Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust
Rohrlich (1998) defines resistance as ‘thwarting the will of the oppressor, and surviving when he wishes to destroy you’. According to Seidl (2007), studying Jewish resistance as well as the Nazi in broad requires the researcher not to limit the extent merely to armed resistance. The intention of the prospective resisters is imperative to the definition. This therefore implies that rather than establishing the amount of violence unleashed in the circumstances, what matters is determining the objectives and motivations of the resisters (Seidl, 2007; Rohrlich, 1998). The Jewish European community was subjected to untold suffering and collective trauma during the Holocaust period. Millions of them were innocently boarded in trainsand locked in, without any struggle, after which they were driven to unknown destinations. They were subjected to forced labor. Many of them were brutally treated in concentration camps and others slowly wore out until they died. Questions on whether the Jewish went into the slaughter like a sheep or they resisted have been raised. Due to the fact the death camps required the Jews to work in order for them to be functionally effective; it has been argued that the Jews significantly contributed to their own death by offering cooperation to the Nazis (Seidl, 2007; Rohrlich, 1998).
The Jewish Holocaust is among the most prominent injustices against humanity in the world history. This happened between 1933 and 1945. It was marked by the Nazi regime waging a vicious war against the Jewish Europeans and other minority races such as Slovakia. The war heightened in 1938 when the Nazi unleashed the ‘Final Solution’ which led to massive concentration and death camps. The Holocaust was a dark period in the 20th century world history (Wiesel). Despite the fact that Jews were the major victims during the Holocaust, they implemented both collective and individual ways of resisting the oppression. The Jews barely received any help from the outside world. Jewish civilians were demoralized by Nazi’s terrifying threats and deception and the superiority of the German military and police state.
Resistance in the Gas Chambers
The prevailing circumstances during the Holocaust led to the perception that resistance could have been both dangerous and complex. Before the Jews were subjected to the untold atrocities, most of them were made to believe that they could be re-settled to normal humane conditions. The Jewish leaders encouraged the rest Jewish community that redemption would follow their steadfast loyalty and obedience to God. Since the German army was very powerful, the Jews could not overlook the dangers and complexities of countering Nazi’s oppressive operations. Terror and fear was filled in the souls of the Jews with time by the Nazi operations causing them to be demoralized(United States Holocaust memorial Museum; Seidl, 2007).
For the Jews who died in the gas chamber, resistance did not matter. The Jews were not informed about the implementation of the Final Solution until the mid-1942. The Jews were subjected to severe starvation and disease attacks. They were completely stripped of weapons. They were deceived that their new destinations could provide them with work. They did not hint to the fact that they were being deported to killing centers until the gas chambers were closed, the lights turned off and the smell of gas felt. They could not offer any resistance in such a situation. Although a few individuals attempted to run from the trains and fight their captors, they faced immediate death. For others, committing suicide was the most appropriate option since they could not stand the hopeless conditions. Suicide in such circumstances has been perceived as resistance by some scholars. There are some who did not take away their lives but struggled to survive despite the hopeless and desperate situation. Such struggles also amounted to passive resistance. Those who attempted active resistance met unintended outcomes. The Nazis employed the collective responsibility doctrine which stipulated that in case a Jew murdered a German soldier, that Jew would be executed together with his family and a hundred other Jews. This doctrine scared off most of the Jews from engaging in active resistance(United States Holocaust memorial Museum; Rohrlich, 1998).
The Jews resisted to Germans through various forms such as engaging in efforts to help Jewish escape from the Nazi-dominated territories, publishing and distributing anti-Nazi ideologies, and sabotaging and disrupting Nazi operations and providing information to allied forces. Rorhlich (1998) argues that the extenuating circumstances in which the Jews operated makes survival alone to constitute resistance.
