Forgotten History: Violent Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

I wrote this paper back in 2003 or 2004 for a college class I was taking (HIST 595 – The Holocaust And Genocide). Today, it sounds a bit amateurish – but I suppose that is to be expected of something written by someone barely out of their teens. I think it could be much better written today, and its subject matter deserves much greater depth, but I believe its conclusions are sound. In particular, I would not be so casual in identifying the perpetrators simply as “the Germans”, as this is an unfair simplification of the guilt for the crimes of the Holocaust.

Some people will interpret this paper though narrow political viewpoints today, which is unfortunate. I shouldn’t have to say it, but obviously such interpretations are certainly not reflective of my own beliefs.

Bibliography:

Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe. Paul Elek Ldt, London: 1974.

Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames. Holocaust Library, New York: 1982.

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know.New York: Little, Brown, and Co, 1993.

Donat, Alexander. The Death Camp Treblinka. New York: Holocaust Library, 1979.

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943. Indiana University Press, Bloomington:1982.

Mark, Ber. Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Schocken Books, New York: 1975.

Novitch, Miriam. Sobibor: Martydom and Revolt. Holocaust Library, New York: 1980.

Rotem, Simha. Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Zuckerman, Yitzhak. A Surplus of Memory. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1993.

35 Comments

  1. Treblinka/Sobibor were both done by the Sonderkommando and realized that their demise was coming soon. Plus, unsubstantiated reports of the Allies closing in. This led to the uprising

    The Warsaw uprising failed in part as the Russian leadership recognized that the Germans would eliminate any potential post war leadership. Along with this was the Russians refusal to allow western allies the ability to resupply the Polish Home Army.

    • This is nonsense. It’s popular nonsense in Poland, but the reality is this: By the time the Warsaw uprising took place, the Soviet Army was in no position to help them.

      Yes there were some Soviet forward positions not too far from Warsaw, but this was immediately after the Bagraton offensive.

      The Soviet army was exhausted and at the ends of their supply capabilities, after months of heavy fighting through hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of formerly occupied territories.

      Also: Much of the Polish leadership was in London, not Warsaw.

      While the outcome of the uprising could be said to have suited the Soviets, they couldn’t have done much either way. And Poland’s post war fate had already mostly been decided.

      As for airdrops, is it any wonder that the Soviets refused them? Given that a large part of them would have fallen into German hands (Something the Soviets knew from picking up tons of parachuted German supplies at Stalingrad.) It would have helped the Germans just as much as the Poles.

      • Please remember there were two Warsaw uprisings.
        The first was the ghetto uprising in 1943. This is what Ian was discussing. It was not a general action and took place within the walls of the ghetto. The second Warsaw uprising took place in 1944 and involved the entire city. Both were tragic.

  2. I would really like to get the reactions of Holocaust survivors to this paper and/or the general subject.

    Once upon a time I worked with two survivors (I was an apprentice and they journeymenl in Local 135 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in New York City), one who was in a camp and one who was a partisan. Abe (the partisan) was a teenager when most of his family (in Poland) were killed and he and a cousin escaped and lived in the woods with partisans. He told me that at one point near the end of the war they captured a German officer and “.. we were so angry we took him into a field and blew him up with explosives that had been dropped to us. We were so angry.” Abe made it to Mandatory Palestine after the war and joined either the Irgun or the Haganah (I forget) and participated in the efforts to oust the British and later in the 1948 war of independence.

    Herman was from Czechoslovakia and was interned in concentration camp (I think it was Bergen-Belsen) and when he was liberated by the British they offered to relocate prisoners anywhere in the British empire EXCEPT Palestine. Herman made his way to Palestine on his own, and was caught trying to get in and interned in a British camp on Cyprus, where the irgun helped him escape and he joined and “spent the best 2 years of my life blowing up British bridges and roads” until he was caught again and sent back to a camp on Cyprus where he met his wife and they had their first child. After Israel was created they were able to immigrate there where they lived until the 1960s when they moved to the U.S. which I think he came to regret by the time I knew him (this was around 1980 when I worked with him in heavy construction in NYC) but he was really decent man with a family he loved, and you know, he survived. He would say “Balance, balance is everything.”

