Patrick Henry, editor, Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis

, February 24, 2016

Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis, by Patrick Henry, ed., Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 2014, 630 pp.

Patrick Henry, Cushing Eells Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Literature and Foreign Languages at Whitman College, has assembled a collection of variously informative and generally well-written essays on a subject of major importance in the field of Holocaust studies. The articles in Henry’s anthology confront a pernicious myth of long standing: that the Jews who perished in the Shoah “were led like sheep to the slaughter.” As Henry notes in his introduction, this idea transfers the blame for the monstrous crime to the victims partly because, in the distorted Nazi psyche, those who would not defend themselves had “no right to live.” Such an accusation also helps exonerate the passive by-standers because “if the Jews did nothing to save themselves, why should others have risked their lives to help them?” (XIII).

Major Jewish scholars, such as Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, notoriously took up the theme of an alleged Jewish passivity during the Holocaust. In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Arendt went so far as to label the role of Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people as “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” The motives for this grossly unjustified interpretation of the Jewish catastrophe may never be known completely. Professor Henry’s book challenges these mistaken conclusions. His selection of essays, however, is somewhat odd.

The Henry collection classifies Jewish resistance in four different ways: type of resistance; geographic distribution of resistance; chronology of resistance; and the role and contribution of Jews to national resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries. A major form of resistance described here involves what Professor Yehuda Bauer called amidah, a concept that includes cultural, educational, religious, and political activities, and indeed, all actions intended to strengthen health and morale among Jews, not only armed rebellion or the use of force. This theme is explored further by Dalia Ofer, “Modes of Jewish Resistance in Eastern European Ghettos,” (366-392). Similarly, Joanna B. Michlic, “Jewish Children and Youth in German-Occupied Poland” deals with rescue activities through efforts that did not involve violent confrontations with the killers. Nick Strimple’s “Music as Resistance,” (319-338) also comes in this category. In “Jewish Resistance in Nazi Germany and Austria, 1933-1946,” Dieter Kunz describes the activities of physicians and nurses in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin who opposed the prevailing Nazi policies and went to extraordinary lengths in order to save the lives of Jewish patients. And, Deborah Dwork writes about “Children’s Resistance both through Diary Writing and Song” (279-299).

This volume also contains articles on armed resistance by Jews, such as the struggle led by the Bielski brothers in the forests of Belarus and Jewish resistance in the Ukraine, often in conjunction with and, occasionally together with Soviet partisans, as described by Yehuda Bauer (483-503). The lesser known, albeit important Jewish resistance in Slovakia appears in the article by Hana Kubatova (504-518) and Jewish resistance in Hungary in the articles by Gabor Kadar, Schmidt van de Zandan and Zollan Vagi (519-546). The latter conclude that “Jews were by far the most actively resisting victim group in the Nazi concentration camp universe… besides typhus, it was only Jews who killed SS men in Auschwitz until the arrival of the Red Army” (.546). In “Resistance in the Camps” (547-593), Robert Van Pelt emphasizes the appalling conditions under which Jews lived in the camps and their inability to change the horrendous odds against them. However, he also mentions the revolts of the Sonderkommando in Treblinka, on August 2, 1943; in Sobibor, October 14, 1943 and in Auschwitz-Birkenau, October 7, 1944.

Jewish Resistance against the Nazis suffers from several problems. First, the essays vary in quality. Some are much better than others. More important, however, is the fact that the volume has a problem defining what really constitutes “resistance against the Nazis.” In addition, the book does not devote sufficient attention to the most obvious and spectacular examples of Jewish resistance.

Thus, according to the editor, oddly enough, “Legal Tools Instead of Weapons” (448-482) by Stefan Ionescu, whose subject is Jews using Romanian courts in order to defend their property rights, is featured as an example of resistance. Furthermore, C.F.S. Banke’s “Accommodation and Awareness in Scandinavia” (220-244), includes Sweden, thereby questioning its validity as far as resistance is concerned. Could one likewise refer to Jewish resistance to Nazis in Canada and the United States as well?

