Holocaust Educational Trust Blog

A space for featured guest bloggers and members of the Holocaust Educational Trust team to comment and reflect on timely issues.

Remembering those that fought back - the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 70 years on

On the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising beginning, our education officer, Martin Winstone, describes the acts of Jewish resistance and defiance during the Holocaust.

The landscape of Holocaust remembrance is frequently punctuated by anniversaries, but few dates are as resonant as 19th April, the day that marked the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Its enduring symbolism is attested to by the fact that it is the national Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland, the country from which more than half of the victims of the Shoah came. This year the date carries even greater significance. As the Seventieth Anniversary of the Uprising, it represents one of the last landmark commemorations in which survivors and witnesses will be able to participate. It will also mark the inauguration of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, a project many years in the making and the most ambitious such undertaking in Europe.

In Warsaw, memorial events will continue until 16th May, the date commonly accepted as the end of the revolt. This in itself gives some indication of why the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising occupies such a central place in both Jewish and Polish narratives of the Holocaust: a group of poorly armed and inexperienced guerrilla fighters resisted German forces for almost a month in what was the first major civilian revolt anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. It is thus hardly surprising that it has become the supreme symbol of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

Despite this, Jewish resistance is often marginalised in accounts of the Shoah. Indeed, even some of those who have celebrated the Uprising have used it to reproach other European Jews for their alleged passivity. During the war itself, many critics – both Jewish and non-Jewish – claimed that the victims of the Holocaust had allowed themselves, in an oft-used phrase, to be “led like sheep to the slaughter”. However, even if one ignores the insensitivity of such arguments, they simply do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

It should first be acknowledged just how difficult resistance to the Nazis was. This was true for all communities living under German rule but especially so for Jews. Not only were they confronted by an opponent with overwhelming force; the starvation and exhaustion which characterised life in the ghettos of eastern Europe limited the ability to resist. It is also essential to realise that Jews did not know Nazi intentions in advance. As the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer has explained, “the Germans did not know, until sometime in 1941, what they would do with the Jews: the decision to murder them was not taken until then. If the Germans did not know, the Jews cannot be expected to have known either.” The main aim of most European Jews – both as individuals and communities – was therefore to hold out until the expected and longed for Nazi defeat. It is perfectly understandable that many people – probably the majority – believed that active resistance would make the situation worse by provoking reprisals against the entire community.

Even after the killings began in 1941, it proved hard to properly absorb their implications since the idea that the Nazis would seek to kill every single Jew seemed literally incredible. As Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian who lived in the Warsaw ghetto, put it, “it was difficult for normal, thinking people to accept the idea that on this globe it was possible for a government calling itself European to murder millions of innocent people.”

Nonetheless, as the Holocaust developed, armed Jewish resistance increasingly emerged. Indeed, 19th April is only the first of a number of significant seventieth anniversaries this year which will commemorate uprisings in dozens of ghettos. It was not coincidental that so many of these revolts occurred in 1943. Once the mass deportations of 1942 had taken place, there was little room left for doubt as to Nazi intentions. Moreover, those left behind after these deportations tended to be younger people who were perhaps – for a variety of reasons – both physically and psychologically better able to resist. These individuals also typically found themselves suddenly bereft of family ties, which not only fuelled a desire to fight back but also largely removed the fear of collective reprisals.

It should, of course, also be noted that resistance occurred even in the extermination camps, with significant uprisings in three of the five major killing centres. 2013 will mark the seventieth anniversaries of two of these, the revolts in Treblinka (2nd August) and Sobibór (14th October). Almost all of the people who were sent to these camps were murdered immediately but a small number were selected to work, either disposing of bodies or sorting property stolen from the victims, always themselves under the threat of death. As the transports to Treblinka and Sobibór dwindled in the summer of 1943, the inmates of both camps developed plans to kill their guards as the prelude to mass breakouts. Although these plans did not entirely work out as expected, the two revolts must be considered successful by any reasonable measure. Around 400 of the 1,500 or so inmates were able to escape from the immediate vicinity of the camps and to elude the initial pursuit. Up to 100 of them survived to the end of the war. The revolt of the Sonderkommando (those prisoners condemned to work in and around the gas chambers) in Auschwitz-Birkenau of October 1944 did not – indeed, could not, given the isolation of the rebels from the rest of the camp – produce similar results yet it nonetheless stands as a remarkable gesture of defiance.

Despite the many rebellions in ghettos and camps, sustained fighting inside such confined spaces was only really possible in Warsaw because of its much greater size and the networks of tunnels and bunkers which were used to such effect during the uprising. Armed resistance therefore tended more often to take different forms. In Kraków, for example, the Jewish underground carried out several attacks on Germans outside the ghetto. The most common strategy was to try to escape ghettos to form partisan units with the result that dozens of Jewish groups existed in the heavily forested areas of eastern Poland, many of which today lie in Belarus or Lithuania. The Bielski brothers, made famous by the film Defiance, were only the best known example. In fact, their case again highlights how little Jewish resistance has permeated mainstream understanding of the Shoah: consider how unusual Defiance was amongst Holocaust-based films in the way in which it portrayed Jews (and, it might be said, in the fact that a Jew rather than a Righteous Gentile or vicious perpetrator was the central character).