    • I think the reaction of survivors would greatly depend on WHEN you asked them and WHERE you asked them.

      In Israel for example, it was for a long period treated as almost an embarrassment. For a long time the Holocaust conjured up images of meek Jews, passively going to their deaths. (Something that we know today wasn’t always the case). Something ill suited (but in a way also supporting) for the Zionist vision at the time of Jewish strength: The new kind of Jew transformed by the land they were molding into a nation.

    • Forgot to add to my previous post: That’s one thing interesting about the Holocaust, Jews and WWII: How it’s viewed and treated has always depended on the time and place.

      Just look at the near flood of Holocaust movies and books that came out after 2000. Ironically at a time where most of the survivors were dead.

      • “(…)That’s one thing interesting about the Holocaust, Jews and WWII: How it’s viewed and treated has always depended on the time and place.(…)”
        As incredibly as it might sound, one of officers of Anti-Nazi Polish Resistance during WWII was accused of being Nazi after war and jailed together with Jürgen Stroop which was one of SS officers commanding during suppression of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and who described that action in Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!. Both were sentenced to death, Stroop was executed in 1952, but Polish officer sentence was changed from death to life imprisonment and after few years trialed against and found not guilty. After that he started noting conversations, to finally publish it as: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversations_with_an_Executioner

  3. First of all: Anyone who would misuse your paper to draw parallels to today (or in any sense abuse the holocaust in order to make illsuited comparison to today) is a complete nitwit.

    Secondly, I must commend you for good by beyond the traditional “evil Germans” narrative. Many of the perpetrators were in fact NON-Germans. A majority of the personnel at Auschwitz and other camps were for example Ukrainians or from the Baltic countries. Non-German, local militias also played a big part in the einsatzgruppens, etc.

    • Collaborators were plenty back then. And yet today the Polish government would have you “conveniently disappear” for insinuating that Polish nationals were aiding the Nazis during the Holocaust!

  4. Its says something that the newest item in the bibliography is nine years prior to your paper. For a topic as important as the Shoah, and one with so much new information coming to light, its surprising that this particular issue seems so under-discussed.

    The dueling mythologies: of Heroic Resisters v. Helpless Martyrs etc. seem to discourage more thorough history.

    • “(…)dueling mythologies: of Heroic Resisters v. Helpless Martyrs etc. seem to discourage more thorough history.(…)”
      Marek – one of commanders during Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
      We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka…. Their death was far more heroic. We didn’t know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head…. It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marek_Edelman

      • It is possible that during the uprising he and many others didnt even know specificly about the gas chambers and other wrongdoings in camps so this is “post wisdom”, also bear in mind that there were work camps (people living for some time there) and extermination camps (people killed in chambers on arrival)- they are not all the same, but mass media and movies gave that impression in last 70 years.
        But nevertheless, better to fight than to be sent to any kind of camp.

  5. Many of the ss troops who participated tn the carnage in the french village of oradeur sur glane were volunteers from alsace and lorraine. This was so embarrising that De Gaulle halted their procecution after the war

  6. During the Great War the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was generally well treated by German soldiers. Tragically, Nazi propaganda had transformed many soldiers into beings whose psychologies were beyond the comprehension of the peoples of occupied Europe. “But their fathers were such decent men!”
    By-the-way, the urban partizans of the Warsaw ghetto did receive important training from representatives of the AK (Home Army). Jewish resisters were also give a few of never plentiful weapons that were stockpiled by the AK.
    When the general uprising of Warsaw began in !944 a handful of the Jewish fighters who had survived imprisonment in KL Warsaw were able to join their gentile brothers and sisters in the ranks of the AK; and were seen as paragons of resistance by any and all means. Remember that you can’t fight on if you’re dead!

