The story of the events of the last night of the besieged on Masada’s peak, in the year 70 CE, and the story of the struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters against the Nazis in the spring of 1943, were constructed and used by the leaders of the Yeshuv (Jewish community in pre-State Israel) in the 1940’s as symbols of unique Jewish heroism. Despite the distance in time and place between these two events, the difference in circumstances, and the profound differences in the ideological and social identities of the protagonists of the two events, it is possible to find some common aspects of the two. First, both groups were besieged, the last remnants of a struggle against a far greater enemy; second, the tragic end of most, amongst them not a few who committed suicide, and third, both events occurred on the eve of Passover, the central holiday in Jewish culture. Zionist educators in the Yeshuv portrayed the two events as historic parallels: in the Ghetto uprising they saw a recapitulation of past revolts, and in its fighters – “comrades in arms” with the heroes of Masada.
In this article we will present the ways used by public opinion makers in Israel of the 1940’s to construct the historical memories of these two events: the story of Masada – which was close to them in location, but distant in time, and the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – which was close to them in time, but distant in location. We will concentrate on the centrality of the ‘heroism and sacrifice’ motif in Zionism in the construction of this historical memory, and through this we will clarify the overwhelming impact of the Masada myth on writing the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and its place as the dominant myth of heroism in the Land of Israel in those years.
The renewed interest that the story of Masada and its surrounding myth has gained amongst historians and scholars from various fields has again raised the question of the accuracy of the testimony of Josephus Flavius as a scientific source for learning the past, and has sharpened the meaning of collective historical memory as an alternative source for learning history. From these studies it is evident that there are differences between the chronology of the events of Masada, written nearly 2,000 years ago, and the social construction of the ‘Masada myth’, that was nurtured and promulgated in Israel in the middle of the 20th century.
The cultural value of myth and the extent of its influence do not depend on historical veracity, but rather the way that society utilizes it to achieve its goals, and how it is accepted to become a historical truth. The construction of reality as a political myth is characterized by bestowing reach symbolic meaning to an actual event by presenting it as a model of the past and for the future reality, accompanied by the cultural lesson and social norms required by it. The agents of collective memory takes the liberty to construct and promote the myth by using the methods of selection, exaggeration and blurring the details regarding the story. They add "facts" that have no historical proof; they subtract those that do not fit their desired message, and they emphasize or dim the lights on other facts.
While the Masada story has no primary documentation, such as the marching orders of the Roman Legion, or eye-witness accounts, except for the archeological evidence and Flavius’ account, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising is awash with primary sources of various types, such as the testimony of survivors, both oral and written; personal diaries; journalism; military reports; photographs and more. Indeed, one must bear in mind that a significant portion of the evidence emanates from interest groups: on one hand German military units, and on the other organizations of Ghetto fighters (that were affiliated with various ideological and political streams).
Therefore the analogy made in the Yeshuv and later in Israel between the events that had happened on Masada and in the Warsaw Ghetto, brings doubts about the accuracy of the presentation of the “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” as a historical fact. The questions that arise become even clearer when we check the testimonies of the ghetto fighters and compare them with what was later constructed about it in Israel. The gaps between the two demonstrate the tension between individual and communal memories and the collective memory, in the struggle on their part in the constructed national memory.
Masada – “Lieux de mémoire” of Heroism in the Land of Israel
The story of Masada appears in “Wars of the Jews”, a book written by Yoseph Ben-Matityahu (better knowen in his Roman name: Josephus Flavius), a commender of the Jewish revolt in the Galilee who later surrender to the Romans and became an official historian of this turmoil era. A short time after the revolt broke out in Caesarea, in 66 CE, a group of Sicarii took over Masada, which was at the time a Roman stronghold. From there they went out on attack missions, sometimes against Jews as well (such as the attack on Passover eve on Ein Gedi which included robbery and slaughter).
In the year 73 CE, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Roman conquest of the last hold-outs of resistance, the Sicarii remained on the top of Masada: 967 men, women and children.
In their last moments, the heads of the besieged families answered the call of their leader, Elazar Ben-Yair, and slaughtered themselves and the members of their households. When the Roman soldiers stormed the fortress, they discovered hundreds of corpses, and two women and five children who had survived by hiding in tunnels on the mountain, and from them learned of the events that took place.
The story of Masada was suppressed by Jewish historiography and was pushed to the margins of the Jewish collective memory. With the exception of its mention in Sefer Yosifon, written in the middle ages, Masada was largely forgotten until the beginning of the Zionist movement. With the translation in 1923 of Josephus into Modern Hebrew and the appearance of Yitzhak Lamdan’s poem ‘Masada’ (1927, Steibel Publishing), Masada once more began part of history.
The interest of historians, archeologists, writers and poets led to increased awareness regarding Masada. But Masada’s transformation into a symbol of Zionist heroism came about as a result of the analogy that was drawn in the Yishuv between their current circumstances in 1942, in the wake of German military success in North Africa, and the position of the beleaguered Zealots of Masada. Fears of Nazi invasion of Eretz Yisrael demanded that they deal with the geopolitical situation in nationalist, non-political terms, and, at the time, created a need for social solidarity as the central instrument for the struggle for national existence.“All of our efforts are aimed at uniting and solidifying the Yishuv as one”, determined Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1943, in his capacity as chairman of the National Council (emphasis in the original). Meir Ya’ari, the leader of the Shomer HaTzair youth movement, wished to bring this about in the Diaspora as well: “We are committed to maximum Jewish unity (Ahdut Yisrael) in the Diaspora for Eretz Yisrael.”
The story of Masada was an appropriate symbol of the contemporary crises, since it presented a model that emphasized the importance of collective behavior as an expression of the individual’s self actualization. This ideal of heroism was not focused on the actions of a particular character worthy of imitation, but rather upon an historical event and the social lesson to be learned from it. Under these circumstances, it was easy to use the wealth of characters that Lamdan tied in his poem to ‘Masada’, to the Land of Israel, filling the story of Masada with them and presenting them as the authentic message of the day. Thus the events of Masada’s last night were transformed into part of a construct of a unifying experience between yesterday’s fighters and today’s, and a link in the chain that connected what was presented as a heroic past, and the Zionist present. “In Masada we saw a war of liberation, a war of heroism, a war of the few against the many, a war of loyalty to the Land, a war of loyalty to the nation,” wrote Azarya Alon, a Palmach scout.
The members of youth movements and the Palmach fighters – the “mythic” tsabbarim, who were then in the height of their flower began, in their multitudes, to set out on expeditions in the Judean Desert “ascending the heights of Masada that towered above in strength, with the love and awe of holiness” and swore their readiness to fight for its defense until the death, so that “Masada (the Land of Israel) shall never fall again”. These pilgrimages to Masada were the most effective catalyst to the development of an additional myth in the opus of Zionist heroism – the myth of Masada. One can define a political myth as the central ‘event’ in the culture of a society, and therefore it is possible to characterize it in three dimensions: time, place and substance. We will explore how the youth movements in Israel reconstructed Josephus’ story of Masada, and follow the process of the creation of each dimension.
