Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust
Of all Nazi enormities during World War II, the extermination of the Roma and Jews was perhaps the most reprehensible. The Nazis sought to annihilate these two ethnicities only on the grounds of their alleged racial inferiority. This paper will focus on the experiences of European Jews. Although Hitler unleashed carnage on German Jews shortly after his rise to power, the nature of the Holocaust intensified and its geography broadened during World War II. Overall, an estimated six million Jews perished in the crucible of the Nazi-orchestrated Holocaust. Whereas the majority of deaths occurred in concentration camps, many Jews lost their lives even on the earlier stages of the Holocaust, namely in the ghettos.
However, many Jews attempted to save their lives in the face of overwhelming odds. Jews resisted the Nazis in a number of different ways, both individually and collectively. They resisted the Nazis in ghettos, in concentration camps, and in forests as part of Soviet partisan units. They also joined national resistance movements in countries across Europe. In addition to armed resistance, Jews also resisted the Nazis spiritually, establishing cultural institutions and otherwise perpetuating Jewish heritage despite the Nazi efforts to obliterate it. This paper will focus on Jewish resistance in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos and concentration camps. It will separately discuss resistance mounted by Jewish women and children in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos and concentration camps. The preliminary findings suggest that Jewish resistance, while largely ineffective, took various forms across ghettos and concentration camps in Poland and Lithuania.
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Jewish Resistance in Ghettos
It is necessary to note at the outset of this discussion that there were two catalysts that bred resistance in Jewish ghettos: deplorable living conditions and rumors about deportation to killing centers. To use an apt metaphor, the two went “hand in hand”. Indeed, the life for Jews was miserable within the makeshift Jewish ghettos across both Poland and Lithuania. Once the Nazi occupants herded Jews into the ghetto, they often enclosed these ghettos with brick walls to prevent communication of Jews with the outside world. The ghettos were limited only to living quarters and did not provide any jobs. With only several shops and no money to buy things, Jews commonly suffered from ravenous hunger. They had to sell whatever possessions they had to buy at least some meager repast. Before long, Jews could be seen collapsing from hunger in the middle of the street. Ghetto streets became littered with corpses. Gutman agrees, adding that corpses were victims of starvation who “had been cast on the sidewalk” by their friends or relatives. Gutman knows it from an unimpeachable historical document that the Nazis cleared heaps of deceased Jews from the streets every morning.
In addition to starvation, Jews detained in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos had to endure excessively brutal treatment. Even though Jews were confined to enwalled quarters, the Nazis further restricted their mobility by imposing a curfew. Those who were caught violating the curfew faced summary execution. Unsurprisingly, in these dispiriting conditions, discontent was commonplace. Yet, this discontent seldom grew into something bigger than murmurings at the family table. One of the earlier forms of resistance was the circumvention of the curfew and isolation. Yet, only few ghetto detainees managed to flee for the safety of other places.
The most meaningful form of resistance in the ghettos was armed resistance. Overall, it is estimated that Jews organized over 100 armed uprisings across Europe, with the majority taking place in Poland and Lithuania. To better understand the nature of armed Jewish resistance, several most resonant ghetto uprisings will be discussed below. The most famous incident was the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, of course. Bender argues that the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was “carefully planned down to the last detail. The preparation for the uprising lasted for several months, with piecemeal action taking place every day. Bender further explains some specifics of the uprising:
The ghetto Jews launched an uprising with rifles, submachine guns, and automatic weapons, but on the very first day, Globonchik sent a tank into the ghetto to put down the uprising. There was shooting on both sides, and both sides suffered losses.
Although General Himmler promised Hitler that he would thwart the uprising within three days, it took the 3,000-strong German division nearly one month to quell the uprising. Jews pelted German tanks with Molotov cocktails and used sporadic fire to repel German troops. However, the Germans were both numerically superior and had better weapons. Jew, by contrast, had very few weapons. Their defeat was only a matter of time. Given the formidable odds, it appears that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was only a desperate attempt on the part of Jews to preserve some dignity.