The Nazi regime possessed superior and powerful weapons which could not be compared to the unarmed Jewish civilians with limited access to weapons. Zapotoczny (2005) illustrates the failure of powerful France and Poland to resist Germany during the war outbreak in 1939 to show the superiority of German army. Despite all these, there were remarkable attempts of resisting in one form or another.In a way almost every Jewish individual engaged in the resistance operations ranging from the children who smuggled food stuffs and other items at a great risk, to adults who organized prohibited attacks from the ghetto and aimed at boosting the spirit of every Jew (Gutman, 1998). Zionist groups such as Hashomer, Hatzar, Werkleute and Habonim provided the necessary training in skills that were essential for settlement in Israel.
The primary form of opposition by the Jews was the employment of organized armed resistance. Armed Jewish resistance is recorded to have taken place in five concentration and extermination camps, forty-five small ghettos, five main ghettos and eighteen forced labor camps. Jewish civilians launched armed resistance in more than 100 ghettos in Poland, the Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania. The resistance was steered by the attempts by Germans to set up ghettos in several Polish towns in 1942. Revolts occurred in Tuchin, Mir, Lachva, Kletsk and Starodubsk among other towns. The armed resistance largely happened after 1942, as a desperate measure since it became definite to the resisters that the Nazi regime had taken away and brutally murdered their families, friends and coreligionists. The resisters were faced with many complexities and challenges such as the need to carry out their activities in hostile zones, the pain of leaving their families and friends behind, lack of training and armaments and the ever-present terrorizing Nazi. They received little support from due to the increased anti-Semitic hostility towards them by the surrounding population. Jews conducted their revolts against the Germans and their allies both individually and collectively(United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
Gutman (1998) points out that no other form of Jewish resistance can be compared to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The rumors which arose in April-May 1943 about the deportation of the remaining inhabitants in the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp had propelled the Jews to put up an armed resistance. This resistance caught the Nazis unawares. According to Gutman (1998), the Warsaw Uprising comprised an incident of impressive elements, the weak, untrained, and unarmed Jews against the armed, reinforced, trained and mighty Germans. This was the first urbanized revolt of outcome in any of the Nazi-occupied states and was a momentous point in Jewish history.
The remaining ghetto inhabitants had formed an army comprising of approximately 1,000 fighters. They were, however, unarmed and without any equipment. Gutman (1998) states that thousands of other young men, who had been largely used to provide slave labor due to their strong bodies, also joined the army. By then, over a half million of the original inhabitants had reduced to approximately 60,000 as a result of starvation, deportation, cold and disease (Gutman, 1998). The German S.S was deployed in the ghetto in January 1943 to round up the remaining inhabitants for deportation to the extermination camps. The Jews resisted by throwing Molotov cocktails, a volley of bombs and bullets from the guns which had been smuggled earlier. The revolt led to the death of twenty S.S personnel(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). Some members of the Polish resistance were encouraged to aid the uprising by supplying the fighters with several firearms, hand grenades, rifles and revolvers. German deployed over 3,000 crack troops and 7,000 reinforcements. The entire ghetto was engulfed with heavy artillery and tanks. Adolf Hitler was assured by General Heinrich Himmler that the revolts would be over in three days. Although they managed to end the primary resistance in a few days time, the viciously superior forces spent quite a substantial amount of effort and time, nearly a month, to ensure that the ghetto was completely pacified and all the remaining inhabitants were virtually deported (Gutman, 1998;United States Holocaust memorial Museum).Gas attacks, bomber attacks and the complete combustion of all structures reduced the ghetto to wreckage. More than 15,000 Jews were killed in the war while the rest were rounded up for deportation to the extermination camps. Approximately three hundred German soldiers were killed in the war and 1,000 severely wounded (Gutman, 1998;United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
However, individual Jewish resisters hid in the rubbles of the ghetto for months when the war ended. In the same year, these inhabitants attacked the Germans in Bialystok Ghetto (Gutman, 1998). This battle ended just in one day and the resisters were killed and others deported. Some Jewish inhabitants in the Vilna Ghetto organized an attack against Nazis in September 1943. Most of them were killed but others escaped into the nearby forests to join partisan units (Gutman, 1998). Their resistance was not driven by attempts to save their fellow Jews who had already been deported to killing centres or to protect those Jews who could not fight but rather to avenge the atrocities and trauma subjected to the whole Jewish community. Gutman (1998) acknowledges that theleaders of the revolt were young men, Socialists, Communists, Zionists, Communists, – idealists without any fighting skills and knowledge or military training. They had but limited ammunition and a few weapons.Their chance of succeeding was minimal; they knew.
