In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways. From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them. I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.
The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II. Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity. In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms. That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.
Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active. Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness. Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.
Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor. Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.
Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews. They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely. Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders. Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven. Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.
When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased. Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis. One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers. The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare. Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades. Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.
When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training. The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising. In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.
Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form. Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons. These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training. Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.
Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity. In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright. Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders. In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground. In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.
Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons. In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military. Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation. Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.
The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention. Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.
More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support. Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions. Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid. Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.
Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions. Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively. That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.