Unknown pages in the history of Jewish resistance to the Nazis
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is perhaps the Holocaust’s most famous act of Jewish resistance. It is, though, far from the only one, as an exhibition currently running at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library ably demonstrates.
“Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust” draws on the library’s unique collection of photographs, manuscripts, and over 1,000 eyewitness accounts to paint a picture of a largely untold story. “One reason that we decided to do it was precisely because it’s not very well known,” says Dr. Barbara Warnock, the library’s senior curator, of the decision to stage the exhibition. “When people in Britain conceive of resistance to the Nazis, what comes to mind is the French Resistance. People probably don’t know that some of the French underground were Jewish and, equally, they don’t know that there was Jewish resistance to the Holocaust across Europe.”
Research by the Center for Holocaust Education at University College London also shows that many British schools and students are largely unaware of Jewish resistance, she adds. But, as the exhibition makes clear, in every European country which fell under Nazi rule, Jews resisted the Germans, their allies, and their collaborators. Sometimes that resistance was as part of wider underground organizations, while sometimes Jews established their own groups.
The nature of resistance was varied, and included armed uprisings, rescue missions, and “spiritual resistance” — a refusal to lose faith or forgo rituals even under the most trying of circumstances. Jews also risked their lives to preserve historical documents and testimonies, and to gather and smuggle out evidence of the Nazis’ genocidal crimes.
The exhibition, which can be viewed when the museum reopens after lockdown on December 8 and runs through January 13, 2021, attempts not simply to describe Jewish resistance in its many forms, but also to tell the stories of individual Jews who fought back against their oppressors.
Tosia Altman, for instance, played an instrumental role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A member of the socialist Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, she had already worked as a courier, traveling extensively between the various ghettos of occupied Poland on false papers. She also helped to establish a fighting force inside the Krakow ghetto.
In the run-up to the April 1943 uprising, Altman smuggled weapons into the Warsaw ghetto, and, once it commenced, ferried messages between the resisters’ command bunker and other bunkers. Although she escaped from the ghetto as the SS reestablished control, she was captured and died on May 26, 1943, of injuries she sustained on the run.
Warsaw and Białystok — where several hundred Jewish fighters launched a short-lived uprising in August 1943 — were but two of the seven major and 45 smaller ghettos in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union where Jewish underground groups operated. And the two cities were by no means alone in seeing Jewish armed revolts. In dozens of ghettos, including Krakow, Vilna, Kovno, Będzin and Częstochowa, Jews took up arms against their persecutors.
A multitude of obstacles
Across Europe, the ability of Jews to undertake armed resistance depended on a number of factors, explains Warnock. The most obvious was access to arms. The difficulties encountered by the Hungarian resistance in getting its hands on weapons, for instance, helps explain the absence of significant armed Jewish resistance in the country.
By contrast, the Warsaw ghetto uprising was aided by a united Jewish resistance movement which encompassed people with a range of political persuasions from communists to left-wing and right-wing Zionists and people with ties to Polish nationalist groups. “This quite diverse group of people had contacts in resistance outside of the ghetto and in non-Jewish resistance, and that helped to accumulate weapons inside the ghetto,” says Warnock.
Terrain, too, played an important part, with the swampy, marshy forests of Belarus and Lithuania providing hiding places for partisan groups which proved particularly impenetrable for the German army. Finally, there is the question of the speed with which the Holocaust unfolded. “In some parts of Ukraine, for example, things moved very quickly and it was very difficult for people to organize and respond,” notes Warnock.
The Minsk ghetto — the scene of another revolt — also saw an audacious effort to smuggle out Jews and sabotage German factories. The exhibition highlights the story of Michail Gebelev, who liaised between resistance groups inside and outside the ghetto and organized mass escapes in 1942. But Gebelev refused to escape himself. Aged 36, he was betrayed and murdered by the Nazis in August 1942. Thanks in part to his efforts, however, up to 10,000 of the 100,000 Jews imprisoned in the Minsk ghetto successfully escaped, many of whom then joined the Soviet partisans.
The success of the Minsk rescue missions also reflected the manner in which the heads of the Judenrat, or Jewish council, worked closely with the resistance movement.
Such cooperation between the two did not always occur, however. In Łódź, Poland’s second-largest ghetto, the Judenrat and ghetto police exerted tight control and — hoping that cooperation with the Nazis would save its inhabitants — actively discouraged armed or organized resistance. Although this hope proved ultimately futile, there was nonetheless extensive political, spiritual, and cultural resistance in the ghetto, exemplified in the exhibition by a photo of a large, smartly dressed audience enjoying a musical evening.
Indeed, throughout the ghettos of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Jews organized illegal schools, theaters, and orchestras, established soup kitchens and social services, and engaged in clandestine religious services.
