An Interview with Prof. Moshe Arens about his Book
Flags above the Ghetto: the Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Yediot Aharonot Publications, 2009
Interviewed by Daniela Ozacky
Prof. Moshe Arens has served as defense minister and foreign minister in various Israeli governments and as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. An aeronautic engineer by profession, he is also a recipient of the Israel Security Prize for his contribution to Israeli defense-related development. In the years that have passed since he left the political arena, Arens has spent his time researching and writing a book on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
What made you decide that the relatively popular topic of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was in need of further research?
“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an extremely important event in the history of the Jewish people and the history of WWII. Although it has been the topic of a large number of books and articles, I sensed a discrepancy between the prevalent narrative and what actually occurred. This is what motivated me to begin researching the Uprising.”
Tell us how you went about writing the book.
“I spent five years doing in-depth reading of all the sources and working in a variety of archives. I spent the most time in the archive of the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel, which holds a large number of documents about Betar during the Holocaust, as well as a large collection assembled by Chaim and Chaya Lazar. This collection contains many documents on the Jewish Military Organization (or the ZZW, an underground group established by Betar), which operated in the Warsaw ghetto. I also interviewed fighters who survived the Uprising, such as Ziuta Hartman and Fella Finkelstein.”
As you wrote the book, was your perception of a discrepancy between what has been written about the Uprising and what occurred in reality confirmed?
“After going through the sources, I reached the conclusion that most studies on the Uprising either ignored or minimized the role of the fighters of the ZZW, who were led by Pawel Frenkel and his fellow Betar members. German reports also reflect the fact that the main battle of the Uprising was fought at Muranowski Square, where the Zionist flag (today the Israeli flag) and the Polish flag waved as symbols of the struggle against the Germans. This battle was commanded by Frenkel and fought by members of the ZZW. Although Pawel Frenkel and Mordechai Anielevich were the two commanders of the Uprising, Frenkel’s role in the history books is played down and almost invisible in comparison to that of the well-known figure of Mordechai Anielevich..”
Tell Us about Your Book Flags above the Ghetto.
“My book recounts the history of the Uprising: the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto;
the large expulsion of most Jews of the ghetto to the Treblinka death camp; the establishment of the two resistance organizations–the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the ZZW and the unsuccessful efforts to unify them; and the story of the Uprising itself.”
Arens was inspired to write Flags above the Ghetto after reading Chaim Lazar’s book The Massada of Warsaw, which was first published in 1963. Although Lazar’s book highlighted the ZZW’s important role in the Uprising, it did not receive significant attention, and the standard narrative of the Uprising, which ignores the contribution of the group’s Betar members, remained in place.
According to Arens: “For revisionists and Betar members in Eretz Israel, it was unthinkable that Polish Betar–the largest Zionist youth movement in Poland prior to the war, whose members were indoctrinated to be militant Zionists and given military and semi-military training–did not play an active role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But where was the evidence? Pawel Frenkel and Leon Rodal, the leaders of the ZZW, had been killed in the fighting, as were all of the group’s senior commanders. The few survivors from the ranks of the ZZW who made it to Israel were either not members of the Revisionist Movement in the country or did not hold important positions within it. As a result, their voices were never heard.”
Arens’s book contains a number of appendixes, including the daily reports of German S.S. General Jürgen Stroop from Warsaw, which describe the events as they unfolded. Stroop’s final report was submitted on May 16, 1943, and contained the following excerpt: “On April 23, 1943, the ‘High Commander of the Police and the S.S. in the East’ in Krakow issued the Reichsführer-SS’s order to carry out a rigid and merciless search of the Warsaw ghetto, and on this basis I decided to completely liquidate the Jewish residential quarter by burning down all the residential blocks, including the residential block next to the munitions factory. According to this system, factory after factory was evacuated and then lit ablaze. At this point, the Jews would almost always emerge from their hiding places and their bunkers. It even happened, and not infrequently, that Jews remained inside burning homes until they chose to jump from the highest floors due to the heat and the fear of burning to death…”
The book’s third appendix–Stroop’s Weisbaden Report, which the S.S. officer wrote after being taken prisoner by American forces toward the end of the war–details Stroop’s work in the Warsaw ghetto. In this report, which is dated May 1, 1946, Stroop wrote: “I feel obligated to point out that it the Polish police in particular carried out the tasks assigned to them in an exemplary manner and without hesitation.”
Moshe Arens, Flags over the Ghetto: the Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Yediot Aharonot, 2009.