How Do We Measure Resistance? Reflections on the Apr. 19, 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
April 19, 1943. Passover.
On this day, the armed uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto began.
Time and again, as a teacher of the Holocaust, I am asked: did the Jews resist? Or, more commonly, why didn’t the Jews resist?
Despite tremendous obstacles, the Jews fought the Nazis in many different ways and in many different places.
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The Jews have a long history of persecution and suffering. They learned from that history, and they tried to apply the lessons they had learned from history to their situation under the Nazis. The Jews of Germany, Austria, Poland and all of eastern Europe knew the stories of their past: Jews had been expelled from their communities before; they had been confined in ghettos before; they had dealt with anti-Semitic laws before; they had been assaulted and murdered before. So when they had their rights taken away from them and had to leave their homes and move into ghettos, it was a familiar experience. But it’s also important to remember that they had no way of knowing, in the beginning, that Nazi persecution was going to be so very different from the persecution they endured in the past.
Further, the Nazis were skilled in deception. They gained and maintained power through deception about their true motives (unlimited power and control) and they deceived not only the Jews, but the rest of the world. Everywhere the Nazis tried to hide their true purposes – from calling the deportations resettlements in the east to the signs reading to the showers at the camps themselves. The Nazis even had victims send back postcards saying they were well and working from the train station at the Treblinka death camp. The Jews back in the ghettos were sealed off from communication from the outside world. When rumors of the mass murders and death camps reached them, it was difficult for the Jews to believe them. In many ways, it was beyond their ability to comprehend. By the time the Jews began to understand the enormity of what was happening, they were already weakened in both body and spirit. And they were cut off from any outside, and in reality, because of the Nazis success in deceptions with the rest of the world, including the United States, outside help didn’t really exist.
For many Jews, their religion itself proved an obstacle to armed resistance. East European Jews, in particular, tended to be very religious. The most devout among them believed that physical force could not win against worldly evil. They believed that God alone could triumph, and that more prayer and more religious observance was needed. Many went to their deaths believing that they were dying a martyr’s death for the sake of God. Some of the other victims of the Nazis shared this view, as well.
And what if Jews attempted to escape the ghettos or the camps? Where would they find safety? Non-Jews in eastern Europe who chose to help Jews faced the penalty of death if caught. The Nazis also used collective punishment – often whole families, or even whole communities, were executed if even one Jew had been hidden. In western Europe, non-Jews who helped Jews were sent to a concentration camp. And, sadly, thanks to a history of antisemitism, most of the population had little or no sympathy for the Jews. Many people sympathized with Nazi aims at ridding the world of ‘outsiders” or “others.” Informers and collaborators were everywhere. Jews who managed to escape found little help.
And finally, who among the Jews would be able to resist? By the time they knew that resistance might be their only chance, they were unarmed, starved, and tortured. Could the elderly fight? Could young children fight? Could a father spending his every waking moment looking for food for his family find the time and the strength to organize resistance? Would a mother attempt to escape from a train and leave her children to face the gas chambers alone?
The Jews, too, were subject to collective punishment. Every Jew was responsible for the behavior of every other Jew. This meant that many, even hundreds of Jews, would die if so much as one person tried to fight back. A report from a special action group in Lithuania says: “Kovno, October 4, 1941. 315 Jewish men, 721 Jewish women, 818 Jewish children shot. A punitive action because a Jewish policeman was shot at in the ghetto. Vilna, September 2, 1941, 864 Jewish men, 2,109 Jewish women, 817 Jewish children shot because German soldiers were shot at by Jews.” How do you fight against that?
And still, the Jews resisted. In the ghettos, in the camps, and in the forests, Jews fought back.
The Jews were surrounded by a seemingly invincible enemy. They had few friends. They were weakened by hunger and disease. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for what they were facing. And when the Jews finally realized that extermination was to be their end, when they understood that the entire Jewish people were threatened with annihilation, they fought back with weapons in their hands.
Armed Jewish resistance occurred in a number of ghettos. Jews rose up in armed rebellion in at least 24 or 25 ghettos in western and central Poland, and there are records of at least 63 armed underground resistance groups in the 110 ghettos of northeast Poland. Underground Jewish resistance organizations also fought in ghettos in Lithuania and the Soviet Union. Most open resistance did not take place until at least 1943, when the Jews understood that death was inevitable. Jews, primarily youth in their late teens and early twenties, began to organize themselves for revolt. They faced tremendous obstacles. They received little or no aid from non-Jews outside the ghetto walls. Many organizers were caught by the Nazis and died under torture or in the gas chambers. The Jews slowly and painfully smuggled a few weapons into the ghettos and made axes and knives for themselves. When the Jews had no weapons they fought with such things as sticks, boiling water, iron bars, acid, and their bare hands. In one poem written from a ghetto in eastern Europe, the author writes of Jewish fighters melting down the letters from their printing press to make bullets. The Jews fought with no hope of winning. Few expected to survive, although some did. As a leader of the Bialystok ghetto uprising wrote: “If we are too weak to safeguard our own lives, we are still strong enough to defend the honor of the Jew and of humankind.”
Clearly, armed resistance was generally very difficult, and most often fruitless. But Jews resisted in many other ways: educating one’s children when schooling is forbidden; practicing one’s religion when that observance is forbidden; hiding one’s children when those children are marked for death; and maintaining one’s humanity when the world tells you that you are subhuman. All these things, and others like them, count as resistance. For the Jews, and many others, resistance came in any form possible. The smallest action can count as resistance. In fact, as you study the stories of Holocaust survivors, you will see a common theme. Survival wasn’t a long-term goal. The goal of survival was to survive each transition, each week, each day, each hour. Survivors are the ultimate resistors, as they somehow, against all odds, resisted each moment that they were certain that they would not survive.