Many young Jewish resisters flew from the ghettos to join Soviet partisan groups or established other partisan groups to attack German occupiers(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). For instance, Jews from Minsk set up seven partisan units. Jews from Kovno, Riga and Vilna also established partisan fighting units. Family camps were formed in eastern Poland, the western Ukraine and western Belorussia in which civilians prepared food for the fighters, made clothing, repaired weapons and supported the Soviet fighting activities (Duffy, 2003). About 10,000 Jews who took refuge with the partisan units survived the war. For example, over 1200 Jews got refuge from the camp established in the Naliboki Forest by Tuvia Bielski (Radin, 2000).It records one of the biggest rescue groups. This group was much concerned with the provision of safety for Jews especially children, women and the elderly (Duffy, 2003). The Bielski partisan group was initially formed by three surviving brothers of the Bielski family, Tuvia, Asael and Zus. They had fled into Zabielovo and Perelaz forests with a few relatives and friends after their parents and two brothers had been killed by the Germans in Nowogrodek ghetto in 1941. Tuvia Bielski, a Polish Army veteran, was chosen to lead the group. Since the Bielski family had been farmers in the neighboring village, they were very much conversant with the region; its geographical orientation, the people and the customs. Duffy (2003) asserts that these enabled them to properly scheme and evade the Nazis. They acquired armaments with the assistance of the non-Jewish Belorussian allies, and later supplemented them with Soviet weapons, smuggled German weapons, and other equipment offered to them by Soviet partisans. Tuvia developed good relations with the Soviet partsans in the forest who gave the Bielskis as much support as possible (Duffy, 2003; Radin, 2000).
With regards to rescuing fellow Jews, the Bielskis encouraged other Jews in the nearby Baranowicze, Mir, Iwie, Minsk, Nowogrodek and Lida among other ghettos to join them. Guides were sent to the ghettos to escort the people into the forest(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). Many Jewish refugees inhabiting the forest joined the group which enlarged with time. It was until August 1943 that the Nazis launched a massive attack against the Jewish, Polish and Russian partisan units in the region with the deployment of more than 20,000 police officials, military personnel and SS (Radin, 2000). In addition, a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks was guaranteed to any one who gave information on the capture of Tuvia Bielski. The Bielski group was highly vulnerable to exposure due to its large number. As a result, they moved to Naliboki forest where they established a more secure lifestyle with time. In addition to its rescue mission, the group attacked the local German farmers and Belorussian auxiliary police for killing other Jews(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). The group blew up rail beds, vandalized bridges, disabled trains and facilitated the escape of Jews from the ghettos. They often collaborated with Soviet partisans in attacking German security personnel and facilities, causing the death of many Germans and Belorussian partners (Duffy, 2003).
Soviet troops initiated a massive attack in the east of Belorussia in June 1944. The Soviet Army saw to the destruction of the German Army Group Center within two months. Belorussia was liberated during the war (Radin, 2000). The population of Bielski group was over 1,230 with more than 70% comprising of women, children and the elderly. Almost all of them survived the war. Duffy (2003) accounts that after the Holocaust, Tuvia and Zus Bielski moved with their families to Palestine where they joined the Israeli Army in the 1948 that led to the establishment of Israeli State. The later shifted to the U.S. Asael Bielski joined the Soviet Army and was later killed on the front kin East Prussia in February 1945 (Duffy, 2003).
