Tracking a Warsaw ghetto fighter

I met Leon Weinstein, hale and hearty at 101, three months ago and listened to his dramatic recollections as a fighter and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the bravest chapters in modern Jewish history.

By normal journalistic practice, the article should have been written within a week. It took me much longer to verify the story, to discover, in the process, how controversial the battles of 1943 are to this day and to gain new respect for the complexities of historical research. The unplanned delay may have been fortuitous, putting publication of this article over to the week commemorating Kristallnacht. Many experts consider the Nov. 9 Nazi rampage against German Jews to be the overture to the Holocaust and to the horror to come, from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz.

It is no longer considered a miracle to pass the century mark, but few manage to do so with the humor and retentiveness of Weinstein.  Sitting in his daughter’s comfortable home in Hancock Park, Weinstein talked of growing up in the village of Radzymin, 12 miles from Warsaw, with seven siblings and an extended family of 90, most of whom perished in Treblinka.

Weinstein was always the wild one of the clan and was such a talented soccer player that he was asked to join the resident Polish Catholic team, a rare “honor” for a Jew.

He also became an ardent member of Betar, the Zionist youth group of the right-wing Revisionist movement, founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

At 15, he walked to Warsaw, became a tailor’s apprentice, by 18 he was foreman at a clothing factory and in the same year joined the Polish army.

Soon after his marriage to Sima, the Nazis invaded Poland, in September 1939, and the young couple was confined to the Jewish enclave in his hometown. One year later, their daughter, Natasha Leya, was born.

When Weinstein learned inadvertently from a German guard that all of his hometown’s Jews were to be deported in a few days, he took his wife and daughter to Warsaw, hoping to survive in the big city.

This proved impossible with a baby in tow, and, in a desperate move, the parents bundled up the blond, blue-eyed, 18-month-old girl on a cold December day and left her on the doorsteps of a childless Christian lawyer and his wife.

“I put a crucifix on a necklace around her neck,” Weinstein recounted, “and pinned a note on her saying, ‘I’m a war widow and can no longer take care of her. I beg you, good people, please take care of her, in the name of Jesus Christ, and he will take care of you for this deed.’”

From a distance he watched as the lawyer picked up the baby, read the note, and then walked half a block to a police station to leave Natasha there.

Sima then went into hiding, and Weinstein, after fighting with partisans in the forest, thought he would find shelter in the Warsaw ghetto.

When the ghetto resistance groups rose in April 1943, the first urban revolt in Nazi-

occupied Europe, Weinstein said he alternated between smuggling guns into the ghetto, and then using the rifles and grenades to fight the Germans.

When the ghetto fell after 27 days of murderous fighting, Weinstein and six comrades escaped through the Warsaw sewers to the “Aryan” side and hid with a Polish family until the city was liberated, he recounted.

Not wasting any time on celebrations, Weinstein got a bicycle and started a six-month search for the daughter he had left behind.

Warsaw was a sea of rubble, but, amazingly, the police station where Natasha had been left was still standing. An officer remembered that the baby had been taken to a convent. There, the nuns recalled that most of their charges had died during a typhus epidemic, but that Natasha had survived and been transferred to another convent.

The story was the same at other convents, and after visiting 10 of them, Weinstein was ready to give up. He decided to try one more, near the site of the destroyed ghetto, and there he found the now 4-year-old girl, identifiable by a birthmark on her hip.

However, his search for her mother, Sima, was fruitless. She had disappeared, but no one knew when or where.

Weinstein remarried after meeting Sophie, a Holocaust survivor. Their son, Michael, would die in a car crash in 1993. Sophie lived until 2005, when she succumbed to heart disease.

After seven postwar years, with stays in Poland, Germany and France, Weinstein decided he’d had enough of Europe; in 1953, the family traveled by ship to the United States and joined an aunt living in Los Angeles.

Weinstein established a factory in Hollywood designing and manufacturing sweaters. Natasha, now Natalie, was 13 when she arrived in Los Angeles, and one of her first jobs was to babysit a boy named Zev Yaroslavsky, today a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Natalie grew up to become a clinical social worker, after earning degrees at California State University, Long Beach, and USC. She has two adult children from her first marriage, to Alan Gold. She subsequently married Jack Lumar, who died in 1999.

Now 71, but looking at least a decade younger, Natalie is her father’s caretaker and closest companion; she accompanies him to services at Congregation Etz Chaim, and to the numerous events honoring his life and courage.

I was intrigued and impressed by Weinstein’s story and had no reason to question it. Yet, I felt a professional urge to check out his main wartime recollections. I figured that we all tend to romanticize our pasts as the years pass, and was I was wary because a number of celebrated Holocaust memoirs had proved to be fakes.

It would be simple, I thought, to establish, at a minimum, that Weinstein had been a ghetto fighter and to obtain authoritative background material on the number of fighters, how many survived and how many were still living.

My initial list of likely sources included, locally, noted Holocaust scholars Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University and Aaron Breitbart of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. While both provided helpful background material, neither had any actual data on Weinstein.

The same held true for researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

If not in the United States, I assumed that surely there would be complete archives in Israel. Fortunately, there exists a Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum (Beit Lohamei Haghetaot) in northern Israel, dedicated specifically to commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In addition, there were the vast archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, so I e-mailed and phoned both institutions.

As I waited day after day for answers and continued to repeat my requests, I began to worry that the Israeli aversion to returning phone or written inquiries had not changed much since I lived in the country in 1948 and again in the early 1960s.

