Resistance during the Holocaust by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - HTML preview

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1942–43.

YIVO Institute for Jewish

Research, New York, NY

Still, despite these enormous obstacles, there were acts of resistance by members of the diverse camp populations. In many camps, underground groups formed, sometimes across the divergent political, ethnic, and language barriers; members exchanged information and coordinated efforts to alleviate suffering of the inmates. While the conditions of imprisonment made armed resistance extremely difficult, it was not impossible.

The most dramatic examples of armed resistance were revolts planned and carried out by organized underground groups of Jewish inmates at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As was the case with the ghetto revolts, the uprisings in these killing centers occurred with little hope of success against the superior German force. But, like the ghetto revolts, the Jewish prisoners realized their days were numbered anyway.

U N A R M E D R E S I S TA N C E I N T H E C A M P S

Clandestine political organizations and meetings. Clandestine resistance groups formed in many concentration camps with political prisoners and captured members of national resistance groups often providing the leadership. For example, in 1940 many Communists and captured French resistance fighters united to form a resistance organization at Ravensbrueck, a camp for women prisoners situated 24

R E S I S T A N C E I N N A Z I C A M P S

north of Berlin. Three women of different nationalities and political affiliations led the group. To raise the spirits of prisoners and give hope for eventual escape or liberation, the resisters traded newspapers, battle maps, and war information.

They also held secret political meetings to share news and information about the camp. All these activities were extremely dangerous.

Attempts to alleviate suffering of camp inmates. Many resistance activities in concentration camps centered on attempts organized by the underground to alleviate the day-to-day suffering of the camp inmates. These included gathering food, money, and medical supplies for those in need.

Before Auschwitz was fitted with gas chambers for the systematic murder of Jews in late 1941, it served as a concentration camp primarily for Polish prisoners, including army officers who served as leaders of the first resistance groups. Poles who had gained positions in the infirmary and administrative offices were well placed for resistance activities. They were also in the best position to make contact with free Poles who lived nearby and worked in the camp, as well as with Polish resistance groups.

In November 1942, members of the Polish resistance movement in Auschwitz secretly contacted the Polish underground in nearby Cracow about the lack of medical supplies in the camp. The amount of medicine dispensed in the camp infirmary only covered the needs of a small fraction of the prisoners. The Auschwitz underground sought to steal medical supplies from warehouses that also held victims’ belongings. A group of Poles who worked for the underground in the Rajsko clinic, near the main camp at Auschwitz, organized an operation to smuggle medicine into the concentration camp. Despite their help, however, medical supplies remained woefully inadequate in the camp.

Attempts to inform the outside world about the camps. Other forms of resistance in concentration camps consisted of efforts organized by the underground to inform the world about Nazi brutality, the cruel physical conditions, and the Nazis’ systematic annihilation of Jews in the extermination camps.

On April 7, 1944, two Slovakian Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (who later took the name Rudolf Vrba), escaped from Birkenau. The motive for their escape was to warn the Hungarian Jews of the Germans’ plans for their destruction. They hid in bunkers outside the camp fence near places where prisoners worked for three days, the length of the state of alert the SS imposed after any escape. After a journey of several days on foot, Wetzler and Vrba reached Slovakia, where they presented to Jewish leaders a long report illustrated with 25

R E S I S T A N C E I N N A Z I C A M P S

sketches describing installations at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including details about the gas chambers.

These reports and news of the first gassings of Hungarians at Auschwitz were confirmed in late May by two Polish Jewish escapees, Arnost Rosin and Czelaw Mordowicz. That summer, the reports reached the Allies, who had earlier (in late 1942) confirmed the news of mass murder of Jews. The Allies, however, rejected the request by certain Jewish activists in Europe that Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to the camp be bombed. The Allies continued to make winning the war their highest priority. Some 437,000 Jewish men, women, and children were deported from Hungary on 148 trains between May 15 and July 8, 1944. Most —

as many as 10,000 each day — were gassed soon after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A R M E D R E S I S TA N C E : K I L L I N G C E N T E R R E V O LT S

Even in the death camps, in the shadow of the gas chambers and crematoria, Jews resisted against their oppressors. Three bold and daring uprisings occurred in the killing centers at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As was the case with ghetto rebellions, those organized killing center revolts arose out of a sense of desperation and hopelessness when it became clear that all Jews in these extermination camps were to be killed.

Almost all Jews — children, the elderly, and physically fit teenagers and adults —

deported to the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps were gassed upon arrival. Few barracks existed for resident inmates. Camp guards temporarily spared small numbers of prisoners for use in special units called the Sonderkommando, which operated the crematoria and other camp facilities. But those Sonderkommando members realized that it was only a matter of time before they, too, would be gassed.