Some of the most extensive cultural and educational programs occurred in the Theresienstadt ghetto where conditions, though dire, were better than in many other ghettos. Philipp Manes, a German Jew and writer, headed the Theresienstadt Orientation Service, which organized over 500 lectures. Manes and his wife perished in Auschwitz in late 1944. The exhibition displays some of his journals which were saved and sent to a friend and then to his family after the war. They now reside at the Wiener Library.
Elsewhere, there were important efforts to ensure that Jewish culture and history were preserved. In the Warsaw ghetto, the Oneg Shabbat (Joy of Sabbath) organization buried historical documents and testimonies in milk cans and tin boxes. The exhibition contains an image of Rachel Auerbach and Hersz Wasser, two of the small number of Jews who survived the ghetto’s destruction, helping retrieve the buried items after the war. Similarly, another image shows three members of the Paper Brigade — the poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Avraham Sutzkever and teacher Rakhele Pupko-Krinsky — on a balcony in the Vilna ghetto in July 1943. The group helped to preserve documents about Yiddish culture from the Nazis.
Resistance in the heart of darkness
As the exhibition explains, the opportunity and ability to resist in the camps was, of course, far more constrained. Nonetheless, Jews led six prisoner rebellions in concentration and death camps, with at least 18 occurring in slave labor camps.
Indeed, despite the huge risks and danger involved — especially for escapees who did not know the local geography or language — some inmates were drawn into resistance as a way of maintaining morale. As Esther Raab, a survivor of the Sobibor camp uprising whose words feature in the exhibition, put it: “We started organizing and talking… it kept us alive… maybe we’ll be able to take revenge for all those who can’t.”
The uprising at Sobibor on October 14, 1943, was coordinated by Polish Jewish resisters and Soviet Jewish prisoners of war. In an endeavor that saw 300 of the camp’s 650 prisoners escape, 11 SS officials and guards — including the deputy commandant, Johann Niemann — were killed. One hundred of the escaped prisoners were quickly recaptured, but 47 of those who took part in the Sobibor uprising survived the war. Twelve of these survivors are shown in a photo in the exhibition which was taken in Lublin in August 1944.
The exhibition also displays an eyewitness account of the Treblinka uprising from the library’s collection given by one of the survivors, Stanislav Kohn. The carefully planned revolt by over 700 Jewish prisoners commenced on August 2, 1943, after a party of German and Ukrainian guards left the camp on an excursion.
Members of the resistance unlocked a weapons store using a previously duplicated key and seized guns and grenades. Buildings were torched, guards attacked and, in the ensuing chaos, several hundred prisoners escaped. Although many were recaptured, the 70 prisoners who took part in the Treblinka uprising were the only Jewish survivors of the death camp, which was dismantled in late 1943.
A year later, on October 7, 1944, Jewish sonderkommando, or work units of death camp prisoners often tasked with assisting in the gas chambers, blew up Crematorium IV at Auschwitz, igniting a rebellion in which nearly 500 prisoners lost their lives. The exhibition highlights the crucial part in the uprising played by Roza Robota, a Polish Jew, who coordinated the smuggling of gunpowder from a group of women working in a munitions factory to the Jewish underground and the sonderkommando at the crematoria. Despite the bloody aftermath and Robota’s own death two weeks before the camp’s evacuation, Crematorium IV was damaged beyond repair and never used again.
The exhibition also tells the story of perhaps the most significant of the 144 prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz. Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler absconded in April 1944 as part of a plan hatched by the underground to make the world aware of the horrors being perpetrated at the camp.
After hiding for three days in a woodpile while guards searched for them, Vbra and Wetzler made their way to Slovakia, where they were sheltered by the Jewish council. A report they compiled about the camp — which included details of transports gathered by a Slovakian slave laborer who worked at the gas chambers — reached the international press three months later. The report increased the pressure on the Hungarian leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy, to halt deportations to Auschwitz. Although these resumed in November 1944 after the Nazis ousted Horthy, the eventual survival of 250,000 Jewish Hungarians can, in part, be traced to Wetzler and Vrba’s bravery.
The original Avengers
Beyond the ghettos and camps, Jews also played significant roles in partisan and guerrilla groups which resisted Nazi rule from the forests of Belarus to the shores of southern France. Up to 30,000 Jews served as armed partisan fighters in occupied Russia, Ukraine, and Baltic states. Many served in Soviet partisan groups, but, after facing anti-Semitism and hostility, others opted to form their own resistance organizations.
Among those groups featured in the exhibition are the Bielski group, which began as a band of 30 partisans sheltering in the forests of Belarus in the summer of 1942. It launched attacks on collaborators — especially those who had killed or betrayed Jews — but combat was not its primary purpose. Instead, as Tuvia Bielski put it: “So few of us are left, we have to save lives. To save a Jew is more important than to kill Germans.” By the end of the war, some 1,200 Jews were living in the forests under the protection of Bielski and his brothers.
