On Monday 6th July I attended the Lessons From Auschwitz’s Ambassador conference in London. During the day I attended a number of seminars and conferences, one of which concerned Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust. Led by Martin Winstone, an Education Officer for the Holocaust Educational Trust, this half-hour-long workshop concerned the obstacles to resistance, attempts on the parts of individuals to rescue the persecuted, and spiritual forms of resistance. We were privileged to be joined in this workshop by Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich MBE, and liberator Bernard Levy, both of whom would later speak at the main conference.
The workshop started with a reference to the movie ‘Defiance’, which tells the story of four Jewish brothers who hid in the forests of Eastern Europe and resisted the Nazi occupation. We then moved on to talk about the obstacles which faced those attempting to resist.
Obstacles to Resistance
“Why didn’t we resist when they began to resettle 300,000 Jews from Warsaw? Why did we allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter? Why did everything come so easy to the enemy? Why didn’t the hangman suffer a single casualty?”
Emanuel Ringelblum, diary entry, 15 October 1942
There were a number of barriers to the Jews, and others, who were determined to resist the Nazis:
- Imbalance of power – an uprising could not succeed against the preponderance of Nazi strength.
- Living conditions – they deteriorated over time, and were not conducive to successful resistance.
- Lack of advance knowledge – this regards the Nazis’ round-ups, deportations etc. In the east, moreover, the German invasion of 22 July 1941 came as quite a surprise, thereby preventing many Jews from fleeing in time.
- Fear of reprisals
- Incomprehensibility of the Holocaust – many could simply not believe that the Nazis were committing such atrocities.
“It was difficult for normal, thinking people to accept the idea that on this globe it was possible for a government calling itself European to murder millions of innocent people.”
Emanuel Ringelblum, ‘Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War’ (written 1943)
- Limited prospects of help – 1942 was the worst year of the Holocaust, and for Jewish prospects. The Allies were still on the back foot and the Soviets were only just starting to turn the tide on the Eastern front.
Challenges facing escapees
The chances of survival once one had escaped, say, a ghetto, were very low. The very young, old and infirm were especially weak. Moreover the chances of mounting successful resistance after escape were very slim. The young had a much better chance of this, and they often tried to meet up with partisan groups, usually in forests, wherein partisans such as the four brothers of ‘Defiance’ lived and organised their activities.
Oskar Schindler’s case is perhaps the most famous example of someone trying, and succeeding, to save the lives of Jews. Nicholas Winton (pictured), who died just 5 days before the Ambassador Conference, was another such hero. He rescued 669 children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, finding them homes and arranging for their safe passage to Britain. (Another man, the actions of whom we should be eternally grateful, was Youra Livschitz.)
However, such instances of courageous rescue were rare. Thus the more likely way to survive for most was through resistance. Martin Winstone outlined two main ways in which people offered resistance: armed and spiritual.
There were numerous incidents of armed resistance during the war, the most notable of which were the Warsaw uprisings of 1943 and 1944. Unfortunately the best that the resistance fighters could hope to achieve was the uprising in and of itself – the chances of success were minimal.
“Be well my friend. Perhaps we shall meet again. The main thing is the dream of my life has come true. I’ve lived to see a Jewish defence in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.”
Mordechai Anielewicx, letter, 23 April 1943
“I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and shriek to the world proclaiming the truth…But no, we shall certainly never live to see it, and therefore do I write my last will. May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened and what was played out in twentieth century…We may die now in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.”
David Graber, aged 19, last testament, 3 August 1942
Armed resistance was not the only way in which persecuted people resisted the Nazis. Many, such as David Graber, kept a record of the community’s life in their ghetto, alongside documenting evidence of the Nazi’s crimes. Not only was this to record the horrors of the Holocaust, but to preserve a culture.
Others such as members of the Sonderkommando, who were tasked with the removal of the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers, also tried to record the horrors of their lives:
“It may be that these, the lines that I am now writing, will be the sole witnesses to what was my life. But I shall be happy if only my writings should reach you, citizen of the free world. Dear discoverer of these writings! I have a request of you: this is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future. I pass on to you only a small part of what took place in the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is for you to comprehend that reality…”
Zalman Gradowski, notebook, March-April 1944
Many tried to retain some sense of normality whilst in the ghettos; some organised illegal schools in order to keep life as normal as possible to preserve morale. Others prayed (Amidah), painted, or organised local theatres.
Israeli Historian and scholar of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, commented upon the manifold instances of spiritual resistance:
“What does amidah include? It includes smuggling food into ghettos; mutual self-sacrifice within the family to avoid starvation or worse; cultural, educational, religious, and political activities taken to strengthen morale; the work of doctors, nurses, and educators to consciously maintain health and moral fibre to enable individual and group survival; and, of course, armed rebellion or use of force.”
Yehuda Bauer, ‘Rethinking the Holocaust’ (2000)
The Jews faced many difficulties in their attempts to resist the Nazis during the Holocaust; they often tried and succeeded, at great risk to themselves and their communities. But, what is clear to me and I hope now to you – they succeeded. Evidence of Nazi atrocities remain in abundance; and the stories of the bravery and struggles of the four brothers of ‘Defiance’, alongside Ringelblum, Anielewicx, Graber and Gradowski and countless others, live on.