Treblinka. At Treblinka, an underground organization plotted an armed rebellion and mass escape. Learning about the Warsaw ghetto revolt from the last transports of Jews brought to Treblinka from Warsaw, the organizers decided the moment for revolt had arrived. On August 2, 1943, the underground fighters put their plan into action: to steal arms from the warehouse, eliminate the German and Ukrainian guards on duty, set the camp on fire, destroy the extermination area, then help the remaining prisoners escape to the forest. Many were killed during the rebellion, including all the resistance leaders, as the flames and reports of the revolt brought German reinforcements from all directions. But as many as 200 prisoners escaped to the neighboring forest, and perhaps 20 of those men survived German efforts to recapture them.

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A few months after the revolt, Germans closed the camp, leveled it, and planted pine trees to hide all traces of the mass murders. At least 750,000 Jews perished at the camp between July 1942 and November 1943.

Sobibor. At Sobibor, Leon Feldhendler, the son of a rabbi from the nearby town of Zolkiewka, formed an underground organization in July 1943. By then transports to the death camp were slowing down and veteran Jewish prisoners sensed the end was quickly approaching. In September 1943, a new deportation of Soviet Jewish prisoners from Minsk brought a trained Soviet army officer, Lieutenant Alexandr “Sasha” Aronovich Pechersky to Sobibor. The Jewish underground recruited Pechersky and placed him in command.

Pechersky and his deputy Feldhendler devised a daring plan. Resisters would lure SS officers into storehouses on the pretext that they were to receive new coats and boots. Once inside, prisoners would attack them with axes and knives. The prisoners would then seize Nazi weapons and ammunition and set the camp ablaze during roll call. The insurgents would then break open the gate, and all prisoners would have a chance to run across the German mine fields toward the forest.

The revolt occurred in the late afternoon of October 14, 1943. Insurgents killed 11

of the Nazis in the camp, including the camp commander, and several Ukrainian guards. By dusk, about 300 prisoners had escaped. Nearly 200 of them managed to avoid recapture. Only a small number, however, survived to the war’s end.

Rumors that the escapees carried gold and silver made them easy prey for the local population, and few hiding in the forest survived the harsh Polish winter.

Pechersky joined a partisan unit in the forest and survived the war; he later wrote a memoir about the revolt.

After the uprising, the Germans destroyed all traces of Sobibor. By the end of 1943, workers had plowed the death camp under and planted crops to cover the place where, between March 1942 and October 1943, the Nazis had murdered more than 250,000 Jews.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, an elaborate underground network of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners planned a revolt. By summer 1944, Soviet forces were advancing swiftly from the east, and the Allies from the west.

Transports had slowed to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the Nazis had murdered more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of others.

Most of the non-Jewish underground backed out of the planned revolt after the failure of the Warsaw uprising by the Polish resistance in August 1944 (see p. 30) 27

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and after the Polish underground outside of Auschwitz became aware that the Germans had learned about the plan. Underground leaders issued orders to give up the revolt.

But members of the Jewish Sonderkommando, sensing that the end was near and their usefulness to the Germans over, went ahead with the plan with help from some Soviet prisoners of war. On October 7, 1944, in a daring act of desperation, a group of prisoners blew up one of Birkenau’s four crematoria using dynamite the underground had smuggled from a nearby munitions factory to the Sonderkommando. Six hundred prisoners escaped after the explosion, but all were either captured or killed as they fled.

On January 6, 1945, less than three weeks before the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, four young women accused of supplying the dynamite —

Roza Robota, Ella Gaertner, Esther Wajcblum, and Regina Safirsztain — were hanged in the presence of the remaining inmates. As the trap door opened, Robota shout-ed defiantly, “Be strong, have courage!” Before her execution, guards had tortured her brutally, but she had refused to divulge the names of any members of the resistance.

Spontaneous resistance by Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Auschwitz–Birkenau, camp officials set aside specific barracks in early 1943 to house Sinti and Roma family groups deported from Germany and other countries occupied by Germany. By the end of 1943, the Nazis had interned 18,736 Sinti and Roma in the Gypsy camp, and thousands of those men, women, and children died in the gas chambers. Others, more fit adult men and women chosen for forced labor, were deported from Auschwitz to other camps.

On May 15, 1944, prisoners in the Birkenau Gypsy family camp learned that the camp administration intended to gas the 6,000 remaining Gypsy prisoners the next day. When SS guards armed with machine guns surrounded the camp and attempted to begin the transport to the gas chambers, they met armed resistance.

After stealing scraps of sheet metal, the prisoners had sharpened the metal into crudely fashioned knives. With those improvised weapons, and with iron pipes, clubs, and stones, the Gypsies defended themselves. Guards shot some resisters.

