i wrote this a little while ago, but today seems like the right day to post it. today is the 75th anniversary, according to the christian calendar, of the װאַרשע געטאָ אױפֿשטאַנד, the warsaw ghetto uprising. there’s so much to say about that heroic act of resistance, and the years of less-commemorated struggle that came before and after it, but other folks have been saying it for years. look, if you haven’t already, at the wonderful writing of irena klepfisz (in poetry and prose), the songs and poems of shmerke kaczerginski and avrom sutzkever, the memoirs and interviews of marek edelman… it’s a day to think, as well, about the things that we can – that we need to – learn from those struggles. in that spirit: honor to their memories – koved zeyer ondenk – כּבֿיד זײער אָנדענק
like a lot of us – jewish radicals; antifascists of all flavors; folks thinking about concrete resistance to state violence – i’ve been thinking a lot about the jewish partisan fighters of the 1930s and 40s lately. this year, i’ve seen their memory invoked, in many ways, far more often than in the previous decade. i’ve done plenty of that, too, in my contribution to this year’s Radical Jewish Calendar Project, among other places.
but lately, especially after a conversation just before the new year (5778, not 2018) with my dear friend and comrade malcolm, i’ve been thinking about how we talk about partisans, which partisans we talk about, and what we do and don’t say. and i’ve been getting a little worried. this is a bit of an exploration of how this history is used, guided by walter benjamin’s warning that antifascists must think about the past knowing that even the dead will not be safe from our enemies if they are victorious (and that our enemies have not ceased to be victorious).
if you want a tl;dr, just skip to the end. there are conclusions drawn.
i’m specifying “jewish partisans” here, and throughout, because jews were only one part of the armed resistance in the territories conquered by the axis states, from france to the philippines. “partisan” doesn’t imply jewishness – or anything besides armed struggle against fascism outside the control of a state’s armed forces.
above all, “partisan” doesn’t imply any particular political position. but most partisan groups were decidedly political, adhering to one or another preexisting movement or ideology. and most, including jewish partisans, were consciously struggling on at least three fronts: against fascists and fascist collaborators, against some or all the other ‘great powers’ seeking to control the postwar world, and against other local political formations.
not all jewish partisans were progressive, much less revolutionaries.
in certain ways, we can honor anyone who took up arms to fight fascism. but for those of us who’re committed to struggling for liberation, not all of them can be our heroes.
for instance, some of the most widely circulated images of jewish partisans are of the unit led by abba kovner that was active near vilna after the United Partisan Organization [yiddish acronym: FPO] fought its way out of the vilna ghetto. kovner is a partisan whose later history is crystal clear: his lifelong zionist commitment found expression as one of the most explicitly racist military propagandists during the nakba (calling egyptians “vipers” and “dogs”, and calling for massacres, according to biographer dina porat). kovner is also the zionist figure who most obviously and directly transformed a desire for revenge against germans into genocidal warfare against palestinians – a story brought to light again by dan kahn’s song “Six Million Germans”, which tells the story of kovner’s post-war attempt to poison the water supplies of major german cities.
vitka kempner, rozka korczak, and most of the others in kovner’s group shared his politics and his affiliation with the ‘labor-zionist’ HaShomer HaTzair. they, like other HaShomer partisans, generally went on to join the main zionist army in palestine and participate in the massacres, ethnic cleansing, and mass displacement of the 1947-48 nakba.
other jewish partisan units grew out of the Mussolini-inspired Betar movement, including one of the two organizations that carried out the warsaw ghetto uprising, the Jewish Military Union [polish acronym: ŻZW]. these fighters generally went on to join the irgun, the stern gang, and other far-right zionist paramilitaries that exceeded even the main zionist army in their genocidal zeal before, during, and after the nakba.
and some of these zionist jewish partisan units were actively allied with non-jewish nationalist partisan groups, including those who participated in or led pogroms targeting surviving jews and roma/sinti after the war. the ŻZW and other Betari partisans, in particular, worked in collaboration with the polish Home Army [polish acronym: AK], whose leadership did not consider jews to be part of the polish nation they fought for, and which was partly integrated with the far-right National Armed Forces [polish acronym: NSZ]. some parts of the AK were willing to extend limited support to jewish partisans, but jewish survival was not one of their goals. aligning with the AK/NSZ was an active choice: there were non-jewish polish partisans from the left and center who did make supporting jews part of their mission. for Betar, shared nationalist politics took priority over all else, just as it had before the war in their partnership with Mussolini’s fascist government and overtures towards the polish far right.
these jewish fighters were partisans, but they are not heroes. they are the same as the many non-jewish partisan units who went on to participate in the post-war pogroms, who joined efforts to bring the nationalist right to power in eastern europe (first in the 1940s and again since the 1980s), or who cooperated with the u.s., french, and british armies to reestablish colonialism in north africa, southeast asia, and other frontline areas. they fought against fascism, but what they fought for is not what we fight for, and their victories are not our victories.
