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Why Has It Been Downplayed?
by Hershl Hartman
THIS WILL NOT BE a dispassionate academic paper. For one thing, I am not an academic. And, too, you may detect some passion. If my points are made clearly, they may shake up some previously held concepts. At least, they may provoke thought about things we thought we knew.
There are three main, interconnected issues: How and why was Jewish Resistance virtually forgotten among Jewish Americans, in Israel, and by the world population overall? How do we define “Jewish Resistance” and “Resistance” in general? How widespread was “Jewish Resistance” during the Nazi genocide?
1. How and Why Was Jewish Resistance Forgotten?
Paris was liberated in August, 1944, and we’re familiar with the newsreels of the French, British, and American army troops marching under General De Gaulle, Viscount Halifax, and General Eisenhower. But the actual liberation of Paris was accomplished by the forces of the underground Partisan army led by French veterans of the Spanish Civil War — among whom there were many Jewish anti-fascists. That aspect of armed Jewish Resistance was immediately forgotten as the horrors of the labor camps, the concentration camps, and the death camps were revealed in the following months.
Soon after the liberation, surviving Jews in Paris commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943. The Nazis had not yet surrendered, but a certain kind of survivor would not wait for the final victory. Why?
Those survivors were comrades of those who had led and fought in the Warsaw Uprising: Left Socialist Zionists of Hashomer Ha’tzair, Hekhalutz, and Dror; Socialist Members of the Bund — The General Jewish Workers Alliance of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia — and Jewish Communists of the Polish Workers Party. It was these radical, Secular Jews who first proposed that all the victims of Nazi genocide be mourned and remembered every year thereafter on April 19th — or on the first Passover night, which was when the Uprising took place in 1943.
That proposal was vehemently opposed by the rabbinates here, in Europe, and in the Yishuv in Palestine before the State of Israel was born. The opposition was based on three factors: 1) Highlighting Jewish Resistance would detract from deep mourning over the slaughtered six million — and their bodies were a powerful argument to the world that the Jewish people required a homeland. 2) The survivors — Secular and religious alike — referred to the genocide as the khurbn in Yiddish, or khurban in Sefardic Hebrew — total destruction. For the rabbinate, there was only khurbn rishen and khurbn sheyni — the destruction of the First and Second Temples in antiquity. Nothing — not even the destruction of one-third of the Jewish people — could be compared with those events. To this day, haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, merely associate the khurbn with the Tenth of Tevet, marking the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of the Babylonian Empire some 2,000 years ago. 3) Commemorating the modern khurbn on the first night of Passover would, for the rabbinate, compound even further the inadmissibility of such an event. Peysakh, after all, is a time for rejoicing.
Let me also note that the high leadership of Jewish-American organizations and their fund-raising experts rejected the term khurbn also because English-speaking Jewish Americans and others could not manage to pronounce KHurbn. So for both religious rule-makers and worldly fund-raisers, khurbn was out. In English, a fine Latin word was selected that had always meant ‘widespread destruction by fire:’ holocaust. In Hebrew, the word chosen meant simply ‘catastrophe’ — shoah.
So, in 1953, five years after the State of Israel was born and after much political wrangling, the commemoration date was chosen almost at random as the 27th day of Nisan, well after Passover and before Independence Day. The great political compromise was that the day would be called yom ha’zikaron la’shoah ve’la’gvurah — the Day of Remembrance of Destruction and Heroism. In this country, even when that Hebrew name is given, it is very, very rarely translated in full. Yom ha’shoah and that’s it.
2. The definition of “resistance” is vital—perhaps the most important.
It is not a matter of semantics. If we understand “resistance” to be limited to armed resistance, we do violence not only to language but to history itself.
This is a full, historically accurate definition of resistance: “Acts, whether deliberate or otherwise, that delay, frustrate or foil the objectives of an opponent and its planned timetable.”
Let us apply that definition to the Nazis’ truly insane objective: the total and complete elimination of the Jewish people as an ethnic, cultural, and “genetic” entity. (They intended the same madness toward the Rom — “gypsy” — people, homosexuals and, eventually, the Polish and other Slavic peoples — all “inferiors” of and threats to the pure German Master Race.)
The Nazis intended to accomplish the elimination of the Jewish people in an inexpensive manner that would not divert forces from their three-front war in Europe and North Africa. This would be accomplished by herding all Jews into vastly overcrowded ghettos. There, the Jews would be forced to perform useful labor for the Third Reich while starvation and disease kept thinning their ranks to extinction.
