Against all odds

Not all Jews went "as sheep to slaughter," as they engaged in uprisings and breakouts at camps, death pits and mass murder sites, as well as attacks on the German military.

holocaust 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
holocaust 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The fact that many Jews did their utmost to resist incarceration in ghettos and death camps during the Holocaust, and even to rise up and attack the Germans, is not really common knowledge. Yad Vashem will help to convey that to a wider audience by basing its Holocaust Remembrance Day program, on April 7 and 8, on the theme of Defiance and Rebellion During the Holocaust: 70 Years Since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Dr. David Silberklang, senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, as well as editor of the Yad Vashem Studies journal, says that the Jews’ paramilitary and other operations were undertaken in the face of a vastly superior foe. “I think ‘against all odds’ is the first thing to point out,” he says. “The German army was the strongest army in the world. They defeated all their enemies quickly.”
By comparison, says Silberklang, the Jews put up an incredible fight. “If you consider that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising lasted as long as France’s resistance against Germany, it was quite amazing. We are talking about a Jewish people who are small minority, scattered in many places, not well liked and, even when they were integrated, they were not always well integrated.”
The Jews’ proactive predicament was also a matter of intent, as well as the almost impossible logistics they had to deal with. “If the goal is to die with ‘honor’ then, yes, they can pick up kitchen knives or clubs and attack the occupiers and die, and probably be forgotten,” notes Silberklang. “But if the goal is not to die but to save your family, then armed resistance is ridiculous. The Jews, of course, were aware of this and knew there really was no point in armed resistance.”
As history shows, that did not prevent Jews taking action in a variety of ways, and in all sorts of circumstances.
The largest armed uprising in any of the Jewish ghettos began in Warsaw on the first night of Passover 5703 (April 19, 1943). It was the first mass urban civilian rebellion, predating similar non-Jewish underground activity and uprisings in Europe, and inspired and united Jewish youth in other places in Nazi-occupied countries.
Silberklang says that the Jews were spurred to take up arms when it became clear that they had nothing to lose. “The only point at which thinking about armed resistance becomes a thought to be entertained by Jews is when they are convinced they are going to die anyway,” he observes. “Until a Jew is convinced that he or she is going to die anyway, armed resistance is suicide and suicide is not a goal.”
That applies to all Jews, regardless of religious leanings.
“It is also against the ethics of religion, but even for the secular Jew, for whom that may not be the issue, or for whom fighting is glory, depending on which political movement you are part of – the Communists, or the right-wing Zionists or the left-wing Zionists – were not seriously considering that. The right-wing and left-wing Zionists shared this glorification of fighting, and for them dying with a weapon in your hand had meaning, but even they were not looking at mounting an uprising, if they were not [otherwise] facing certain death.”
According to Silberklang, there were others ways of helping to alleviate the horrific duress. “You disobey, and resist in ways that preserve life. There was organized smuggling and educational activities designed to maintain and occupy children, and to begin integrating them into Jewish life, whatever your version of being Jewish is,” explains Silberklang. That, notes the historian, actually obviates do-or-die initiatives. “If you cultivate Jewish life that means there is hope for a Jewish future, and if there is hope for a Jewish future you do everything possible to make sure that does not become a Jewish epitaph.” Even so, that acted as a precursor for the eventual all-out uprisings.
“Actually, the predecessor in Poland, for example, to armed resistance by the Jews, was unarmed resistance activity. There is a lot of resistance where they know that, if they are caught, they are going to be killed, but their goal is to preserve life and they are going to take a risk to preserve life.”
NON-MILITARY endeavor abounded, which was essential for the preservation of life within the ghettos, and also for staying in touch with Jews elsewhere around Europe.
There were political activity, underground newspapers, couriers going back and forth helping other people organize in other places, bearing messages like: “we have done this or that, and we can help you organize some activity in your area.” And the Jews were doing all these things, knowing that if the Germans caught them they would kill them.
