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Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust

May 14, 2012 – 7:22 pm4 Comments

Ben Crystal as 'Julian Wald' in a still from the film Uprising (2001)

As part of the lead up to Limmud Oz 2012, we will be publishing some articles by presenters in order to give our readership a taste of some of sessions on offer. If you are a presenter and would like to write an article about your upcoming session, please contact the editors.

In the following article, Freda Hodge looks at the concept of Jewish Resistance during the Shoah.

In the period immediately following the war, little was known by the Allies and the general public about Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was assumed that the victims of the “final solution” went to their deaths unprotestingly, meekly allowing the Nazis to carry out their genocidal plans. The reality was counter to this view, and in the words of Yehuda Bauer, “ …the Jews’ resistance, whatever its form, is as significant as their death. Slaughtered they were, but not like sheep.” The resistors understood that their chances of surviving the war were infinitesimal, and they chose to die fighting the enemy and, hopefully, inflicting damage upon the might of the Germans at the same time.

My session will explore the concepts of different types of resistance ranging from armed combat and sabotage, to acts of spiritual resistance. In the ghettos, Jews were isolated from the outside world and from other ghettos. Starvation, disease, exposure and Nazi brutality killed many thousands of the ghetto inhabitants. Few Jews found hiding places on the “Aryan” side of the ghetto where they were constantly aware that the local population might betray them and report them to the Germans.

The Jewish populations faced innumerable obstacles that rendered successful acts of resistance almost impossible to achieve. Examples of such hindrances were: the difficulty in obtaining arms, isolation in the ghettos, hostility from the occupied population, starvation and overwork which sapped the strength and the will of every individual. Often the Judenrate were opposed to resistance in any form as they believed that it was more effective to placate the enemy and to become useful to them hoping that this might save Jewish lives. The Polish and Russian partisan detachments did not welcome Jews into their ranks and often turned upon the Jewish partisans killing them and looting their arms. Nazi methods of deception and terror exacerbated the helplessness of the Jewish population, and one of the most pernicious of Nazi tactics was “collective responsibility”. The Germans retaliated for acts of resistance by punishing or murdering entire families or communities.

For the survivors of the Holocaust, the success of resistance was not measured in terms of victory, but in the fact that it had taken place at all. In the ghettos and the forests, in the extermination camps and the slave labour camps, resistance manifested itself in various ways, ranging from sabotaging railroad tracks to organising prayer meetings and observing Jewish religious rituals. Partisan groups, underground personnel and individuals endured appalling hardships and danger to oppose the Germans. They faced brutal punishments or death at the hands of the Nazis if caught carrying out anything deemed to be resistance. I will describe Individual eyewitness accounts of partisan and underground activity in ghettos and forests, thus bringing to life the complexity and danger of engaging in acts of resistance.

It is estimated that during the period of World War II, 20 000 to 30 000 Jewish men and women fought heroically as partisans operating from the dense forests of Eastern Europe. In addition, research has shown that armed Jewish resistance took place in at least 5 major ghettos, 45 smaller ghettos, 5 major concentration and extermination camps and 18 forced labour camps. Jewish resistance was driven by desperation, the desire for revenge and the need to restore the image of Jewish identity, to preserve Jewish culture and religion in order to sabotage Hitler’s plans to annihilate Jews and to obliterate their history.

Freda Hodge is a volunteer at the Melbourne Holocaust Centre and has also published articles on linguistics and English literature.

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