Background: Resistance

Despite the strength of the Nazis, there were Jews who resisted. But there were many obstacles to resistance. Many Jews refused to believe the stories they had heard about the mass killings of men, women and children in extermination camps. They clung on to the hope of survival, and therefore did little to resist their fate. They simply could not understand that it was possible to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Jews.


The strength and might of the German army terrified many people. As it only took a matter of weeks for the German army to overcome Poland and France, it seemed as if the Jews would have little chance of resisting such an overwhelming force. The Nazis also used a retaliation tactic that held groups of people responsible for individual acts of resistance. Families and even whole communities would often be killed to punish those who had tried to resist. The Nazis had planned the deportations meticulously, and their speed, secrecy and deception lulled the Jews into a false sense of security. Many thought they were being deported to labour camps to then be resettled in the East.


Physical weakness was also an obstacle to resistance in the ghettos and camps. Jews in the ghettos were systematically starved and were susceptible to disease before they were rounded up for deportation, leaving many of them in a weakened state.


Jews also found themselves isolated from their neighbours, as many Eastern European Jews were unable to blend easily into a non-Jewish community due to differences in accent and language, religious customs and physical appearance. For example, male Jews, who were circumcised, were easily identifiable. In many cases, non-Jewish Partisans and underground fighters refused to supply Jews with arms, which also led to problems in resisting the Nazis.


The Jewish youth groups were more receptive to using arms to fight the Nazis, as they did not have the same kind of family ties as older people. Perhaps the most well known act of armed resistance was in the Warsaw ghetto. Fighting only broke out once it was clear that Nazis meant to murder Jews in 1941. The several thousand Jews who were left after mass deportations of 1942 and 1943 resisted and the rebellion lasted for four weeks until the Nazis razed the ghetto and burned it down. There were also armed revolts in death camps including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor.


Resistance took many forms; other examples besides armed resistance included moral, spiritual, economic, cultural and political resistance. In the ghettos, there were many examples of resistance. Underground movements established soup kitchens to help Jews survive the terrible conditions, and children were often involved with dangerous smuggling operations to supplement the meagre food rations. Some kept diaries and historical archives in order to prevent the Nazis from hiding all evidence of their crimes. Despite the dehumanising and degrading conditions enforced upon them, there were Jews who resisted by maintaining their dignity and pride. For example the Nazis forced the Jews to wear the Yellow Star as a badge of shame, to mark out and humiliate them, but there were those who wore it proudly as a badge of honour.


Cultural activities thrived in the ghettos, sometimes in secret and sometimes permitted by the Nazis. There are accounts of musical, operatic and theatrical performances and many examples of poetry and artwork from the ghettos survived as evidence to the terrible conditions. Although education was forbidden in the ghetto, children attended school in secret and adults continued to study religious texts. Giving birth in the ghettos was strictly prohibited but despite this, and at great risk to their own lives, adults married, gave birth and conducted ritual circumcisions on male children. These acts of resistance were of a spiritual kind, and were meant to preserve the Jewish faith.


In order to save lives, families hid from their persecutors and sometimes escapes occurred. Some sacrificed their own lives for other individuals, whilst others chose to kill themselves, realising that they would inevitably be killed by the Nazis.


Keeping oneself informed of current events was also an act of resistance, and access to forbidden news and radios helped to keep morale high. Jews joined partisan groups all over Europe, blowing up railways, attacking troops and carrying out sabotage. For example, survivor Jack Kagan (Topic 2) escaped the Nazis and joins a group of Russian, Jewish partisans. Most of the partisans survived the Holocaust by hiding with the Women and children near Novogrodek.


In this section, Trude Levi talks of her act of sabotage in a munitions factory. There are also descriptions of the resistance of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, and of acts of non-Jewish resistance. The Sonderkommando received explosives from a group of four Jewish women. They succeeded in blowing up Crematorium IV and 300 Sonderkommando attacked their SS guards with stones and work tools.


There were also couriers who smuggled arms into the ghettos, ran illegal printing presses and arranged escapes. They mainly travelled in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union using false names and papers. They carried illegal documents, newspapers and money. People also stole weapons, produced faulty munitions and set fire to factories in order to sabotage the German war effort. There were a few groups of non-Jews who openly opposed the Nazi genocide against the Jews. An example of this is The White Rose Group in Germany. A student at Munich University founded this group in 1942. They disseminated anti-Nazi leaflets and advocated sabotage in munitions factories. They were betrayed by a caretaker at the University and executed by Nazis in 1943. Non-Jewish partisan groups also fought against the Nazis and sabotaged their actions. In Israel today, the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, honours non-Jewish people who helped the Jews. They are given the title 'Righteous Gentiles'.