The Construction of the Myth of Masada
Since the American explorer, Edward Robinson and his assistant, missionary Eli Smith identified Masada in 1838, the events of that last night on the mountaintop have not ceased occupying the minds of explorers, historians, archeologists and Jewish youth. Masada – the remnants of the ancient walls and structures on the top of a cliff that rises 400 meters above its surroundings, far from human habitation and in the middle of the desert, has provided a physical challenge, an esthetic delight and a historical puzzle to all its visitors.
The leaders of the Hebrew educational system in Eretz Israel, which began to develop in the end of the 19th century, understood that renewed settlement in the homeland required a special expression of the relationship between man and his surroundings. “We have become distanced from our soil and from nature, and none understand the sounds of wondrous song, the song of the homeland, that call out to us from the sources”, lamented Dr. Haim Bogroshov, an early teacher in the Herzaliah Gymnasia of Tel Aviv, in an article written in 1924, ‘Knowledge of Eretz Yisrael According to the Hebrew Sources’. “The next generation, that will go on ahead of us ….its goal and national obligation is to spy out and find for us, the people, a place in the land. We must prepare and train them for this goal”, he concluded.
Choosing the route, the level of difficult of the hike, the type of sites and their character were part of the long-range educational program of the school that regarded the excursion as a “value of Zionist settlement”. As they set out to prepare and train the reader and student, they asserted that Masada was no less ancient than Jerusalem or Jaffa. The founding fathers of the literature of the knowledge of the Land mobilized the Bible and identified the mountain with the fortresses to which David as a youth fled before King Saul. Masada is “a Hebrew name dating from the era of the First Temple” claimed the geographer and educator Yosef Braslevsky.
“Knowledge of the Land” became “conquering the Land”, both in its ideological-educational sense and in the Biblical, erotic, sense. One who “knows” the Land (Carne knowledge) is its “husband” and its master. Eretz Yisrael was regarded as a sanctified area; sites possessing a national symbolic quality became “places of worship”, and hikes –pilgrimages. In this way, as Berl Katznelson explained, Masada became “a holy place for Jewish pilgrims”.
The first documented “Zionist” excursion to Masada took place in 1912, with Eliezer Levin and the exercise club of the Macabee Society of Jerusalem, and spread over 11 days. In the 20’s, the students of the Herzaliah Hebrew Gymnasia, who hiked to Masada on their Passover vacation, found symbolism in the fact that their visit coincided with the season when the dramatic struggle between Masada’s defenders and the Romans reached its finish. Indeed, “this terrible event occurred on the 15th of the Roman month Xanthicus”, corresponding with the first day of Passover, 15 Nisan, of the third year after the destruction of the Temple, according to Josephus. For them, explained Prof. Joseph Klausner, this was “a Passover sacrifice as was never offered before or since”.
In 1942, when the youth movements declared that Passover was to be the annual season for pilgrimage to Masada, the connection with the festival of freedom was emphasized: “the Masada camp will strengthen us for a life of work, defense and a life of freedom”. In December 1942, when the “Mahanot HaOlim” youth movement decided to climb Masada, news of the horrors of the Holocaust were already known to all. The movement’s leadership chose Hanukah, the holiday of heroism, as the time to hike to Masada. 250 young members stood on its summit for a moment of silent “in memory of the Diaspora that perishes in its own blood”, and set a rock that they bore with them to the mountain on the peak. Upon it was engraved: “If I forget thee, Diaspora”.
In the course of the following years, and particularly from the 1950’s, the youth movements preferred to climb Masada on Hanukah. The flames and torches of the holiday, that were the central ingredient of the dramatic atmosphere that surrounded the ceremonies on the mount, became an inseparable element of Masada as a symbol, and fit in with the motif of ‘light’ and ‘bonfires’ that Lamdan included in his poem.
Common expressions used to describe Masada in those days were “tower of light”, “a fiery torch” and “burning torch”, as Dr. Yohanan Aharoni explained in a special pamphlet published by the IDF about the site: “Hebrew youth transformed Masada into a symbol of heroism, and endless dedication to the burning torch of Israel’s freedom that shines from the time of the great siege until our days.” The Hanukah became a common time to publish books and explanatory pamphlets about the site, and a reference to the holiday was included into the most prominent of the books on Masada, the work of Prof. Yigal Yadin “Masada – In Those Days, At This Time”. Through his title, Yadin, the archeologist that excavated Masada in the 60’s and who served as the second IDF Chief of Staff, hinted that Elazar ben Yair was a character similar to Judah Macabee, the “savior and redeemer’ in the words of the popular Israeli Hanukah song. We find this as well in the common use by the leaders of the Zionist movement and its intellectuals when they referred to the youth of their time as “sons of the Macabees” and the soldiers of the IDF as “the great-grandsons of the Macabees”. A similar comparison was made by Moshe Gilboa in the Hanukah edition of 1948 of the Gadna (pre-army training for youth –translator’s note) magazine, Niv Alumim, between the Macabees of yore – the “Ancient Israel Defense Forces” and their modern counterparts, and concluded with the promise “Masada shall not fall again – the State of Israel will fulfill the vision of its prophets and builders” (my emphasis, M.B.). It is as if he said that the new Macabees, the members of the Gadna, are the ones who will defend Masada (the Land of Israel) so that it shall never fall again.
According to Josephus’ description, the beginning and conclusion of the events at Masada are connected with the Sicarii. In reference to their capture of the mountain he wrote: “The name of the fortress is Masada, and the leader of the Sicarii that captured that fortress was Elazar ben Yair. Regarding the siege, he explained: “The Roman general went out with his soldiers to fight against Elazar and the Sicarii who lived with him on Masada”. Moreover, the historian identifies the people of Masada as Sicarii 10 times in “The Jewish Wars” (three times in book 3, chapter 7, and seven times in book 7 chapter 8), and not once (!) as Zealots.
Why then, is the story of Masada connected to this particular group in our minds? Why did Prof. Yadin choose to ignore these facts and chose as the English title to his book “The Zealot’s Last Stand”? The answer is connected with the political meaning of ‘Sicarii’ in Israel, and the Zionist historiography of the Second Temple Period.
In his descriptions of the revolt, Josephus devotes a place to two outstanding political groups: the Sicarii and the Zealots. He writes of the Sicarii that they did not hesitate to use terror against Jews who “chose to surrender to the Romans and, as their enemies, they tormented them when they could, robbed their goods, stole their cattle and set fire to their houses… The Sicarii were the first to do evil and rose up against their brethren with murderous cruelty.” About the Zealots, he wrote: “As their name was, so were their actions, every evil deed was for them exemplary, … Indeed they called themselves thus, saying that they were zealous for the good (for the sake of Heaven), and it is not known whether in jest they did to the oppressed from the cruelty of their heart like a beast of prey, or whether all wickedness and evil was actually good in their eyes.”
Josephus’ descriptions are not complimentary to either of these groups. Why then, were the Zealots preferred over the Sicarii in the construction of the memory of the Masada story?
