Jewish resistance during the Holocaust

Term Paper 2004 13 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II


"The common cliché that Jews did not resist their persecutors and simply went 'like sheep to the slaughter' is neither an accurate nor a fair description." Critically discuss.

Jewish resistance during the Holocaust

After the end of the Second World War, it took some time until historians began to investigate the reaction of European Jews to the Holocaust. And when the first works appeared that dealt with the topic and reached a wider audience – namely Hanna Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and Raul Hilberg's "The Destruction of the European Jews", both of whom ironically were not much interested in Jewish resistance – they confirmed the "claims, first heard as an accusation made by resistance fighters themselves, that the Jews went to their deaths 'like sheep to the slaughter'." As Arendt put it, resistance groups were "pitifully small … incredibly weak and essentially harmless in their assault on the nazi war machine."[1]

Yisrael Gutman observes, that the objective of research was not the study of the Jewish resistance movement against the Holocaust, but rather "the question why the Jews were such easy prey for the Nazis and their accomplices". This question usually was answered "in terms of an innate passivity that is anchored both in Jewish culture and values and in patterns of submissiveness that became internalised over time in response to continuing rejection, oppression and physical violence."[2]

This explanation was initially brought up by Hilberg in the conclusion to his description of what he called the Nazis' "machinery of destruction": in his view the reactions of the Jews was characterized by "an attempt to avert action and, failing that, automatic compliance with orders … They avoided 'provocations' and complied instantly with decrees and orders". And they did so because "over a period of centuries the Jews hat learned that in order to survive they had to refrain from resistance" – when they realized that they this time faced the complete destruction of the Jewish people, "the realization came too late … A two-thousand-year-old lesson could not be unlearned: the Jews could not make the switch. They were helpless."[3]

During the last decades, many Holocaust scholars undertook every possible effort to change this view of the Jews as passive victims who "were wholly and helplessly immobilized by the Nazis", while "all of their community leaders docilely served as henchmen of their mortal enemies", and to prove wrong "that they broke under pressure, that the soul of the Jewish people was destroyed".[4] This desire is understandable, especially in the light of the treatment of the general resistance against the Nazis in the post-war era, which "tended to exaggerate the extent of resistance" also because of newly established governments – the best example for this being France – seeking "to anchor their authority in a myth of anti-nazi solidarity, drawing legitimacy in part from the heroic sacrifices of wartime struggle."[5] The image of the Jews as obedient and "collaborating" that has been drawn by Hilberg and his supporters, represents the other extreme of the spectrum of reactions to Nazi-crime, and therefore calls for correction since, as Bauer states: "When we say that a murder victim 'collaborated' in his own death, we put some of the blame for his fate on him; and to the extent that we do, we exonerate his killer."[6] However, as Michael Marrus reminds, the existence of "powerful links between historical argument and present day Jewish commitments"[7], and the subsequent danger of exaggerating the extent of resistance, has to be born in mind while dealing with this controversial topic.

Nevertheless, in its generalized sense, the statement that Jews did not resist the Nazis at all certainly is untrue. The fact that the earlier standard accounts of Holocaust study tell so little about Jewish reactions and greatly underestimate the extent of Jewish resistance can be, at least to some extent, attributed that the "record of what the Nazis did has been available in abundant detail ever since the war criminals were tried in Germany between 1945 and 1949", whereas "Jewish documents have been coming to light only gradually, in bits and pieces." According to Bauer, for writing history it is not enough only to consider what he calls "the evidence of the murderer", because "it does not report what he did not know or did not want to tell."[8] But in spite of this, Hilberg himself, against all criticism, never moved away from his original judgement, and still insists on the rarity and isolated quality of Jewish attempts to resist their slaughterers, emphasizing "how ill-disposed Jews were to break with traditional patterns that prescribed a virtual consensus within the Jewish world."[9]

In opposition to the substantially distorted views of Arendt, Hilberg and other Holocaust scholars, important breakthroughs in the research on Jewish resistance were made by using new evidence – for example the vast numbers of eye-witness reports, diaries, letters and underground newspapers collected by the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem – that nowadays allow to observe that there has been a whole "spectrum of Jewish responses to the Holocaust, ranging from the most passive collapse before Nazi power, to armed resistance", and the "challenge is to find where specific Jewish communities, Jewish groups, Jewish individuals, placed themselves along this continuum."[10]