Jewish prisoners staged up a revolt in three killing centres where they killed their guards. The prisoners stole weapons which they used to attack the Trawniki-trained guards and the auxiliary SS personnel at Treblinka extermination camp in August and Sobibor extermination camp in October 1943. The Sobibor Uprising saw to the death of 11 German SS personnel including the deputy commander(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). Approximately 300 out of 600 inmates in the camp escaped. Most of them were recaptured and executed or killed in the surrounding minefields by the Germans and their auxiliaries, both during and after the uprising. Roughly sixty escapees survived from the war (Radin, 2000). The Nazi were shaken by the escape and propelled to close the camp. In October 1944, SS guards were attacked by the Jewish Special Detachment (Sonderkommandos) members at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This group comprised of Jews who were used to clean the gas chambers by clearing the dead bodies. Five female inmates engaged in the smuggling of explosives which were used for the war. The guards were overpowered thus allowing the Jews to break out the compound. The suppression of the attempted mass escapecaused the death of about 250 Jews. Three guards were murdered with one of them being pushed alive into an oven. The five women were accused by the SS guards a few days later of providing the Jewish Special Detachment with ammunitions and killed.
Jewish resistance in most of countries allied with or occupied by Germans was often in the aid-and-rescue form. Clandestine parachutists the likes of Hannah Szenes were sent by Palestinian Jewish authorities to Hungary and Slovakia in 1944 to obtain support. In France, different units of the underground Jews merged to establish various resistance groups. The Jewish Army which comprised of Jews of the Zionist resistance movements conducted its operations around Paris, Lyon, Nice and Toulouse. Their resistance included the smuggling of money from Switzerland into France to sustain the Jews in hiding. They smuggled over 500 Jews and non-Jews into the neutral Spain. They also joined the 1944 uprising to fight Germans in Toulouse, Lyon and Paris. A Jewish communist unit called ‘Solidarite’ also attacked the Germans in Paris. The French resistance was also comprised of Jews. In other countries such as Slovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, Italy, France and Belgium; most of the Jews formed national resistance movements which they used for revolts. In Netherlands, the major pre-war unit that immediately begun revolts against the Nazi occupation, was the communist party(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). The major resistance established by the group was the February Strike 0f 1941 which was intended to propel the government to abolish the anti-Jewish discriminatory laws. A militant group called ‘de Netherlands Volksmilite’ (Dutch Peoples Militia was established within the underground communist party under the leadership of Sally Dormits. Sally Dormits had acquired guerilla experience through his participation in the Spanish civil war. The group resisted Nazism brutality by making many bomber attacks directed against German trains with troops and burning of cinemas which the Jews were not allowed going (Radin, 2000).
In addition to the courageous armed uprisings, the Jews used different forms of unarmed resistance. For many, attempting to live a ‘normal’ life amidst the desperate and hopeless conditions was in itself resistance. They organized themselves into groups and attempted to escape from the ghettos into the forests. Most Jewish community leaders did not comply with the Nazi demands. Other individuals illegally smuggled food into the ghettos in order to feed themselves, their friends and their families (United States Holocaust memorial Museum). All forms of cultural activities were conducted in the ghetto. Despite the enforcement of curfews from 7p.m. to 5a.m, socialization was prevalent among friends inhabiting the same building or visitors who spent the night. They engaged in playing cards. Moreover, the Jewish community was entertained by dancers, singers, comics and musicians who came together for some hours in order to give each other comfort and forget the despair and hopelessness. Many of the works of the poets and artists were preserved and they exist today. Some Jews printed and distributed underground newspapers at a great risk.