The early Zionist historians who wrote in Hebrew used the term “zealots” to refer to a specific group and to the general qualities of the members of that group as well. The Sicarii were zealots in that they showed extreme determination in their political position and religious world-view, but hey were not “Zealots” in terms of their group affiliation. A characteristic example can be found in the writings of Prof. Joseph Klausner (1925): “Anyone who confuses the Zealots and the Sicarii is mistaken. The Sicarii were zealots, but zealots of a unique type. They were zealots who were propelled by personality to a change in the core of the idea of liberation, from the political aspect to the ideal,” and later, after completing the transformation of identity from “Sicarii” to “Zealots” he adds: “It is clear that the Zealots were Israel’s greatest heroes”.
The blurring of these boundaries became more pronounced in the course of time. At the same time, this served the purposes of Zionist education, to the extent that the concept of “Zealots” prevailed, resulting in the total eclipse of the original identity of the people of Masada – the Sicarii. This was so true that even in scientific documents the defenders of Masada were referred to as Zealots, and not Sicarii. For example, in the archeological report of 5715-5716 (1956-1957) the authors write in the historical introduction that, ever since the fortress was captured “the Zealots dwelled in Masada… and in the course of these actions, the number of Zealots increased from day to day”.
Notwithstanding, it appears that the decisive factor in this process is connected to the fact that, in the 1930’s, under the hegemony of the labor movement, the Revisionists, under the leadership of Abba Ahimeir, adopted for themselves the name “Sicarii”. They followed in the way of their political forerunners as ideologues who saw in the use of violence the supreme test of the revolutionary and terrorist. In this case, historical accuracy, i.e.: making a point of referring to the people of Masada as Sicarii, would endanger the very possibility of maintaining the myth, and was therefore rejected by ideologues form the socialist camp.
The Symbol and the Message
The search for Jewish symbols of an activist character led Rabbi Mohilever, a leader of Hovevei Zion, to suggest even before the Kattowitz Conference of 1883, that Hanukah should be selected as the movement’s holiday. The Macabees became the symbol of the generation of national rebirth, because they supplied the ideal myth for the struggle of the “nationalists” against the “assimilationists”-the struggle in which the Zionists were involved in the Diaspora. In addition, their story presented a narrative of “revolt and redemption” that underlined the integration of the values of freedom and heroism, and fit the idea of auto-emancipation and its Zionist motto: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me”.
This motif remained as a fixed symbolic characteristic of Jewish heroism for decades, with special value for those who immigrated to Israel and struggled day by day for their physical and ideological existence. Colonel (Res.) Mordechai Bar-On, who was then head officer of education for the IDF, gave expression to this in his lecture before the World Council of Yad VaShem: “We were the generation that worked to establish a new heroism” he said “that would again be a heroism that could be translated into earthly and physical terms, understandable to any nation, a heroism of defense, a heroism of struggle and action, … of Bar Kochba, of the Macabees, of Masada.”
The heroism of the Macabees was of an obviously military character, but through tradition it was commemorated by the miracle of the purification of the Temple and the renewal of worship there. Thus it lacked ceremonies that glorified its war-like content that the movement needed. Neither in Jerusalem or any other battleground of the Hasmoneans, could potential “cult-places” be found that would fit the activist spirit of the Yishuv in those days.
Formulating Masada into the last stronghold of independent Judea, and making its people into the “symbol of the physical and spiritual heroism of national self-sacrifice for all generations” in Klausner’s words were combined with pilgrimages on Hanukah. This made possible the creation of a narrative that was not extant before, where two different historical periods combined and became one, and the people of Masada became Macabees. Similarly, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik described the revenge of the "sons" of the Macabees against the nations in his poem for Lag B'Omer that glorified Bar Kochba, (1899), and so did Ya’cov Orland in his poem for Hanukah “Shir HaLapid”(Song of the Torch), which was published in “Niv Alumim” ( 1950).
“Fire! Fire! light your torches
Rome, O Rome you are in flame!
We are your torches
We're the fire of the Macabees”.
Portraying the people of Masada as ”Macabees” had three significant advantages in the construction of the Masada memory-story. First, the “threat” of the Zealots to the first-born status of the Macabees as the symbol of heroism was removed; second, the continuation of Hanukah as the central festival of heroism was ensured; and third, the Zealots were awarded the official status of heroes, a title usually given to those who fought on the battlefield, an event never mentioned by Josephus. The heroism of the Zealots was thus interpreted in two ways, one of action – their war for freedom, homeland, religion, honor, etc., and the second, of protection – they saved themselves form slavery, torture, degradation, etc.
This interpretation justified, through historical hindsight, even the most extreme act of suicide. In the final analysis, so they believed, they achieved victory, and the rightness of their act was clear. Thought, the shift made in both the use of “Masada” of Yitzhak Lamdan, from a poetic allegory it became an actual symbol; and from romantic dream it became an ethical command.; and the status of the mountain of Masada, from a forsaken site in the Judean desert, it was made into a site of mass pilgrimage, and considered the central “altar” of the cult of the Zionist “myth of heroism and sacrifice”.
There Are No Flowers in the Ghetto – Heroism and Sacrifice in Zionism
Seeing the everyday routine of life as a constant struggle and part of a ‘holy war’ over the right to live in the Promised Land added a mythic element to the death of the early Jewish pioneers. Their death was described in terms of heroes who went on a mission. These young people, it was explained, were not killed, nor did they just ‘fall’ – rather they gave up their lives, and in their deaths granted us life. The Sacrifice, as a cultural symbol of Dam- Adam- Adamah (blood-man-soil), served as an ideological mechanism to strengthen the renewed covenant with the Land of Israel. This fit the special link to the ancient cultural heritage that the archetypes of the new Jew, the ‘farmer’ and the ‘soldier’ wished to reconstruct.
“The place where Hebrew land is soaked with the sweat of workers and their blood – that place is holy for us, and we are not permitted to leave it,” declared Y. Suker [Lofben] some months before the fall of Tel-Hai (1920). Their death was regarded, not as the harsh decree of fate, but rather as necessary to the building of the Land, and the fact that the “heroes fell upon the altar of the homeland” made the words ‘hero’ and ‘sacrifice’ into synonyms. Indeed, “in the renewed homeland it is the blood of heroes that flows… and there are no heroes and there is no heroism outside the homeland,” wrote M. Dar in an article “From Masada Until Today” that appeared in Masada, the organ of the Revisionist Student Union in 1934.
Portraying sacrifice as a unique conceptual combination of “blood-hero-homeland” established it as a supreme value and emphasized the patriotic-nationalist message of death, as the ultimate expression of personal dedication. Self-sacrifice, in the eyes of the youth, was the test of the validity of the symbols and mottos proclaimed by the Zionist movement and taught by the Hebrew school. Yitzhak Sadeh (comender in chif of the Palmach) worded it this way: “Fighting for independent Hebrew power is our self-actualization. It is also building a better future, building the whole land. In this building – the bricks are the bodies of comrades. The mortar of this building is – the blood of brothers in ideas.” The blood of the fallen was once more, as in the distant past, a life-source in its mystic sense, and therefore gained a constructive quality, as the nexus between the dead and the living, between past and future, between place and vision.
