(photo credit:Courtesy Camera Press)
During the Holocaust era, as Jews found themselves in ever more desperate
circumstances, nearly everything about their existence made Jewish solidarity in
any form increasingly difficult to achieve. That is not to say there was no
unity; given the immense canvas on which the Holocaust took place, every kind of
human behavior may be found. But solidarity was often not straightforward, and
like almost everything else in the Holocaust, it was multifaceted, complex and
profoundly affected by unfolding events.
Moreover, unity in one direction
would sometimes come at the price of a lack of solidarity in another
People could be affected in different, even opposite ways, by
any individual or group action. As the theme of this year’s Holocaust
Remembrance Day, an exploration of solidarity sheds significant light on the
subject of Jewish responses to the Holocaust.
In the early years of the
Nazi regime, cohesiveness was a major theme for German Jewry. Indeed, one of the
great challenges was to create community-wide response and unity where little,
if any, had existed before. The community’s leadership did much to further this
goal, establishing and expanding already existing frameworks for education,
welfare and artistic expression that strove to serve all. Even after the final
phase of destruction began in autumn 1941, great – albeit less effective –
efforts were made to continue providing for the community.
under the Nazis differed greatly, yet where it was possible, solidarity was not
In the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, where many were
alienated from the Jewish Council, on a smaller, local scale, house committees
valiantly organized mutual aid.
Of course, with the advancing hunger and
disease, and then the advent of deportations to Treblinka, these committees’
In the face of starvation, even normative family
concern could be difficult to maintain. In his diary from the Lodz Ghetto, the
young David Sierakowiak illustrates this. He describes how omnipresent hunger
drove his father to eat more than his share of the family’s food, leaving less
for his wife and children, whereas his mother willingly ate less so her children
would have more, and how this led to the weakened state that culminated in her
relatively early deportation to death.
In many situations, community-wide
action of any kind was nearly impossible to achieve. Yehuda Bauer, in his book
The Death of the Shtetl, makes such a case for Eastern Poland, where the period
of Soviet occupation before the Nazi conquest destroyed Jewish community life.
Thus, when the Nazis arrived with their machinery of murder, there was no
existing basis on which to cultivate mutual aid. Yet, as Bauer writes, although
there was no support network in these areas, there were significant attempts to
organize armed resistance, certainly an expression of mutual concern and
FREQUENTLY UNITY came with a price. Many young people
refused to consider flight or armed resistance, because they would not leave
their families in dire circumstances.
Repeatedly, young Jews accompanied
their families to extermination camps because of family bonds. One could say
that a similar sense of solidarity drove other parents to encourage their older
children to strike out on their own, or place younger children with non-Jewish
strangers, hoping they might survive to continue the family.
solidarity was often limited, in the sense that it could not include everyone in
a given situation, there was sometimes an additional price. With the
all-pervading brutality of the period, many are the examples in which the
members of one group helped each other at the expense of those who were not part
of the group.
Not infrequently camp survivors tell of getting a better
job with the help of someone from their community, youth organization or
political party, and how that job contributed to their survival. Of course, if
they got the job someone else did not, and this usually anonymous person paid
the price accordingly.
A significant expression of Jewish unity was some
Jewish partisans’ creation of family camps. Men like the Bielski brothers, who
could have concentrated exclusively on fighting and their own survival, instead
focused on rescuing Jews and taking care of them. In the case of the Bielskis,
they protected some 1,200 Jews.
While these family camps were not
idyllic, and there were tensions between various groups and individuals, their
existence must not be taken for granted. The fact that some Jewish partisan
leaders made rescuing whomever they could their main priority says much about
their dedication to traditional Jewish values. Similar values came into play in
Jewish undergrounds that emphasized rescue of fellow Jews. Such groups existed
in France, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and other places.
certainly other illustrations from the Holocaust that embody solidarity. Working
to help arm the underground in Auschwitz-Birkenau, four young Jewish women –
Roza Robota, Ala Gertner, Estusia Wajcblum and Regina Safirsztajn – were caught
trying to smuggle chemicals necessary for manufacturing primitive
Although interrogated and tortured, they refused to give the
names of other underground members before their execution. When Janusz Korczak
and Stefania Wilczynska decided to eschew offers of escape from the Warsaw
Ghetto and accompanied the children of their orphanage to their deaths in
Treblinka, this was an act of profound responsibility, altruism and
Similar and much less known is the story of Aron Menczer, the
head of Youth Aliya in Vienna. Menczer accompanied a group of Jewish youth from
Vienna to Palestine before the war, but he returned home to continue his work
organizing the emigration of young Jews.
In 1942, he was deported to
Theresienstadt, where he again worked selflessly with children. At one point,
Menczer became responsible for a group of 1,260 orphans sent there from the
Bialystok ghetto. In November 1943, the children were sent to Auschwitz-
Birkenau. Menczer went with them voluntarily rather than abandon them to their
fate. The day after their arrival, he and his charges were
There is no question that mutual aid was a crucial factor in
the story of many Holocaust survivors. At the same time, we must be careful not
to idealize Jewish solidarity during the Holocaust, and we have no real choice
but to recognize that at times it took on some of the moral ambiguity of the
period. Perhaps it is fitting to transpose Bauer’s apt thoughts on Jewish
resistance to Jewish unity. As he explains, out of the millions of Jews under
Nazi dominion, only a relative few engaged in resistance.
Yet, the fact that relatively few resisted should not be a cause for our astonishment, rather the fact that there was resistance at all. In many situations Jewish solidarity in the Holocaust bordered on the impossible, and what should capture our imagination and give us pause to reflect, is that it happened at all.
The writer is director of the Yad Vashem
Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts (Vallentine
Mitchell, 2005) and Conscripted to Slavery: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on
the Eastern Front, soon be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska
For more information about Holocaust Remembrance Day and more
stories about Jewish solidarity during the Holocaust, visit www.yadvashem.org.