A powerful spiritual resistance was also employed by the Jews. They were intended at preserving the Jewish communal life and history even though the Nazi were so much determined to eliminate all of them from human memory. The Jewish showed spiritual resistance through the creation of Jewish cultural institutions, provision of clandestine education, continued observance of religious rituals and holidays, and collection and hiding of important documents(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). The Oneg Shabbat archive in Warsaw ghetto was properly collected and hidden in order to preserve the Warsaw ghetto experience, even though it was destroyed in 1943.Most of the containers which were used to keep the documents were ‘dug up from the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto after the Holocaust. Ghetto life deprivations and ‘the constant fear of Nazi terror made resistance difficult and dangerous but not impossible.’ Clandestine classes and schools were organized in the Polish occupied ghettos. The students covered their books with their clothing while moving to and from classes in their different basements and apartments. Manuscripts and books were smuggled into the ghettos for preservation. Underground libraries were opened in many ghettos such as the secret library at Czestochowa in Poland which served over one thousand readers. Cultural activities such as art contests, cabarets, theatrical productions, lectures and concerts were embraced by the Jewish ghettos(United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
Although Jewish religious activities were prohibited by the Germans, secret prayers and ceremonies were conducted in back rooms, cellars and attics with others standing as guards. There existed 600 prayer groups in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. Rabbinical committees settled religious disputes in relation to theJewish religious law and endeavored to apply it to the complex and changed conditions in which they had found themselves. Through prayer, morale was sustained, religious and cultural identity was reaffirmed, and spiritual comfort was supplied. Religious and prayer observations were seen as the truest mode of resistance by most of the Orthodox Jews who were against the use of physical force.The Jews continued to observe their Jewish rituals such as dietary rituals which carried severe penalties under the Nazi regime. They took the great risk of resisting all these rules. During this time however, other Jews who felt abandoned by God and questioned the existence and justice of God could no longer worship Him (Wiesel). In Wiesel’s memoir, he recounts the loss of faith by many Jews. As for him, he reached a point where he did not see any reason for fasting due to his inability to comprehend God’s intense silence. Other people felt that they could not fast any further because their bodies were too worn out to resist any meal (United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
Most of the members of the Jewish council did not put up any resistance until they were deported. However, others such as the chairman of the council staged a strong resistance by refusing to cooperate with the Germans especially when he was commanded to allow the deportation of the Jews to extermination and concentration camps in July 1942 (United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
Role of women during the Holocaust
The Nazi regime targeted Polish women, women with disabilities who lived in institutions and Gypsy women. Both men and women were subjected to persecution and death. There were various individual camps and areas which were designed specifically for female Jewish prisoners. The SS authorities launched Ravensbruck in May 1939 which was the largest concentration camp for women. More than 100,000 women had been confined in the camp by 1945 when liberation occurred. Another camp which was established to confine women prisoners was the Auschwitz II camp. It was situated in the compound of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). Almost all inmates in Auschwitz II comprised of female prisoners who had been transferred from Ravensbruk. Women staged resistance in their camp at Auschwitz in 1944. They used dynamite, which had been smuggled in by girls who served in the ammunition industry, to blow up one of the furnaces. All those who had participated in the resistance operations, however, were captured, tortured and consequently hanged. The SS authorities established the third women’s camp called Bergen-Belsen in 1944 which comprised of female prisoners transferred from Auschwitz II and Ravensbruck in the last year of the Holocaust.
During the implementation of the Final Solution, German state police officials, SS and auxiliaries shot all Jews regardless of their age and gender. Pregnant women and mothers with small children were labeled ‘incapable of work’ during the deportation operations. They were taken to extermination camps where they were directly sent to the gas chambers. Orthodox Jewish women with children were particularly vulnerable due to the conspicuity of their dresses. The massive population of children in Orthodox families was another contributory factor to their increased vulnerability. Non-Jewish women were also very vulnerable. There was massive killing of Roma women in Auschwitz concentration camp. The Nazis also performed massive killing of women with disability in the T-4 among other euthanasia operations. In addition, women were slaughtered together with men in the name of terminating partisan units in various Soviet villages between 1943 and 1944(United States Holocaust memorial Museum).
