Tonya N. Williams
Throughout generations of persecution, Jews have overcome it by
appeasement, compliance, and perseverance; however those of the
Holocaust were to learn that passivity would no longer suffice.
The Jews of the twentieth century faced an unprecedented evil, Adolf
Hitler's Final Solution. His objective was not the mere subordination
of a race but its total annihilation. As a preliminary step towards
the extermination of the Jews, the Nazis organized some 356 ghettos
in Poland, the Soviet Union, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia,
Hungary, and Romania in order to isolate the major Jewish communities
from the rest of the world. The question is this: Did the Jews resist
the Nazis? And the answer is yes, both passively and actively.
Passive resistance was the major form of resistance that was employed
by most Jews. It's range of activities were great and its effects
were lasting. The primary type of passive resistance was the act
of staying alive. Jewish political groups who had gone underground
at the start of German occupation organized everything from food
and clothing distribution, newspapers such as Veder, education,
regular religious services and study, and later armed resistance
in the Ghettos.
One of the main purposes of Hitler's formation of ghettos was to
keep Jews in the dark about their fate so as to prevent resistance.
This was overcome by the use of couriers and the creation of an
underground press and communication network. Couriers would sneak
from ghetto to ghetto collecting information about everything that
was going on, report back to their organizations who would then
publish it in their newspaper. News of the Final Solution came from
those who had escaped from the trains headed to death camps and
those who had escaped labor and death camps. For five years in Lodz,
an underground organization operated a radio listening post which
served as a means of seeing the bigger picture of the war in Europe.
Such information was helpful in planning resistance. Also against
Nazi authority was the practice of Jewish rituals and education.
Regular services were organized and make-shift classroom were set
up for the children. Socializing also became a main form of resistance.
Musicians and actors would put on plays and concerts. Ghetto dwellers
would play cards and entertain themselves at the end of their fourteen-hour
work day in the factories where they performed simple sabotage,
fires and poor workmanship, to impede the German war effort. These
activities kept up morale and bolstered hope.
In order to meet physical needs to survive, an underground economy
was created. Food, clothing, and other items were smuggled in and
out of the ghetto and bartered among those within its walls and
those on the outside. Smuggling became an essential mean of survival
since the Jews were only rationed a meager 200-calorie-per-day diet.
There is neither heaven nor earth, no abyss
nor hell, There is only Beatrice. But she does not exist.
- Jan Lechon
The pen proved a powerful weapon in surviving life in the ghettos.
Not only did underground newspapers play an important role during
the Holocaust but documented daily accounts, artwork, and poetry
did as well. Each told the world of the atrocities they faced from
day to day: disease, starvation, loss, fear, mass killings, loneliness,
hard labor, and despair for which many Jews killed themselves. In
Terezin over 6,000 pieces of children's artwork that had been hidden
during the Holocaust have been recovered and are being displayed
in Prague, Israel, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington,
D.C. Poetry was the most effective use of the pen in that it boosted
morale, peaked Jewish pride, and gained support for rebellion and
revolt both passive and armed resistance.
Why do they pray? Why do they lift their hands? Where is their
fist? Where is the thunderbolt That will settle accounts for all
the generations, And lay the world in ruins, tear down the heavens,
And overturn My Throne? -Abraham Sutzkever,"The Heart's Voice"
Jewish armed resistance was few and far-between. While passive
forms of resistance flourished, many hesitated at armed resistance
because the consequences were great. German reprisals kept such
resistance to a minimum. If any individual violently acted out it
would not only cost him his life but also those of about a hundred
other Jews within the Ghetto. Armed resistance was deemed a risky
venture and was left to the organized underground. There were generally
two views on this type of resistance: 1.) a last resort to come
before liquidation of the ghetto as a last stand of honor and vengeance
or 2.) a joining with partisan groups outside the ghetto in the
forest. Most armed resistance was staged by the younger, able-bodied
leaders of the political underground network stirred by the inevitability
of death. They were responsible for organizing the paramilitary
branches of their individual organizations. Couriers, in addition
to gaining information, were also relied on to secure weapons and
financial aid from other ghettos. In preparation for the armed resistance,
rations were saved up, civilians were trained in the use of various
weapons, and bunkers were built in order to hide supplies and fighters.
Resistance did not have much support out of fear of reprisals and
liquidation. Those who pushed for armed resistance were thought
of as insane and irresponsible and were often threatened to be turned
over to the Nazis.
The most notable uprising was that of the Warsaw Ghetto but here
are some less notable examples of resistance from smaller ghettos:
Bialystok: August 16,1943, 2:00 a.m. the Gestapo surrounded
and SS troops entered the Ghetto. Notices were posted about the
camps immediate evacuation to Lublin. Resistors tried in vain to
sway the masses towards resistance and set fire to the ghetto enclosures
near the woods to create escape routes but for nothing. The SS opened
fire and the resistors fought to their last man. Those compliant
Jews of Bialystok later met their deaths at Treblinka and Majdanek.
Tuchin: September 3, 1942, 700 families escaped from
Tuchin who were later hunted down and killed; only 15 survived.
Krakow: December 22, 1942, under PPR leadership, a
small group of young Zionists blew up two cafe in Krakow killing
at least twenty German officers. In February the group's members
were either killed or arrested and the following month the ghetto
Baranowicze: 1943, It was agreed upon to build bunkers
in which to hide in at the time of the ghetto's liquidation. If
the bunkers should be discovered, its occupants would have the means
in which to defend themselves. However at the time of liquidation,
there was no resistance.
Works and Sites Consulted
Aaron, Freida W. Bearing the Unbearable. New York: State
University of New York Press, 1990
Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames. Jerusalem: "Ahva" Cooperative
Printing Press, 1980
Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews 1933-1945.
New York: Bantam Books, 1975
Tory, Avraham. Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary.
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990