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Remembering the Jews Who Fought Back

November 10, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

The introductory essay from the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, “Honoring the Jewish Resistance.”

[caption id=“attachment_39670” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Facing execution, October 26, 1941. Masha Bruskina with two non-Jewish comrades.The placard around her neck reads, “We are partisans who shot at German soldiers.” Facing execution, October 26, 1941. Masha Bruskina with two non-Jewish comrades. The placard around her neck reads, “We are partisans who shot at German soldiers.”[/caption]

IT SEEMS INCOMPREHENSIBLE, however often you contemplate it, and no matter how jaundiced your view of the human mob: That an advanced country could be so consumed by racism as to target every Jew in Europe and kill six million of them, including a million and a half children, in five short years — it’s incomprehensible.

That a war machine attempting to conquer a continent, including and especially the multiple time zones of the Soviet Union, would nevertheless expend resources to establish mobile killing squads, ghettos, special train transports, and death camps aimed at an unarmed sector of the civilian population — and would maintain that genocidal operation to the bitter end, when the military conquest had been turned back — it’s incomprehensible.

That sadists, bureaucrats, and little barking men wearing fetishistic uniforms could undermine the influence of profoundly humanistic artists and philosophers to turn an entire culture into a cult and recruit much of Germany’s population as cult-followers — incomprehensible.

Yet however much we grasp the unbelievable nature of what the victims confronted and the impossibility of an effective, life-saving response, we are plagued and shamed by the “sheep-to-slaughter” narrative about the Holocaust. Bad enough, our people’s helplessness and degradation, nakedness and starvation; bad enough, the Jewish police and the Judenrat (Jewish councils), the clawing for survival. The fact that all of this occurred under the watch of relatively small squads of armed Germans and their collaborators, who suffered barely a casualty in the course of their brutal work — here the shame seeps in, and goes deep.

BUT HOW TRUE is that sheep-to-slaughter description? It was propagated by such figures as psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, who spent a year imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald and then a career emphasizing the docility of Jews, “like lemmings,” he wrote, “march[ing] themselves to their own death.” It was reinforced by historian Raul Hilberg, whose 1961 opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, was dismissive towards Jewish resistance, which he described as desperate, last-minute, and inconsequential. Then came Hannah Arendt, whose electrifying Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) put into play the idea that the collaboration of Jewish leaders had helped expedite the work of the mediocre men who oversaw the genocide.

In recent years, this sheep-to-slaughter myth has largely been set aside in Jewish educational settings. Our magazine, however, was arguing with it from the start. In our July-August, 1962 edition, for example, Yuri Suhl (who would soon write a classic book about Jewish resistance, They Fought Back) complained that Raul Hilberg, in his discussion of the uprising in the Treblinka extermination camp, had failed to mention German casualties, the “seventy SS killed.... including one commissioned officer and seventeen non-commissioned officers...”

Or take Sobibor. The revolt that took place in that extermination camp... is one of the... most dramatic acts in the annals of Jewish resistance and, by and large, it was successful in its objective... Dr. Hilberg has very little to say about the Sobibor revolt...

Similarly did our long-time editor, Morris U. Schappes, critique Hannah Arendt’s perspective in a three-part article in 1963. Arendt (and, one could add, the swarm of misinterpretation that surrounded her work) had induced in many readers, he suggested, “a feverish disgust with the Jewish people” and “self-disgust on the part of Jews.” The fact was, however, that “even though the... resistance was conducted by small groups...”

when one becomes aware of the extent of the resistance, one must echo Gideon Hausner’s exclamation in his opening address at the Eichmann trial: “The great wonder was that after years of oppression, degradation and hunger, the Jews found the spiritual strength for all of these instances of revolt and resistance, in the face of the Gestapo machine and its mighty power of destruction on the one hand, and — on the other — the Nazis’ trickery, deception, and concealment of their intention to exterminate the Jews...”

Beyond such arguments, Jewish Currents also published both eyewitness and second-hand testimonials about the realities of Jewish resistance in the ghettos, in the slave-labor and death camps, and in the forests where the partisans fought. These articles represent one of the most proud and enduring contributions our magazine has made to Jewish culture since 1946 — a contribution that has continued to unfold in subsequent decades.

This special issue of Jewish Currents celebrates that contribution — in honor of the 70th anniversary of the final liberation of the Nazi camps in 1945, and in honor of our own 70th volume, marking our seventh decade of continuous publication.

