Beyond Lambs and Lions: Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust

Jewish resistance in the Shoah went beyond those who took up arms, to include spiritual resistance, acts of escape, hiding and the forging of false papers, all in the context of war and the unique plight of the Jews stuck in it.

Robert Rozett
Robert Rozett
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Robert Rozett
Robert Rozett

In the first decades after the Shoah, two extremes of Jewish response were commonly portrayed in public discourse: those who passively went to their deaths, offering no resistance, and those who took up arms against their persecutors. The former were mostly pitied and disparaged, and the latter were generally lionized as the epitome of heroic behavior. Neither type of response was really understood in its complexity or in its context.

Since the 1970s, other aspects of Jewish resistance that had been investigated within scholarly contexts but had remained marginal in terms of the public consciousness, began to come to the fore alongside the sole focus on Jewish resistance as armed resistance, adding another layer of complexity and context. Both spiritual resistance - underground education, cultural events, religious services and so on - and unarmed acts - escape, hiding, and forging false papers - began being regularly included in discussion about Jewish resistance, now often under the rubric of the Hebrew word amidah, which roughly translates into taking a stand. When teaching the Shoah today, both in Israel and in many other countries, significant space is given to amidah, since it emphasizes the fact that Jews were not mere dehumanized objects during the Shoah years, but active players in the unfolding drama that engulfed them.

One of the most compelling aspects of Jewish resistance is the context in which it occurred. As the events of the Shoah evolved, amidah emerged from a savage abyss that increased in savagery as time went on. The broad framework of the Shoah and inter alia Jewish resistance is the ferociousness of the war itself.

World War Two not only encompassed much of the globe with fighting, but also engendered tremendous hardship along much of its length and breadth. The conditions under which soldiers often fought, and the violence and privations they faced are hard for us to comprehend from our vantage point. What did it mean to fight in the sweltering jungles of South-East Asia without enough provisions and plagued by hordes of insects, facing a nearly invisible enemy for whom the word surrender did not exist? What was it like to be on the Stalingrad Front in the winter of 1943, when temperatures plummeted to minus 40° C and when the landscape was a ruin of shell craters and destroyed buildings?

For non-combatants, the occupation by the Nazis and their allies in Europe and North Africa, and the Japanese occupation in much of Asia were frequently as rapacious as they were ruthless. Millions were left to starve by policies that sequestered food for the conquerors and left the locals without enough to survive. Cruel forced labor was common and, although less common (if we do not include the Shoah), there were also incidents of mass murder. It is crucial to understand this overarching situation before delving into the more specific issue of Jewish responses during the period.

Within this global conflagration, the circumstances of the Jews had their own unique and pitiless aspects that reached their crescendo with the advent of the Nazi policy to annihilate them all. Except for the relative few who left behind written sources, we cannot assess events from the perspective of the six million murdered Jews. But today, from scores of thousands of eyewitness accounts, we do know a great deal about the deadly situation into which Jews were plunged. Accounts describe the misery in Lodz, Warsaw and other ghettos, where starvation, disease, forced labor and humiliation, were ever-present. There is forceful testimony regarding the unbearable tension before deportations from the transit camps in Western Europe, as well as surrealistic descriptions of the actual murderous "Aktionen" on the Eastern Front written by the few who miraculously survived the shootings. Gripping depictions of the Sisyphus-like struggle for life and maintaining human dignity within the crushing omnipresence of death in Auschwitz, the other extermination and most labor camps, are available to anyone who wants to try to absorb them.

Certainly, among all the conquered people during the war, Jews were not the only ones to offer resistance. But many specifics of Jewish resistance, its scope and aspects of the chasm from which it emerged, were particular to the Jews. A good example of some of the differences may be seen in the two uprisings in Warsaw. When the Poles began their uprising in late summer 1944, it was part of a larger military plan devised between the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and rebel leaders in Poland. With the end of the war in Poland in sight, it was meant primarily to influence the future shape of the Polish nation. Even though their colleagues in London had become doubtful, the rebels calculated that they had a real chance of military success when they launched the uprising.

On the other hand, when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto launched their uprising at the height of the war, on April 19, 1943, without any meaningful external aid, they harbored no illusions about defeating the Germans. For the ghetto combatants, fighting was primarily for the sake of the fighting itself – for a few lines in history, for revenge for the deaths of most of the ghetto inhabitants, to not give up their lives cheaply - and maybe with a vague notion that some could escape the ghetto to continue to fight in other places. Unlike the Poles who could wait for an opportune time to fight, the circumstances of the Jews in the ghetto afforded no such luxury. Unquestionably these differences influenced the way each understood the resistance they offered, as well as their goals.

The mere fact that there was widespread amidah during the Shoah is nothing short of remarkable, given the wider cataclysm of the war and the specific circumstances in which the Jews found themselves. As an expression of the struggle to stand tall and preserve human dignity in the most inhumane situation imaginable, the phenomenon of Jewish resistance is eminently worthy of our reflection as we mark Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of "Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts," Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, soon to be published by Yad Vashem and University of Nebraska Press.

A street in Warsaw destroyed during the failed 1944 uprising against Nazi occupiers.Credit: Reuters

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