That plan met immediate, unplanned resistance. Many, many Jews hid from the newly-created ghettos both in non-Jewish refuges outside the walls and barbed wire fences, and in cellars, bunkers, hollowed-out walls within the ghetto. This was especially directed at hiding children, since genocide is not simply mass murder: It attempts the murder of a people by especially targeting children.
Despite Nazi control of food supplies at below starvation levels, sufficient food was smuggled in from beyond the walls to “delay and frustrate” the Nazi timetable.
Despite the Nazis’ hope that epidemics of disease — especially, typhus — would hasten their genocidal plan, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, medical aides or feldsher — both within and from outside the ghettos’ walls — managed to keep the rate of death from disease far below the Nazi plans. Again: acts that delay or frustrate the enemy’s plans.
One of the ideas Hitler’s SS and Gestapo most cherished was that vast numbers of the inferior Jewish race, faced by the prospect of certain death, would simply commit suicide. What an efficient means to achieve their goal! Yet the suicide rate in all the aspects of Jewish captivity — ghettos, work camps, concentration camps, even death camps — was amazingly low. There are many reports of Nazi officials complaining to the Jews whom they had appointed for “Jewish self rule,” that their “compatriots lacked honor” by failing to take their own lives.
Finally, the Nazi objective that they thought would be key to all the rest — overcrowding, hunger, disease, suicide — the objective of instilling hopeless despair, eliminating spiritual strength. That objective, too, was foiled. Though synagogues were barred, unnumbered minyanim — informal prayer groups — worshipped the God of their fathers, beseeching the arrival of the geyulah, liberation through Moyshiakh, the anointed Messiah.
For less religious and thoroughly Secular Jews, there was spiritual sustenance in all the myriad aspects of Jewish culture. I will go into that aspect in greater detail toward the end.
To sum up: the basic Nazi plan and timetable was for the Jews under Hitler’s control to be wiped out quickly and efficiently by overcrowding, leading to mass death from starvation, disease, suicide, and general hopelessness. In the meantime, Jews could work for the Nazi war machine. As we have seen, that plan was met with resistance as it must be understood: whatever delays, frustrates and foils the enemy’s objective and timetable.
How effective was that Resistance? By any measure, it was extremely so. Their original plans delayed and frustrated, the Nazis, in 1942, had to turn to a completely new approach: the Final Solution. This was the opposite of efficient and economically or militarily sound. With their advance on the Russian front being slowed by millions of Red Army troops, with every piece of railroad equipment desperately needed to transport troops and munitions to the East, and the wounded back West, Nazi madness was forced to divert huge amounts of rail equipment and vast amounts of materiel to build, operate, and maintain the death factories of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and to bring Jews there. Troops desperately needed as the siege of Stalingrad began, continued, and was finally lost, were diverted to operate and guard the concentration camps that fed into the death camps and those camps themselves.
All of this madness because the Jews had successfully resisted the first, simpler plan.
3. How widespread was Jewish Resistance?
It was those widespread forms of resistance that formed the basis and the foundation of the pinnacle of Jewish Resistance: organized, armed struggle. That armed struggle — throughout Hitler’s empire — can fill, and has filled — many volumes. Unfortunately, those volumes have been forgotten along with the documentary history they contain. Let me mention just one: for me, the very holy book, They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe. Its many editions are available at Amazon, in both paper and hardcover, and I will say categorically that a Jewish library lacking this book is woefully inadequate and that a conscious Jewish person who hasn’t read it must correct that lack as soon as possible. The editor and translator of its scores of first-hand accounts from Poland, Lithuania, France, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Belgium, was an outstanding Yiddish poet who became an English novelist and historian, Mem Alef Suhl, known as Yuri Suhl.
I mentioned the familiar names of the murder factories, the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Did you know — would you believe — that there was organized, armed resistance in each of those, as well as in scores of concentration camps and ghettos?
Let me mention just one single instance that I hope will shine as a marker for the literally hundreds of others: You have seen film and pictures of three smoking crematoria in Auschwitz, where the bodies were brought from the gas chambers to be burned. Three crematoria. There were originally four. What happened to the fourth?
It was blown up on October 7, 1944, by the Jewish underground group in Auschwitz. The ever-efficient Nazis ran a munitions factory there. The underground stole dynamite and other explosives, bit by bit. The bits looked like buttons. Jewish women workers, led by 23 year-old Rosa Robota, smuggled the bits in their clothes and matchboxes, day by day, to a Russian war prisoner who was an explosives expert. The bomb casings were discarded large sardine cans, stolen from the kitchen trash. The bomb makings were moved on the carts used to take bodies to the crematoria. When a rumor spread that the camp was about to be liquidated — since the Red Army was moving deep into Poland — the underground acted. Crematorium Number 3 was destroyed in the explosion and resulting fire. A German overseer was tossed into the oven. Four SS men were killed and others wounded. The barbed wire fence was cut and six hundred escaped, to be hunted down and killed by the SS.