The final liquidation of the camp occurred in early August when guards moved 2,897 men, women, and children to the gas chambers in the dead of night.

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I N E U R O P E

In many countries across German-occupied Europe, underground partisan units formed to help regular Allied forces defeat the Germans. Men and women joined partisan groups as citizens fulfilling their patriotic duty to their country or as members of left-wing (socialist or Communist) political groups fighting Nazism.

Initially unprepared and disorganized, activities of resistance groups in the early stages of the war were usually limited to printing and distributing clandestine literature, forging passports and other personal documents, and secretly monitoring foreign radio broadcasts. By 1943, when the war had turned against Germany, the resistance grew bolder. Partisans smuggled arms and ammunition and used hit-and-run tactics to disrupt enemy communications, kill off isolated groups of German soldiers, and punish collaborators. Partisans usually lived off the land but were sometimes supplied with arms and munitions by air drop. While many partisans operated illegally from hiding places in forests, many others worked in urban settings.

P O L I S H PA RT I S A N S

Soon after the German occupation of Poland began in fall 1939, the Germans began their campaign to destroy potential sources of Polish resistance, including many individuals in Polish intellectual, cultural, and religious life. They carried out massacres of university professors, artists, high school teachers, writers, politicians, and priests. In response, widespread resistance developed as the Poles organized into more than 300 underground political and military groups and subgroups with wide popular support. Some of these groups were only loosely connected, and sometimes they worked at odds with each other. (For example, the Falanga [NSZ] was a fascist group that was usually opposed to all other sections of the underground.)

Members of the Polish resistance ran an underground government with courts.

Through the aid of secret couriers, the resistance maintained contact with the Polish government-in-exile in London. The resistance also set up a rudimentary educational system after the Germans closed many Polish schools with the inten-tion of reducing the Poles, whom Nazi ideology viewed as “subhuman,” to mini-mally educated slave laborers for the Reich. (In his memo entitled “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East,” SS Chief Heinrich Himmler wrote: “The objective of this elementary school [with only four grades]

must simply be to teach: simple arithmetic up to 500 at the most, how to write 29

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one’s name, and to teach that it is God’s commandment to be obedient to the Germans and to be honest, hard working, and well-behaved. I consider it unnecessary to teach reading.”)

In Warsaw, in December 1942, members of the Polish resistance formed an underground organization called Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews. Zegota provided refuge, funds, forged papers, and other means of social welfare to Jews living in Poland. The group saved an estimated 3,000 Jews, many of them children.

As part of the Polish resistance movement, officers of the regular Polish army headed an underground Polish armed force, the “Home Army” ( Armia Krajowa

AK). After several years of organizational activities, including the training of fighters and hoarding of weapons, the AK established fighting partisan units in many parts of Poland in 1943. The AK aimed to prepare for the moment, near the end of the war, when they could liberate their homeland from conquerors on both sides, Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. A Communist underground, the

“People’s Guard” (Gwardia Ludowa), also formed in Poland in 1942, but its military strength and influence were weak.

On August 1, 1944, the AK launched an uprising in Warsaw against the German army. After bitter fighting that lasted 63 days, and while the Soviet army remained on the sidelines unwilling to assist, the Germans defeated the Poles. It was a stag-gering loss. Nearly 200,000 Poles, most of them civilians, lost their lives. The Germans deported thousands of men, women, and children to concentration camps.

On October 11, 1944, Hitler ordered that German forces raze the city of Warsaw.

They reduced to rubble the part of the city not previously destroyed during the German invasion in 1939 or the Jewish ghetto uprising in 1943.

S O V I E T PA RT I S A N S

The Soviet partisan movement was the largest in Europe. In the first weeks and months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, small partisan groups formed from Red army stragglers, from Soviet POWs who had escaped from their German captors, and from Communist party officials who managed to escape capture and death at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units.

In the beginning, keeping alive was the main focus. The partisans’ actions primarily consisted of raids on the local population to obtain food and clothing.

The number and size of partisan bands grew and, in 1943, were absorbed into a large resistance movement directed by a Soviet command headquartered within the Soviet Union. By summer 1943, more than 200,000 individuals, including several thousand women, fought in the Soviet partisan movement.

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Partisan groups flourished in the dense forests and marshes of northwestern Ukraine, Belorussia, and portions of the occupied Russian Republic. In 1943, partisan attacks on railway lines and other targets in those areas became so effective that the Germans began to commit frontline troops to clearing partisan units from the forests. In July and August of that year, the Germans attacked the Naliboki forest in Belorussia and found approximately 20,000 partisans operating there, including about 3,000 Jews.

The Naliboki forest was immense, with hundreds of square miles of thick ever-green trees and swampland providing cover. Resistance was much more difficult because of the absence of hiding places in the open agricultural areas of central and southern Ukraine and the agrarian landscapes of the Baltics.