[caption id=“attachment_39669” align=“aligncenter” width=“865”]Abba Kovner, a resistance leader in the Vilna Ghetto, and the manifesto of January 1, 1942 that he helped to draft: “Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter! Jewish youth, do not believe the misleaders. Of the 80,000 Jews in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 are left. Before our very eyes they have torn away our parents, our brothers and sisters.” The proclamation concludes: “True, we are weak and we are getting no help, but the only dignified answer to the enemy is resistance! ... It is better to fall like free fighters than to live at the mercy of the murderers. Resist to your last breath!” Abba Kovner, a resistance leader in the Vilna Ghetto, and the manifesto of January 1, 1942 that he helped to draft: “Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter! Jewish youth, do not believe the misleaders. Of the 80,000 Jews in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, only 20,000 are left. Before our very eyes they have torn away our parents, our brothers and sisters.” The proclamation concludes: “True, we are weak and we are getting no help, but the only dignified answer to the enemy is resistance! ... It is better to fall like free fighters than to live at the mercy of the murderers. Resist to your last breath!”[/caption]

OUR EDITORIAL PRIDE notwithstanding, the Holocaust is a heavily freighted subject on which to focus. The so-called “Holocaust industry” of museums, movies, books, and “Never again!” pronouncements has so saturated the culture as to make it difficult to treat the subject with new relevance, while the so-called “Holocaust Revisionist” movement, which still tries to nitpick its way to credibility, has created an atmosphere in which even a typo, let alone an historical inaccuracy, becomes grist for the mill. The invocation of the Holocaust by the likes of Jonathan Pollard or Benjamin Netanyahu as “explanation” for their deeds makes us loath to wave the same bloody flag, while its invocation to convey the horror of other international crimes has served to cheapen the word into a cliché.

Nevertheless, we would be denying our own heroes and heroines were we to allow the politicization or commercialization of the Holocaust to still our voices on the subject. The fact is that the leaders of the Jewish resistance in both Eastern and Western Europe were consistently (though not exclusively) young men and women of the left: socialist Zionists, Bundists, communists, and others. They were Jews who had abilities as organizers, a world-view that recognized fascism as the racist enemy, and a devotion to physical culture and, in some instances, military training. They were people with a sense of both Jewish community and human comradeship that went beyond immediate family, neighborhood, and even the borders of Central and Eastern Europe — to Palestine, for some, to the Soviet Union, for others — and with ideals that transported them beyond the day-to-day of livelihood and survival and lent their lives an historical purpose. They were, in the words of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, the martyred chronicler of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, “the best, the most beautiful, the finest that the Jewish people possessed” — and they were sons and daughters of the Jewish left.

Perhaps that reality helps to explain why their heroism was supplanted by the sheep-to-slaughter narrative in popular memory. In fact, commemoration of the Jewish resistance was displaced by at least four forces:

• First, the Soviet Union and the rest of the communist bloc repressed nearly all signs of Jewish identity in their memorialization of their sacrifices during World War II. Although Jews played a prominent role in those partisan movements that were commanded and sustained by the Red Army, who would know this if they were identified only as “Soviet citizens”? If the monumental losses of the Jewish people were simply merged into the gigantic losses of the USSR, Poland, and other lands, who would know of Jewish heroism or sacrifice? With the post-war Stalinist crackdown on Jewish cultural life and the jailing and murder of leading Yiddish cultural leaders between 1948 and 1952, awareness of the Holocaust as a Jewish-targeted genocide, and of the resistance led by young leftist Jews, was widely repressed.

• Second, in the United States, with McCarthyism raging even before the emergence of Senator Joseph McCarthy himself — and with the American Jewish community cowed into pursuing its own internal purges of leftists and collaboration with the witchhunters — the commemoration of an anti-Nazi resistance led by socialists and communists was hardly the order of the day. More generally, as April Rosenblum has observed in our pages, by the mid-1950s,

a kind of metaphorical (and at times literal) disappearing act had become an attractive option for American Jews. In order to succeed and be safe, it was important to avoid being too “foreign,” too “ethnic,” too visible. The resulting push to blend in, to become pure Americans, and to be white, transformed American Jewish culture.... Rather than being a dubious ethnic group, Jews could be simply the white people who “went to church on Saturday.” This would require Jews to construct a modern vision of themselves as a religion, not an ethnic group.

Under such circumstances, the commemoration of leftwing Jewish resistance to race-based anti-Semitism was not high on the Jewish agenda.

• Third, there was the immediacy of the Zionist struggle to establish the State of Israel, populate it, drive out the British, stave off the Arabs, and recreate Jewish identity (while showing little deference to the diaspora, the Yiddish language, and the centuries of Jewish life in Europe). The wartime struggles of socialist Zionist resistance leaders did not end with the destruction of the ghettos or the liberation of the camps, but would be transformed, without pause, into nation-building in Palestine — and it would be this aspect of their heroism, rather than their anti-Nazi resistance, that would capture the Jewish imagination internationally in the years after the Holocaust.