One interesting literary example of the canonization of the sacrifice is the story of Yitzhak Sadeh, Dam HaMakabim (Blood of the Macabees). In it, the Palmach commander explains to the young Israeli tzabbarim the source of Israeli heroism and the uniqueness of the death of fighters in Israel, as distinct from the death of Jews in other places. The Macabees are described as a symbol of “fighting without fear – for faith, the right to faith, for the homeland, to live free in the homeland, self-defense, to stand in battle and in the end, victory. And their blood, let’s say it in all simplicity and confidence, flows in our veins. We are exactly like them. If a drop of our blood falls on the soil of our homeland, a flower will grow… small and red – dam hamakabim [Helichrysum sanguineum – a common Israeli wildflower – translator’s note]. Only in this land, the homeland, does this flower grow amongst the other flowers … dam hamakabim”.
This story by Sadeh belongs to the genre of mythic stories of young heroes who were nipped in the bud of their lives, and after their death wonderful wildflowers grew. This is why Moshe Temkin gave Yosef Lishansky of NILI [the WWI Palestinian Jewish spy group that passed information about the Turks to the British – translator’s note], the hero of his novel N’guey Moledet (The Stricken of the Homeland) the name Narkis (Narcissus). "Requiem for Na’aman" of Binyamin Tammuz is a “requiem for the Israeli dream of the new man, healthy, and the creator of a new Israeli culture for the new Israeli society” and a eulogy for the author’s ‘Canaanite’ ideology [the ‘Canaanites’ were a group of writers in the 1950’s who sought to create an Israeli identity distinct from Judaism and the Jewish people that stressed land and nature, and sought to connect to the cultural heritage of the surrounding region – translator’s note]. It seems that Binyamin Tammuz was “mourning for Tammuz”, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel; the Canaanite god, Na’aman, is identical with the Babylonian Tammuz (Dumuzi) and the Greek Adonis, from whose blood sprang the anemone. These authors emphasize the natural aspect of the connection between the hero and his nation and their land. They underline the unique quality of the homeland, that takes into itself the hero and the pain, and forever remembers its heroes by making them part of the cycle of nature in their rebirth as flowers.
This understanding of the concepts of ‘death’ and ‘sacrifice’ was not limited to the members of Zionist youth movements in Israel, but extended to those overseas as well. “For us, heroism is life itself, the way of life, in not retreating one inch”, wrote Mordechai Tennenbaum-Tamaroff, who was to lead of the revolt in Bialystok, in March of 1939, in a pamphlet titled “The Spirit of Tel-Hai”. He added, promising, as though he lived in Eretz Yisrael “As long as the blood of our people is spilled in the Diaspora, and its youth is driven by despair and filled with faith, the golden chain of heroism will not be broken. We will continue it." But, as the years passed and the crisis and destruction increased, the contrasts between the heroes of the Diaspora and the heroes of Eretz Yisrael became sharper. In the course of a discussion between members of HaShomer HaTzair youth movement at the Passover Seder in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942, it was clearly said: “how are we different from our friends … whose corpses lie all about and their spilled blood boils and know no rest or vengeance? Indeed, we shall be different. If we fall – it will be in battle. Free. And our death will redeem that blood which calls for vengeance. …. Is there any difference in the blood of those who have been killed. I say: Yes. It is significant where the blood is shed. From the thousands that were wiped out and buried in a common grave in the Ponar mountains, nothing will remain … since they fell on foreign soil. But the very same blood of our friends that was shed there [in Eretz Yisrael], nourishes the earth, flows into it and remains there forever. In time, new life will spring up, new creations will flourish. Such does death give way before life”.
This young man from the Vilna Ghetto promised that he and his comrades would fight until the death, in a battle of self-defense for freedom, and hints that their acts and the way that they would die would be similar to their comrades, the pioneers in the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, when he discusses blood, he says: “Our death will redeem that blood which calls for vengeance”- our death, and not our blood. They will die like the fighters in Eretz Yisrael, in contrast with that of the Diaspora martyrs, those that were regarded as sheep led to slaughter for “Kiddush HaShem” (sanctification of God’s Name). But their blood, as he sees it, the blood of all the Jews who perished in the Diaspora, is not the same as the blood of those who fell in Eretz Yisrael.
According to Jewish tradition “blood is life” (Deuteronomy XII:23), and therefore only if it flows in the ‘body’ made up of the dust of the earth, can it ensure new life, the flourishing of a new generation in the land – the flowering of ‘dam hamakabim’. In this spirit Yitzhak Greenboim, a member of the Zionist Executive and previously an outstanding Jewish leader in Poland said in 1942: “This holy, sanctifying and purifying blood that has been shed and will yet be shed in the ghettoes of Poland – has not been shed, nor will it be shed, in vain. It will raise up our name and become the blood of redemption and salvation”.
The success of the youth movements in transmitting their pioneering message and cultural symbols to Diaspora youth was most impressive. “For tens of thousands of young people the Zionist project in the Land of Israel was their very staff of life, to which they gave all that was pure of their feelings, everything that was beautiful in themselves,” explained Mordechai Tennenbaum–Tamaroff. “Take away Eretz Yisrael, and hundreds of thousands will stand at the mouth of an abyss, without anything on which to hold on, without a focus for their yearnings, without any way out.” This strange existence, in which they physically lived in one place – the Diaspora- and spiritually in another – Eretz Yisrael, gave rise to numerous expressions of the negation of the Diaspora. [“Negation of the Diaspora” refers to the denial of any value to Diaspora Jewish life. It is a common, but not universal, theme in Zionist thought. Translator’s note.]
Starting in 1942, the reality of the Diaspora had become so very different from that of Eretz Yisrael, to the extent that the terms “hero” and “sacrifice” had a completely different meaning in each place. The acceleration of the annihilation of the ghettoes and of mass destruction created new varieties of “heroes” in the Diaspora who were dissimilar to their predecessors, and certainly did not fit the mold struck in the Land of Israel. Thus, the following appeared in “Orders to the Troops” in The Fighting Pioneer from August 27, 1943: ”Jews! All those who cannot bear arms should try to save themselves. Today, escaping the enemy is considered heroism and combat.” The historian Emmanuel Ringelblum , founder and director of the clandestine “Oneg Shabbat” archive in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote, regarding another form of heroism: “many, many of these heroes … keep a vial of poison in their pockets. Their number would be greater if it were easier to obtain the drug”.
The Warsaw Ghetto – “Lieux de mémore ” of Diaspora Heroism
In the years 1940-1942 the Germans concentrated Jews from all over Poland into the Warsaw Ghetto. The ghetto was an urban area, covering approximately 4 square km, surrounded by a wall. Into this space nearly half a million Jews were crowded, under dreadful conditions. Despite the inhuman conditions, the degradation, disease and hunger, the inhabitants of the ghetto succeeded in maintaining social and economic structures, as well as Jewish cultural and educational institutions. In he months of spring, 1942 the death transports to the Auschwitz, Majdanek and Trebklinka concentration camps were at their height. Between the 22nd of July and September 12, 1942, approximately 6,000 men, women and children were uprooted from their homes, and in this manner nearly 350,000 Jews out of the 400,000 residents of the ghetto were put to death. At the end of six months, 50,000 remained in the ghetto, among them members of the Zionist youth movements.
