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The Sheep Were Legend, the Wolves Were Real

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December 18, 2015

A Fighter in the Minsk Ghetto Recounts the Resistance

by Hirsh Smoliar

Translated from the Yiddish by Hershl Hartman

From the Autumn 2015 special issue of Jewish Currents on the theme, "Honoring the Jewish Resistance." Originally published in 1959.

Partisans of the Minsk Ghetto, including Hirsh Smoliar (first row, right)

I CAN REMEMBER it clearly: It was that wonderfully good person and great writer, Der Nister [The Hidden One, pen-name of the Soviet Yiddish writer, Isser Kahanovich], who had urged me a number of times: “Tell it to everyone... Tell them the truth.”

He was speaking about practically all of my Moscow friends and acquaintances who, meeting me right after my return from the forests, put the same question: “How was it possible? How could it happen that tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews were led like sheep to the slaughter?”

At first, this question seemed to me to be exceedingly wild. I asked myself, wonderingly: “Why did it never occur to me, during all those years in the ghetto, never to pose that riddle to myself? Here are people who were not in the ghetto, who know it all second-hand, yet they know more than I do!”

Later, I developed a quiet resentment towards the absolute certainty with which these people flatly averred that the most characteristic feature of the period of total Jewish extermination was absolute Jewish passivity. And then came the answer, after a long chat with Der Nister: “It’s a lie!”

When I asked the members of the Presidium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee their reaction to Der Nister’s proposal that we make an open declaration in Moscow against this lamb-legend, Solomon Mikhoels [director of the Moscow Yiddish State Theater and chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee] gazed at me with tragic, pitying eyes in which one could read the query: How can you prove it?

That spring evening in 1945, the main auditorium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee on Kropotkin Street in Moscow was jammed with people. I can’t remember all I said that night, but I do remember going a bit overboard in trying to prove that there were no sheep at all among the Jews, that everyone in his own way tried to resist the bestiality of the Hitlerites.

At the time, I was barely aware of the overall picture of scores and hundreds of ghettos in Poland, Byelorussia, Lithuania, the Ukraine. I knew only of “my own” ghetto and the miracle that was even then being revealed: thousands upon thousands of Minsk Jews, thanks to our organized program of arranging escapes to the partisan detachments in the surrounding forests, were able to survive and return home after the liberation, bringing with them a record of years of armed struggle against our people’s enemy. And all of them were certainly a living refutation of the legend that Jews were led to the slaughter like sheep.

But were they the only ones?

We in the ghetto had seen the most varied expressions of Jewish resistance, day after day. The armed battles were the pinnacle of a whole system of resistance, which came to life through truly Jewish initiative in the ghetto itself. Jews who returned each night from forced labor in the various German enterprises would uniformly repeat the same complaints of their overseers: “You Ostjuden (Eastern Jews) are unworthy, dishonorable folk. Now, your ‘coreligionists’ in Germany and Austria — they behaved with honor; they committed suicide in droves. But you...”

In “my own” ghetto, there were only two known cases of suicide in all those awful years. This was, to our way of thinking, opposition to the Hitlerite desire to see the Jews as a will-bereft mass, among whom there could not develop any resistance whatsoever. Jewish armed resistance organizations, wherever they arose, had as their fundamental base this general climate of psychological-moral Jewish resistance. Whoever ignores this basic factor must consider the various forms of Jewish armed struggle either as acts of desperation or as accidental episodes — isolated occurrences which had no connection with the state of morale of the overwhelming majority of the ghetto Jews.

THE WHOLE SYSTEM of hiding places — a subject that itself deserves a research project by specialists — of underground passages leading to the “Aryan” side, of breakthroughs in the ghetto fences, represent fearfully extensive efforts which are, in every regular army, the task of entire specially-trained corps of engineers and technicians. In the ghetto, this work was done by practically every family, each in its own way. A world of initiative — and all carried out in the strictest secrecy, in an atmosphere of conspiracy which even those most well trained in “the trade” might well envy.

These “burrowers” were a large segment of those resisting Hitler’s sentence of total extermination. One cannot complete the reckoning without including this mass escape through hiding — which plays an important part in every war — unless one wishes deliberately to obscure a significant, integral part of specifically Jewish resistance.

The tremendously complicated stratagems by which the ghetto defeated the Hitlerite plans for its starvation were the work of masses of ordinary Jewish people. Based on the Nazis’ food allocations, hundreds of thousands of Jews should have starved to death in the first six months after the ghettos had been sealed off. And while hunger actually claimed tens of thousands of victims (principally among the poorest sections of the population and among those without trades), there can be no doubt that if the Nazis had relied on hunger as their sole weapon against the Jews, millions would have survived. Whoever will undertake a full-scale survey of the Jewish anti-Hitler struggle for food would see revealed in its clearest light the collective, superhuman effort of millions in thwarting all the devilish regulations aimed at ‘taking’ the ghetto by hunger. Was this an element of resistance? Suppose we posted this question to experts in military logistics: “By what means could regular army units, completely surrounded by the enemy, manage not to be overcome by hunger?” There could be only one answer: “Such a feat would require truly militant heroism!”

