The memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became a matter of dispute, among Jews and non-Jews alike, almost immediately after its repression by German forces and was debated between rival political, social, and national groups and in different languages and cultural contexts. A controversy arose and continues in different forms until today over the meaning of heroism, between struggle for survival and active resistance and the role of the Polish population facing the Holocaust. This conference, organized by TOM NAVON (Leipzig), JAN GERBER (Leipzig) and LUKAS BÖCKMANN (Leipzig), brought together scholarship on the historical event and its memory. The contradictions relating to the memorial history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were born from the complexity of the event itself. Larger questions of universalism and particularism, nationalization and acculturation, experience, and memory were invoked, concerning the destruction of anthropological certainties, the transformation of Jewish self-understanding, and the character of the ghetto as a point of transit between life and death. As Jan Gerber stated in his introduction, the conference itself aimed at commemorating the historical event through critical engagement and analysis.
AGNIESZKA HASKA (Warsaw) opened the discussion on remembrance with her study on the ongoing battle of memory and how it is inscribed in the landscape of the former Warsaw Ghetto. She illustrated the contesting Polish and Jewish narratives of memory that either emphasize the Warsaw Uprising or the Ghetto Uprising with the example of the Bauman Children's Hospital, where one memorial plaque honors the Jewish pediatrician Anna Braude Heller, and another one the role played by the hospital during the Polish uprising.
JAN GERBER addressed the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in divided Germany. The heroic narrative of the ghetto uprising, which was even stronger in Eastern Germany, overshadowed the discussion of the suffering of the victims and German responsibility. Willy Brandt's 1970 genuflection in front of the memorial to the ghetto fighters was not only a turning point in West German remembrance policy but also a symbol of the changed perception of the ghetto uprising. The crime and its victims became the central reference point of memory, at the expense of the memory of resistance and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
LAURENCE WEINBAUM (Jerusalem) claimed that remembrance and research on the revisionist ŻZW (Jewish Military Union) have been pushed to the margins. He explained this with a lack of sources and a lack of a symbolic figure such as Mordechai Anielewicz, but also today’s political agendas of remembrance. The history of the ŻZW has been further distorted by false accounts by Poles as Henryk Iwański and the creation of the merely fictitious figure of Dawid Apfelbaum. Weinbaum called on today’s historians to also research actors they are not sympathetic with.
MATYLDA JONAS-KOWALIK (Uppsala) presented a second force in the uprising, the communists. Although they provided at least 57 fighters, their contribution to the uprising is still a gap in the historiography of the event. Their history was distorted by the political agendas of the People’s Republic of Poland and sidelined after 1989 due to anticommunist ressentiment. However, the fact that the communists had close ties with their counterparts on the other side of the ghetto wall makes them a fascinating subject for study. She then presented her findings on the communists’ history, which was marked by a transition from a mosaic of organizations connected by ideology but separated by structures to a unified group that sought to build anti-fascist alliances.
The alliance between the different political forces to a united uprising was presented by TOM NAVON. Before the war, the youth movements were divided by their organizational and ideological differences as communists, socialists, and Zionists. With the closing of the ghetto the youth movements were cut off from the first-rank leadership of their organizations and therefore from the strong organizational ideological cohesion. The common experience in the ghetto and common strategies to deal with the acute needs unified the different movements, resulting in the formation of a common fighting organization (ŻOB). However, Navon emphasized that political differences remained meaningful for the members until the very end.
In his keynote lecture, JAN TOMASZ GROSS (New Jersey) located the ghetto within Polish history. With the title “It’s nothing. It’s in the ghetto,” he referred to the Polish mindset during the war, which removed the Jewish experience in the ghetto from the realm of their own experience and human solidarity. The great silence within the People’s Republic of Poland was broken with the end of the communist regime and the opening of archives when the debate about the Jewish suffering and the role played by the Polish “bystanders” burst into the public space. Gross criticized the still-enduring repression of the Holocaust and the ghetto within the Polish consciousness and historical memory. How can the extermination of three Million mostly urban Poles and the massive restructuring of society it caused not be considered a major event in the Polish history of the 20th century, he asked.
