Nazi-sponsored persecution and mass murder fueled resistance to the Germans in the Third Reich itself and throughout occupied Europe. Although Jews were the Nazis' primary victims, they too resisted Nazi oppression in a variety of ways, both collectively and as individuals.
Organized armed resistance was the most forceful form of Jewish opposition to Nazi policies in German-occupied Europe. Jewish civilians offered armed resistance in over 100 ghettos in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. In April-May 1943, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rose in armed revolt after rumors that the Germans would deport the remaining ghetto inhabitants to the Treblinka killing center. As German SS and police units entered the ghetto, members of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa; ZOB) and other Jewish groups attacked German tanks with Molotov cocktails, hand grenades, and a handful of small arms. Although the Germans, shocked by the ferocity of resistance, were able to end the major fighting within a few days, it took the vastly superior German forces nearly a month before they were able to completely pacify the ghetto and deport virtually all of the remaining inhabitants. For months after the end of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, individual Jewish resisters continued to hide in the ruins of the ghetto, which SS and police units patrolled to prevent attacks on German personnel.
During the same year, ghetto inhabitants rose against the Germans in Vilna (Vilnius), Bialystok, and a number of other ghettos. Many ghetto fighters took up arms in the knowledge that the majority of ghetto inhabitants had already been deported to the killing centers; and also in the knowledge that their resistance even now could not save from destruction the remaining Jews who could not fight. But they fought for the sake of Jewish honor and to avenge the slaughter of so many Jews.
Thousands of young Jews resisted by escaping from the ghettos into the forests. There they joined Soviet partisan units or formed separate partisan units to harass the German occupiers.
Although many Jewish council (Judenrat) members cooperated under compulsion with the Germans until they themselves were deported, some, such as Jewish council chairman Moshe Jaffe in Minsk, resisted by refusing to comply when the Germans ordered him to hand over Jews for deportation in July 1942.
Jewish prisoners rose against their guards at three killing centers. At Treblinka in August 1943 and Sobibor in October 1943, prisoners armed with stolen weapons attacked the SS staff and the Trawniki-trained auxiliary guards. The Germans and their auxiliaries killed most of the rebels, either during the uprising or later, after hunting down those who escaped. Several dozen prisoners eluded their pursuers and survived the war, however. In October 1944, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, members of the Jewish Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) mutinied against the SS guards. Nearly 250 died during the fighting; the SS guards shot another 200 after the mutiny was suppressed. Several days later, the SS identified five women, four of them Jewish, who had been involved in supplying the members of the Sonderkommando with explosives to blow up a crematorium. All five women were killed.
In many countries occupied by or allied with the Germans, Jewish resistance often took the form of aid and rescue. Jewish authorities in Palestine sent clandestine parachutists such as Hannah Szenes into Hungary and Slovakia in 1944 to give whatever help they could to Jews in hiding. In France, various elements of the Jewish underground consolidated to form different resistance groups, including the Armée Juive (Jewish Army) which operated in the south of France. Many Jews fought as members of national resistance movements in Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Slovakia.
Jews in the ghettos and camps also responded to Nazi oppression with various forms of spiritual resistance. They made conscious attempts to preserve the history and communal life of the Jewish people despite Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jews from human memory. These efforts included: creating Jewish cultural institutions, continuing to observe religious holidays and rituals, providing clandestine education, publishing underground newspapers, and collecting and hiding documentation, as in the case of the Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw that would tell the story of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, despite its destruction in 1943.
Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe: With a Historial Survey of the Jew as Fighter and Soldier in the Diaspora. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.
Glass, James M. Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Moral Uses of Violence and Will. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Grubsztein, Meir, editor. Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Proceedings of the Conference on Manifestations of Jewish Resistance, Jerusalem, April 7-11, 1968. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1971.
Gutman, Israel. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Krakowski, Shmuel. The War of the Doomed: Jewish Armed Resistance in Poland, 1942-1944. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1984.
Rudavsky, Joseph. To Live With Hope, To Die With Dignity: Spiritual Resistance in the Ghettos and Camps. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997.
Tec, Nechama. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC
Jewish Resistance Essay
We must first realize that resistance was in no way a survival strategy. Yet, even when it seemed obvious that death was near inevitable, why did they not put up a fight? This argument is still puzzling to many holocaust historians, yet the arguments of Raul Hilberg and Yehuda Bauer offer insight to possible reasons why they did not fight and that resistance was more widespread than most people think.
First of all we will look at Raul Hilberg’s “Two Thousand Years of Jewish Appeasement,” to give us possible reasons why Jews simply willing followed orders to their death. We must see the destruction in a way that has two role-players: the perpetrators and the victims. We will closely look at the role that Jews played in sealing their own fate.
Hilberg gives us five possible Jewish reactions to the situation they had been confronted with. First of all we will look at the possibility of resistance. It seems as though people would not willingly walk to their death, but 2000 years of appeasement was not easily changed. Along with the history of appeasement, the Jews were totally caught by surprise. They had little organization and so, could not put up a worthwhile fight even if they had wanted to. The SS also did a good job of mental warfare in that any resistance, no matter how significant, the perpetrators knew that the repercussions would affect the whole community and so it was hard to muster support for physical opposition.
The second reaction was Jewish attempt to make the struggle more of a mental battle than a physical one. They tried to avert the full plans of the German army by using written and oral appeals. Jews also tried to anticipate German wishes. The SS found that the ghettos could be very productive and tried to milk them for all they could. In this way, the Jews believed that if they were able to be productive, they would be spared long enough because of their economic value for help to arrive.
Another possible reaction is flight. Only a few thousand Jews escaped from the ghettos in Russia and Poland, and very few escaped from the camps. This was the most viable survival option and yet very few took it. Von dem Bach talked about an “unguarded escape route to the Pripet Marshes” but few Jews took the opportunity to escape. Many of the people that did not try to escape early, did not escape at all.
A fifth option, which was automatic compliance, seemed to be what the Jews used the most. 2000 years of appeasement had helped them endure “the Crusades, The Cossack uprisings, and the czarists persecution. There were many casualties in these times of stress, but always the Jewish community emerged once again like a rock from a receding tidal wave.” Although many times people were told that millions of Jews were being killed in death...
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