Resistance in the Holocaust

Fighting back any way they could.

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This article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People published by Schocken Books.

­The definition of Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust still evokes bitter polemics. Generally, resistance is understood to mean a form of armed struggle, organized by a clandestine movement created for that purpose. However, in the case of a dispersed nation threatened by an industry seeking its total extermination, such a military conception is inadequate.


A Belorussian resistance group.

Jewish existence in the diaspora excluded by definition the basic condition for armed resistance: belonging to a group united by feelings of social and ethnic cohesion. A collective consciousness of this kind was practically nonexistent among western Jews, and it had only elementary manifestations in eastern Europe. Therefore, the active participation of Jews in military resistance to the Nazi regime was contingent on the nature of their relations with the local non‑Jewish population and on the attitude of that population to the Nazi occupation.

The predominantly middle‑class Jews of Germany, who were expectedly individualistic as well, represent the reasons which prevented collective Jewish action in the face of Nazi terror. It was only when they were transported to the east, and confined together in ghettos and camps, that persecution transformed them into a homogeneous group.

Researchers therefore stress other forms of resistance: the zealous preservation of Jewish culture in the ghettos, Jewish contributions to the war effort of the Allies (the Palestinian Jewish brigade in the British army, or those who broke out of the ghettos to join the partisans, thus participating in the general, not specifically Jewish, history of anti‑Nazi resis­tance), and suicide—the ultimate form of refusal.

Yet even this broader definition of resistance does not really take into account the specific circumstances of the persecution of the Jews. The crucial difference between the Jews and all other nations, with the single exception of the Gypsies, was the Nazis' determination to wipe them off the face of the earth. Had the Nazis simply tried to coerce them into one form of behavior or another, the Jews would have found ways to defy them. But there was no tradition of actively resisting total annihilation. Even the medieval form of Jewish resistance to forced conversion, i.e. killing oneself for the "sanctification of God," was inapplicable. In this unprecedented and extreme case of genocide, only by fleeing could theJews really hope to thwart the enemy's policy. Resisting simply meant saving one's life, surviving.

This definition exposes one of the most painful problems of Jewish experience under Nazism: the conflict between the "underground"—the armed resistance in the ghettos—and the so‑called Jewish "autonomy," the Judenrat, which was appointed by the German authorities and acted on their behalf. Only in the ghettos was there any chance of organizing resistance. In the labor camps, and all the more so in the death camps, where the condemned spent only a short while before being extermi­nated, collective action was practically impossible. In most cases, the underground movement in the ghettos was organized at the last moment, that is, shortly before the final evacuation, and was in fact thedesperate act of those who were prepared to die.

The most important revolt, both militarily and symbolically, took place in the Warsaw Ghetto. This uprising broke out only a short time before the ghetto was eradicated (the first transports left the ghetto on July 21 and 22, 1942; the first shots of the underground were fired on April 19, 1943). Here as elsewhere, then, the armed uprising represented choosing death over the saving of lives, an heroic gesture for the sake of posterity. The fighters were mostly young people who had no constraining family obligations, and were members of the youth movements that created the social and political cohesion necessary for collective action.

Relations between the armed resistance movement and the Judenrat were strained. With few exceptions (the councils in Minsk and Bialystok fully cooperated with the underground; about 40 members of Judenrat committed suicide upon realizing that they could do nothing to preventthe transportation to the death camps), these "Jewish councils" repre­sented, against their will, a terrible subversive idea: rescue of a few by the sacrifice of many. Their strategy of saving lives served the interests of the Nazis, and in the end, the fate of the members of the Judenrat was thesame as that of the Jewish population at large.

The collective death sentence pronounced against the Jewish people confronted the leaders of the communities with a tragic alternative: resistance without hope, or compromise without glory. This was one of the most terrible moral dilemmas presented by the Holocaust.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University