Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

"Defiance" is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust.  Another good movie is "Escape from Sobibor" resistance

“Defiance” is one of the few mainstream movies that depict Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Another good movie is “Escape from Sobibor”

W.J. Astore

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.

9 thoughts on “Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

  1. Jews were among the first to organize resistance to the Germans in spite of the reluctance out of fear of many Europeans to join. I found it most interesting that even in Paris, we could find only one French Resistance museum that was located in an obscure suburb. We finally located it and it was in a big building on the ground floor with very little signage indicating its presence. People in the area seemed totally unaware of its existence. We were surprised at how poorly lit it was and because of the poor lighting we found it hard to read the placards by each exhibit (and they were only in French). As we walked around the small museum we finally learned that probably the first resistance group in Paris was a small group of Polish Jews who were ultimately caught, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo. Much later the leader of one of the leading big resistance groups was a Jewish engineer who was captured by the Gestapo and whose non-Jewish wife engineered a bold escape plan. A book and a movie document this affair.

    There were very few “righteous” Christians in Europe. Jew hunting was rewarded by the Germans. I would recommend Art Speigelman’s prize winning graphic novel “Maus” which recounts his parents experiences in German-occupied Europe.

    My uncle Nandor lived in Budapest at that time with his wife and two young sons. With the aid of the Hungarians Nandor was conscripted into a “slave labor” battalion for the German Wehrmacht. In the Ukraine while the Soviets were bombarding the Germans underground his group was forced to stay above ground to pump air into the tunnels, Miraculously Nandor survived by relieving a dead German of his uniform. He and the few Jewish survivors walked all the way back to Budapest. Out of 3000 in his battalion only 300 survived. But Nandor did not find his family when he came back because the Hungarians, heeding German orders had shipped the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and my aunt Roza and my two small nephews, Emerick and Oskar were gassed there.

    I only learned these stories many years after the war. At 18, in 1943, when I went into the U.S. Army Air Corps I had virtually no awareness of my European family and we were too involved in our own lives to think about them. The Horror!

    I now look at our country and I would raise the question, why haven’t the American people risen up against the destruction of our democracy by the last two governments we have had? If you can answer that question it might tell you why the European Jews ended up in the ovens of Auschwitz. Look in the mirror!

    • There is no excuse for Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians. There is also no excuse for U.S. policy in supporting Israeli policy except oil, which, coincidentally supports brown-skinned Saudi Arabia.

      If you are an American you can do something about American foreign policy. Look in the mirror and see where you can help to change our policies. How about regime change in Saudi Arabia and sanctions against Israel for their illegal war on Gaza for starters?

    • Your question raises an entirely different issue. Check out our site and read the articles by Richard Silverstein. But here is an important point: there is no equivalence between what the Nazis did to the Jews in World War II in the “Final Solution,” and what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today. Yes, the Palestinians are suffering, and I don’t want to minimize that. But the Nazis systematically murdered nearly six million Jews, and their plans were to murder all Jews everywhere. The Nazis waged a race war of annihilation against “inferiors”; Israel, whatever its faults, is doing nothing like that.

      I’d also say that many Jews in Israel disagree with the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians.

  2. No, there is no excuse for Israeli policy in re: the Occupation. Every day that the Occupation of the West Bank grinds on, it robs Palestinians of their dignity, their rights and their land – but not, as it turns out, of their very lives. So W. J. Astore is right. We should not confuse a brutal (and illegal) occupation with outright genocide, particularly since the Palestinian death toll since the nakba – or what Israel calls the War of Independence – is far less than say, the number of Syrians killed by the Assad regime, or the number of Iraquis – especially Kurds and Shia – killed by Saddam Hussein. I am also struck by the reference to “brown skinned Palestinians”, which appears to imply that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is primarily a racial one, or that Israelis are “white.” Not so. That is a common misconception. In 1947-1948, 711,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. But between 1947-1954, 830,000 Jews from Muslim lands (stretching from Morroco in the West to Iraq in the East) were expelled from their homes too, landing penniless in Israel. As a rule, these people were – and indeed, still are – as dark skinned as their erstwhile Muslim neighbors. There are also tens of thousands of black-skinned Ethiopian Jews who live in Israel.

    Finally, we must remember that the plight of Palestinians today is not solely the responsibility of Israeli greed and indifference. The Palestinian leadership have done much harm as well. The Palestinian people have received more foreign aid per capita than any people on the planet. But most of this money has lined the pockets of corrupt officials, and/or devoted to destroying what the Israelis built up in the wake of the Holocaust. If those monies had been channeled into building infrastructure, education and proper medical care in the West Bank and Gaza, things there would be very different today.

  3. Daniel.. I must take exception to this statement of yours…..
    “the Palestinian death toll since the nakba – or what Israel calls the War of Independence – is far less than say, the number of Syrians killed by the Assad regime, or the number of Iraquis – especially Kurds and Shia – killed by Saddam Hussein. “.
    Death is absolute and should not be diminished by comparisons. It is really irrelevant to the last bloodbath inflicted on the Gaza Palestinians by Israel how many Kurds and Shia were killed by Saddam. Each child (500+ ) as I recall has a devastated mother, and a traumatised sibling left behind. What in hell does Saddam Hussein have to do with that?
    Let us take a look at what the US has done in Iraq. Probably 5000+ children and 25,000 plus innocent civilians and we call it “collateral damage. How do you compute that? Does that make the Israeli 2100+ dead in Gaza look OK? No!
    I never met my aunt Roza or my 12 year old cousin Oskar or his brother 8 year old Emerich but I weep for them every time I think of that horror in Auschwitz. Six million is beyond my comprehension, but those three innocents are always on my mind when I see what goes on today as ‘defense’.
    Each life is precious and whether it is Israel or our drones slaughtering innocents all over the world we must weep for them.
    As Ehud Barack once said “Israel lives in a tough neighborhood.” I have relatives there and I feel sorry for the mess we and their government has gotten them into but I cannot do anything about that except try to influence our government. As a citizen here that is my responsibility and to no other nation do I owe that responsibiity.

  4. can someone help identify this movie?
    I’m trying to remember the name of this movie. It is very vague recollection though. I think the movie came out in the late 90s or maybe this decade. It was about wwII and (I think) mostly took place in a polish ghetto.
    I think the main actor was an older gentleman, and either an artist, or musician or playwright. It is not ‘the pianist’ or jacob the liar, it is some other movie. All I kind of recall was (i think) the germans sent him to the ghetto, but also made him entertain the prisoners (or maybe it was the soldiers?) to try to keep their morale up or something. I don’t remember most of what happened, but I think eventually he got ‘stuck’ in the ghetto and was not allowed to leave.

    I’m also pretty sure it was not in english. this was many years back, but I’m almost certain it was in another language and I watched with subtitles. I’ve looked through a bunch of ‘top’ movies on wwII etc and could never find a description of the one I’m thinking of.

    anyone got any ideas? I’m stumped

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