On January 18th, 1943, the Germans decided to remove thousands of Jews from the ghetto for work; the Zionist youth movements, thinking that this was another Aktion, resolved to resist by force. Heavy street fighting erupted, and in the end, after four days, approximately 1,000 Jews and 12 Germans were killed. Three months later, on Passover Eve 5703 (April 19, 1943), the Germans began their systematic annihilation of the ghetto. In the next five weeks, over 2,000 German soldiers, armed with cannons and armored vehicles, hunted down the Jews who fought back. On May 16th, Major General Jurgen Stroop formally completed the “Great Campaign” by blowing up Warsaw’s Central Synagogue, as a symbol of the destruction of the Jewish community. According to his report, at the end of the battles the German forces suffered losses of 16 dead and 80 wounded. The remnants of the Jewish fighting groups continued their struggle against the Germans another few weeks.
Warsaw As MasadaEretz Yisrael of the 1940’s the focus of the struggle was to ensure the political and national survival of the Jewish people in Palestine. The reaction of the Yishuv towards the Holocaust was “a combination of condescension, perhaps arrogance, mixed with a feeling of shame, guilt, and powerlessness”, reckoned Yehiam Weitz. Nevertheless, an immediate need arose in the Land of Israel to adopt the ghetto fighters as part of the history of Eretz Yisrael. The leaders of the Zionist movements could not deny the existence of all the others – the members of the Zionist youth movements and their counselors, activists and local leaders who were “stuck” in the Diaspora and liquidated with all the other Jews. Indeed, the media and all the finest rhetoric were employed to describe the events of the Warsaw Ghetto in Eretz Yisrael terminology.
“The Masada of Warsaw Has Fallen –The Nazis Have Set Fire to the Remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto” screamed the headline of Yediot Ahronot on May 16, 1943. “The Jews of Warsaw made their last stand today, abandoned and alone. They have sanctified the name of their tortured and downtrodden people with their blood, and renewed the tradition of the Zealots of Jerusalem and Masada, the heroes of Bar-Kokhba and other Jewish struggles”, declared Yitzhak Greenboim, who was at the time the chairman of the Va’ad haHatzala rescue organization. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, as chairman of the Va’ad HaLeumi (National Council), wrote in 1943: “We cannot ignore the desperate heroism of the defenders of the ghetto, which is incomparable in history, since the days of Masada (emphasis in the original). This heroic war stirred the hearts of the entire Yishuv, in particular, the hearts of the youth and our soldiers, who to the front and protect the land, and it is a source of comfort and pride for the entire nation.”
The comparison between the ghetto and Masada was acceptable to these speakers, but all would not agree with this. Meir Ya’ari, for example, strenuously disagreed with this analogy. At a special meeting of Poalei Eretz Yisrael (Workers of the Land of Israel) on rescue, organized by the Histadrut Labor Federation, the leader of HaShomer HaTzair said: “In Warsaw we are not fighting the war of Masada. Masada was the last flame, the final throes of Jewish independence before thousands of years of exile. This charge that we have received [to protect the people and Yishuv of the Land of Israel –M.B.] – prohibits us from Masada thinking and taking the Masada line. We are not fighting our last battle. We will not choose for ourselves an honorable death, or even a heroic death. We will not die – but live!” Nevertheless, this analogy that was so popular, mislead even historians in thinking that “it was even accepted by the ghetto fighters themselves, who regarded Masada as an historical model and proclaimed the heroism of the ghetto as ‘the Masada of Warsaw’”. The reality was somewhat different.
If one examines the book Revolt and Rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto, a collection of Polish and Jewish documents and diaries describing life in the ghetto before its liquidation, one will not find even one reference to Masada in its entire 440 pages. This fact is accurate as well, regarding Haim Lazar-Litai’s work, Masada of Warsaw, where Masada is mentioned only in the title; among all the Jewish underground organizations that functioned during the Holocaust, only one bore the name “Masada” (in the Shavli Ghetto in Lithuania), named for the fortress.
The following example is especially significant in highlighting the difference in cultural association between Eretz Yisrael and the ghetto: a comparison between what the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote in the Warsaw Ghetto and the words of Yisrael Galili at the council of the United Kibbutz Movement in Ein Harod, both in June of 1942. Ringelblum wrote: "A while ago the rumor that the Jews had another 40 days to live echoed throughout Warsaw. … The mention of 40 days reminded us of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh [a work by Franz Werfl dealing with the massacre of Armenians in Turkey in 1919 – translator’s note].” In contrast, Galili, looking for a symbol of a final battle without hope of victory that could, nevertheless, be a source of national pride, wrote that what was required was “to create in Eretz Yisrael a Musa Dagh, a Masada”. In another place, at a meeting of the “Kibbutz Tel-Hai”, in the Bialystock Ghetto (27.2.1943), proclaimed Yitzhak Engleman: “We should regard the ghetto as our ‘Musa Dagh’”. There was no Masada in the ghetto.
There were two ideals that filled the consciousness of members of the Zionist youth movements of the ghettoes; ideals that combined to form one whole cloth: the national idea and social struggle. “Jewish working youth, who have raised the standard of social and national liberation of the Jewish working class…. have served in the front lines of this battle everywhere where there has been a struggle for freedom …,” appeared in Avant-Guard, the newspaper of the left-wing Poalei Tzion. According to HaShomer HaTzair, the following were the goals of the movement: “the concentration of the overwhelming majority of the Hebrew nation in the Land of Israel and its transformation to a nation of farmers and workers, and putting into practice the system of councils [soviets – translator’s note] in the world, including Eretz Yisrael.” Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the “Dror” movement, declared that those who revolted were “those that raised high the flag of nation and class, the flag of liberty and redemption of the Jew and the entire world”.
If we are to judge according to what was written in the underground press of the Jewish youth movements of the Warsaw Ghetto between the years 1940-1943, their ideal of social and moral change came from the French revolution (1789), the Paris Commune (1871) and as a result of these, the February Revolt in Vienna (1934).
The Jewish youth of the Ghetto wrote thousands of words of appreciation and admiration about the fighters for world socialism of the past: “You have hallowed our struggle by your death. You have shown us our way with your blood,” sang the Vienna Schutzbund; you were “our ideal, the ideal of the February heroes”, they said of them. The Ghetto was described as the “German Bastille of the 20th century”.
The struggle of the Paris Commune was described by Mordechai Anielewicz as “the loveliest epos of liberty.” Anielewicz, later to be the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt describes what happened in Paris, but referred to his people in Warsaw: “Upon the burning barricades stood men, women and children, holding their bloodied banner. A cry rang out for a new and beautiful world…And we, the people of the eternally wandering nation, … as if by iron tongs our throats are held by the claws of degradation. And what further? … The future belongs to those who climb the barricades and with their burning hearts will forge a road to humanity towards new life”.