J E W I S H PA RT I S A N U N I T S I N T H E F O R E S T S O F E A S T E R N E U R O P E

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of eastern Europe. There were about 30 Jewish partisan detachments and some 21 additional non-Jewish partisan groups in which Jews fought.

Non-Jewish partisan groups did not always welcome Jews because of both antisemitic and anti-Communist attitudes. In such countries as Poland and Lithuania, where anti-Soviet feelings often ran as strong as anti-Nazi ones, Jews were frequently identified in the popular imagination with Bolshevism. The Polish Home Army usually refused to accept any Jews. Sometimes right-wing AK detachments as well as Ukrainian nationalist partisans even hunted down and murdered Jewish partisans.

Soviet partisan units tended to be more receptive to Jewish fighters. This was true especially after the Red army and Communist party established control over Soviet partisans who previously, in their search for weapons, had sometimes engaged in violent raids on Jewish camps. However, the timing was not beneficial for Jews overall, as the Soviet partisan movement, like the Polish resistance, did not gain significant strength as fighting forces until 1943 — that is, until after the Nazis had already killed the majority of Jews in eastern Europe in mass shootings or gassings. Some Jews in Soviet partisan units concealed their Jewish identity because Jews were not always welcome.

In 1944 more than 150 Jewish partisans were fighting in the Parczew forest north of the Polish city of Lublin; of these only 40 survived until liberation. Notable partisan leaders included Ephraim (Frank) Bleichman and Shmuel (Mieczyslaw) Gruber. Gruber became second-in-command to Yechiel Greenshpan who led Jewish forces in the Parczew forest, and Bleichman was one of Greenshpan’s two 31

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Rudniki Forest

platoon commanders. Protected by sympathetic People’s Guard officers against antisemitic partisans and equipped with machine guns, explosives for mining railways, and food and other supplies dropped by the Soviets, the Jewish partisans fought with the People’s Guard in a number of intense engagements against German forces. They participated in the takeover of the city of Parczew on April 16, 1944.

While most Soviet and Polish partisan groups consisted of single, able-bodied men armed for combat, some Jewish fighters established another kind of partisan unit: the family camp, where women, children, and elderly people lived with and were protected by the fighters. Most inhabitants of family camps had fled from the Germans during ghetto liquidations or had escaped with the help of the underground. An estimated 10,000 Jews survived the war in such family units by raiding local communities for food and by providing support for partisan brigades.

In western Belorussia, in summer 1942, a Jewish partisan group known as the Bielski otriad was officially established. ( Otriad is the Russian word for an official 32

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S E L E C T E D P A R T I S A N A C T I V I T I E S I N E U R O P E

Members of the Bielski

otriad at the family

camp in the Naliboki

forest in Poland.

1943–44.

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem,

Israel

partisan detachment.) The Bielski otriad took on the dual roles of rescuers and fighters. Headed by the charismatic leader Tuvia Bielski and aided by his two brothers, Asael and Zus, the group at first numbered fewer than 40.

A one-time Jewish peasant, Tuvia Bielski, a man with little formal education, initi-ated the group’s open-door policy. According to the policy, the Bielski partisans accepted into their group all Jews regardless of sex, age, or any other character-istic. Not only did the Bielski partisans take in all Jews who reached them, they also sent special guides into the ghettos to rescue Jews who were then incorporated into their otriad. Special Bielski scouts also would collect Jews who roamed the forest and bring them to their unit. The Bielski partisans distinguished themselves as the largest armed rescuers of Jews by Jews. In summer 1944, when the Soviet army liberated western Belorussia, the Bielski otriad numbered more than 1,200 individuals, most of whom were older people, women, and children, pre-cisely those whom most non-Jewish partisan units refused to take in.

Another family camp was formed under the leadership of Shalom Zorin, a Soviet Jewish prisoner of war who had escaped German captivity in Minsk. Zorin’s so-called 106th Division fought and survived until liberation in 1944. Both the Zorin and Bielski camps were in the densest parts of the Naliboki forest.

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PA RT I S A N A C T I V I T I E S O F J E W S I N W E S T E R N A N D C E N T R A L E U R O P E

Many individuals from the comparatively small, non-ghettoized Jewish population in western Europe joined national partisan groups rather than forming exclusive-ly Jewish resistance organizations. Jews who escaped deportation were usually welcomed into and many became prominent in the partisan movements in Italy and France. In Italy the resistance was concentrated in the mountainous north and in the center, with its base in Rome.

Most members of the Maquis, as the French resistance movement was called, were concentrated in the mountainous areas of unoccupied Vichy France in the south, but the resistance also operated underground in cities, including occupied Paris. Although Jews made up less than one percent of the French population, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the French underground were Jews.