LUIZA NADER (Warsaw) worked with paintings from the ghetto as records of everyday life, but added that they transcend the visual testimony of photography by also teaching us about the emotional experience. With the example of the works by Mieczysław Wejman, she showed how his art can help historians understand the emotional implications of the obscene experience of the total indifference of Poles to the suffering of the Jews in the ghetto. By closely looking at the drawings of Halina Ołomucka, Nader showed that the act of drawing itself can be understood as an act of subversion and resistance, that gave the artist emotional strength and purpose to survive the ghetto.
AGNIESZKA KAJCZYK (Warsaw) and ANNA DUŃCZYK-SZULC (Warsaw) presented their research on film and photography sources showing the Warsaw Ghetto and its uprising. By looking at material from both bystanders outside and victims inside the ghetto, as well as materials by men and women, professionals and amateurs, criminals and Righteous Among the Nations, they looked at the ghetto from a multitude of viewpoints. In the following discussion, the audience expressed that for example, the pictures from outside the ghetto walls help to illustrate how much the closure of the ghetto also influenced and changed the city outside the walls.
In contrast, CHRISTOPH KREUTZMÜLLER (Bad Arolsen) and TAL BRUTTMANN (Paris) looked at the perpetrator’s photographs of the uprising. They criticized the use of photographs from the Stroop Report, which is still common, to illustrate the ghetto uprising, although they show a historically inaccurate image of the event. Critically reading the photographs of the Stoop Report reveals that they are mere propaganda material, creating a narrative of a heroic German battle. Most scenes were staged and there are no depictions of armed fighters, the main actors of the historical event. As an alternative to the perpetrator’s sources, they suggest using prewar photos of the fighters to illustrate the uprising.
The following panel focused on some of the protagonists of the uprising. AVIHU RONEN (Haifa) studied the important role female protagonists played in the leadership as delegates outside the ghetto and paramedics, messengers, and fighters during the uprising. Ronen explained their unique role through the movement’s egalitarianism, solidarity, and socialism. Most youth groups in the movement had a male military leader and a female social leader. Since more female leaders survived, they emphasized the role of their fallen male co-leaders, which undermined the role of women in the narrative of the uprising. The audience added that most of these women went back to the household sphere when they arrived in the Kibbutzim in Israel. Another question from the audience remained unanswered: While women fought on the front line with the men, did men also take up tasks in the female (care)sphere?
MARIA FERENC (Warsaw) told the story of the heroization of Mordechai Anielewicz. With the example of Emanuel Ringelblum, she showed how intellectuals turned Anielewicz into the embodiment of the courageous Jew during the war. As the different youth movements involved in the uprising struggled to dominate the narrative of the uprising after the war, Anielewicz emerged as a Zionist national symbol. In communist Poland on the other hand Anielewicz became a universalized symbol of a Polish worker fighting fascism while leaving out his Zionism and Jewishness.
CONSTANCE PÂRIS DE BOLLARDIÈRE (Paris) engaged with Marek Edelman, another leader of the uprising, by contextualizing his recovered notes. Although the fragmented notes do not address the time of the uprising, de Bollardière argued that they help us understand the context in which the event took place, as well as the context in which Edelman wrote down his memories. Edelman most likely created the notes in 1968, after losing his job due to antisemitic politics, which gave him the time and might have also given him the motivation to write about his experience. De Bollardière also contextualized the French publication of the notes in 2022 within a broader effort to commemorate Edelman in France.
The following panel discussed the testimonies of Rachel Auerbach and Tzivia Lubetkin. KAROLINA SZYMANIAK (Warsaw) looked at the testimony delivered in the work of Rachel Auerbach, who, as a woman and Yiddishist, has been marginalized by researchers. Auerbach used literature, film, and radio to make the uprising more visible in the public sphere. She moved towards a general heroization of the unknown masses of the ghetto in her work and included a greater variety of acts in her understanding of resistance. Also, gender dimensions are repeatedly made visible in her work.
