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The Continuity Between Resisters and Victims in the Holocaust
by Anna Wrobel
From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.”
THERE IS NO BINARY CODE of resister versus victim when it comes to the Nazi genocide, but a continuum occupied by both, the one intimately fused to the other. Honoring resisters is a noble project that must be achieved, therefore, without demeaning the dead and the survivors. What unified Europe’s Jews, regardless of location, age, or activity during the war, was that all were victims of the “Final Solution” — and it is identification with the victim that produced, and today produces, compassionate acts of struggle.
My parents were resisters and fighters. My mother, Eta Chait, was a saboteur, ten months in a Gestapo prison, two years in the Polish woods as a rescue partisan with baptismal papers and a crucifix. She was a punisher of Jew-murderers, and a group “surgeon” because of a steady hand that removed a bullet from her own infected leg after she’d crawled from a pile of bodies under which she’d lain waiting for Nazi murderers to depart. She was the lone survivor of a family of twelve.
My father, Henry Wrobel, escaped into Russia after the deaths of his parents. Until June, 1941, Henry (Gennady in Russian) lived on a kolkhoz (communal farm). With the German invasion of the USSR, Gennady entered the Soviet Army as a scout and combat soldier. During the battles for Poland, a severe head wound put him in a coma for twenty-two days. A Soviet mobile hospital saved his life and brain (also saving my mother’s leg).
My brother, born in Poland, my sister, born in a DP camp in Germany, and I, born in Brooklyn, are the children of a couple of “tough hombres.”
Recent emphasis on Jewish partisan activity has characterized such folks as “heroes,” and indeed they were. We saw our parents go off to Wagro meetings (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Resistance Organization) every month. As a child, I had little idea of the source of import of those meetings. There were also survivors of concentration camps in our refugee communities. I suppose there was a different air about those who spent the war outside rather than inside the camps, but it was too subtle for a child to ascertain as I witnessed the grief and anguish of our parents well before learning of their resistant bravery and desperate courage.
My parents taught us that the foremost role of Jewish resistance is to fight for the memory of the dead — the beaten, broken, terrorized, starved, diseased, deceived. The majority of resisters and fighters, after all, were also killed. “Hero” and “victim” blur within actual contexts. Jews were trapped across a whole continent, where many non-Jews, too, lived in terror while others murderously practiced Jew-hatred without legal repercussions. All European Jews lost families, homes, and futures, as two thirds of the nine million fell to bullets, gas, and dust.
LET’S HAVE DONE with the binary, then — but also with the slander, “sheep to slaughter.” Young Jews who used this phrase in the ghettos and camps were expressing the universal generation gap of youthful rebellion versus their elders’ more conservative hopes for preserving the remnants of their people. Young Native American warriors often confronted their chiefs on similar grounds. Fearing deadly mass reprisals, elders and parents with children think differently than the young and childless. (For this reason, Southern slaveholders, unlike those in the Caribbean, encouraged “marriage” and children among their slaves, to quell rebellious sentiments.)
My mother said that “everyone wanted to live.” What should her mother have done? Would I be prouder if my grandmother Shaindel had run to the wooded meeting spot, leaving her little ones to be dragged to Treblinka without her? If she’d survived, would she have been sane?
What about my mother’s smart, strong, Nazi-fighting brother, who refused to jump off the train to Treblinka, although he’d jumped off a death train once before. Two friends leapt and survived, one as a partisan, one in hiding, but Sholem didn’t jump because his 15-year-old sister Faiga was on that train, in another car. Would I be prouder if he’d not gone “like sheep to slaughter?” Whether he’d lived or died, he surely would have taken some Nazis to their doom — but he wouldn’t leave Faiga. Wasn’t this, too, resistance? Perhaps the ultimate act? Did Faiga get to see him, to know she’d not been abandoned? Was his sacrifice a waste? Two hours after arrival, they’d both lie in a mass grave.
My mother spoke of seasoned German troops who, upon surrendering with arms high above their heads, walked in endless lines in front of two armed Soviet soldiers. “They didn’t go like sheep,” she would say, “but like dogs.” Those Germans soldiers, too, wanted to live, and, when ragged and beaten, they saw compliance as their best chance.
It is for descendants of fighters to protect the victims from being re-victimized by capitalism’s binary code of winners and losers and its battle-oriented cultural psychology and consumerist ideology. Some contemporary American Jews might need the combat partisan — or the Israel Defense Force — to feel secure in themselves, as if the heroic might inoculate against victimhood. Others would rather define themselves without reference to either Holocaust or Israel. I wish them all luck.
WHAT OF THE GENERATION that greeted the survivors? To most postwar American Jews, survivor refugees were an undifferentiated mass. Their plight was incomprehensible and monolithic, with little variation perceived between survivors’ locales and circumstances. What American Jews saw were impoverished masses of young Jews without elders and with few children. It was assumed that most had been in camps. Any notion of resistance was then alien to American Jews, and survivors who had been with Soviet partisans or in the Soviet Army had to hide that fact in HUAC America.
Great work was done by aid organizations — the National Council of Jewish Women, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and the Joint Distribution Committee, among them. But domestic anti-Semitism had been at its height in the first half of the 20th century; anxiety that Jewish survivors might arouse further antagonism was not groundless and could, at times, result in less than thoughtful behavior toward them, as in: “We suffered, too, could only get chicken twice a week,” or “We didn’t know so many of you survived.” Such comments were part of the refugees’ reception, sometimes carrying over into vicious jibes leveled by American youth. Oblivious and unkind comments projected the fear and shame experienced by some American Jews of the era. Yet there were also many Jews across every class and sect who responded with full hearts — including an anonymous Chicago surgeon who, pro bono, saved my and my mother’s lives at childbirth, determined to keep two more Jews out of Hitler’s grasp.