The second ideal was the concept of national independence for the Jews and pioneering self-actualization in Eretz Yisrael. Years before the German invasion of Poland pioneering action flowered among the youth movements, mainly through kibbutz preparatory programs (hakhshara). Over the years, tens of thousands of young Jews absorbed the stories of the pioneers, their songs and cultural creations, and wanted to follow in their footsteps – to make aliyah. The Nazi invasion and the formation of the ghettoes almost totally ended this sort of activity. But lo! Despite all the dangers involved, “kibbutzim” were set up in the Warsaw Ghetto such as ‘Dror’ on Zamenhoff 58 and Mila 34, and that of “HaShomer HaTzair” on Mila 61 and Nalevki Street 23. In Bialystok a number of “kibbutzim” functioned, and in Marishin, on the edge of the ghetto, no less than 23 “kibbutzim” were established, numbering 1040 members.
Members of the youth movements saw themselves as defenders of their “homes” and “territory” – of the “Warsaw Ghetto Kibbutz “ in that stricken land. “Prepare or defense in the event that the enemy attempts to destroy your settlement!” (emphasis in the original) the “HaShomer HaTzair” underground newspaper proclaimed to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1942. The war of defense that the ghetto fighters talked about, and the glory of the new Jewish fighter about which they dreamed and saw come to pass, introduce us to the greatest of the stories of Zionist heroism that the Ghetto fighters knew – the defense of Tel-Hai and the bravery of Joseph Trumpeldor and his comrades.
This is also evident when we examine “Songs and Heroism in the Jewish Past in Light of Today’s Reality”, a literary anthology dedicated to Jewish heroism, published by the ‘Dror’ movement in July-August 1942. This anthology, edited by Yitzhak Zuckerman and Eliyahu Gutkovsky, was the first book published in the ghetto. Ziviah Lubetkin explained its purpose: “In times of weakness of the spirit and despair, we wanted to provide youth with an example and model from the chapters of heroism and defense in the history of the nation.” 22 of the 30 works of poetry, prose and essays included in the anthology deal with pogroms in European Jewish history, and the others: “He Said to Her” and “Tel-Hai” by Hayim Yosef Brenner, “Haganah” by Yitzhak Tabenkin, and “On Guard” by Shaul Chernichovsky. The other five are selections from the poem “Masada” by Yitzhak Lamdan.
It was this poem, “Masada”, that was in their hearts rather than the actual Masada; Eretz Yisrael – the land of dreams, and not the fortress that became a graveyard. Moreover, the readers in the ghetto, those that knew the poem, certainly remembered the promise of the poet: “Ben Yair will show himself once more. He did not die, did not die!” And its fulfillment as well, when the pioneers lit their bonfires “and in their light, upon the mountains, behold Masada – a figure appears. Who is the hidden one? Yosef HaGalili! [Josef Trumpeldor]” In a ceremony to dedicate a monument to the memories of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1942, Yitzhak Zuckerman declared from the ruins of the ghetto: “Tel-Hai and its defenders spoke to the ghetto fighters in their own language and spirit.” Ben Gurion, three years earlier, said, about the members of the youth movements who were killed in the ghetto: “They learned the new approach to death that the defenders of Tel-Hai and Segera bequeathed to us – heroic death”, but it is doubtful whether he meant to equate them with the heroes of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. The rebels of the Warsaw Ghetto were not Jewish (or Zionist) martyrs in a war of annihilation, stated Meir Ya’ari at that special meeting in May 1943 – Zivia Lubetkin “did not fight the war of Masada”, and Tusia Altman was not a “fighter in a suicide-war!” They were soldiers in a glorious battle of self-defense.
In summation it can be said that the myth of Masada did not serve as a model for the ghetto fighters, simply because they did not know of it. The historical chronicle of Masada could not have been their inspiration, first, because nowhere in Josephus’ account is there a mention of active defense by the besieged, that is to say, there is no evidence of Jewish fighting that caused losses to the enemy, the primary aim of the ghetto fighters. Secondly, the young fighters did not see themselves as fighting the “last battle”, as was the case in Masada, but rather as the pioneers of the Diaspora leading the way for the struggle in the Land of Israel.
The Zionist Construction of the “Revolt”
The leadership of the Yishuv had no means of describing the dreadful reality of the last stages of the ghettoes to the public, and they could not cope with the testimonies that they heard about them, explains Dina Porat in her work on the Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust 1939-1945.In order to understand this, it is necessary to present the following facts:
1. In the beginning of 1942 the population of the Warsaw Ghetto was equal to the entire number of Jews in Eretz Yisrael at that time. It is no wonder that the Trotskyite newspaper The Red Flag asked, “Is not the ghetto itself a substitute for the Jewish State?”
2. During the course of 53 days in July-September 1942, in every single day, the number of Jews transported from the Ghetto or murdered there, equaled the entire number of Jews killed during the War for Independence (about 6000).
The fragments of information about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt that began to reach Palestine a short time after it broke out, created a general feeling of pride in the Yishuv in what Golda Meyerson (Meir) described as: “our comrades that are rebelling in the Diaspora, who do not want to die silently in surrender, but to die as heroes in order to protect the honor of Israel in coming generations.” However, the desire to include them in the ranks of the heroes of Eretz Yisrael was thwarted by a significant epistemological obstacle – one that they themselves had created: Shlilat HaGolah, the negation of the Diaspora. This was expressed sharply by Moshe Tabenkin, an educator and poet from Ein Harod, son of the leader of the United Kibbutz (Kibbutz HaMeuhad) Movement: “Shlilat HaGalut, the negation of the Diaspora, which has been in my consciousness since I read the authors Mendele [Mokher Sephorim] and [Haim Yosef] Brenner, has become, in the course of time, hatred of the Diaspora! I hate it like a man hates his own deformity, one that he is ashamed of and willing to do anything to cure.”
Those that maintained this ideology, which dismissed the potential for any foreign territory to grow “the flowers of the Macabees”, were dismayed and confused at the bravery shown by their comrades in the Diaspora. Here was a strange and complex paradox: the heroism of the Ghetto fighters negated the negation of the Diaspora. Yitzhak Sadeh put it this way: “The struggle in the Ghetto was the most consistent negation of the Diaspora.” If so, how does one overcome the obstacle of ‘negation of the Diaspora’? What terminology should be used to absorb the Ghetto fighters into the ‘evolutionary’ continuum that Israeli Zionism formulated? To what narrative is it possible to add the Ghetto heroes?
The cultural appropriation of the Ghetto and its heroes was made possible by a switch in thinking, which we will discuss later on, and led to the use of “correct” terminology that defined the entire event as “The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion”. It is important to note that upon examining thousands of pages of diaries and other manuscripts as well as clandestine newspapers of the time, wherein the writers describe in their own words the events that occurred, I found that in the Warsaw Ghetto there were battles, and resistance, there was fighting and defense, and there was an uprising – but there was no rebellion. This means to say that there was an armed struggle, but the fighters, who saw the Ghetto as Tel-Hai and themselves as halutzim (pioneers), did not avail themselves of the term “rebellion” to describe it. Were Joseph Trumpeldor and his comrades “rebels”?