Rosa Robota was arrested and tortured. In her final note to her comrades in the Auschwitz underground, she assured them that she had not named anyone except someone she knew was dead. Her final words, as she was being hanged with three other women heroes of the underground, was the slogan of her Socialist Zionist Youth Group, Hashomer Hatzair: khazak v’hamatz — Be strong and brave.
Let me briefly turn to another question that some ask and many others think to themselves. As Jews were being led into ghettos between 1940 and 1942, as they were being transported to concentration camps and then death camps — there were many more of them, sometimes, hundreds more — than their guards. Why, some ask and many others think, didn’t they overwhelm their guards and escape?
Let me put aside the complex counter-question — escape to where? — and turn to the issue of what is known as the psychology of capture. And let us seek the answer in the experience of the three greatest military forces in modern history: the U.S. Army, the Nazi army, and the Soviet Red Army.
After the fall of Bataan in the Philippines in March, 1942, 75,000 American and Philipino troops were taken captive and forced on a death march, guarded by a relative handful of Japanese troops.
After and beyond the Battle of Stalingrad, some three million soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi Army, were led by a relatively minuscule number of Russian troops to the snows of Siberia, where most died.
An untold number of millions of Red Army troops were captured in huge masses by the Nazis between June of 1941 and 1944.
Remember, these were all military men, soldiers. The very first training they received was that, if captured, their primary duty was to attempt to escape. That way, the enemy would have to divert more troops to guard them and, if successful, they might return to their own lines to continue the battle. The day before their capture they were holding weapons and fighting the enemy.
It has never occurred — in all the history of warfare — that captured soldiers, military men, took advantage of their vastly greater numbers to overwhelm the enemy guards and to escape. Never. Nowhere. In any modern war.
Now consider the Jews being led to ghettos or transported to camps. They have not had military training. Beside the young men stand their agéd parents and grandparents, their wives and children. Besides, they are being constantly assured by their Jewish leaders that working hard in the ghettos would save their lives. When being transported, the Nazis assure them constantly that it is “toward the East, for labor.” Even the train station at Auschwitz looks like a normal one. A large clock was painted on a wall.
For even the politically sophisticated among the Jewish captives, it was absolutely unthinkable that the Nazi objective was extermination. What power has ever destroyed its own work force, even a slave work force?
And yet... and yet... some think and some even say out loud, accusing the victims: why didn’t they overwhelm their guards? Such questions... even such thoughts... are either obscene or come from the ignorance that I hope I am helping to overcome.
FINALLY, LET ME RETURN to the matter of spiritual resistance that was the foundation, if you will, of the pyramid of Resistance, with upper, more organized levels of hiding, escape, smuggling of food and medicines, reaching to the pinnacle of planned, armed resistance.
To do so, I will present excerpts from the final letter of Dr. Emanuel (Menahem) Ringelblum, dated Warsaw, March 1, 1944, almost a year after the start of the heroic Uprising that he and his colleagues had recorded. Dr. Ringelblum was the leader and inspirer of the oyneg shabes — Celebration of Sabbath — group that gathered documents from all over Poland during the Nazi occupation to chronicle the life and death of its Jews. The records were hidden in milk drums and buried in various locations. Most, but not all, have been found and constitute the most extensive documentary source we have.
The letter’s addressees in New York have particular meaning for us, today. It was sent to YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, now known as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; the PEN Club of Yiddish writers; the illustrious Yiddish author, famous in many languages, Sholem Asch, whose son, Moses Asch, created the vast archive of what is now called ‘world music’; the Yiddish author Hayim Leyvik; to the great writer Yosif Opatoshu, known here as the father of screen actor and Yiddish stage actor Dovid Opatoshu and the grandfather of one of the activists in L.A.’s Yiddishkayt organization, Dan Opatoshu; and finally, to the eminent Jewish historian of the Middle Ages and beyond, who wrote in Yiddish, Dr. Rafoyl Mahler.
Five days after sending this letter via the Polish underground, Dr. Ringelblum, his wife, child, and thirty-three others were killed when the Nazis discovered their hiding place outside the crumbled ghetto walls. Here are excerpts of what Dr. Ringelblum wrote:
We write to you at a time when 95 per cent of the Polish Jews have already died in the throes of horrible tortures in the gas chambers of the annihilation centers in Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Oswiecim or were slaughtered during the numberless “liquidation campaigns” in the ghettos and camps... That any of us, the community workers, who carry on under conditions of twofold secrecy, will outlive the war, we greatly doubt. We, therefore, want to take this means to tell you in brief about those activities which link us most closely to you...
