesting analysis, but anti- or non-Zionists are as guilty in downplaying the Zionist role as the Zionists are of playing it up. I could similarly point to memoirs of those such as Gutman and Rotem and evidence in the Central Zionist Archives and especially the Ghetto Fighers’ Museum (in Jersualem and Acre respectively).

You misrepresent the role of the youth groups in Eastern Europe. Their role was not just to prepare for settlement in Palestine. To many of the youth groups, especially the Betar, Zionism was as much a renewal of spirit in terms of discipline and attitude, as it was of the practicalities of settlement. Betar’s emphasis on military training promoted resistance to provocation, especially after the rise of the Maximalists. To the Socialist-Zionist groups – and in the context of this post I’m thinking mainly HaShomer HaTsayir – aliyah was a central concept and the ultimate aim, but the core principles of their sort of romantic-nationlist-socialism included universalist elements which encouraged their continued presence in Europe to struggle for a free society for all.

I do not dispute that the Bundist groups played a key part in the actual uprising, yet I have not read anything that would indicate that they were the instigators of the resistance, as you suggest. Zionist resistance groups were active well before 1942 – that cannot be disputed. The JCO was almost entierly formed from the Polish branches of the Zionist HaShomer HaTsayir, who were among the first to resist and the backbone of the revolt, by most accounts. Additionally the JMU included many Zionist Betar and Tsohar members who had trained with the Polish army from the second half of the 30s – their role was certainly not limited and certainly not short-lived, as you suggest. As an aside, I seem to recall reading that Anilewicz’s military training had in fact come from the Betar.

None of this discounts the role of Bundists and, of course, the Polish Resistance groups. Yet there is a reason why many of the narratives of the Uprising are Zionist-skewed, and that’s because the Zionists played the central part. That’s not just a construction of Zionist historiography. As much as it’s important to remember all those who resisted, any anti-Zionist appropriation of the Uprising – especially one whose history relies on such selective sources – is just as bad as a Zionist appropriation.

Written By Mike on April 30th, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

Continuing the fight for a better past…I think you are right to focus on the youth aspect since what united most of the resistance was the objective fact of youth. Many, both Zionist and anti-Zionist, were also socialists (we’ll probably continue to disagree on the significance of right wing Zionists in resistance activity).

I had an interesting conversation with a survivor from Hungary many years back. During the 40s he was a young Zionist, By the 1990s he was a non/anti-Zionist. He felt that the dividing line in whether you were likely to resist rested on two things. One, there was a divide between those who thought there was a point to resistance and those who had become fatalistic that crossed ideological boundaries; secondly he said there was a divide between those who went into the ghettoes with clearly formed political ideas and those who didn’t; with those in the first category much more likely to take part in resistance activity.

The point I was emphasising yesterday was that for the Bundists the fight against nazi antisemitism in the ’40s was a continuation of the fight they had waged against antisemitism in the 30s whereas for the Zionists (left and right) fighting antisemitism was largely a new departure. Anyway, hope you will be interested in hearing Wlodka speak – she incidentally had a Bundist father and left-Zionist mother – a mixed marriage so to speak!

Written By DavidR on May 1st, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll definitely be coming back to your site.

Written By KrisBelucci on June 2nd, 2009 @ 3:55 am

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