If so, why a “rebellion”? Why not the “war of the Warsaw Ghetto” or “battles of the Warsaw Ghetto”? Why a “rebellion”? What purpose did this statement serve? What advantage did the use of the term “rebellion” provide, in contrast with other expressions?
The definition of the street battles in the Ghetto as a “rebellion” was not done there, in Warsaw, but rather occurred in Israel, and therefore, we should see this as a value-statement, rather than a random choice of words. Zionist historiography had already dubbed a variety of events “rebellions” including the struggles of the Macabees, the Zealots and Bar Kochba, that were portrayed as the symbols of renewed Zionist heroism. Therefore, in my opinion, the answer is to be found in the common denominator of these events. Historically, they represent: (1) public protest against the imperial ruler of Eretz Yisrael, that was accompanied by (2) armed struggle, aimed at (3) changing the status-quo, as well as (4) to ensure the continuation of Jewish communal life (religious and/or political) in the Land of Israel.
Can the events that occurred in Warsaw in April of 1943 be seen as corresponding to this description? In my opinion, the answer is negative. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto broke out as an expression of deep despair and a lack of hope to remain alive. Many in the Ghetto refused to flee to the forest since they saw this as running from one type of death to another, and therefore chose armed struggle as the preferred way to die.
Why, indeed, was this event called “The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion”? The answer to this question is to be found in the following three terms: Masada, youth movements, the Warsaw Ghetto. As we have seen in the previous chapter, there was nearly absolute cultural congruence between the members of the Jewish youth movements in Eretz Yisrael and their counterparts in the Diaspora, and the leadership had complete educational and moral authority over the members, even those in the ghettoes. This point serves to emphasize the critical meaning for our discussion: that the youth movements did not only create the narrative of the myth of Masada, but were the foremost agents for its dissemination. These facts explain the immediate interest that the leadership of the youth movements in Eretz Yisrael had in enlisting this myth as a means of turning the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto into “The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion”, and their success in accomplishing this.
Following the victories of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the western desert of Egypt (in spring, 1941 and in spring-summer 1942) the British considered evacuating their forces from Palestine to Iraq and to commence the Carmel plan for a “last stand” [against the Germans – translator’s note] in Palestine. The idea arose among the leaders of the Haganah of “Haifa [site of Mount Carmel – translator’s note] – Masada, Musa Dagh – an idea that could stir up and recruit a large Hebrew fighting force”. In the Yishuv there was a sense that “even here we could be slaughtered and wiped out like in the Diaspora, without any resistance”, as Yitzhak Tabenkin said, “and we must at least ensure that a Masada legend remains after us”.
“These were difficult years,” said Sh’marya Gutman, of Kibbutz Na’an, who was on intimate terms with the leaders of the Yishuv and the Haganah headquarters, “I thought that they (the youth) should be trained to be ready to do anything for freedom and liberation. Then I said: There is nothing like Masada to train them for this”. In January 1942 Sh’marya, who began his archeological career by uncovering artifacts from Masada, brought up forty-seven representatives of the various youth movements to Masada and charged them “For us, the youth of Eretz Yisrael, … responsible for the last fortress of hope for the Jewish People, Masada is the symbol of our covenant with our homeland…. We will bring the message of Masada to the members of our movements….and swear its oath: Masada shall not fall again!” (emphasis in the original). The construction of the uprising of the members of the youth movements in the ghetto as a revolt points out, in my opinion, how they saw this as a replay of the revolt of the Zealots against Rome, and since “the mythic event is a precedent to be repeated time and again”, the members of the youth movements – both in Eretz Yisrael and in Europe – ‘the descendents of the Macabees’ and ‘Zealots’ became one combat unit.
This construction permitted the leadership to present a narrative whose message was. If not in so many words, thus: The German onslaught directed at wiping out the Jews in Eretz Yisrael began in spring, 1941. In January of 1942, we went up to the top of Masada and took an oath that we, the members of the Zionist youth movements, would fight until the end. Seven months afterwards, the Germans opened a new front against us, in the ghettoes of Poland. From January of 1943, in the course of the next three months, our comrades struggled against them in the Warsaw Ghetto. Beginning in April, the eve of Passover (5703), just as in the time of the Romans, the last battle began. In Warsaw we acted as we were expected to, and we fulfilled all that we had sworn to do – we fought until the end and fell as free men. “Each one of us knows how to past on this last testament of the Jews of Warsaw: This is how they fight there, this is how we must fight as well.” This is how the narrative's creators provided a solution to two painful dilemmas that arose at that time in the Yishuv: the first, the extreme cognitive dissonance that originated in the huge gap between the relative quiet in Eretz Yisrael and the horrendous war in Europe, and the powerlessness of the Zionist youth movements in the face of the mortal anguish of their members in the ghettos. Now they could say: “We also fought there”. Second: the apprehension over the coming struggle for national existence that would take place after the world war; the story of the “Rebellion” provided the youth with clear behavioral norms of a struggle “to the last bullet”.
The greatest dilemma of the creators of the Masada myth, Sh’marya Gutman, foremost among them, was how to present the suicide of the besieged in a somewhat positive light. Actually, the historical chronicle of Masada is a dreadful story of the collective suicide of a large number of Jews in crisis, a suicide that, in itself, has no positive message. A similar problem presented itself to those who attempted to construct the story of the destruction of the bunker at Mila 18, the last stronghold of the Ghetto uprising, where tens of ghetto fighters were killed or committed suicide. In order to overcome this problem, it was necessary to construct both stories as the finale of a positive, ongoing process, the “Jewish Revolt”, and to present the problematic event – suicide – as the high point and consummation of that revolt, one that allowed an honorable way out of not surrendering to the enemy.
The power of this construct becomes clear through two remarks made by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, upon two different occasions ten years apart. The first was Ben-Zvi’s reaction to Sh’marya Gutman’s description of his experience of visiting Masada in the summer of 1933: “Tell me, Sh’marya – why are you getting so enthusiastic? 900 Jewish bandits fled to Masada. What’s all this excitement?” In contrast, in 1943, as the chairman of the National Council (Va’ad HaLeumi) Ben-Zvi wrote in a public message: “We cannot ignore the valiant and desperate stand in the Ghetto, unparalleled in history since the days of Masada [emphasis in the original] This heroic war aroused tremendous enthusiasm in the hearts of all the members of the Yishuv.” There is no doubt that the change in Ben-Zvi’s position is the result of the construction of Masada as a heroic myth.
In order to understand the similarity between the two stories, let us present the historical chronicle of the bunker at Mila 18, according to the testimony of four individuals: Zivia Lubetkin, Tuvia Borzykowski, Haim Frimer, and Marek Edelman. These four were among the few who met the handful of survivors of the bunker soon after its destruction, and were the only ones who recorded their story. We shall see how that place became the symbol of the revolt and served as the title of several books, the most famous among them the best seller, “Mila 18” by Leon Uris.