In some cases, Jews also organized small Jewish underground organizations. In France, the Jewish resistance movement formed several organizations. The Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization) united nearly 2,000

members from several smaller groups in 1944 after a number of Jewish partisans had been deported. The group was responsible for hundreds of armed actions, including attacks on railway lines and the demolition of German factories.

The Eclaireurs Israeliens, a French Jewish scouting organization, was active in the French resistance. Members helped find non-Jewish homes for several thousand Jewish children, forged bogus identity papers, and smuggled children to safety across the borders of France. The Eclaireurs also participated in the liberation of southwestern France, fighting with General de Gaulle’s underground units and the Jewish Fighting Organization.

In Belgium, Jewish resistance fighters operated as an independent underground organization that worked with and received support from the general Belgian resistance movement. In 1941, a Committee for the Defense of Jews was organized. On April 19, 1943, members of the Committee, in cooperation with Christian railroad workers and the general underground in Belgium, attacked a train leaving the transit camp of Malines (where Jews were temporarily held) for Auschwitz. This was the only known deportation train to Auschwitz to be stopped anywhere in Europe. Between 600 and 700 Jews jumped from the cars; approximately half of them escaped. The Committee also engaged in acts of sabotage and the rescue of some 3,000 Jewish children.

Members of Zionist youth movements joined Slovak partisan units in a national uprising against the German occupation that broke out in August 1944, when the 34

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S E L E C T E D P A R T I S A N A C T I V I T I E S I N E U R O P E

Egon Novak (left) and

Oskar Wertheimer

(third from left) were

among the 1,566

Jewish partisans who

fought in the Slovak

national uprising.

1944.

Museum of the Jewish

Diaspora, Tel Aviv, Israel

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Soviet army was approaching the Slovakian border. The Jewish fighters had been imprisoned in the Sered and Novaky labor camps, where they planned the uprising with members of the Communist underground. The revolt was suppressed, and the rebel fort of Banska-Bystrica fell in October 1944. About 15,000 rebels, including 2,000 Jews, refused to surrender and retreated to the mountains to wage partisan warfare.

The Jewish community of Palestine contributed volunteers to the British army, and sent parachute teams and commandos behind German lines to organize resistance efforts. The death of one parachutist, the 23-year-old poet Hannah Senesh, has become an emblem of martyrdom. Senesh, a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Palestine in 1939, aimed in late spring 1944 to warn Hungarian Jews about the extermination camps. She was captured on June 8, 1944, and executed as a traitor to Hungary. The day before she crossed into occupied Hungary, know-ing of the risk she was taking, she had handed a poem to one of her companions.

It ended with these lines:

Blessed is the heart with the strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

Blessed is the match consumed

in kindling flame.

In Yugoslavia, more than 4,000 Jews fought against German occupation with Communist partisans under the command of Josip Broz Tito, despite the obstacles Jews faced in reaching the remote areas where the fighting occurred. Among the Jewish partisans was Mocha Pijade, Tito’s deputy in charge of political activities, who was later credited with helping Yugoslav patriots see the nationalist character of Tito’s resistance movement. Dr. Roza Papo was the first woman given the rank of general, and General Voja Todorovic commanded Tito’s land forces after the war.

Some Gypsies who eluded deportation also participated in partisan activities.

The Flemish artist Jan Yoors, who lived in France during the war with a Roma family, recalled in his memoirs how his Roma friends used their wagons to transport refugees and smuggle small arms and explosives. The frequent movement of those Gypsies also allowed them to accrue ration cards under different names in a variety of places. Those ration cards were important in supplying food to resistance fighters. When German authorities began tighter scrutiny of rations, the Yoors group joined French partisans in raiding ration distribution posts. They also brought the partisans news heard on BBC radio broadcasts.

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G H E T T O S A N D C A M P S

Spiritual resistance refers to attempts by individuals to maintain their humanity and personal integrity in the face of Nazi attempts to dehumanize and degrade them. Yiddish linguist and historian Zelig Kalmanovich (1885–1944) described as “the clear victory of spirit over matter” the many educational, religious, and cultural institutions that underground political groups had organized in the Vilna ghetto. These groups also consciously aimed to preserve Jewish cul-ture against the Nazi genocidal assault. Most generally, spiritual resistance may refer to the refusal to have one’s spirit broken in the midst of the most horrible degradation. Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, one of the leaders of Warsaw Jews, referred to this spirit in the Warsaw ghetto as Kiddush Hachaim, Hebrew for “sanctification of life.”

Underground schools and libraries. Throughout occupied Poland, hundreds of secret yeshivot (Jewish religious schools) were organized inside the ghettos.