Which kinds of actions and reactions of Jews during the Holocaust can and must be included into the phenomenon of resistance always depends on how one defines this. In studying Jewish resistance, as well as resistance to the Nazis in general, it is crucial not to limit the scope of research merely to armed resistance. In a recent analytical work on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, Marrus stresses that the intention of the potential resisters is essential for the definition, so "what counts in the end … is not the level of violence but the motivations and objectives of resisters." For his examination, he employs the classification scheme of the Swiss historian Werner Rings, who proposes five kinds or categories of resistance, "defined by the kinds of commitments resisters made and what the managed to do": Symbolic Resistance, "I remain what I was"; Polemic Resistance, "I tell the truth"; Defensive Resistance, "I aid and protect"; Offensive Resistance, "I fight to the death"; and Resistance Enchained, which applies to "freedom fighters in camp and ghetto".[11] And indeed, lots of the various kinds of actions that have been conducted by Jews during the Second World War as responses to Nazi persecution fit into one ore more of these categories.

The kinds of resistance that match into the first three categories, which were by and large unarmed, can also be subsumed under what Bauer called "quiet resistance". As "the perception was that the Nazis wanted to destroy the morale of the Jewish population", the Jews in the ghettos and elsewhere "felt they had a moral obligation to make a statement against oppression and murder", not only by fighting with arms, but much more widespread by preserving their humanity and thereby resisting in every way "from maintaining schools and prayer groups, to organizing literary and artistic presentations".[12]

Resistance understood this way means an "active struggle for life", trying to save as many lives as possible, and at the same time trying to maintain a certain degree of normality. These attempts carried out by the Jews to maintain their dignity despite the Nazis' systematic effort to dehumanise them have been called "Kiddush ha-Hayyim", meaning "Sanctification of Life".[13]

Especially in the Ghettos, where people were not only systematically starved, but where also schools were closed down, and any form of social service as well as cultural or political activity was cut off and prohibited by the Nazis, the Jewish communities accomplished many different ways of "keeping body and soul together", under "what would seem impossible conditions": synagogues and religious study groups, theatres, orchestra and public libraries, entertainment as well as education for children – all that was kept up and provided often secretly and illegally by the Jewish communities, various mutual aid groups and house committees. In Warsaw, for example, "a whole network of services" was organized by an organisation called ZETOS – Jewish Organisation for Public Care.[14]

Gutman also assessed the problem of Jewish resistance by "rephrasing the issue in terms of the struggle to survive". The main lifeline of the ghettos was smuggling, and especially most of the food consumed in the ghettos was smuggled in, even though smugglers were severely punished and often killed when caught. Furthermore, a political underground formed itself, "made up mainly of political activists and hardcore members of youth movements", which established and maintained contacts with other ghettos and the outside world and published clandestine newspapers and leaflets that kept people informed about developments inside and outside the ghettos. Altogether, Gutman concludes, "Jewish life in the ghettos was characterized not so much by passivity and pacifism as by the defiant struggle for survival."[15]


[1] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 85-86.

[2] Gutman, 'Reflections on Jewish Resistance', p 123.

[3] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 87-88.

[4] Bauer, 'They Chose Life', p 23.

[5] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 84.

[6] Bauer, 'They Chose Life', p 25.

[7] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 83.

[8] Bauer, 'They Chose Life', p 24-25.

[9] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 88.

[10] Yad Vashem, 'Interview with Professor Michael Marrus'.

[11] Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', p 90-93.

[12] Yad Vashem, 'Interview with Professor Yehuda Bauer'.

[13] Yad Vashem, Lexicon Entry: 'Resistance, Jewish'.

[14] Bauer, 'They Chose Life', p 34-36.

[15] Gutman, 'Reflections on Jewish Resistance', p 111-113.


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University of Cape Town – Department of History / Jewish Studies Centre
Jewish Holocaust




Title: Jewish resistance during the Holocaust