The Avengers, another Jewish partisan group whose work is described in the exhibition, operated from the Lithuanian forests. Its leaders — Abba Kovner, Rozka Korczak, and Vikta Kempner — managed to escape the mass killings perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies in Vilna and used the forests as cover to launch sabotage missions and guerrilla attacks on German and collaborator targets.
The group is credited with killing over 200 enemy soldiers, rescuing at least 70 Jews, and destroying 180 miles of train tracks. After the war, Kovner was famously a founder of both an underground movement to help Jews escape Europe for Mandate Palestine, and Nakam, a secret organization which planned to take revenge for the Holocaust.
On the other side of the continent, as the exhibition notes, Jews were over-represented in the resistance movements of Germany, Austria and Western Europe. A mainly Jewish detachment of the French communist partisan group FTP-MOI, for instance, began work in September 1942 to disrupt the German war effort: among the 50 attacks it carried out were assassinations and derailing trains with bombs and grenades.
When the FTP-MOI Parisian section — known as the Manouchian group — was eventually apprehended in late 1943, more than half of its 23 members were Jewish. Attempts by the Germans to make propaganda out of the ensuing trials and executions — thousands of copies of the infamous “Affiche Rouge” poster portraying the group as foreign Jewish terrorists were distributed — backfired. Instead, many members of the public viewed the group’s members as heroes and the poster was frequently graffitied with the words: “They died for France.”
Jewish resistance in neighboring Belgium, says Warnock, was “quite a specific situation.” Ninety-four percent of the country’s Jewish population were immigrants and, with many of them having fled to Belgium precisely to escape anti-Semitic oppression, they went on to help establish one of Europe’s largest resistance movements.
Many Jews were members of the communist Partisan Army, an armed resistance group. Others gravitated towards the MOI — the immigrant section of the left-wing Front de l’Indépendance (FI) — which targeted collaborators and carried out sabotage attacks in factories and on railway lines. Other Jews were involved with the main center-right resistance movement, Mouvement National Belge.
Saving the children
The Comité de défense des Juifs (CDJ), which worked under the umbrella of the FI and eventually came to represent most Jewish groups in Belgium, was founded by Hava Groisman and her husband Ghert Jospa in September 1942. It forged ration cards and papers and established a network of places to shelter Jewish children.
A catalog published to accompany the exhibition includes an account of the CDJ’s work given to the Wiener Library in 1957 by one of its members, Ida Sterno. In it, she describes finding a hiding place for 13 Jewish girls in a convent in Anderlecht.
When the girls hiding there were betrayed by an informant, the head of the convent, Sister Marie-Aurélie, persuaded the Gestapo to return the next day to allow her charges to pack. The FI used this delay to stage a fake raid on the convent — tying up the nuns to make it appear more genuine — and then ferreted the girls away to other safe houses. The CDJ’s efforts, which saved approximately 2,400 children, were sometimes even bolder. On April 19,1943, for instance, it attacked a transportation convoy heading to Auschwitz and freed 17 prisoners.
Some of those who helped rescue Jewish children were barely adults themselves. Bernard Musmand was just 10 at the time of the German invasion of France in 1940.
Sent by his family to a boarding school where he posed as a Catholic, Musmand became involved with resistance activities and helped courier falsified papers for those escaping the Nazis. By 14, he was a member of the Maquis, an armed partisan group based in France’s southern mountains. It launched guerrilla attacks and aided Jews and downed Allied airmen to escape across the frontier to the relative safety of neutral Spain. These and other resistance and rescue efforts helped ensure that, despite the terrible overall toll, 250,000 of the 330,000 Jews living in France at the time of the German invasion survived the war.
Setting the record straight
As the exhibition describes, Jewish resistance also reached deep into the heart of the Reich itself. It recounts the tragic story of the Baum group. Founded by Herbert Baum along with his wife and friends in the 1930s, it eventually grew to over 100 members in 1940; many, like Baum himself, were young Jewish forced laborers.
The group’s activities — which included distributing leaflets highlighting the atrocities committed by their fellow Germans in the East — were perilous. But an arson attack on May 18, 1942, which targeted “Soviet Paradise,” an anti-Semitic and anti-communist exhibition staged by the Nazis in Berlin, led to the arrest of many of the group’s members. Baum was murdered in prison in June 1942 and other members of the organization were executed that summer.
But, for the organizers of “Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust,” remembering the heroism and sacrifice of Baum and his comrades — together with the countless other Jews who resisted the Nazis — is not simply about finally telling a story which has remained untold for too long. It is also a matter of setting straight the historical record.
“It’s important to challenge this myth about Jews not resisting, which perhaps was an attitude that was held quite widely [at one time] and maybe some people still have that view today,” says Warnock.
“There were so many examples of resistance in the most extreme and difficult circumstances, and this research and exhibition show that whenever they had the chance to, people resisted in some way or another,” she says.