Partisan politics

Nechama Tec provides a comprehensive and evocative portrayal of Jewish and Christian resistance efforts.

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Wars 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Wars 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nechama Tec, professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, Stanford, author of many best-selling works on the Holocaust, denies that Jews were passive and failed to resist the Nazi terror.
Her involvement with Holocaust research and teaching made her frequently uncomfortable when she was asked, “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors? Why did the Jews refuse to fight?” The alleged Jewish passivity led many anti- Semites to conclude that Jews became collaborators in their own destruction, thus absolving their enemies.
It was to refute such allegations that the author conducted a prolonged investigation and numerous personal interviews.
She concluded that while the masses of hungry, humiliated and helpless old people, children and sick had no choice, there were always those who fought against overwhelming odds. Lucjan Dobroszycki, of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, asked: “Has anyone seen an army without arms? An army scattered in 200 closed ghettos? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” And yet Tuvia Bielski had shown that it was possible to form a family partisan unit, to fight and to survive. And didn’t the people who went to their death quietly, as Fritz Lange testified at the Nuremberg trials, and submitted to God’s will, did they not stand tall in an act of protest and resistance? Nazi occupation policy encouraged the Polish rabble to take advantage of, betray and rob their Jewish neighbors. But there were others. Both Poles and Jews had yet to learn how to conduct their lives under occupation. For Poles it was natural to join an underground. A Jew had to learn fast how to live in a forest, survive and kill his enemy.
Two Catholic Poles and one Jew show how cooperation was possible. Zygmunt Rytel, a Polish Catholic Tec met in Warsaw in 1978, spent eight months in Auschwitz at 18, and upon his release dedicated himself to helping those who suffered most – the Jews. Another Catholic Pole, Antoni Zieleniewski, warned a whole group of Jews at Polesie to resist deportation, hid and fed them in a swamp, taught them how to resist and saved them from certain death. Ephraim (Frank) Bleichman became the youngest member of a newly formed partisan group and later a seasoned partisan, who after the war wrote Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II.
Few Poles were friendly, while the majority was either passive or took advantage.
But those who did help deserve to be remembered.
The Zegota Polish organization helped Jews in hiding and saved many lives from the hands of Polish blackmailers. Gradually, in the ghettos, the prewar political parties, youth movements and organizations organized themselves in the underground. While the terror grew, the clandestine meetings and underground press were first to reveal Nazi plans, and started digging shelters and getting arms for defense.
Resistance: Jews and Christians Who Defied the Nazi Terror recalls many authentic stories of the Jewish experiences in ghettos, forests, concentration camps, in hiding among gentiles and in the underground.
Hundreds of books have treated these subjects, but Tec is an excellent story-teller who brings to life both the tension of those terrible days and the characters and adventures of her heroes.
The main Polish underground movement, Armja Krajowa (Home Army), connected with London, contended with only a few assimilated Jews hiding under Polish names. In order No. 116, dated September 15, 1943, its commander, General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, warned against “armed gangs prowling towns and villages, being perpetuated either by Soviet-based partisan detachments...
or by ordinary gangs or robbers... among the perpetrators were not only men, but also women, in particular Jewish women, who needed to be resisted.”
It is obvious that this order meant Jews and Soviet partisans, hiding in the deep swamps or forests, who often had no choice but to beg, or to rob, in order to survive. A Jew who escaped from a burning ghetto, a mass grave or an extermination train had limited choices. The Home Army treated such survivors badly, murdered scores, at least until both Jews and Soviet partisans formed their own units and learned how to take revenge.
The second major Polish underground, Armja Ludowa (People’s Army), connected with the Soviet Union, was much weaker and needed manpower. It offered wandering Jews shelter, while groups were given arms and guidance. However, in most partisan units everything depended on the character of the commander and general circumstances. Women were treated badly, unless they were protected by individual partisans.
In this terrible world only the well-organized Jewish partisan groups, like Tuvia Bielski’s detachment, could offer their compatriots and their families comparative safety and a real chance of survival.
The vast majority of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian partisans were born anti-Semites.
They firmly believed that Jews were cowards, poor fighters, people not to be trusted. A highly regarded partisan was instantly demoted if found to be Jewish.
Many Jews hid their identity. This changed gradually, after Jews distinguished themselves in battle, but still a Jewish partisan had little chance for a promotion.
There is a vivid and accurate description of how the Jewish Fighting Organization was created and fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, but unfortunately the Revisionist part of this uprising is completely ignored.
Emanuel Ringelblum described underground couriers as “heroic young women who deserve the pen of a great writer.” Tec deserves such distinction for sharing with us the memories of Lea Silverstein, Hela Schupper, Tosia Altman, Sonia Madejsker and many other brave couriers, few of whom survived the war.
Couriers were not only the glue that bound separate and totally isolated ghettos together, but also purchased and smuggled arms. They established valuable contacts.
All of them played a most dangerous game; one never knew whom to trust and what road to take.
The prime condition for survival was not to be alone. Asked what mattered most, individuals quoted luck, chance and fate, and were shy to mention talent and intelligence.
But on a deeper probe, Tec found that the cooperation with others and mutual support were decisive. It was belonging to a group or finding a trusted friend that translated into staying alive.
There is a special chapter on Jan Karski and how his mission of being a witness to the ongoing genocide to the leaders of England had failed both his and Jewish expectations. Jews were the last of the Allied priorities. They could depend only on themselves.
Tec’s Resistance offers an original and convincing summary of many features of the Jewish resistance in Poland during the Holocaust.