“Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter!“ (Abba Kovner)
In times of distress, and especially a great tragedy such as the Holocaust and World War II, man is revealed in all his ugliness, cruelty and indignity. But it is precisely in these situations, against such terrible events, that other people exhibit superior qualities, which in daily life were not required to be so radically demonstrated.
From the Nazis‘ rise to power in 1933 in Germany to the end of the Third Reich in 1945, many Jews participated in a variety of resistance actions against the National-Socialists and their collaborators. Organized armed resistance was the most direct form of opposition to the Nazis. In many areas of German-occupied Europe, resistance took other forms such as help, rescue, and spiritual resistance. The Jews were resisting isolation, dehumanization, illness, and their extermination – every single Jew living under Nazi tyranny was sentenced to death. Under harsh conditions, and in many ways near impossible, the Jewish resistance was an effort to delay or prevent their extermination, and preserve their humanity in the ghettos, concentration camps, labor camps, and death camps.
In the circumstances in which the Jews lived, the conditions for armed resistance, the most forceful form of Jewish opposition, or escape were impossible. Resistance seemed to prisoners of the camps only as a last resort before death without any chance of survival, while the hope was still to survive in spite of everything.
Since the end of World War II, many examples of armed Jewish resistance have been documented. In fact, Jewish civilians offered armed resistance in over 100 ghettos in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, of which the most famous and greatest is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May of 1943. However, every armed struggle with the Nazis ended with the defeat of the Jews.
In most Central and Western European countries, the main interest of the Jewish resistance was in the salvation of human lives. The organized armed resistance was essentially a marginal phenomenon. This is especially true for Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary and Germany. In France, however, many Jews also participated in armed resistance. In summer and autumn of 1942, the Jewish underground took form, and it came to the establishment of Armée Juive, which was involved in many operations, such as attacking German planes, trains and sabotaging factories that produced materials for the Axis war effort.
Another type of resistance was a cultural and spiritual resistance that existed within the ghettos, and was varied and different from ghetto to ghetto. The activities were secret and were initiated by underground organizations. They included, among other things, secret libraries, literary evenings, concerts and gatherings to mark the anniversary of a Jewish artist. Jewish directors, authors and poets produced works, and many wrote personal diaries about what was happening inside the ghetto walls.
Other examples of such resistance are expressed in the establishment of schools, printing and distribution of underground newspapers, maintenance of religious customs, painting or secret filming of events that were observed, and the preservation and documentation of ghetto life in the hope that they would be discovered after the war. Such cultural activities helped people to temporarily forget the concerns of ghetto life and were a source of encouragement. „Resistance does not have to be with a gun and a bullet,“ said Roman Kent, a Jewish survivor.
The revolts in the extermination camps, however, were different from those in the ghettos. The rebels were camp workers who knew very well what happened to those who had arrived at the camps. The prisoners were completely cut off from the outside world, incapable of acquiring weapons and in a difficult mental and physical state of hunger and exhaustion. The uprisings took place in three extermination camps: Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The form of rebellion was usually a general uprising and an escape to the nearby forests. In Auschwitz-Birkenau (1944) all the rebels were killed. In Treblinka (2 August 1943), of an estimated 300 prisoners who escaped from the camp that day, about 60 survived the massive SS manhunt. In Sobibor (14 October 1943), from the 600 rebels 300 managed to escape, but about 100 rebels were killed already in the first week. Some of them joined the Soviet Partisans operating not far away, but many were caught by Polish peasants and turned over to the Nazis or murdered by extremist factions of the Polish underground. Most of the attempted rebellions were brutally put down.
For the Jewish partisans fighting was the only way to survive. They operated as small units hiding in the forests and mountains in the occupied territories. They set out to hit the Germans‘ weak spots in the countryside. The main activity was in Yugoslavia, Poland, Greece, Slovakia, Belorussia (the largest concentration of partisans in Eastern Europe), France, and Italy. The Jewish partisans were not fighting for an ideal such as nationalism or anti-Fascism as the non-Jewish partisans, they were fighting for their lives. They believed that they would never see home or family, since the Nazis had already murdered most of their families. Between 20,000-30,000 Jews participated in the partisan units in the forests of Eastern Europe. They carried out daring raids and rescue operations. Their methods included damage to the German media (telegraph poles and telegraph wires), sabotage of water and electricity supply, destruction of bridges, roads and railways, damage to the trains that carried German soldiers in order to disrupt their movement and attack Germans by ambush.
A number of problems faced the partisan Jews who were interested in opposing the Nazis. First, most of the Jews were urban. Life in the countryside was difficult for them, and they did not have the tools to cope with the harsh reality that awaited them in the forests. Second, Jewish partisans often found it difficult to find resources in the form of a civilian population that would provide them with food, knowledge and shelter. Sometimes the local population was anti-Semitic and acted against Jews. In addition, the partisans had to be young and healthy, and as a result, in most cases the partisan left behind a family. The escape of young people to the forests was often accompanied by the oppressive feeling that they were abandoning their relatives to a cruel fate.
Another type of resistance to the Nazis came from the Jewish community of Palestine, which contributed volunteers to the British army, and sent parachute teams and commandos behind German lines to organize resistance efforts. Of 37 paratroopers, 26 were parachuted behind the German lines. 12 members of the group were captured, and seven of the prisoners were executed or murdered by the Nazis. The poet Hannah Senesh, who died as a parachutist at age 23, is a national heroine in Israel. Senesh, a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Palestine in 1939, aimed in late spring 1944 to warn Hungarian Jews about the extermination camps. She was captured on June 8, 1944, tortured and executed by a firing squad, after she refused to reveal details of her mission. The day before she crossed into occupied Hungary, knowing of the risk she was taking, she had handed a poem to one of her companions. It ended with these lines:
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Jewish resistance to the Nazis was expressed in various ways. In the circumstances in which the Jews were living, the conditions for an uprising by force and mass flight were near impossible and caused many dilemmas about what measures of resistance should be taken. The act of resistance by individuals often led to the death of many others; this tactic of collective punishment was often used by the Nazis. Therefore, most of the armed resistances broke out only at a relatively late stage, after it turned out that there was no real chance of being saved.
The resistances were relatively small in scope, without great harm to the Germans or a significant delay in the liquidation of the ghetto (apart from the Warsaw ghetto uprising which was larger), and the escapees from the camps managed to save relatively few, but the symbolic value of these resistances is a testament to heroism in the Holocaust.
People walk along the street,
You see at once on each you meet
That there’s ghetto here,
A place of evil and of fear.
There’s little to eat and much to want,
Where bit by bit, it’s horror to live.
But no one must give up!
The world turns and times change.
Yet we all hope the time will come
When we’ll go home again.
Now I know how dear it is
And often I remember it.
(“Homesick,” by a young poet at Theresienstadt, 9.3.1943 )