Haim Frimer, at the start of the revolt, was with some of the leaders, including Mordechai Anielewicz. According to his testimony, the headquarters was originally at Mila 29, later Mila 17, from there it moved to Mila 5 and Mila 16, and in the end to Mila 18. All this occurred over the course of six days. The fighters reached this last bunker on April 24, 1943, at the conclusion of the planned attacks. “If we are speaking about active rebellion,” said Yitzhak Zuckerman, the deputy commander of the uprising, “this took place in the first five days, from April 19th to the 23rd, or perhaps until the 24th of April.” The actual “homeowners” of the Mila 18 bunker, the ones that outfitted it as a shelter and with food supplies, were members of the ghetto underworld that accepted the fighters as “guests”. In addition to the “homeowners” and approximately 100 fighters, other civilians were there as well, bringing the number to about 300. Frimer recounts that “we gave names to the rooms in the bunker: Treblinka, Poniatov, Ghetto, etc. meaning that we also saw ourselves sentenced to death, and this meant that we identified with the Jews being annihilated in the camps”. Borzykowski explained that the names referred to different levels on the scale of heat and lack of air.
This is the picture of the destruction of the bunker as described by the four: The attack started on the morning of May 8, 1943; at least one German was killed in the attempt to enter the bunker; the Germans called for everyone to come out, but only the "civilians" responded; the Germans filled the bunker with poison gas through at least one opening; many of the Jewish fighters committed suicide, probably 80 out of the 100 or 120; the rest were asphyxiated by gas. Mordechai Anielewicz either committed suicide or suffocated when he tried to save himself from the gas by covering his face with a wet rag.
The story of the bunker, as it was told in Eretz Yisrael, was completely different.“[The bunker] was the hub of the revolt; from there radiated all the spokes to the sites of the battles in the Ghetto.”After weeks of struggle, “the Germans surrounded the bunker from all sides and broke through its five entrances. Our armed groups, who were in charge of the entrances, returned fire immediately, but defense was quite difficult…. A few of the members (of the Jewish Fighting Force) and most of the civilians were poisoned by the gas.” "The Germans could not take the bunker… The fighters did not turn themselves in alive. They fell in battle, after they had spent their last bullets.”Then, “when the time came, and there was nothing left to lose, they fell dead with the words: ‘freedom, homeland, vengeance’ upon their lips.” (emphasis in the original). “In the bunker at Mila 18 fell many members of the Jewish underground and leaders of the last battle in Warsaw, with Mordechai Anielewicz at their head.” Apart from any historical discussion of the events that took place in the bunker at Mila 18, it is clear that those who contributed to the formulation that this was a military struggle where fighters who sacrificed their lives to defend their last stronghold had fallen (the formulation and moral of the Masada myth) were the surviving fighters themselves. It is no wonder that they referred to the bunker as “the last fortress of the revolt”and the struggle that took place there was, according to Leon Uris, “the story of the Zealot rebels”.
To complete the parallelism between this narrative and the Masada myth, we need an added essential literary element – the final words – that give voice to the values that the hero clung to in his life and death and “achieve eternity through the final words of the dying hero”. The importance of these last words was expressed by Israel’s Chief of Military Staff, Dado (David Elazar), at a Holocaust Day commemoratin service which took place at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot [Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz- translator’s note] in 1973: “The unbroken chain of the history of Jewish resistance begins with the speech of Eliezer ben Yair at Masada, continues with the last words of Trumpeldor, and goes on until the final orders given by Mordechai Anielewicz”. Is there, or was there ever such a historical document as “the final orders”? If so, what was written in it?
Actually, these were no “combat orders”, but a personal letter sent by Mordechai Anielewicz to Yitzhak Zuckerman, and this was the last thing written by the commander of the Jewish Fighting Force. The letter, dated April 23, 1944, was publicized. The original letter that was in Zuckerman’s possession, disappeared in Warsaw in 1944, but was preserved through various translations in Yiddish and Polish. Zuckerman explained that the Polish version was used for “propaganda purposes. That means to say, there were differences from version to version.” At the end of the original letter, that was, according to him “simple, written in Hebrew and almost intimate”, there was added in the Land of Israel, the required sentence: ““The main thing is that the dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory””. According to Zuckerman, the original letter “had none of the pathos that was added to it”.
The last words of Mordechai Anielewicz, that served as his ethical will and were quoted in almost every book that dealt with the revolt, are only a later addition intended to complete the formulation of the Ghetto as Masada. Thus the task of constructing the three elements of this new myth was finished: the place – Warsaw as Masada; the time – then and now, Pesach; the human material – the fighters as rebels ans as Israelis.
As a matter of choice, the description of the ghetto uprising as a rebellion became history. The construction of the memory of the story, through selective inclusion, emphasis and obscuration made the struggle in the Warsaw Ghetto overshadow all the other final rebellions of the members of youth movements in the other ghettos and concentration camps, which were pushed to the sidelines of the collective memory. Not only because it was the first, but because the others were not similar to Masada.
The wars of Israel, which tested the myth as an educating model, proved that the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt serves as an alternate model to Masada as a symbol of Zionist heroism. In the War of Independence, “as the Kibbutz [K’far Darom] went up in flames … the Egyptians drew near and our people refused to come out of the trenches…[Aharon] Davidi wavered about what action to take, and finally shouted: ‘Warsaw Ghetto!’ This shout brought them all out … they were successful in repelling the attack.” And in the Yom Kippur War, “when [Defense Minister, Moshe] Dayan instructed the commander of the fort of the dock in the Suez Canal that he should decide whether to surrender or not, … someone next to us said, “He shouldn’t surrender. He should study Masada and the Warsaw Ghetto”.
This was also expressed from the opposite perspective, that of the survivors themselves, and among them leaders of the uprising. In describing the armed struggle in Warsaw to Israeli society, they presented it as a “rebellion”. According to Zuckerman, “there was this type of spirit in the pioneering movement and in our youth movement that said: rebellion! Thought – rebellion! Action – rebellion! Life- rebellion! Everything was directed towards rebellion”. Tuvia Borzykowski, who attacked Natan Alterman over his poem Yom HaZikaron v’ha’Mordim (‘Memorial Day and the Rebels’), in which the poet takes issue with portraying the revolt as a unique paradigm of heroism during the Holocaust, said: “Is there no further need for symbols of heroism … and the self-sacrifice of Masadas?” Prof. Yisrael Gutman stated, in his book on the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, “Masada is the symbol” (emphasis in the original). Nevertheless, when the survivors built their home in Israel, in 1949, and set up the ‘Lieux de mémoire’ of their past on Israeli soil, they called it ‘Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot’ (Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz), and not ‘Ghetto Rebels Kibbutz’, as might be expected.
Only in the 1970’s with the fading of the Masada myth as the heroic narrative of the Zionist opus, was the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising severed from the myth of Masada, and the ghetto fighters were finally presented as heroes in their own right, and not as a reconstruction of the ‘Zealots’. Only then, in January 1975, 32 years after the liquidation of the Ghetto, did its heroes achieve a spot in the official memorial to the Holocaust in the State of Israel, Yad VaShem, where a monument was erected in their honor.
Written by: Dr. Mooli Brog
Translated by: David Ohana and Robert Wistrich, 1996, Myth and Memory: Transfigurations of Israeli Consciousness, Van Leer Institute, pp.203-227 [Hebrew]