And in Israel? That tiny state was born within a lion’s den of oil politics, geopolitical power play, and roiling postwar power vacuums. In 1948, Ben Gurion sent Golda Meir to Jordan’s King Abdullah to beg for peace; only three years after Hitler, she was offered minority status in a binational parliament, and three years later, Abdullah was killed by Arab rivals. The dangerous continuum between victim and fighter was painfully clear in that drop of time between Auschwitz’s end and Israel’s beginning, and diaspora survivors held their breaths as the country they so dearly and desperately needed fought for its life, with little aid and with little United Nations intervention.
Compassion for camp survivors might have been forthcoming had the new country not immediately been invaded by five hostile nations. Israel needed fighters, however, and the Final Solution was just too close, so the response to the European survivors was to elevate the partisans and soldiers and to devalue the ghetto and camp survivors. Heroes also fit well the idealistic Zionist vision of a new Jew saved from exilic destruction and transformed by his or her long-lost homeland.
Partisans fought in the 1948 War of Independence and beyond. Kibbutzim were named for resisters, and the Ghetto Fighters’ House was established on a northern kibbutz by ghetto rebels. In time, Israel’s Yom HaShoah observance was established to honor both “martyrs and heroes,” and so the “martyred” victims were raised closer to the status of fighter, for isn’t a martyr one who dies for a cause? The problem with this language, however, was that these victims were not martyrs. None died for a cause, but were simply and horribly murdered.
Some ambivalence endures in Israeli thinking about the Holocaust, but new generations tend to sympathize with their lost European cousins, and do learn of the steel trap that imprisoned them. Thankfully, the “sheep-to-slaughter” rhetoric has receded from commemorative and educational sites such as Yad Vashem.
NEITHER THE HOLOCAUST nor Israel are end points of Jewish history — as predicted by the Final Solution, on the one hand, and a utopian socialist vision, on the other. The Holocaust and Israel have distinct yet overlapping histories: Zionism preceded the Holocaust, but both were born of European religious, ethnic, nationalist, and racialist anti-Semitism. Therefore the concurrence of the genocide and Israel’s birth could not be willed away by early Israelis distancing themselves from ghettos and gas — nor by anti-Israel critics’ condemnation of any invocation of the Holocaust in Israeli thought and action concerning its lonely position in a region hostile to minority nations. The concurrence cannot be severed by Zionist pride, nor by religious stubbornness, nor by ignorance, nor by hatred — and neither should it be abused for partisan purposes. Centuries of Jew-hatred, the longing for Zion, and the Holocaust are all phenomena to be fathomed but never enlisted for ideological exploitation.
Resistance is a practical matter, and Israel, early utopianism aside, was once a practical country.
Its ideological turn to the right must be resisted by progressive Israelis — who deserve to be engaged with, not excluded by, progressives worldwide, particularly in the Jewish diaspora and also among “enemies,” including Palestinians and Iranians. Resistance means risk-taking, and while that often translates into fighting, it must also mean risk-taking for peace. If Jews can sit down with Germans (as we do), we can sit down with anyone (as we must). Call me crazy, but I envision diplomatic, cultural, and economic relations growing between Israel and Iran in the next several years. More ironic things have already happened.
MY MOTHER AND FATHER were heroes. So, too, was Sholem who didn’t leave Faiga. So, too, was Shaindel, driven with small children down the diabolical gas “tube.” So, too, Janusz Korczak, accompanying orphans to Treblinka while refusing his exemption as a celebrated man.
I have no illusions about myself in such conditions, and as a teacher I cultivate in my students a most un-American uncertainty. None of us know what we may or may not be equipped for in extremis. My mother, valedictorian of her high school, captain of its soccer team, university aspirant, never expected to sleep in holes in the woods, smuggle guns, place wounded children with farmers, punish denouncers. My father, son of an Orthodox orchard-keeper, young proletarian working in a foundry and wood mill, avid reader of leftist literature (though he could barely write), handsomer than Tyrone Power, with girlfriends aplenty, seldom thought to leave the fields and towns of Poland.
I was born of fighter parents, but the murdered and the broken, the gassed and the shot, their graves and their dust are also in me, and I haven’t the luxury to alter that. I mean to rescue victimhood as a bridge to compassion and imagination. Empathy with the victim propels the impulse to justice. Identify with the hero if you will, but that, too, needs to be reclaimed as action for the sake of the broken. Jews who fought in armies and partisan units must, of course, be honored, but never at the cost of diminishing those for whom this option was impossible. I avoid the phrase “fought back,” as the syntax implies choice, which was too seldom reality.
True resistance counters injustice. Authentic heroism confronts hubris and pride. “There are pestilences and there are victims,” wrote Camus, but I seek to go beyond this understandable despair by understanding, too, that there is tikkun olam, a construct of creative life energy that assumes the existence of pestilence to be confronted and overcome, great sickness to be healed. Without tikkun olam, we are all victims of death culture. We resist because we are victims and not the pestilence. We resist because Buber’s “I-Thou” and “authentic We” place us all in the same boat, to be not drowned but saved, as a commonwealth of victims, in resistance to the plague.
Anna Wrobel is a contributing writer to our magazine and a poet. She recently retired as a history teacher. She is the author of Marengo Street: Selected Poems (2012, Moon Pie Press.) Poems from her Sparrow Feathers are used in classrooms in the United States, Israel, Poland and Germany. She lives and curates poetry readings in Westbrook, Maine.