Resistance in the Holocaust

Fighting back any way they could.

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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