RIVKA BROT (Tel Aviv) presented her study on Tzivia Lubetkin’s testimonies in Israel. Between her arrival in Israel 1946 and the Eichman Trial 1961, Lubetkin moved from a sad and emotional narrative to a more heroic story. This contribution to the heroic collective national memory was expected from her, but, as Brot said, was also part of her own Zionist ethos. Nevertheless, she still sought to tell a personal, emotional, complex, and multilayered story.
YEHUDIT DORI DESTON (Jerusalem) broght together the two witnesses Tzivia Lubetkin and Rachel Auerbach by comparing their testimonies at the Eichmann Trial. While Lubetkin’s testimony strengthened her status as a symbol of national heroism, Auerbach remained in the shadows. Deston concluded that unlike Lubetkin’s heroic story Auerbach’s diasporic narrative, emphasizing cultural destruction and speaking Yiddish did not fit the dominant Israeli narrative of the time.
HAVI DREIFUSS (Tel Aviv/Jerusalem) stated that although civilians made up 98 percent of the ghetto inhabitants, their resistance is hardly a subject of discussions on the uprising. As early as January 1943 the masses resisted deportations with disobedience, escape, and hiding. Unlike the fighters who fought for Jewish honor, the residents fought for their survival. Their resistance was eventually broken through hunger and fire. Mentally and physically weakened, they crawled out of their bunkers; those who were not shot were deported to the gas chambers.
SEBASTIAN MUSCH (Osnabrück) drew a connection between the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Bermuda Conference on refugees, which both started on April 19th, 1943. The conference became a symbol of U.S. and British inaction in the face of the suffering of European Jews. Both events arose out of the context of German military aggression and took place in relative isolation from the global environment. Although the Bermuda Conference and its connection to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising received some attention in 1943, the conference and its link to the uprising have since been forgotten.
NOAM LEIBMAN (Givat Haviva/Haifa) presented his study on the attitude of individual Jewish Policemen towards the uprising in their wartime memoirs. Most policemen were empathetic towards the uprising and wrote positively about this attempt to save Jewish honor. However, the uprising challenged their understanding of their own participation in the Holocaust as Jewish policemen. Stanislaw Gombinski for example dealt with his own role by emphasizing the victimhood of every Jew, and by presenting the fighters and himself as non-agents, driven by fate in a world where everyone must play a role, not by conscious decision.
In his presentation on the Adolf Berman Collection, NOAM RACHMILEVITCH (Ghetto Fighters' House) stated that the wartime commemoration reflected in the collection must be understood within the context of the activities of Berman and his comrades within the Jewish National Committee and the Żegota. The organizations helped 12.000 Jews to survive in hiding in Warsaw after the liquidation of the ghetto. On the first anniversary of the uprising, the Committee published the poem collection “Voice from the Abyss” to commemorate, but also to give the Jews in hiding faith. They asked the people in hiding to write down their memories, not only to document the war but also to distract them and give them purpose. The activities together with the commemoration, explained Rachmilevitch, also gave the activists purpose in life and a way of dealing with their survivor guilt.
The panel on commemoration in communist Poland started with STEPHAN STACH’s (Leipzig) study on the Jewish, communist historian Bernard Mark, who has published extensively on the ghetto uprising, first in exile in the Soviet Union and later as the director of the Jewish Institute in Warsaw. In his work, he placed the uprising as a heroic struggle for freedom within the series of Polish uprisings in the 19th century and the anti-fascist struggle against Hitler Germany. However, increasing antizionist censorship from the Polish government made him move away from this narrative. Stach characterized Mark as a communist, who was not willing to give up his Jewish identity for his ideology. Even against resistance, Mark sought to make the Jewish perspective visible to the Polish public.
