Sunday, April 7, 2013

"Look, look, it's the Jewish flag, ...!"

Amos Regev..
Israel Hayom..
07 April '13..

The Nazi soldiers in their black uniforms could not believe their eyes. On the roof of a building in the Warsaw Ghetto's Muranowski Square, two Jewish youths suddenly appeared. With bullets whizzing around them and beset by relentless rapid-fire shooting and strong winds, they hoisted the blue and white Zionist flag with a Star of David in the middle.

"Look, look, it's the Jewish flag, Muranowski Square is in the hands of the Jews!" an eyewitness shouted. But no one pulled out a camera to capture the moment. There is no photograph for the history books, to be presented alongside the photo of the Soviet flag atop the destroyed Reichstag building or the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.

Nor has the event received the attention it warrants in standard narratives of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It did appear in an excellent 2001 American television movie entitled "Uprising."

Only in recent years has the magnitude of that unique moment been understood, thanks to Moshe Arens and his book "Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto" as well as others, mainly members of the revisionist Zionist movement, who have for years been trying to remedy a historical injustice. In their view, the role of fighters from the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) has been underplayed relative to the heroism of fighters from the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB). The ZZW fighters were right-wing followers of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Israel's Philatelic Service has done right to issue a stamp with a flying flag for the 70th anniversary of the uprising's outbreak. In fact, it was not just a single flag. A Polish flag was also hoisted alongside the Jewish one. Both fluttered in the wind and could be seen from a distance, within the walls of the ghetto and throughout all of Warsaw.

The order to hoist the flag on April 19, 1943, was given by ZZW commanders Pawel Frenkel and his deputy Leon Rodal.

"You see these flags?" Rodal said. "On the face of it their importance is minimal, but in fact they are a highly important symbol ... If only the world could see them and know what is going on here!"

The world did not see them, but the Nazis did.

"Flags and national colors are means of combat, exactly like a rapid-fire weapon," said an enraged SS Brigadefuhrer Jurgen Stroop, who commanded SS troops and police in Warsaw, and was responsible for the liquidation of the ghetto. Reports of the flags reached Reichsfuehrer of the SS Heinrich Himmler, who was following events from Berlin. He telephoned Stroop. "You must bring down those two flags at all costs" he ordered.

Soldiers responded with "true Teutonic rage," write Itamar Levin and Shlomit Lan in their book "The Last Battle." It took the Nazis four days of pitched fighting to remove the flags, on their way to conquering the entire ghetto.

The debate over correcting the historical narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is important, but even more important is the message conveyed to us by those who revolted, no matter which organization they belonged to.

"The dream of my life has risen to become fact, wrote ZOB Commander Mordechai Anielewicz to his deputy Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman. "I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle." This turned out to be the last letter of his life. He died in a bunker at 18 Mila Street, the headquarters of the ZOB, where it is assumed he took his own life by ingesting cyanide.

Shortly before the uprising began, Pawel Frenkel addressed a meeting of the ZZW: "Of course we will fight with guns in our hands, and most of us will fall. But we will live on in the lives and hearts of future generations and in the pages of their history ... We will die before our time but we are not doomed. We will be alive for as long as Jewish history lives!"

Frenkel was killed about two months after the outbreak of the revolt.

My uncle, Zecharia (Zechariasz) Artstein, was there as well. He was a member of ZOB, one of the youngest fighters, a commander of one of Anielewicz's companies. According to eyewitnesses, he shot both the first and last shots of the revolt. He met his death while hiding out in the ghetto ruins after the uprising had been suppressed. He fell in June or early July, alongside another lauded ZOB fighter, Jozef Lopata.

Zecharia's war began three months before the uprising, in January, when the Nazis carried out an unexpected Aktion in the ghetto. "Zecharia Artstein was one of the bravest fighters in the ZOB," wrote Zivia Lubetkin in her book "In the Days of Destruction and Revolt."

"His parents died in the ghetto," she wrote. "They starved to death. While still living in his small town he was taken to a labor camp, where he experienced seven levels of hell and degradation ... Before he knew the fate about to befall the people of Israel, he swore revenge. The desire for revenge filled his entire being. In January, when the Germans broke into the apartment he was sharing with Zukerman, Lubetkin and other members of ZOB, he shot two Nazis."

On April 29, the day the revolt broke out, he was posted at 33 Nalewki Street, the place from which the first shots were fired toward a German column marching down the street. Molotov cocktails and grenades soon followed.

Throughout the revolt and in its aftermath, while there was still breath in his lungs and bullets in his gun, Zechariasz took revenge on the Germans. But I don't think I would be wrong if I said his greatest revenge will be in tomorrow's march by the Israeli chief of staff and Jewish army through the death camps; in the flight of Israel Air Force planes through the skies of Auschwitz a decade ago; and in the establishment of the state of Israel and its continued existence, weapons at the ready, and our determination to never let it happen again.

Zechariasz has also obtained revenge through the members of our family who remained alive, built homes in Israel and had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom will wave flags here in another week on Independence Day, the blue and white flag. Yes, the Zionist flag, the one that was flown 70 years ago on the roof a building in the ghetto surrounded by flames.


Amos Regev is the editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom.

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