which partisans’ images and histories survive is not accidental.
but the members of these zionist units are, generally, the jewish partisans whose faces and stories are easiest to find. this isn’t surprising, given the tight hold that zionist organizations have had on u.s. jewish communities and culture since the 1960s. although the very existence of jewish partisans calls into question the zionist dogma that european jews were easily slaughtered, where there are unavoidable traces of active resistance, they must be claimed for the new zionist Muskeljüden [‘muscle-jews’ – eugenicist and founding zionist Max Nordau’s phrase].
the one other set of jewish partisans that have remained visible – partly because it serves as a strong counter to the zionist-centered narrative – have been the units formed out of the Bund. in the vilna ghetto’s FPO, the warsaw ghetto’s Jewish Combat Organization [yiddish acronym: YKO; polish acronym: ŻOB], and elsewhere, Bundists played a major role, building on the party’s half-century tradition of organizing armed self-defense units in jewish communities. Bundist partisans are unquestionably heroes for liberation struggles: their combination of antifascist militancy, consistent diasporist opposition to zionism, and struggle towards an anticapitalist future in multiethnic societies has been a lodestone for jewish radicals of the 5760s and 70s [christian reckoning: 1999-present] for good reason.
But zionists and Bundists weren’t the largest groups among the jewish partisans. even combined, they were probably significantly outnumbered by communist jewish partisans, who are almost entirely absent from the current conversation. when their stories can’t be avoided – as with assassin/saboteur niuta “wanda” teitelboim – they’re treated as individual fighters rather than as members of organized groups.
and the reasons why we almost never hear about this majority of jewish partisan fighters are precisely why it’s so important to think about how we tell this history.
which partisans are erased is not accidental either.
in very brief summary:
first and foremost, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact of the second red scare on how history is told in the u.s., even among progressives and radicals. anything and anyone even loosely associated with communism is supposed to be forgotten, concealed, or misrepresented – and almost always is. in u.s. accounts of world war two, whether liberal or conservative, the decisive role the u.s.s.r. played in defeating the nazis is minimized, and the partisan struggles that brought a diverse assortment of communist-aligned leftists to power all across eastern europe (to be replaced within a few years by leaders loyal to stalin) are almost completely absent.
secondly, communist jewish partisans generally fought in mixed units, alongside their non-jewish comrades. the balance varied, but exclusively jewish units were rare, and often a response to mixed groups failing to actually practice the communist political commitment to resisting antisemitism. this practice of non-isolation makes communist partisans inconvenient for zionist and other contemporary identitarian narratives, which depend on the idea of an unbridgable gulf between jews and their neighbors.
(note, however, that while Bundist partisans get rewritten into this identitarian mode because of their diaspora-nationalist politics, they insisted more than any other group on cooperation with their non-jewish leftist comrades, often refusing to join exclusively jewish alliances that both zionists and communists entered.)
third, and connected to this, is communist jewish partisans apparently having been less confined to the ghettos. i’m not sure whether this was because communist units, being mixed, were more able to provide their members with safe refuges, or because they made helping their fighters escape more of a priority, or for some other reason. this puts most communist partisans outside the framework of Noble But Doomed Martyrdom that helps make armed struggle in the ghettos palatable in the contemporary u.s.
fourth, the postwar history of stalinism plays a significant role. throughout the war, the u.s.s.r.’s armed forces provided supplies and other aid to a large number of partisan units, both communist and non-communist, all over eastern europe. this involved a relaxation of stalin’s insistence on absolute control in exchange for support, and a pause in stalin’s antisemitic campaigns within the u.s.s.r. after the war, partisan fighters (especially jewish partisans) inconveniently disproved the official story of the all-conquering Red Army as the sole liberator of eastern europe. worse, they offered a concrete example of the power of popular armed resistance to undermine a major military power. so partisans, and especially jewish partisans, were high on the list of those targeted for purges, execution, and imprisonment as soon as stalin was able to restore business as usual in the u.s.s.r., and to replace the immediate post-war leadership elsewhere in eastern europe (generally fairly decentralized, involving a range of leftists and lots of partisans) with regimes willing to follow his orders.
and, finally, some on the left (including anarchists who deny that they are part of the left) are inclined to dismiss everything connected with the u.s.s.r., the communist parties aligned with it, and the vast movements that those parties instigated and supported, as nothing more than an extension of stalinism. as understandable as that is, given the horrors carried out by the soviet state during stalin’s rule (and the complicity of the leaders of communist parties who were aware of them), it buys into a deeply reactionary understanding of social movements as top-down structures, in which single leaders are mimicked word for word by massed drones.