Jewish children also attended informal, clandestine classes called komplety, where they studied religious and secular subjects. Going to and from class, students hid their books under their coats or in their trousers. The danger of being caught was always present, but the secret learning continued.

Jews smuggled books and manuscripts into many ghettos for safekeeping, and opened underground libraries in numerous ghettos, including the secret library at Czestochowa, Poland, which served more than 1,000 readers. Activists established a 60,000-volume library in the Theresienstadt ghetto, near Prague, where the Germans interned many artists, writers, and scholars.

Documenting the Holocaust. Gathering documentary evidence about what was happening to and around them reflected a conscious effort among victims to undermine German efforts to hide the truth about the Holocaust. Groups in many ghettos established secret archives and methodically wrote, collected, and stored reports, diaries, and documents about daily life in the ghetto.

The most well known of these archives was that of the Warsaw ghetto, code-named Oneg Shabbat (“Joy of the Sabbath”). Founded by historian Emmanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944), Oneg Shabbat included his own chronicle of events.

Many of the containers holding the archives that the group hid were dug up from the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto after the war. The papers found inside have provided valuable documentation of life and death inside the ghetto. In the Bialystok 37

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ghetto, activist Mordechai Tenenbaum, who had come to David Graber, a 19-year-old member

Bialystok from Warsaw in November 1942 to organize the resis-of the Warsaw ghetto resistance,

tance movement, established ghetto archives modeled after helped bury metal containers hold-Oneg Shabbat.

ing the Oneg Shabbat documents.

Cultural activities. Spiritual resistance also took the form of Graber did not survive; his “last

cultural activities, such as the creation of works of art, songs, will” was found after the war in one

theatrical productions, concerts, cabarets, dances, and lec-of the containers. It read:

tures. Young children at Theresienstadt painted pictures and wrote poems in classes organized by adults to help the young I would love to see the moment in

deal psychologically with their trauma. Fewer than 100 of the which the great treasure will be dug

15,000 children under the age of 15 who passed through up and shriek to the world proclaim-Theresienstadt survived.

ing the truth. So the world may know

all. So the ones who did not live

One young poet at Theresienstadt wrote in a poem entitled through it may be glad, and we may

“Homesick”:

feel like veterans with medals on our

chest. We would be the fathers, the

People walk along the street,

teachers and educators of the future.

You see at once on each you meet

We would be the grandfathers of the

That there’s ghetto here.

bards who tell to the grandsons, to

A place of evil and of fear.

the young the story of victories and

There’s little to eat and much to want,

defeats, of keeping alive and of per-

Where bit by bit, it’s horror to live.

ishing. How they would cock the

But no one must give up!

ears! But no, we shall certainly never

The world turns and times change.

live to see it, and therefore do I write

Yet we all hope the time will come

my last will. May the treasure fall in

When we’ll go home again.

good hands, may it last into better

Now I know how dear it is

times, may it alarm and alert the

And often I remember it.

world to what happened and was

.

played out in the twentieth century.

. . .

Clandestine prayer. The Germans forbade religious services We may die now in peace. We ful-in most ghettos, so many Jews prayed in secret — in cellars, filled our mission. May history attest

attics, and back rooms — as others stood guard. In Warsaw for us.

alone, in 1940, 600 Jewish prayer groups existed. Prayer helped build morale, reaffirmed a cultural and religious identity, and supplied spiritual comfort. Many Orthodox Jews who opposed the use of physical force viewed prayer and religious observances as the true and only weapons. (Other Jews, feeling abandoned, could no longer believe in God’s justice or mercy.)

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In Nazi camps, many Jewish women — at great risk — blessed electric light bulbs or made Sabbath candles out of hollowed Some Jews in the Nazi camps even

potato peelings filled with margarine. Jewish inmates partici-continued to observe Yom Kippur

pated in clandestine prayer services inside barracks while (the solemn day of atonement) with

other inmates stood guard. At Dachau, where the Germans had the traditional fast, though it meant

imprisoned more than 1,000 Polish priests, clergymen managed further depriving already starved

to celebrate Mass in secret.

bodies of the meager daily rations.

In his memoir, Night, survivor Elie

Persecuted for their religious beliefs, which prohibited them Wiesel (who was in his teens at the

from serving in the military or giving the Nazi salute, most time) recalls the issue of fasting:

Jehovah’s Witnesses (see p. 42) continued to practice their religious beliefs inside the concentration camps. Witnesses regu-Should we fast? The question was

larly smuggled the official newspaper, The Watchtower, into the hotly debated. To fast would mean a

Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany to pass it among surer, swifter death. We fasted here

the prisoners. As part of their continuing proselytizing efforts, the whole year round. The whole

Neuengamme Witnesses also produced testimony cards in the year was Yom Kippur. But others said

various languages spoken by their fellow prisoners. They held that we should fast simply because it

Bible study groups and gave regular lectures to Russian and was dangerous to do so. We should

Polish prisoners. Camp guards publicly shot one Witness after show God that even here, in this

they caught him reading The Watchtower and he refused to enclosed hell, we were capable of

renounce his religion.

singing His praises.