The Bielskis also illustrate that resistance went beyond fighting.  Prolonged armed resistance – for Jews as for non-Jews – could only ever be an option for a minority, depending as it did on suitable geography and on an ability to survive the harsh winters and scorching summers of eastern Europe, frequent lack of food and weapons, and, not infrequently, hostility from the local population. It is thus important to realise that resistance could take many forms, one of the most striking of which was rescue of fellow Jews, a point of which we have been reminded only this week by the award of the title British Heroes of the Holocaust to Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld.  These awards – which were originally instigated by the Holocaust Educational Trust - have been issued by the government to British citizens who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, and recognises their extraordinary acts of courage. In this context, it is important to note that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising will not be the only major anniversary to be remembered on 19th April. On exactly the same day, on the other side of Europe in Belgium, a young Jewish medical student called Youra Livschitz and two non-Jewish friends, armed only with a pistol, a pair of wire cutters and a lamp covered with red tissue paper to look like a signal, succeeded in stopping a train bound for Auschwitz. They facilitated the release of 231 Jews, 115 of whom successfully escaped; the youngest survivor an 11-year-old boy. This was only the most spectacular example of Jews rescuing other Jews from certain death, a phenomenon which has barely entered popular consciousness of the Holocaust but which ranged from the Bielski partisans sheltering more that 1,000 people in the forests of eastern Poland to nursery workers in Amsterdam smuggling out infants earmarked for deportation.

Resistance could also take the form of recording Nazi crimes and the experiences of Jews during the Holocaust, the best known example of which was the Oneg Shabbat archive organised by Emmanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw. Ringelblum and a dedicated band of activists aimed to record all aspects of ghetto life by collecting diaries, statistical reports, drawings and even such mundane artefacts as chocolate wrappers and tram tickets. The archives were buried in 1942-43; most, but not all, were discovered after the war, providing historians with an astonishingly rich source of materials. The discovery at least partially fulfilled the last testament of David Graber, a 19-year-old activist who helped to bury the first cache of the archive in August 1942: “May the treasure fall in good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened and was played out in the twentieth century. We may now die in peace. We fulfilled our mission. May history attest for us.” Even in Auschwitz, members of the Sonderkommando buried notebooks recording their experiences prior to their uprising.

However, the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews should also prompt us to consider more subtle forms of resistance. Whilst the museum will address the history of the Holocaust, its central mission will be to engage visitors in the history and culture of what was for half a millennium the world’s largest Jewish community before its almost complete destruction by the Nazis. This serves to remind us that the Holocaust was an attempt to destroy both human beings and an entire civilisation. Attempts to preserve and foster Jewish culture can thus be seen as manifestations of what many historians have termed ‘spiritual resistance’. Such attempts took many forms: clandestine schools, continuation of religious observance, the hiding of sacred and secular treasures, and so on. An instructive example is the theatres which existed in a number of ghettos, including Warsaw, Łódź and Vilna. Although some Jews objected to the theatre, especially in Vilna where critics argued “you don’t make theatre in a graveyard”, it generally came to be accepted by most as a means of sustaining morale. The content of the plays and revues was often attacked as overly sentimental, yet comment on the reality of ghetto life was still possible. For example, after attending a love-swapping comedy set in an overcrowded apartment, the Warsaw teenage diarist Miriam Wattenberg (later Mary Berg) noted in late 1941 that the play brought both hearty laughs of recognition and a welcome distraction from “the dangers that lurk outside.” This may be some distance from the desperate combat in underground basements that characterised the same Warsaw streets 18 months later, yet it can still be seen as a statement of independence and dignity.

Of course, one should be careful not to exaggerate. As Yehuda Bauer again reminds us, we should not assume that the majority of Europe’s Jews were fighting in the forests, writing diaries or performing plays. The Holocaust brought untold misery and destruction, and it was only human that many individuals succumbed to despair and that ties of communal and even familial solidarity were often frayed. “It is wrong”, writes Bauer, “to demand, in retrospect, that these tortured individuals and communities should have behaved as mythical heroes.” Rather, “the fact that so many of them did is a matter of wonderment.”

In short, therefore, 19th April 2013 ought to encourage us to consider not how little resistance was offered by Jews during the Holocaust but how much. Amidst the speeches and laying of flowers in the Ghetto Heroes’ Square in Warsaw, we will be reminded of the myriad ways in which ordinary human beings confronted with the most extraordinary of circumstances sought to assert basic values of dignity and solidarity. No one could have demanded more from them.

This is the full version of an article that appears in this week's Jewish Chronicle.

The themes raised by this article are explored further in the Trust’s new resource on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust which can be accessed via http://www.het.org.uk/index.php/education-general/login

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