  7. No mention of the Bielskis. A semi-rural clan of millers who headed for the forests in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. They sustained hundreds of refugees in the forests, arming themselves and eventually getting some Russian support.

    With a primary motive of survival, they teetered on the edge of suicidal schemes for partisans, directed from Moscow, and faced considerable threat from some Polish groups as well. They came closest to annihilation when routed German forces were driven into the Bielski’s territory by pursuing Russians.

    • Well, Ian’s paper is rather old, and relies on fairly old source material.

      There was quite a bit that we didn’t know then (or that wasn’t common knowledge even in academia). The opening of East European archives in the 90ies and early 2000’s led to quite the renaissance in Holocaust studies. We know a lot more in 2019 than we knew in 2000.

  8. One of the things you have to take into account when you look at the Jewish resistance issue is that the Jews of Eastern Europe had long adopted a “willow bending before the wind” strategy for survival. The oligarchs and nobles loved to use them as bogeymen and cutouts to manage their kulaks and peasantry; not to mention, so someone else’s hands got dirty with the usury of loaning money and all that.

    Plus, let us not mince words: The locals weren’t that bright. You want skilled tradesmen and bookkeepers, you’re not going to find them in the ranks of the peasants, not least because they had no tradition of education and absolutely abysmal nutrition. So, the powers-that-were liked to bring in the Jews as intermediaries and merchants. Which led to the usual issues with any outside ethnic group–See the “overseas Chinese” in Malaysia and Indonesia for similar issues.

    Long story short, the Jews had adapted to the existing conditions, which included the occasional pogrom. Armed resistance to the pogroms, which more-or-less were periodic “Jubilee” deals for the local nobles and others who’d taken out loans, well… That would have resulted in genocide. So long as the Jews played the game of rolling over and sucking up the blame for raised rents, increased taxes, and then gave up their filthy, filthy lucre to the nobility when they came calling for loans or looting the banker, well… Things were fine. They could survive those conditions.

    Unfortunately, the Nazis changed the rules of the game from “Fleece the sheep when the wool is thick…” to “Let’s have mutton… Kill them all.”. The Jews were slow to catch on to this, and you can’t really blame them–They’d been successful with the “bend before the wind…” strategy for centuries, and couldn’t know that the psychotic Nazis were out to kill them all off.

    Like as not, the overall thought in their minds wasn’t that the Germans were going to kill them, just that they were going to get screwed over by the gentiles yet again, so go with the flow… Unfortunately, the Germans had changed up the rules, and that was suicide.

    If you step back and analyze the whole thing, the Jews were remarkably successful for a long time, in Eastern Europe. They served as a grafted-on middle class that could conveniently be shorn of its wealth whenever the feckless locals came up short, or there was a bad harvest. Overall, in terms of survival, they had a working program, which did quite well for them. Until it didn’t.

    • Often overlooked are initial nazi plans of jewish relocation and not mass murder, in which some west atlantic countries declined to cooperate.

      • True. One thing that’s often overlooked in the Holocaust, is that there was no great master plan from the getgo. We can’t be sure exactly when it was decided, but probably as late as winter/spring 1941.

        It was by no means a certainty in neither 1940 or 1939. And if things had gone a little differently, it may never have happened.

        • Eeeh… How do you explain all the killing going on behind the lines by the various SS Einsatzgruppen as early as ’39 in Poland?

          Extermination was pretty much on the books from the beginning, no matter what the apologists claim. Industrializing it, and actually making it work on the scale it had to…? That was something that came in after the Wannsee conference in ’42, by which time at least 2.2 million civilians of all ethnicities had been killed by Wehrmacht or SS direct actions, often under the guise of “anti-partisan operations”.

    • I couldn’t help but notice the “grafted on middle class” part of your comment, which is a common misconception. Yes there were Jews who could be considered middle class, some who even did very well for themselves.