Under the Nazi regime, women were at times advantaged by the stereotypic ideology which derogated women to the scope of child bearing, religion and housekeeping. The Nazis overlooked women sometimes due to the perception of a ‘homebound woman influenced by her husband’. Furthermore, women had developed relations with non-Jewish members and this made them conversant with the Christian moves, thus they could easily feign their identity. They travelled on illegal missions using false documentation to hide their identities. They engaged in smuggling of ammunition, forging of card identities, supplication of news concerning German operations, weapons and secret documents among other relevant requirements, in and out of the ghettos of the parts of the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. These women who served as couriers were referred to as ‘Kashariyot’; they were perceived to be fearless champions whose mode of resistance generated a lot of pride.
Women played a very crucial role during the holocaust, particularly those involved in the Communist, Socialist or the Zionist youth movements (Rohrlich, 1998; Weinston, n.d). Jewish women in Poland acted as spies who supplied information to the ghettos. Most of the women flew to the nearby forests in the Soviet Union and the east of Poland where they provided support to the partisan units. Their significance was perceived in the French-Jewish resistance.For instance, Sophie Scholl, a student at Munich University was captured and killed in February 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets.Some women survived the war to tell untold stories of courage, determination and heroism(United States Holocaust memorial Museum). Haika Grosman was a leader in the Bialystok Ghetto resistance movement. Other women were involved in the resistance which took place outside the concentration camps. During the Auschwitz-Birkenau uprising by the Sonderkommando resistance movement, five women were alleged to have provided gunpowder to the resisters. Women participated in the aid-and-rescue missions in the German-occupied Europe. Among them were the Zionist activist Gisi Fleischmann and the parachutist Hannah Szenes. Fleichsmann, the commander of Pracovna Skupina made efforts in halting the Jewish deportations from Slovakia. Hannah Szenes parachuted into Hungary in 1944. During the last days of the ghetto, the couriers assisted other Jews to escape from the ghettos to the neighboring forests. The couriers supplemented them with false documentation and directed them to hiding places. They attempted to provide financial, sustenance and moral support during the desperate and hopeless conditions (Rohrlich, 1998; Weinstock, n.d).
The commanders of the Jewish resistance during the Warsaw and Bialystok Ghetto uprising were faced with the challenge of determining whether the women were to participate in the war or not, particularly when the uprisings against the Final Solution implementations begun. They decided to let the women continue with their courier operations due to the perception that if the women were involved in the fighting, then ammunitions could be exhausted without any more supplies. Basing on Seidl’s definition of ‘resistance’ (2007), it is definite that women who spent significant time and efforts to find and buy weapons and smuggle them into the ghettos, were just as instrumental as those who staged bomber attacks, gas attacks and threw Molotov cocktails. They were equally exposed to the risk of execution. Those who fired the bullets would not have been able to do so without the help of the women couriers who supplied them with ammunitions and relevant information (Rohrlich, 1998).
The Jewish European community was subjected to untold suffering and collective trauma during the Holocaust period.Despite the fact that Jews were the major victims during the Holocaust, they implemented both collective and individual ways of resisting the oppression.The Jews resisted to Germans through various forms such as engaging in efforts to help Jewish escape from the Nazi-dominated territories, publishing and distributing anti-Nazi ideologies, and sabotaging and disrupting Nazi operations and providing information to allied forces.In a way almost every Jewish individual engaged in the resistance operations ranging from the children who smuggled food stuffs and other items at a great risk, to adults who organized prohibited attacks from the ghetto and aimed at boosting the spirit of every Jew. Basing on Rohrlich and Seidl’s definition, the resistance applied by the Jews during the Holocaust, given the desperate and hopeless circumstances, is highly remarkable.
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Radin Y. Escape to the Forest: Based on a True Story of the Holocaust. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
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