Judging the Warsaw ghetto uprising with the benefit of retrospective vision, it appears that the Jews chose a bad timing. At the time the Warsaw ghetto was established it had a population of 360,000 Jews. Before long, its population swelled to over 500,000 Jews. In 1941, however, the population of the camp began to drop, as people died of starvation and were deported to mysterious labor camps. Yet, communication and coordination between them were lacking. As a result, the longer Warsaw ghetto Jews procrastinated, the smaller their chances became. It was not until the population of the Warsaw ghetto fell to about 60,000 in 1943 that Jews began to treat the idea of uprising in earnest. Importantly, these remaining Jews were more concerned about the rumors of being sent to a death camp rather than about their virtually unbearable living conditions. In any case, their resistance failed.
The situation was similar across Poland and Lithuania. Most Jews were content with the dispiriting conditions in the ghettos, fearing that their fate would be even worse in the mysterious concentration camps. Seeing as their friends and relatives were deported to concentration camps, the remaining Jews feverishly tried to obtain the so-called employment certificates, which authorized them to work for the Nazis in the ghettos. When the Nazis liquidated these ghettos, the remaining Jews knew they were doomed. During one such liquidation attempt in August 1943, the second-largest Jewish revolt occurred in the Bialystok ghetto of Poland. A small group of Jews armed with a very limited number of guns, rifles, Molotov cocktails and only one machine gun mounted resistance to the liquidation of the ghetto. The uprising was a gallant – but very desperate and, ultimately, futile – attempt to resist the Nazis. The Nazis easily extinguished the uprising, setting the ghetto ablaze and deporting the surviving Jews to concentration camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka.
The Vilna ghetto in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius also saw minor skirmishes between the Nazis and the United Partisan Organization, which was the mainstay of the resistance movement in the ghetto. Yet, the United Partisan Organization failed to mount any tangible armed resistance. The ghetto is known more for its cultural resistance to the Nazis. Indeed, between its establishment in 1941 and its liquidation in 1943, the ghetto was a hive of intellectual activity. Jews themselves referred to this place as “Jerusalem of the ghettos”. The Vilna ghetto had a library and even a small theater, where theatrical production had clear undertones of resistance to the Nazis. The very existence of such cultural centers was a form of resistance. Likewise, the Vilna ghetto gained prominence due to what Longacre and her colleagues call “triumphs of Jewish medicine in the Holocaust”. Indeed, doctors in the makeshift medical centers of the Vilna ghetto treated typhus and other dreaded diseases, thereby helping Jews resist the Holocaust.
In the Vilna ghetto and other ghettos across Lithuania and Poland, spiritual resistance took several other shapes. Despite the express prohibition by the Nazis, Jews established schools to educate their children. Likewise, defying the authority of the Nazi occupants, they founded underground newspapers to disseminate their own truth and to foment sedition. Similarly, public synagogue services took place in some ghettos despite the express prohibition of praying by the Nazis.
Jewish Resistance in Concentration Camps
If Jewish ghettos in Poland and Lithuania had appalling living conditions, concentration camps were literal cesspools of despair. The Nazis used these premises to conduct their human experiments and to exterminate Jews en masse. Nonetheless, even though the arrivals were emaciated and dispirited, they managed to organize several successful acts – nay, exploits – of resistance.
Chronologically, the first time Jews rose against the Nazis in a concentration camp was in August 1943 at Treblinka. In that case, nearly 700 Jews rebelled against their guards. The uprising was carefully planned, but it began ahead of the schedule due to the possibility of sabotage. The rebels had access to some weapons and munitions, so that they mounted considerable resistance. Yet, the Nazis quelled the uprising, gunning down about 500 rebels immediately and pursuing the remaining ones on cars and on horseback. Although very few of the uprising participants survived World War II, the resistance efforts foiled the extermination process at Treblinka for nearly a month.