To be sure, there are grounds for acknowledging that “resistance” may not always be defined as a physical confrontation with the enemy. For example, if the Nazis wanted to starve Jews to death, risking one’s life to smuggle food into the ghetto may be regarded as an act of resistance. Likewise, if the Nazis wished to deprive Jews of education, those who endangered their lives and engaged in teaching Jewish children could be classified as resisters. However, since the Nazis wanted to kill all the Jews, should we argue that fleeing occupied countries constitutes an act of resistance? In fact, in her chapter, “Unarmed Combat” (92-120), Nancy Lefenfeld describes “humanitarian resistance” in France, as follows: “The various forms of Jewish humanitarian resistance in France during the Occupation were directed toward a common end – – making Jews targeted for arrest and deportation disappear… There were three basic ways… (1) go into actual hiding; (2) hide in plain sight; or (3) move beyond the oppressor’s reach.” (97). Tuvia Frilling’s “Organizing Jewish Resistance” (245-278) also does not deal with actual Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Europe at all. And Nick Strimple’s claim that while music was resistance, in some places it was “largely, but not exclusively, confined to concerts and cabaret performances organized by Nazi officials to aid in keeping the inmates calm” (329) seems to stretch the point.

The problem is exacerbated by the relatively meager treatment of more serious and obvious cases of Jewish resistance, such as the Jewish revolt in the Bialystok Ghetto in August 1943. It was probably the second most important ghetto revolt, after that of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. Patrick Henry includes Strimple’s nineteen- page article, “Music as Resistance,” in his anthology, but does not have room for even four paragraphs on the Bialystok Ghetto revolt. The book contains only six references to Bialystok, which make up about one page. What happened in Bialystok? Who were Zerach Zylberberg and Hershel Rosenthal? Similarly, there is little specific information on Jewish-Soviet partisan groups operating out of Minsk? Indeed, as far as the most important example of Jewish armed resistance, the Warsaw Ghetto is concerned, “Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto” (393-425) by Avinoam Patt devotes five and a half pages to the uprising itself and does not even mention the leader of the Zionist group (ZZW) Pawel Frankel, or Frenkel, because he did not make use of relatively recent scholarship on the subject. Missing are references to the book by Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, Hochsztaplerzy,Opisywacze published in Poland in 2012. It has been reviewed in several English-language learned journals. There are five references to Treblinka, on pp. 12, 524, 546, 576, and 590, but none give an account of what really transpired there. A few sentences on p. 590 come close to telling the story. The discussions seem to be about categorizing or classifying activities at various Nazi-operated locations, according to several previous authors.1

In contrast to the essay on France by Lefenfeld, Suzanne Vromen’s “Unique Aspects of Jewish Armed Resistance and Rescue in Belgium,” (121-137), describes interesting types of Jewish armed opposition to the Nazis, including attacks on workshops and factories. She presents a riveting description of Jewish partisans attacking a train bringing Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz in April 1943. Despite the fact that the partisans did not achieve complete success in rescuing the Jews, their efforts had great impact (130-131). Ariella Lang’s essay on wartime Italy also includes more overt forms of Jewish resistance than simply hiding or fleeing, such as collaboration with Allied forces making their way up the Italian peninsula and attacks on German facilities and installations.

Steven Bowman’s “Greek Responses to the Nazis in the Mountains and in the Camps” (161-184) is an excellent contribution as it discusses the overt, physical resistance to the Final Solution. The revolt of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau with notable participation of Greek Jews in the summer of 1944 is the highlight of this heroism. And Esther Gitman, “Courage to Defy: Jews of the Independent State of Croatia Fight Back, 1941-45” (426-447) also presents details of armed Jewish resistance.

Several selections, including Nathan Bracher, “Up in Arms: Jewish Resistance against Nazi Germany in France” (73-91) note the uncertainty and confusion about the true fate of Jews deported to the East (88-89). Both Great Britain and the United States had received authoritative information about the real intention of these deportations. For example, on December 10, 1942, the Foreign Minister of the Polish Government-in Exile located in London, Edward Raczynski, sent the British and American governments an official note informing them that the Nazis were using poison gas in their extermination of the Jews. This fact was not mentioned in the Allied Declaration of December 17, 1942, nor later during the war.