YECHIEL WEIZMAN (Ramat Gan) came to a similar conclusion on commemoration in communist Poland in his study of the anniversaries of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Within the context of Soviet antizionism, the Polish state in 1953 started universalizing the uprising as a fight against fascism at the cost of the Jewish story, instrumentalizing it for communist state propaganda. With the Eichmann Trial and increased international attention following criticism by survivors, the Polish state commemoration tried to bridge the tension between Polish nationalist propaganda and their international reputation, while being challenged by alternative forms of commemorations by the Solidarity movement around Marek Edelman.
PAWEŁ DOBROSIELSKI’s (Warsaw) presentation added a more current perspective to the panel. He analyzed the shift in public discourses of commemoration of the uprising since the elections of the Polish right-wing Law and Justice party in 2015. Within the new nationalist populism, the discourse Polonized and Catholicized the uprising and repressed the narrative of the Jewish victims. The discourse, says Dobrosielski, frames the Polish people in general as Righteous Among the Nations and denies any Polish participation in the Holocaust.
The last panel on memory and art began with ANNA ARTWIŃSKA’s (Leipzig) attempt to reread early literature on the uprising, with today’s epistemological and methodological approaches. She read the novel “Holy Week” by Jerzy Andrzejewski as a social diagnosis of the Polish intelligentsia, which was sympathetic to the Jewish suffering, but saw a symmetry in the suffering of Poles and Jews under Nazi occupation and ignored the Polish role in the suffering of the Jews. Władysław Szlengel’s “What I Read to the Dead” on the other hand criticizes Poles for their indifference and emphasizes the different experiences under Nazi occupation.
MARKUS ROTH (Frankfurt am Main) focused on the art of theatre within the ghetto. The humor with which the theatre and satirical songs addressed the suffering in the ghetto, stated Roth, was a practice of self-assertion and resistance. By picking out small details of everyday life in the ghetto, it made the great all-encompassing suffering more bearable. By inverting the hierarchies between victim and perpetrator just for a moment, the Jews in the ghetto regained some agency. Not only the armed struggle by the fighters, the hiding by the masses, and the documentation by Oneg Shabbat but also the cultural resistance should be analyzed and commemorated, Roth concluded.
SAMANTHA BASKIND (Ohio) added another literary analysis to the panel by looking at the 1961 fictional novel on the ghetto uprising “Mila 18” by the American Jew Leon Uris. The book was not meant for remembrance but to create a new postwar image of the strong courageous Jews. In contrast to the stereotype of the weak and non-patriotic Jew, Uris displays his main protagonist as a Jewish warrior with mystic power and a strong masculine spirit. As Baskin shows, the book cover is a metaphor for the biblical David, with which Uris tries to create a new Jewish identity and history of heroism.
The conference was concluded with a round table discussion with Rachel Einwohner, Avinoam Patt, and Daniel Blatman on the new perspectives on the relationship between history and memory emerging from the conference. Daniel Blatman questioned the lack of perspectives from Germans and perpetrators at the conference and assumed that also the Polish perspectives offer us much more material than what has been presented at the conference so far. Rachel Einwohner questioned Marek Edelman’s perspective that there is only room for one hero in the story. Does memory have to be a battlefield, between Zionists and Bundists, between Lubetkin and Auerbach, between Poles and Jews? Maybe a truly collective memory could allow ambiguity, diversity, and a multitude of remembrances. Avinoam Patt agrees that this would also allow us to see the multitude of resistance, not just from the fighters, but also the historians, painters, poets, and the masses. The panel questioned that the example of the commemoration of both Jewish Anna Braude Heller and the Polish Home Army at the Bauman Children's Hospital, presented in the beginning of the conference by Agnieska Haska, must be a battle of memory. Does this example not show that Jewish and Polish memory can perfectly overlap in space, that they are interconnected and diverse? Daniel Blatman concluded that the task for future researchers is to balance this multitude of narratives into an integrated history of the Holocaust.
