Resistance may be divided into the two general categories of passive and active. Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness. Jews confined to ghettos such as Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions. They organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations. They also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls, despite threats of torture and execution.
Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor. Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even a defeat on the battlefield.
Thus, Jewish resistance remained largely nonviolent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews. They were helped in this by the fact that the German soldiers of World War I had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish noncombatants humanely. Jews in Poland and the east initially expected similar behavior from the Nazi invaders. Even after it became apparent that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced the sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons such as Goethe and Beethoven. Many Jews put their faith in God—hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet not daring at first to think the unthinkable.
When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European allies wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased. Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known Nazi gathering spots. One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of such efforts, given the impossibility of Jews "winning" pitched battles against their killers. The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, and usually superior numbers, and they could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare. The Jewish resisters were often unarmed; at best, some might have pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few hand grenades. Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.
When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, the Jews of Warsaw at first refused to assemble and then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943, the ferocity of which surprised the Germans. More than 2,000 German soldiers, supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition, faced approximately 750 Jews with little or no military training. The Schutzstaffel (SS) general in command, Jürgen Stroop, estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising. In fact, he needed a full month, as Jews, armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails, fought frantically and ferociously from street to street and bunker to bunker. The Warsaw uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.
Resistance was less common in death camps such as Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not sufficient time for resistance networks to form. Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons. These elements cannot be improvised and employed in a few hours or even days: months of planning and training are required. Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did revolt at all three of these death camps, as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.
One of the most extraordinary acts of Jewish resistance took place at Treblinka. On 2 August 1943, one year after the inauguration of the camp, a group of Jewish prisoners rose up, killed their guards, burned the camp, and escaped. Of 600 prisoners who got away, only about 40 survived the war.
Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity. In some cells of the Polish Resistance, Jews were killed outright. Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders. In France, Jews made up less than 1 percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground. In 1944, nearly 2,000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.
Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons. In general, Jews lacked combat experience, since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military. As with Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) taken by the Germans, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation. Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is not surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would likewise succumb.
The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention. Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of the Judenr?te (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.
More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support. Although Western leaders often condemned Nazi actions, they took little action. Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative. Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of the Nazis as they planned for Jewish extermination.
Observant Jews were people of God's law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions. Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, some Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively. That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed. Indeed, Jewish resistance was the acorn from which the modern oak of the Israeli Defense Forces sprang.
William J. Astore
Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.; Druks, Herbert. Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust. New York: Irvington, 1983.; Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.; Langbein, Hermann. Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938–1945. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Paragon, 1994.; Rohrlich, Ruby, ed. Resisting the Holocaust. New York: Berg, 1998.; Steiner, Jean-François. Treblinka. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.; Suhl, Yuri, ed. They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.