However, I did find out that two key outside advisers to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum were prominent Holocaust experts: professor Israel Gutman of Yad Vashem and professor Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University.

I tried to reach them directly, and through contacts at their institutions, but all inquiries disappeared into a black hole.

Fortunately, thanks to my wife’s vast Israeli mishpachah, and through personal newspaper colleagues, I had some well-placed contacts in Israel, who, being there and speaking fluent Hebrew, might succeed where I failed.

So I reached out to my wife’s brother-in-law, professor David Gaatone of Tel Aviv University, and then another relative, professor Tuvia Friling, Israel’s former state archivist, and finally an old Jerusalem Post buddy, Abraham Rabinovich, author of the definitive book on the Yom Kippur War.

Thanks to their efforts, I started to get a trickle of responses, complemented by a lucky break.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s former defense and foreign affairs minister, is a veteran leader of the Revisionist movement and its Herut and Likud successor parties in Israel. I learned that he had studied the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising closely, but I didn’t know how to reach him.

However, I knew that he wrote a regular column for the Haaretz newspaper, so I e-mailed the paper’s opinion-page editor, who passed on my request to Arens. The latter replied within a day that he was coming out with a book on the ghetto revolt and would like to pose some specific questions to Weinstein.

Around the same time, thanks to Rabinovich’s persistence, Yossi Shavit, the archive director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, got in touch with me. All along, I was poring over books and Googling documents, so after two months, some of the pieces were beginning to fall into place.

One early revelation (to me) was that there were two main, separate Jewish organizations — and a couple of minor ones — fighting the Nazis in the ghetto, based on the left- and right-wing loyalties of the Zionist youth organizations of the time. Apparently, to this day, adherents of these ideologies are loath to credit the “other” side with its contributions to the battle.

Shavit, the archivist, provided some important data backing Weinstein’s main claim.

One was a picture of a decorative teapot in the Ghetto Fighters Museum collection, which was given by Weinstein to Helena Burchacka, a Polish woman, to sell and, with the money, buy food for Weinstein.

Burchacka, who after the war was designated a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, is also cited in a Hebrew-language book, “Memory Calls,” by Benjamin Anolik.

In the book, Burchacka states that when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started, Weinstein hid in a bunker for several weeks and then escaped through the sewers to the “Aryan” side.

Shavit added as a personal note, “I do not discount the possibility that Mr. Weinstein was a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It must be remembered that many fighters fell and that those who survived reorganized along the lines of the youth movements to which they had belonged before the uprising. The preexisting arguments and old rivalries continued for many years after the war, and it is possible that Mr. Weinstein was omitted or forgotten by those who wrote the histories.

“I myself have been privileged to meet some of the fighters who didn’t belong to the mainstream of Jewish resistance and all their lives they have claimed that the mainstream youth movements (Dror and Hashomer Hatzair) ‘forgot’ to write about them due to considerations of ideological rivalry that accompanied the fighters who survived all the rest of their lives.”

That the rivalry and ill feeling persists to this day was confirmed by Arens, whose new book, “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (Gefen Publishing House) seeks to document his statement to me that “the major part of the fighting was done by the Revisionist-led Jewish Military Union (ZZW).”

This view goes counter to the thesis of most other historians, who cite the larger Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), a coalition of predominantly liberal and socialist Zionist groups, as carrying the brunt of the battle.

With neither side listing the other side’s fighters, Weinstein probably made the task more difficult by his seemingly contradictory recollections.

He said, on one hand, that he was an ardent member of Betar, the Revisionist youth group, and a fervent admirer of Revisionist founder Jabotinsky, which would logically put him in the ranks of the Jewish Military Union.

On the other hand, Weinstein cited as his commander during the fighting Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, who was one of the main leaders of the rival Jewish Fighting Organization.

Even the figures on the number of ghetto fighters and survivors are in dispute, which might well be explained by the chaotic conditions during the battles and their aftermath.

Figures range from 300 to 1,000 active fighters, with most experts settling on around 750. Of these, perhaps no more than 12 to 20 escaped or survived the slaughter.

My own experience in a different context backs up the notion that those hoping for precise figures and conclusions of wartime battles generally underestimate the confusion and uncertainty of warfare.

Speaking of another war, during Israel’s 1948-49 War of Independence, I was a member of the 4th Anti-Tank unit, an “Anglo-Saxon” outfit composed of some 100 volunteers from Great Britain, United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia.

After the war ended, three of us sat down and typed out a history of the unit’s actions. The only copy of the manuscript was lost for 50 years, until our former unit commander in San Francisco discovered it while cleaning his basement.

He sent the yellowing pages to me, and I forwarded a photocopy to the history branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), suggesting that the information might be of interest.

In return, I received a letter expressing the IDF’s gratitude, especially in light of the fact that no one in the IDF could find any record that our unit had fought, or even existed.

In July of this year, Israel’s Knesset held a formal ceremony honoring the fallen and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first since the establishment of the state.

From the ceremony, two notable remarks are pertinent to my quest. One was by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, who noted that “we do not know who all the [Warsaw Ghetto] fighters were, and we never will.”

The other remark was by Reuven Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset: “I had the privilege of serving in the IDF as an officer and a fighter, but I am not a hero,” Rivlin said. “I never stopped a tank with a Molotov cocktail, and I did not fight empty-handed in alleys and the sewage pipes.

“Those with the courage to fight the evil Nazi empire are the real heroes. From the time of the State of Israel’s establishment, our fighters have been inspired by those who dared to rebel in the heart of the Nazi empire at the height of its power.”