communist partisans, jewish and goyish, are a perfect illustration of how wrong this view of the world is. they were not fighting for stalin. they were fight for their communities’ survival, and for a world in which their communities could thrive. they were right to see the u.s.s.r. as the only ‘great power’ with even fleeting, tactical interest in saving jewish lives. and stalin was right to see them as a threat to his continued rule – they had played a key part in the defeat of one oppressive regime that used the language of socialism; they could easily have turned their attention to him next. that would have been an extension of their communist politics, not a betrayal of them. and this, too, is a reason their stories go untold.
this isn’t an isolated process.
it isn’t only in talking about partisans that these dynamics of historical erasure happen. malcolm pointed out to me some of the similarities in the pattern at work in recent discussions of the history and importance of ACT UP. one story is being told, promoting uncritical applause for some aspects of a large and contradictory political effort, erasing others, and denying that there are even differences to take into consideration.
take, for example, jim hubbard and sarah schulman’s documentary, United In Anger. while it makes excellent use of the ACT UP New York Oral History Project’s archive to discuss some of the tensions within ACT UP NY around racism, misogyny, and hierarchy, it is carefully framed to avoid most of the questions the current liberal consensus on the epidemic doesn’t want to deal with.
among the things you cannot learn from United In Anger are:
– ACT UP chapters outside new york had their own lives beyond participating in national actions;
– most ACT UP chapters remained active past the mid-1990s (including ACT UP NY, which like many is still around);
– some ACT UP chapters were taken over by HIV denialists, and actively obstructed HIV+ folks’ access to lifesaving treatment and HIV- folks’ access to prevention methods;
– some ACT UP chapters had (and have) memberships primarily of black folks, of injection drug users, and of other groups besides white gay men;
– some ACT UP chapters thrived after the departure of most of their white gay male membership, who either refused to work in support of HIV+ women and/or folks of color, or insisted on confining themselves to a limited, ‘expert’-driven “drugs in bodies” program.
all of these things are hugely important to understanding the history of ACT UP, and of HIV/AIDS organizing in the u.s. without them, there’s no way to think concretely about either the successes or the failures of that organizing. and accounts which leave them out, like United In Anger, are shaped by very much the same things that shape the stories we hear and don’t hear about jewish partisan fighters.
who lived to tell the tale. who has access to the means of spreading a story. which stories are inconvenient for the survivors, for their allies, for those in power. which stories reflect badly on the influential, on those in power.
and, above all, which stories can be told without making political choices that have consequences.
learning from partisans.
the most important lessons we can learn from looking at the histories of jewish partisans are, i think, the ones that push us to make clear political choices in our work today.
partisans’ examples, both positive and negative, demand that we ask ourselves what we fight for. we know our enemies, but what is it that we seek to create? the communist niuta teitelboim knew, and was ready to risk death for it. the bundist marek edelman knew, and lived to struggle for it in poland until this century. the zionist abba kovner knew, and survived to commit genocide in palestine for it. all their answers were different. what are ours?
what all the jewish partisans did share is a second lesson they teach us by example. they knew that in a very literal sense, resistance is life and collaboration is death. the history bears them out: in holland, where the documentation is particularly thorough, fully half the jews who hid or fought survived, compared to a negligible number of those who didn’t resist, and even fewer among active collaborators (see arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem for more on this). partisans understood this, and directed their armed struggle not just against the nazis and the nationalists who supported them, but against the jews whose collaboration made their genocide attempt possible by discouraging and suppressing resistance (as well facilitating mass deportations and ghetto surveillance). judenrat members and the jewish ghetto police were as much the jewish partisans’ enemies as the gestapo.
we need that level of clarity right now. there is nothing to gain from pretending that we are on the same side as organizations that cozy up to the far right – for example, the American Jewish Committee, which calls austrian neo-fascist sebastian kurz its “friend”, or the Anti-Defamation League, with its decades of attacking liberation struggles from South Africa to Nicaragua to Palestine. and there can be no room in our movements for structures, organizations, and self-appointed leaders who act to discourage concrete resistance, to push it into abstraction or image-making, to redirect it towards cosmetic changes, or to constrain it to respectable forms.
finally, we can learn a great deal from the jewish partisans about different forms of cooperation and non-cooperation. all the kinds of partisan units – Bundist, communist, Betari, HaShomer, and more – formed many different kinds of relationships with each other, and with non-jewish and mixed partisan forces (and at times armies). they understood the differences between forming strategic alliances based on longterm goals and political alignment (as the Betari ŻZW did with the polish nationalist AK/NSZ, or some communist partisans did with the Red Army) and developing tactical coordination for specific actions (as the Bundist YKO and Betari ŻZW did during the warsaw ghetto uprising). as we work to resist fascism today, and to build the worlds we want to live in, we will need to form both these kinds of connections with other organizers, groups, and movements – and we will need to understand what each relationship is, and what it is not.
the political choices we make today determine what we can do, what we can succeed at, and most importantly of all, what we will accomplish when we succeed. the worst thing we can do is pretend that we do not have to choose. not even our dead will be safe from our enemy if we do not have their clarity and courage to choose.,