... At the time when the Warsaw Ghetto was hermetically sealed, a clandestine cultural organization was formed with the name Jewish Cultural Organization (YIKOR). It conducted broad educational work, organized series of lectures, literary anniversaries (in honor of I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Mendele, Borokhov, etc.) and literary and dramatic programs...
... Under the cloak of the children’s kitchen and homes of the CENTOS, a net of underground schools of various ideological trends was spread... The secular schools using Yiddish as the language of instruction were particularly active...
... Thanks to the intensive work of a large staff, tens of crates were collected with extraordinarily valuable documents, diaries, memoirs, reportages, photographs, etc. All of these materials were buried... we have no access to them. Most of the material sent abroad originates from our archives. We raised a cry to the world with exact information about the greatest crime in history. We are still continuing the archival work. Notwithstanding the terrible conditions we are still collecting memoirs and documents about the martyrdom of the Jews, their struggle and the present living conditions of the remnants of the Polish Jews...
... During almost the entire time in which the Ghetto existed, an underground press issued newspapers, journals and miscellaneous volumes. An especially stimulating press was maintained by the following organizations: Jewish Workers Alliance—Bund (Bulletin, Tsayt-Fragn, Yugnt-Shtime, Za Nasza i Wasza Wolnosc, Nowa Mlodziez), Left-Wing Poalei Zion (Proletarisher Gedank, Yugnt-Ruf, Avangard, Nasze Hasla), Hashomer Hatzair (Przedwiosnie, Jutra Dziennie, Oifbroyz and a number of miscellanies), Dror (Dror-Yedies, Hamadrikh, Genre an Payn), Right-Wing Poalei Zion (Bafrayung); the anti-fascist bloc (Der Ruf); the Communists (Morgn Frayhayt) and others. Some of these periodicals published in Warsaw were circulated in all the ghettos, despite the overwhelming contact and communication difficulties...
The center for child welfare, CENTOS, conducted many cultural activities among the great masses of children and youth... A central library for children and a theater were created... Courses were given in the Yiddish language and literature. Especially impressive were the cultural and artistic performances given during the “Children’s Month,” when the audience, consisting of thousands of weary spectators, came to spend a few carefree hours with the children and thus, for a short time, escape from the nightmare of reality. Hundreds of children from the CENTOS homes and from the schools participated in these performances which rose to a high artistic level. Today there are no more Jewish children in Poland! Ninety-nine percent of them were murdered by the Hitler criminals.
Within the Ghetto, a symphony orchestra was formed... Excellent choral groups were formed: the children’s choir, led by J. Fevishis, was a great success... The Jewish artists and sculptors who lived in dire need occasionally displayed their masterpieces...
When the period of murderous deportations began, the slogan of self-help was abandoned for the idea of active resistance. Our youth of all the movements, especially of the pro-Palestine organizations, revealed its indomitable courage; it was the onset of the colossal epic by the armed Jewish battle in Poland; the heroic defense of the Warsaw Ghetto, the illustrious battle in Bialystok, the destruction of the extermination dens in Treblinka and Sobibor, the battles in Tarnow, Bendzin, Czestochowa and other places. The Jews showed the world that they could fight, weapon in hand, that they know how to die honorably in the battle against the deadly enemy of the Jewish nation and of all humanity...
Whether we shall have the opportunity to meet with you is doubtful. To all the workers for Jewish culture, writers, journalists, musicians, sculptors and all the contributors to modern Jewish culture and fighters for national liberation and the cause of mankind, we send our warmest greetings.
Dr. E. Ringelblum
Hershl Hartman is education director of the Sholem Community and School and a Secular Jewish vegvayzer (leader) in Los Angeles.
. Respectively: (Yidd.) Bulletin, Current Questions, Youth’s Voice; (Pol.) For Our and Your Freedom, New Youth.
. Labor Zionists, respectively (Yidd.) Proletarian Thought, Youth’s Call, Vanguard; (Pol.) Our Signal.
. The Young Guard (Marxist-Zionist), respectively (Pol.) Spring Dawn, Morning Daily; (Yidd.) Turmoil
. Freedom (Left Zionist Youth), respectively (Yidd.) Freedom News, The Leader; unk.
. Labor Zionists, (Yidd.) Liberation
. First united resistance group: Polish Workers (Communist) Party, The Young Guard, Left- and Right Labor Zionists, Pioneers. (Yidd.) The Call
. (Yidd.) Morning Freedom (same name as Communist Yiddish daily in New York).
Below: A brief catalogue of Jewish armed resistance to Nazism, from the Spring, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents. Click on the image to enlarge it.