      But contrary to the common image of Jews as smart, shtetl bookworms, a large part of the Jews in Eastern Europe were just as poor and poorly educated as the Russian or Poles.

      Take for example Lazar Kaganovich (the later Soviet commissar). Lazar was one of six children, his father could neither read or write, and while Lazar was still a teenager he went to the big city to try to find employment as a cobbler.

      Ironically, the Jewish “apartness” that’s served them well for centuries, was also what doomed many during the Holocaust. The Germans (and the local militias helping them) didn’t need a central register or database in Ukraine or Poland. Everybody knew who the Jews were. They had their own villages, neighborhoods, clubs, etc.

      • The Jews largely filled the roles of the middle class in society, without actually achieving the benefits of being middle-class. They filtered East to fill the roles that the less-sophisticated locals couldn’t fill, like merchants, moneylenders, and all the rest.

        When you look at it dispassionately, and don’t take sides, the whole thing is an example of inimical influences all the way around. The locals were not that sophisticated, the nobility and oligarchy wanted the benefit of the more sophisticated cultural things like literacy, education, and all the rest, but… They didn’t want to educate or improve the lot of their serfs, in any way, so the Jews came in and were turned into another layer of the machine which lived off the labor of peasants. And, while many of them came in to be merchants, they were occasionally forced into serfdom or peasantry themselves…

        The whole thing is down to Eastern European dysfunction stemming from the entire history of the region–Vikings exploiting the Slavs, Slavs engulfing and incorporating the Norse overlords, the Mongols coming in… It’s a litany of “…and, then, it got worse…”. The Jews just got caught up in it all, like someone grabbing the tar baby from B’rer Rabbit. You step back and analyze it, coldly, and while there are points that you can look at and say “Oh, OK… That’s why that happened…”, in the final analysis, they’re all dysfunctional assholes out to screw each other.

        It’s like in Yugoslavia: You can look at the hatred the Serbs have for the Bosniak Muslims, and go “Oh, OK… The Bosniak Muslims are the quisling turncoats that went to work for the Turks… That’s why the Serbs hate them…”, and yeah, you’re right–But, at the same time, many of those Bosniak Muslims had no damn choice in the matter: They had the misfortune to be city- and town-dwelling Serbs when the Turks came in, and if they hadn’t have converted over and gone to work for the Turks, they’d have died. Rural Serbs who remained the unsophisticated and unredeemable Orthodox country folk really had no idea what went on in the towns and cities; all they knew was that the traitors were the guys they saw running things, when the reality was that the Turks had co-opted them.

        When examined coldly, the various “bad guys” of history are just… People. Not bad people, just people trying to make their way in the world. You want to blame someone for what happened, and the conditions that now obtain, well… A lot of the time, there isn’t any one. Things happen, and you can’t really assign effective responsibility to an individual.

  9. You may wish to visit the pro-2nd Amendment group, the JPFO~~~Jews For the Preservation
    of Firearms Ownership. Their motto of “Never Again” dramatically underscores the reason for our Bill Of Rights, and is telling proof that not every Jewish person is willing to roll over. History need not repeat itself if we maintain an armed citizenry. This is not politics, it is both history and common sense.

    • There are a bunch of urban legends about Nazis and gun control, but it is a fact that one of the changes they made to the law, was to forbid firearms ownership by Jews.

      In a similar vein, I just read an interview with a Black pro gun activist, who pointed out that gun control is racist.

      While politicians like O’Rourke can go home to their luxurious enclaved houses, where police response is usually close to instant, most African Americans love in neighborhoods where it’s virtually useless to call police in case of a crime taking place. (Or where the residents have reasons to distrust police.)

  10. Your epilogue is absolutely right.

    I have always thought it a shame that the Allies did not publicise the slaughter of the Jews and Gypsies to its future victims, and didn’t thus confirm the rumors and stories of the Shoah.

    “We can’t get to you and help. You are all dead if you don’t fight, and probably even if you do. Don’t get on the trains. Each one kill one.”

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