The United States and Britain had tremendous practical “leverage” with all the European governments-in-exile in London. However, the essays in Henry’s book do not deal with this topic at all. This is a significant omission especially because the issue of resistance is the subject of the volume and the Allies did not give encouragement or incentives to resistance movements, even those associated with governments-in-exile that might have undertaken actions that either would obstruct the Final Solution or render assistance to the Jews of Europe. The Allies assisted many non-Jewish resistance movements, such as that of the Communist Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia. But events such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April-May 1943 went virtually unnoticed by the leaders of the Allies.

Nechama Tec illustrates this point in her excellent essay, “Jewish Resistance: Facts, Omissions and Distortions” (40-70), as follows: “… in practical terms the Allies had virtually no interest in the Jews. This indifference translated into a rejection of all known Jewish pleas, including those requesting arms and ammunition. It goes without saying that the Jews experienced a chronic arms shortage. Additional hindrances to effective resistance were the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism among most of the conquered indigenous populations [and] debilitating anti-Jewish measures … by [the Nazis].” (62). Among the latter was, above all, ghettoization which simultaneously subjected Jews to mass starvation, disease and lethal exposure, deprived them of tools, resources, and work equipment, and confined them in prison-like conditions, preventing wider social contacts essential to resistance.

The above is elucidated further in “Organizing Jewish Resistance” (245-276) by Tuvia Frilling. He explains that a Jewish representative from Palestine who had visited Turkey in 1943 reported that “Germany’s strength was declining and those who had been confident in Hitler’s victory were no longer so sure… Consequently, several satellite countries had a motive to soften their policies toward Jews and were now willing to allow them to leave or to cross. [But] … possible routes from Turkey to Palestine, by land and sea, were almost totally blocked. The Turkish authorities were unwilling to allow … ships to transport the refugees without British approval and … the British were in no hurry to help remove [Jewish] children from the danger zones, despite their own declarations and [apparent?] signs of change in their policy.” (263-264).

This was taking place in 1943, when the Nazis no longer posed any real threat to the Suez Canal and even to Gibraltar. On May 12, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered to the Allies. Most European Jews had been exterminated, and Britain, the United States and other Allies had acknowledged the precise nature of Nazi policy toward the Jews of Europe in the Declaration of December 17, 1942, in an official public announcement by British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in the House of Commons.

According to Professor Avinoam Patt: “The Warsaw Ghetto, as the first mass revolt in a major city in German occupied Europe, became a symbol of Jewish resistance … inspiring similar revolts in Bialystok and Minsk as well as uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor later in 1943. The Jewish fighters in Warsaw, under-equipped and over-matched, with few weapons and almost no military training, isolated and surrounded by an indifferent and hostile population, malnourished and diseased, managed to hold off the German forces for as long as the entire Polish Army had in the invasion of Poland at the beginning of the war!” (424-425).

Nevertheless, Jewish armed resistance did not move the Allies to assist the Jews to undertake other acts of resistance against the Nazis.

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1 Among authors and books on the subject of Jewish resistance published merely between the 1990’s and 2012, that are not mentioned in Henry’s book, we shall note several major omissions, as follows: Dan Kurzman, The Bravest Battle: The Twenty-eight Days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1993); Samuel Willenberg, Revolt in Treblinka (2008); Eric J. Sterling, Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust (2005); Benjamin Harshav, ed., The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944 (2002); Thomas T. Blatt, Sobibor: The Forgotten Revolt, A Survivor’s Report (1997); Miriam Novitch, Sobibor: Martyrdom and Revolt (1993); Richard Rashke, Escape From Sobibor (2004); Shaindy Perl, Tell the World: The Story of the Sobibor Revolt (2004); Dov Freiberg, To Survive Sobibor (2007); Allan Levine, Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War (2008); Irene Shapiro, Revisiting the Shadows (2012); Sara Bender, The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust (2008).

About Alexander J. Groth

Alexander J. Groth is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Accomplices: Churchill, Roosevelt and the Holocaust (New York: Peter Lang, 2011). Groth is a Holocaust survivor and former inmate of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1940-1942.