The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 80 Years Later – A Provocative Memoir
By Moshe Phillips
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising there can be no doubt that the mainstream media will cover the occasion. For example, CNN is asking “Was your family affected by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943? Leave CNN a voicemail” (source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/was-your-family-affected-by-the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-in-1943-leave-cnn-a-voicemail/ar-AA18R4rv).
Whatever CNN and other news outlets may produce this year, there are books available that contain first hand accounts that should not be missed. For example, Holocaust survivor Dr. David Wdowinski published his eyewitness account of the Holocaust in Poland in 1963 with the title “And We Are Not Saved” (Philosophical Library, New York). Due in no small part to the fact that Wdowinski was one of the very few leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to survive the war, it may be the most important Holocaust book that you’ve never heard of. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the revolt that was launched on April 19th by young Zionists fighters. The Ghetto in Warsaw was the largest the Nazis built and Wdowinski’s perspectives on the revolt, Zionism, combating antisemitism, Diaspora Jewish life, and Jewish leadership are all well worth examining in order to better understand the Holocaust.
British historian Martin Gilbert (1936-2015) in his 1986 book “The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War” quoted extensively from “And We Are Not Saved” but failed to offer his readers any idea who Wdowinski was or what he stood for. In this small space, an attempt will be made to rectify that.
Wdowinski and the Zionist fighting organization he helped lead in the Ghetto are seldom recalled today. He lost everything in the Shoah, family, friends, colleagues, and patients, and survived to campaign for Israel’s independence and later testified against Adolf Eichmann in his Jerusalem.
“And We Are Not Saved” is at once a bitter, provocative, and emotional work. It is unlike any other Holocaust memoir in its scope, attitude, or conclusions.
As Wdowinski states in his book he owed his outlook on life to three men: “Herzl, Jabotinsky and Freud”. He was a psychoanalyst and when he died in 1970 the New York Times reported that “Dr. Wdowinski was elected president of the Zionist Revisionist Movement in Poland in 1934 and remained active in the organization until his capture by the Nazis in 1943 on the third day of the Ghetto uprising. In a book, “And We Are Not Saved” published here 20 years later, he told of the struggle he and his fellow Revisionists had to convince the Jewish leadership in the Ghetto of the danger confronting them by the Nazis.”
A generation older than most of the fighters, Wdowinski was already a well-known leader within the Jabotinsky movement before World War Two and had a close relationship with Jabotinsky. While he may remain unknown to many American Jews today, Jabotinsky (1880-1940) is remembered by many Israelis as the greatest pre-World War Two Zionist leader after Herzl. Many Israeli prime ministers have had portraits of Jabotinsky in their office, a tradition started by Menachem Begin in 1977.
Yitzhak Shamir writes in the preface to the third edition of “And We Are Not Saved” that Wdowinski’s book should “serve as the memorial to his desperate gallantry, to his hopeless Jewish courage and iron fortitude.” Wdowinski states that the book was intended as an “extract from a larger, more definitive study of the socio-psychological forces prevalent in Jewish life during the two thousand years of the diaspora.” He does not, however, limit this small work of less than 130 pages, to the events of the Ghetto Uprising itself. Wdowinski prepares the ground for his readers by reviewing the conflicts within Zionist politics in the interwar years writing that “Jewish leadership suffered for the main part from two maladies “havlagah” or self-restraint and confusion of political orientation.” On the latter point he explains “in the spirit of the Russian Revolution (many Jewish leaders) thought that they could translate the ideas of the class struggle into Zionist terms.” Jabotinsky “constantly” argued against both of these tendencies and advocated for self-defense training in both Europe and in the British Mandatory Palestine.
Wdowinski was chairman of what historians of Shoah usually call the ZZW (the Jewish Military Union) but was not its commander on the frontline. The fighters of the ZZW were recruited from Betar, the Zionist student movement Jabotinsky created in 1923. The Zionists on the left created another armed resistance group called the ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization). The two groups were only able to formalize a coordinated strategy the very day before the Nazis began their April 19th effort to “liquidate” the Ghetto.
In contrast to the chroniclers of the ZOB story, Wdowinski wrote “I must emphatically state that the other organization was … no less heroic, as was proven later during the revolt.” Most historians of the Uprising, due to their animosity to the Zionist right, provide very little information about the ZZW thus allowing the politics that divided the fighters before the Uprising to infect their works and therefore fail to provide readers with an accurate picture of the battles these heroes fought. The true story of the ZZW only began to be widely known when Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister, who died in 2019 and was a Betar member in his youth, began publishing his original research on the heroic battle waged by the ZZW against the SS in the Ghetto. A book by Arens on the ZZW is titled “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto” was published in 2011 and it is also well worth reading.
Wdowinski summarizes the Uprising stating it “lasted more than three weeks, this purely Jewish war. More than three weeks of bitter fighting, three weeks of Jewish heroism. The result: about 900 Germans killed and more than 1000 wounded … All this time the Ghetto was in flames.”
The obituary in the New York Times reported that Wdowinski “collapsed and died Sunday in Tel Aviv after delivering a speech marking the 27th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.” The Times also described his role in the Eichmann trial as well as his lifelong commitment to the Jabotinsky movement noting that following his “liberation from Dachau he went to Italy and was active on behalf of the Irgun Zvai Leumi revolt against the British in (Mandatory) Palestine. In the United States he worked with the American League for Free Palestine and the United Zionists?Revisionists of America.”
In the final chapter of the book Wdowinski pleads with his readers to meet head-on, with dignity, courage, the challenges of facing Israel and world Jewry. He also calls on his audience to work to save Jews trapped in the Soviet Union and Arab countries and to fight assimilation and antisemitism. Wdowinski advises that a reinvigorated Zionist movement is the answer to all of these challenges. He writes “Zionism was never conceived as a political party or a sect. It was never conceived as an organization which was concerned with the interests and welfare of its members. Zionism was a movement concerned with and functioning for the interest of the Jewish people.”
In his conclusion Wdowinski writes “Whenever I discuss these matters with Jewish intellectuals, I feel as if I were talking in a vacuum.” He was no doubt correct. He endeavored to educate Jews as to the correct path all of the days of his adult life. Readers of “And We Are Not Saved” will know exactly what that path is.
Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs whose writings appear regularly in the American and Israeli press for over 25 years. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020.]