[caption id=“attachment_39668” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Zivia Lubetkin, a socialist Zionist heroine who left the safety of the Soviet-controlled part of Poland to help organize resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, here shown testifying at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Zivia Lubetkin, a socialist Zionist heroine who left the relative safety of the Soviet-controlled part of Poland to help organize resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto, here shown testifying at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.[/caption]

Marie Syrkin implies this in her remarkable 1947 volume, Blessed Is the Match, when she describes Zivia Lubetkin “crawl[ing] through the sewers under the flaming ruins of the Warsaw ghetto... [and leading] the exhausted survivors of the uprising to the dubious safety of a fighting unit in the forest. Even after the German defeat, Zivia had remained for a year in Poland in order to gather whatever members of the youth groups had remained alive...” In Israel, she helped to found Kibbutz of Ghetto Fighters in the upper Galilee, and she testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Still, Syrkin writes, when she sought out Lubetkin to question her about the anti-Nazi resistance, the woman “would not disguise her impatience to get back to her kibbutz, where work was to be done.”

• Fourth, there was active opposition by religious leaders to the secular commemoration of the Holocaust. As Hershl Hartman recently wrote at our website, while “radical, secular Jews... first proposed that all the victims of Nazi genocide be mourned and remembered every year... on the first Passover night, which was when the [Warsaw Ghetto] Uprising took place in 1943,” the proposal was “vehemently opposed by the rabbinates here, in Europe, and in the yishuv in Palestine,” for both religious and nationalist reasons. In the end, Hartman writes,

the commemoration date was chosen almost at random... 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 [the U.S.], even when that Hebrew name is given, it is very, very rarely translated in full.

WHAT IS TO BE GAINED today from our commemoration of the Jewish resistance? We cannot, after all, change the overwhelming reality of Jewish victimization through valorization of those who fought back, nor can we replace the gas chambers with ghetto bunkers as the dominant symbol of the Nazi years. We certainly cannot retrieve the culture that was obliterated, or fathom what Jewish life might be like today, worldwide, had the “Final Solution” never been implemented. Are there lessons to be learned, nevertheless, from this overwhelmingly sad history, especially from those who heroically fought the Nazis as best they could?

The fact is that Jews have already drawn enormously varied and even contradictory lessons from the Holocaust: from “Never Again!” nationalism to radical internationalism; from “God Is Dead” atheism to “Am Yisroel Khay!” religious fervor; from “Why be Jewish?” assimilationism to Yiddish and Eastern Europe revivalism; from nonviolent pacifism to Second Amendment pro-gun activism — and beyond. Such efforts to make sense of the slaughter and the resistance are inevitably idiosyncratic, and are difficult to judge without insulting someone’s memory or denying someone’s experience.

I speak only for myself, therefore — as an American Jew, born in 1951, without close relatives lost to the Nazis — in writing about what I have gained from learning about the near-obliteration of my people, and the resistance to that campaign of obliteration.

My first lesson is that racism is a profoundly corrupting illusion, to which human beings are extremely vulnerable — and to which Jewish values and cultural experience stand in stark opposition. Jews who believe otherwise, who act upon a “chosen people” chauvinism, are being no more faithful to the deep essentials of Jewish consciousness, by my lights, than rightwing American fundamentalists are to the essential teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

My second lesson is the importance of cultivating social consciousness, a sense of “we” rather than the isolated “I.” The young people who led the resistance, in all of its forms, were seized with young people’s hunger for the social, for connecting with one another and with a sense of collective purpose. This seemed to keep them from the shattering isolation and passivity that Nazi oppression cultivated through its collective punishments, its arbitrariness, its harsh deprivations. Even in our current condition of privilege and relative safety in America, it seems to me that cultivating an attitude of human interconnection and “social-ism” — while being extremely wary of the kind of cultism that marked “National Socialism”! — is a path preferable to the “rugged individualism” and privatization of life that modern capitalism cherishes and cultivates.

My third lesson is that giving refuge to refugees, especially to those subjected to genocidal policies, is a moral imperative for any civilized land, however taxing it may be. Military intervention to forestall slaughter is a tricky business — but sanctuary should not be denied or even delayed.

My fourth lesson is that the rebuilding and reinvention of Jewish life is a post-Holocaust responsibility, which I embrace as my own form of resistance — because I believe it to be of value to the world at large. Twelve years of Nazi destruction must not be permitted to undo the centuries of Jewish contribution to the humanistic enterprise. While “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory” cannot be a very compelling call for future generations of Jews, “Join us in catalyzing a progressive future, for ourselves and the larger world,” is an alternative to “Sieg Heil!” that can and will be heard.

Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.