It is true that the mass base of Jewish resistance grew narrower as we proceeded up the scale toward the forms of direct, armed battle and the formation, in the ghetto, of armed groups sent to join the partisan detachments. This does not stem from any lack of sympathy among the Jews toward these particular forms of struggle. Far from it! The records of almost all the ghettos have demonstrated that, completely apart from the organized centers of resistance, there were everywhere small groups who secured their own arms, set out alone in search of contact with the partisans and conducted their own military operations.

But facts are facts: The special caution necessary under conditions in which the Gestapo had its agents throughout the ghetto forced the organizers of armed resistance into special conspiratorial measures. Yet here, too, we dare not lose sight of the great numbers of Jews who directly aided the armed groups through gifts of money, food and medicines. In the partisan movement as a whole, those who aided the active resisters were considered members of the resistance movement. Why, then, were we so inclined to eliminate these masses of Jews from the reckoning?

If it were possible to sum up the participation of Jews in all the varied forms of resistance (and we have listed only a few) we would obtain the full picture of Jewish determination, of Jewish energy, of Jewish opposition by every possible means to the destroyers of our people.

WHAT, THEN, REMAINS of the legend of the sheep — especially the horror-picture of millions of Jews, in all the extermination camps, being driven to the slaughter without any mass resistance at that moment. (We say this while remembering that it was particularly Jews who staged uprisings in the death camps of Sobibor and Chelmno!)

I must confess that whenever this particular argument arose to buttress the lamb-legend, I became almost speechless. I would see in my mind’s eye not the Jewish women with babes in arms, nor the old people (for they were the first victims in every raid) who were driven by shooting and beating through drunken hordes of S.S.-men and Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Latvian fascists. I saw, instead, the familiar picture of those times: huge, many-thousands-strong columns of war prisoners, “led” by handsful of armed Germans who kept up a steady fire, killing all stragglers and leaving a trail of blood all along the road.

Why did none of us feel resentment toward these men — former military men — who put up no resistance, who made no attempt to escape singly or to stage a mass escape?

One must know the psychological condition of people disarmed, robbed of the most elementary rights, often beyond the capacity for thought or perception, before directing any accusations at them. These millions of prisoners — whose behavior under such conditions was in no way differentiated by national group — cannot possibly serve to substantiate the lamb legend. It is not their tragic dying, but their living, which as a rule was the result of the most varied methods of resistance to the Hitlerite beasts, that is the determining factor in evaluating the period of total genocide, of complete Jewish extermination.

These were my thoughts at the time of my first meeting with people who had seen what had happened from far behind the front lines and based their opinions purely on the basis of others’ reports. This is still my view of the matter, after having studied the more general picture in scores upon scores of different ghettos.

One thing I neglected to mention that spring evening in Moscow was the wolves!

This was probably the result of two facts: first, in “my own” Minsk Ghetto, the Judenrat [Jewish Council] was most intimately bound up with the resistance movement; secondly, at that time we had only the meagerest reports of the behavior of the Judenrats in Warsaw, Bialystok, Vilna, and many other cities.

Today, we know for a certainty: Just as there was a multi-faceted system of Jewish resistance, so too in many ghettos there was the influence of a many- sided Jewish anti-resistance, starting from psychological and physical demoralization, to keeping the people in the grip of illusions, to all sorts of manipulations in selecting the victims for the death camps and those to be granted temporary mercy, ending with the most shameful, direct participation in the apprehension and murder of fellow-Jews. (This refers to the Jewish ghetto police and especially to the operative groups who were in direct communication with the Gestapo; they were called GENS in the ghettos around Vilna.)

There was no mention of all this that evening in Moscow. Now we know that in the years of our most terrible destruction a situation developed which is to be found during hard times in all of our thousands of years of history. Always and everywhere we find expressions — to a lesser or greater degree — of two basic lines in our history: the line of resistance to the enemy, of opposing evil with every possible means, and the line of accommodation, of resignation, of surrender to the bloody foe to the point of serving his satanic plans for the Jewish people.

And if, in this most horrible period of our past — the reign of Hitler — there had been just the one single chapter of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, that alone would have sufficed for us to say with the fullest certainty: It was the line of Jewish resistance that emerged victorious!

Hersh Smoliar was a communist wartime leader of the resistance forces in the Minsk Ghetto and played an active role in the partisan battles in the Byelorussian forests. He edited the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper Dos Naye Lebn (The New Life).