The next major uprising was at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. An estimated 600 Jewish detainees in collaboration with Russian prisoners-of-war killed several SS officers guarding the camp in an attempt to abscond the camp. Initially, the majority of these Jews managed to leave the territory of the camp unscathed, but they ultimately perished in the surrounding minefields. Only few fugitives survived.
The last major uprising happened in the Auschwitz extermination camp in October 1944. Using the explosives smuggled by female detainees, the rebels destroyed one of the gas chambers. Joined by the Jewish Special Detachment, they proceeded to attack the SS guards. However, just as in the previous extermination camp uprisings, the SS guards used heavy fire to suppress this brave but largely futile act of Jewish resistance. The vast majority of the uprising members lost their lives.
Resistance by Jewish Women and Children
Obsessed with their warped ideas of racial superiority, the Nazis spared neither Jewish children nor Jewish women in conducting the Holocaust. The lot of Jewish women and children was often in many ways more sorrowful than the lot of Jewish men. Pregnant women, for example, were deemed incapable of work and were sent to death camps in the first turn. Likewise, children under the age of 12 were not fit for hard labor and faced a similar fate. They were killed with reckless abandon as a measure to prevent the continuation of the Jewish ethnicity. Both Jewish children and women were subject to sterilization experiments and other appalling human experimentation. Women were commonly raped or forced into prostitution in several hundred brothels across the Nazi-occupied territories. The Nazis even created separate concentration camps for women, such as Ravensbruck.
Even so, despite a commonly held belief to the contrary, children and women commonly offered resistance to the vile actions of the Nazis. Children, for example, often squirmed through the walls of the ghetto to find some food and bring it back to their families. Fleeing for the safety of Great Britain as part of the so-called Kindertransport rescue effort, children also participated in the resistance movement. Likewise, children – no matter whether wittingly or unwittingly – kept the resistance movement going simply by attending underground Jewish schools. Jewish women, too, did not always accept their appalling fate with tacit acquiescence. They commonly formed groups of mutual assistance to facilitate survival. Just as men, Jewish women engaged in resistance activities both in ghettos and in concentration camps. Haika Grosman, for one, was a seminal leader of Jewish resistance in Bialystok. Likewise, women frequently served as couriers and smugglers. It was due to the concerted efforts of several Jewish women that the 1944 uprising at Auschwitz succeeded in blowing up a gas chamber and dispatching several Nazi troops. Apart from that, Jewish women involved in forced labor also made a contribution. As their form of resistance, these women intentionally performed their work shoddily to deteriorate the quality of German equipment, ammunition, and other materials they produced.
This paper has shown that Jewish resistance to the Nazi-orchestrated Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania took various forms. In ghettos, Jews – either individually or collectively – engaged both in spiritual resistance and armed resistance. As far as spiritual resistance was concerned, Jews held religious services, set up schools, staged theatrical performances, and issued newspapers. All this was in defiance of the Nai authority. Violating Nazi edicts, Jews risked incurring the wrath of the Nazis, which was essentially equivalent to losing life. The Vilna ghetto stood as the epicenter of spiritual resistance. When spiritual resistance failed to soothe the rebellious spirits, Jews mounted armed resistance to the Nazis. However, all major armed uprisings ultimately proved futile, with only several members remaining alive.
In extermination camps, as this paper has shown, there was no time for spiritual resistance. Faced with the grim perspective of death, Jews had to act with dispatch. The three major uprisings in the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz saw few Jewish survivors. Nonetheless, the uprisings were inherently good, not least because they helped the Jews to come down in history books as courageous rather than pusillanimous people. Likewise, those who survived would have faced certain extermination otherwise. Furthermore, Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps were closed following the uprisings. This paper has also shown that children and particularly women played a crucial role in the Jewish resistance efforts. Women, for example, both participated in in passive resistance efforts and in armed uprisings.
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