During the Holocaust, millions of Jews boarded rail cars and trains destined for the unknown. Thousands worked in forced labor and millions led a brutal existence in concentration camps, slowly wasting away. Did the Jews go like sheep to the slaughter or was there resistance?
For the Jews who died in gas chambers, the issue of resistance was moot – until as late as mid-1942, most Jews were unaware about the implementation of the Final Solution. Stripped of weapons, facing starvation and disease combined with the prospect of deportation, most Jews believed that they were being relocated to work. For virtually all, the reality that they faced immediate death did not occur until the doors of the gas chambers were sealed, the lights were turned off and the gas filled the rooms. But by then, it was too late.
Those who did resist – either by running from the trains or attacking their captors – faced certain death. Some took advantage of this option and were summarily executed on the spot. Others chose to take their own lives when faced with the hopelessness of the situation. It might be argued that suicide under these circumstances was itself resistance.
For others, deciding not to commit suicide but rather to make an attempt at survival amidst the hopelessness and despair of this situation was their resistance. Those that resisted more actively found that any success resulted in unintended consequences since the Nazis practiced collective responsibility. If a Nazi soldier was murdered by a Jew, not only was that Jew executed, but also his family and perhaps a hundred others. As a result, few Jews carried out active resistance from fear of reprisals.
Spiritual Resistance in the Ghettos
While there were examples of courageous armed uprisings in the ghettos, resistance also took forms without weapons. For many, attempting to carry on a semblance of “normal” life in the face of wretched conditions was resistance. David Altshuler writes in Hitler’s War Against the Jews about life in the ghettos, which sustained Jewish culture in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
“All forms of culture sustained life in the ghetto. Since curfew rules did not allow people on the street from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. the next morning, socializing had to be among friends living [in] the same building or visitors who spent the night. Card playing was very popular, and actors, musicians, comics, singers, and dancers all entertained small groups who came together for a few hours to forget their daily terror and despair.”
Artists and poets as well entertained, and their works, many of which survive today, are poignant reminders of the horrors of the period (see Appendix II). Underground newspapers were printed and distributed at great risk to those who participated. Praying was against the rules, but synagogue services occurred with regularity. The education of Jewish children was forbidden, but the ghetto communities set up schools. The observance of many Jewish rituals, including dietary laws, was severely punished by the Nazis, and many Jews took great risks to resist the Nazi edicts against these activities. Committees were organized to meet the philanthropic, religious, educational, and cultural community needs. Many of these committees defied Nazi authority.
Some Jews escaped death by hiding in the attics and cellars and closets of non-Jews, who themselves risked certain death if their actions were discovered by the Nazis.
The writings and oral histories of survivors of the labor and concentration camps are filled with accounts of simple sabotage. Material for the German war effort, for example, might be mysteriously defective, the result of intentionally shoddy workmanship by Jewish slave labor.
Despite the myth to the contrary, Jewish armed resistance to the Holocaust did occur. This active resistance occurred in ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps. Many of those who participated in resistance of this type were caught and executed, and their stories will never be told. However, there are many verifiable accounts of major incidents of this resistance:
Armed Ghetto Resistance
On September 3, 1942, seven hundred Jewish families escaped from this ghetto in the Ukraine. They were hunted down, and only 15 survived.
By 1943, the ghetto residents had organized an army of about 1,000 fighters, mostly unarmed and without equipment. They were joined by thousands of others, mostly the young and able-bodied, still needed for forced labor. By that time, the half-million original inhabitants had been depleted to about 60,000 as a result of starvation, disease, cold, and deportation.
In January 1943, the S.S. entered the ghetto to round up more Jews for shipment to the death camps. They were met by a volley of bombs, Molotov cocktails, and the bullets from a few firearms which had been smuggled into the ghettos. Twenty S.S. soldiers were killed. The action encouraged a few members of the Polish resistance to support the uprising, and a few machine guns, some hand grenades, and about a hundred rifles and revolvers were smuggled in.
Facing them were almost 3,000 crack German troops with 7,000 reinforcements available. Tanks and heavy artillery surrounded the ghetto. General Heinrich Himmler promised Adolf Hitler that the uprising would be quelled in three days, and the ghetto would be destroyed. It took four weeks. The ghetto was reduced to rubble following bomber attacks, gas attacks, and burning of every structure by the Nazis. Fifteen thousand Jews died in the battle, and most of the survivors were shipped to the death camps. Scores of German soldiers were killed. Some historical accounts report that 300 Germans were killed and 1,000 wounded, although the actual figure is unknown.
Jewish paramilitary organizations formed within the ghetto attacked the German army when it was determined that the Nazis intended to liquidate it. The battle lasted just one day, until the resisters were killed or captured.
Some inhabitants of the Vilna Ghetto began an uprising against their Nazi captors on September 1, 1943. Most participants were killed, although a few escaped successfully and joined partisan units.
Armed Resistance in the Death Camps
Seven hundred Jews were successful in blowing up the camp on August 2, 1943. All but 150-200 Jews perished, as well as over 20 Germans. Only 12 survived the war.
Jewish and Russian prisoners mounted an escape attempt on October 14, 1943. About 60 of 600 prisoners involved in the escape survived to join Soviet partisans. Ten S.S. guards were killed and one wounded.
On October 7, 1944, one of the four crematoria at Auschwitz was blown up by Sonderkommandos. These were workers, mostly Jews, whose job it was to clear away the bodies of gas chamber victims. The workers were all caught and killed.