It wasn’t only the Germans the Jews had to worry about. “The Jews doing all these activities knew there were neighbors who might turn them in if they knew what they were up to. Not everyone was like that, but there were some who would be happy to turn them in, and others who felt cowed and threatened by the Germans who might not turn the Jews in, but certainly wouldn’t help them either. The hinterland was not a place where everyone was going to support the Jews out there. So, they are facing a dangerous hinterland, an enemy who will kill them if they catch them doing their underground activity, and yet they engage in underground activity in order to preserve life, physically and spiritually.”
Silberklang says that the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto did not feel they were in mortal danger for the first few years of the war.
“There was lots of murder from the beginning of the war, but it was selective and limited. At the beginning of the German occupation of Poland they killed thousands of Jews, but after that they were killing Jews selectively, but sporadically. It wasn’t that they walked into places, took out half of the community and shot them. So there was no reason for the Jews in the ghetto to believe that would happen, and there was no precedent for that.”
Nevertheless, “abnormal” behavior and a radical mind-set transformation were clearly called for in the developing circumstances.
“Over the first two years of the German occupation of Poland, the Jews had learned that, in order to survive, you needed to become an outlaw. That’s quite a leap of imagination for the average person to take, because most of us don’t live like that. Some people may evade taxes, but we’re not talking about becoming some sort of Wild West outlaw in order to survive.
No one thinks like that in normal conditions, yet Jews had to undergo this leap of imagination whereby they realized that if they obeyed the rules they might die, so they had to disobey the rules.”
All that changed when news began to filter through that mortal danger was indeed on the horizon. “People [in Poland] began to hear about the systematic killing of Jews which began in the Soviet Union, in the summer of ’41” explains Silberklang.
“When news of that reached Jews in Poland they said, ‘wait a minute, here we are after two years of Nazi rule and they haven’t killed us all. They have done other terrible things, but they haven’t killed us.
But the day they walk into the Soviet Union they are shooting up the town.’” Even so, the alarm bells had still not started ringing for Polish Jews. “Many thought the difference was that it was happening in the Soviet Union, and because the Nazis think all the Jews are Communists they are going to kill all the Jews there. The Polish Jews thought it was ominous, but they still didn’t think they were in actual mortal danger. I wouldn’t call that escapism, I would call it logic.”
One of the first forms of organized Jewish resistance came through the Bielski Partisans, a group of Jewish partisans formed by the Bielski, family who rescued Jews from extermination and fought against the German occupiers and their collaborators in the vicinity of Nowogrodek and Lida in German-occupied Poland.
AS THE mass murder of Jews began to gain pace in the Soviet Union, other resistance groups began to take up arms. “Couriers started to take word of what was happening back to Warsaw or to Bialystok, and were saying ‘this is what are starting organize, Jews are beginning to escape, some are beginning to organize some armed groups in the woods to protect themselves. Maybe you should think about doing the same thing.’ As this is happening, the Jews in Warsaw are beginning to get news of murders closer to home. This is around March-April 1942.”
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was far from a unique incident of armed and other Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Armed underground activities and escapes were undertaken at the smaller ghettos in Nesvizh, Lakhva and Tuczyn, towards the end of 1942, and there were resistance groups in Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania, and in Bialystok, Czestochowa and Bedzin in Poland. In Krakow, the underground even sent combat units outside the ghetto to the “Aryan” part of the city, to stage successful attacks on German military personnel. Armed uprisings and breakouts even took place at forced labor and concentration camps, at death pits and mass murder sites, and even at three extermination camps, with armed uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor in the summer of 1943, and at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the fall of 1944.
“The overwhelming majority of these Jews were not trained soldiers, with almost no weapons and very little information, and had no idea what they were doing, and yet what they accomplished is incredible,” says Silberklang. “If you think of the sabotage they carried out and other things, in all respects, not just in military terms.” ■