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

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.

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 was liquidated.
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

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