I did not fast, mainly to please my

father, who had forbidden me to do

so. But further, there was no longer

any reason why I should fast. I no

longer accepted God’s silence. As I

swallowed my bowl of soup, I saw in

the gesture an act of rebellion and

protest against Him.

And I nibbled my crust of bread.

In the depths of my heart, I felt a

great void.

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Compared with other countries, resistance activities in Nazi Germany were limited, lacking in broad support, and largely ineffective. A unified resistance movement never existed. Hitler’s foreign policy successes in the mid-1930s and the drop in unemployment, trumpeted by an effective propaganda machine, helped forge widespread popular support for the regime. Feelings of patriotism and nationalism also made it difficult for the majority of Germans to oppose Nazi policies. The state and many German citizens equated even passive opposition to the regime with treason.

Equally important, the ruthless nature of surveillance by police, assisted everywhere by spies and informers, including Nazi youth, eliminated most possibilities for political opposition inside Germany between 1933 and 1945. Daily life under Hitler’s police state required absolute conformity. The arbitrariness of Nazi repression is revealed by the story of one woman who grumbled to her grocer in the early months of the regime, “Hitler hasn’t made anything better”; within 24

hours, German courts had sentenced her to ten months of hard labor.

In a society in which personal freedoms to say or do what one wished were extremely limited, acts of nonconformity and opposition that are permissible in a democracy frequently endangered the lives of those engaged in them as well as the safety of family members and friends.

N A Z I D E S T R U C T I O N O F P O L I T I C A L O P P O S I T I O N A N D R E S I S TA N C E

The first targets of terror were Communists and Social Democrats who opposed Nazi beliefs. Immediately after Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the government took steps to eliminate political opposition. Police arrested thousands of left-wing party leaders, including many Reichstag (Parliament) deputies. Many were beaten, killed, or thrown into jails and concentration camps administered by Nazi paramilitary storm troopers (members of the SS and SA— Sturmabteilung). By mid-July 1933, by government decree, the Nazi party was the only legal party in Germany. Anti-Nazi democrats, socialists, Communists, and trade union leaders had either been arrested or driven underground or had fled the country.

Both socialists and Communists developed clandestine organizations. Members met secretly and distributed illegal newspapers and leaflets produced on secret 40

R E S I S T A N C E I N N A Z I G E R M A N Y

printing presses in Germany or neighboring countries. Innocent covers disguised the literature as harmless reading, such as cookbooks. In 1934, a group of German socialists who had fled to neighboring Czechoslovakia published Concentration Camps, A Book of Horrors: The Victims Accuse, which included secretly made photographs of the first concentration camps. Communist refugees in Prague and Paris published the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Paper) with brilliant, satirical anti-Nazi photomontages by John Heartfield that reached more than one million readers in Europe and the United States.

But by 1935 and 1936, the Nazi regime’s police forces infiltrated most of the larger underground organizations. Mass arrests and trials ensued. Thousands of political opponents continued to meet clandestinely, but in small groups isolated from each other and without effective leadership. Some groups tried to help Jews, such as a socialist group known as the “European Union,” but they were arrested and tried in 1944 for feeding Jews in hiding and providing them with false papers.

Left-wing groups tried to spread their political ideals, often at great risk, but they were never able to generate widespread support among the German population or threaten the stability of the Nazi government. Nor were they able to mount any effective opposition to the mass deportations of Jews from Germany during the war.

A N T I - N A Z I A C T I V I T I E S O F T H E C H R I S T I A N O P P O S I T I O N

Many Christians welcomed the arrival of Hitler in 1933. The opposition of church leaders tended to be limited to the defense of their own interests against attempted control by the Nazi party and German state. The leadership of the Protestant churches, which represented about two-thirds of the German population, were generally politically conservative and did not oppose the regime or its persecution of political opponents, Jews, and Gypsies. The same was true for the Catholic church in Germany, which was accorded legal status and protection in an agreement (the concordat) between the Reich and the Vatican signed in July 1933.

However, some individual clergy and members of religious orders did speak out against Nazi German policies and assisted Jews in fleeing the country. A minority of dissident clergymen led by Karl Barth, Martin Niemoeller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed efforts to Nazify the Protestant churches. They formed an alliance known as the “Confessing Church” after they issued their May 1934

Theological Declaration — the “confession” — at Barmen, Germany, in which they stated their “commitment to a conscientious struggle against . . . every use of force and coercion of conscience in the church.” 41

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Members of the extended Bonhoeffer family actively opposed the Nazi regime.

Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer courageously assisted a number of Jews in leaving Germany through Switzerland and tried to mobilize international pressure against the persecution of Jews, especially after the violent anti-Jewish riots across Germany and Austria of November 9–10, 1938 (“Kristallnacht”). Dietrich’s father, Karl Bonhoeffer, a distinguished psychiatrist, fought the implementation of the so-called euthanasia program, the murder of psychiatric patients and physically handicapped persons that began in October 1939. He urged church groups to pressure church-run institutions not to release their patients to authorities.

In October 1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with his brother Klaus and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, became active in the German military resistance, which was plotting to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the regime. In the after-math of the failed attempt to kill Hitler on June 20, 1944, the regime executed seven family members, including Dietrich, Klaus, and Hans von Dohnanyi.

D E F I A N T A C T I V I T I E S O F J E H O VA H ’ S W I T N E S S E S

By the early 1930s, some 20,000 of a total German population of 65 million were Jehovah’s Witnesses, then known as “International Bible Students.” As citizens of Jehovah’s kingdom and soldiers in Jehovah’s army, the Witnesses refused to swear allegiance to or fight in the army of any secular government. In Nazi Germany, they defied laws and practices that conflicted with their religious beliefs. They refused to raise their arms in the “Heil, Hitler!” salute; they did not vote in elections; they would not join the army after the reintroduction of com-pulsory military service in 1935. They ignored the ban on their activities and continued to meet and distribute their literature, usually smuggled in from Switzerland.

Police arrested many Witnesses for their defiance. By 1939, an estimated 6,000

Witnesses were detained in prisons and camps. Because Witnesses refused to escape from camps or physically resist their guards, camp officers and guards often sought them as domestic servants. They were absolutely certain that Witnesses would never slash their throats as they shaved them.

Unlike other groups of Holocaust victims, Witnesses could escape persecution by simply signing a declaration renouncing their faith, but almost none did, even when tortured. An estimated 2,500 to 5,000 Witnesses died in the camps or prisons from hunger, disease, exhaustion, exposure, and brutal treatment. The regime executed more than 200 men for refusing military service.

42

R E S I S T A N C E I N N A Z I G E R M A N Y

A C T I V I T I E S O F T H E H E R B E RT B A U M G R O U P

German Jews could not develop a large-scale resistance movement. Factors that inhibited the formation of any major resistance movement in Germany also worked against the organization of Jewish resistance. Impoverished by the loss of jobs and businesses and encouraged by the regime to emigrate, many German and Austrian Jews fled from the Reich. Between 1933 and 1939 more than one-half of Germany’s 600,000 Jews — and after 1938, about two-thirds of Austria’s 180,000

Jews — managed to leave. Thousands of others committed suicide in despair.

Nevertheless small pockets of Jewish resistance did develop. The Herbert Baum group is best known. Founded in 1937 by Herbert and Marianne Baum, this clandestine group was composed of young people, primarily Jewish Zionist members of the Communist party. Members distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, painted slogans on walls, and published a six-page newspaper. The Baum group also sabotaged armaments being produced at the Siemens electrical motor plant where most members worked as forced laborers.

On May 18, 1942, the group set fire to an anti-Soviet propaganda exhibition in Berlin. Most of the members were denounced, tried, and executed between July 1942 and June 1943 — the period when police were deporting tens of thousands of German Jews, mostly to Auschwitz. In reprisal, the police also seized 500 other Jews not engaged in political activity. Firing squads executed 250 of them on the Berlin SS airfield, and officials sent the rest to the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

T H E “ W H I T E R O S E ”

In 1942 Hans Scholl, a medical student at the University of Munich, his sister Sophie, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell founded the “White Rose” movement, the only German group that spoke out against Nazi genocidal policies. Nazi tyranny and the apathy of German citizens in the face of the regime’s “abominable crimes” outraged idealistic “White Rose” members. Many of them had heard about the mass murder of Polish Jews; as a soldier on the eastern front, Hans Scholl had also seen firsthand the mistreatment of Jewish forced laborers and heard of the deportation of large numbers of Poles to concentration camps.

The group expanded into an organization of students in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and Vienna. At great risk, “White Rose” members transported and mailed mimeographed leaflets that denounced the regime. In their attempt to stop the 43

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R E S I S T A N C E I N N A Z I G E R M A N Y

Alexander Schmorell

(left front) and Sophie

Scholl at the Munich

railroad station prior

to the men’s departure

to the Eastern Front.

1942.

George J. Wittenstein.

George J. Wittenstein