Eva Inès Obergfell (Leipzig), Yfaat Weiss (Leipzig): Welcome Remarks
Jan Gerber (Leipzig): Introduction
Panel 1: Remembering the Uprising
Chair: Andrzej Żbikowski
Agnieszka Haska (Warsaw): History, Politics and Collective Memory: The Ongoing Battle in the Landscape of the Former Warsaw Ghetto
Jan Gerber (Leipzig): Split Guilt: The Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Divided Germany
Panel 2: Driving Forces
Chair: Michał Trębacz
Laurence Weinbaum (Jerusalem): “They Must Leave an Imprint…”: Unraveling the Convoluted Story of the ŻZW in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Matylda Jonas-Kowalik (Uppsala): “We Share the Same Goal – The Fight and the Resistance:” A New Look on the Communist Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto
Tom Navon (Leipzig): “Socialist Youth Were Still Fighting”: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Modern Jewish Politics
Chair: Yfaat Weiss
Jan Tomasz Gross (New Jersey): “It’s Nothing. It’s in the Ghetto.” Reflections on the 80th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Panel 3: Outlook on the Uprising
Chair: Maren Röger
Luiza Nader (Warsaw): The Witness and the Bystander: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Visual Works of Halina Ołomucka and Mieczysław Wejman
Agnieszka Kajczyk and Anna Duńczyk-Szulc (Warsaw): Anthology of Glances: Warsaw Ghetto and the Uprising in Films and Photographs
Christoph Kreutzmüller (Bad Arolsen) and Tal Bruttmann (Paris): Shifting Perspective: The Stroop-Report Photos and the Ghetto Fighters
Panel 4: Protagonists
Chair: Noam Rachmilevitch
Avihu Ronen (Haifa): Women as Leaders: The Role of Women in the Jewish Resistance in Warsaw and Other Ghettos
Maria Ferenc (Warsaw): Making of the Hero: Memory of Mordechai Anielewicz in the First Years after the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (1949–1943)
Constance Pâris de Bollardière (Paris): A Multi-Directional Contextualization: Marek Edelman’s Recovered Notes on the Warsaw Ghetto
Panel 5: Bearing Witness
Chair: Tanja Zimmermann
Karolina Szymaniak (Warsaw): “Eyes Wide Open, Red from Smoke:” The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the Work of Rachel Auerbach
Rivka Brot (Tel Aviv): Tzivia Lubetkin: The Private and the Public, The Symbol and the Body
Yehudit Dori Deston (Jerusalem): Resistance, Memory and the Law: The Testimonies of Tzivia Lubetkin and Rachel Auerbach at the Eichmann Trial
Havi Dreifuss (Tel Aviv/Jerusalem): Disobedience, Escape and Hiding: The Unknown Battle of the Masses
Panel 6: Wartime Perspectives
Chair: Bernd Karwen
Sebastian Much (Osnabrück): The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Bermuda Conference on Refugees: Global Connections of Two Events in April 1943
Noam Leibman (Givat Haviva/Haifa): Wartime Memoirs: Jewish Policemen’ Attitudes Toward the Uprising
Noam Rachmilevitch (Ghetto Fighters' House): Wartime Commemoration: The Adolf Berman Collection
Panel 7: Interpretation and Commemoration
Chair: Stefan Rohdewald
Stephan Stach (Leipzig): Ber(nard) Mark: Historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Yechiel Weizman (Ramat Gan): The Dialectics of Commemoration: Anniversaries of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Communist Poland
Paweł Dobrosielski (Warsaw): Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Anniversary Ceremonies 2015–2022 in the Shadows of the Polish Nationalistic Memory Politics: Public Discourse Analysis
Panel 8: The Art of Memory
Chair: Noam Leibman
Anna Artwińska (Leipzig): The First Witnesses: Władysław Szlengel’s “What I Read to the Dead” and Jerzy Andrzejwski’s “Holy Week” as Catastrophic Narratives and Social Diagnoses
Markus Roth (Frankfurt am Main): Staging Resistance: Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto on Stage During the Holocaust and Afterwards
Samantha Baskind (Ohio): “I like my Jews Mean and Fighting:” Leon Uris’ “Mila 18” and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in American Culture
Round Table Discussion: Between the Uprising and its Commemoration
Chair: Tom Navon
Rachel Einwohner, Avinoam Patt, and Daniel Blatman