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Resisters: Jews were not passive victims of the Nazis

A woman in a pretty dress sits on a park bench, her right hand draped over a sign that reads in German, “Only for Aryans.” At first glance, it’s an unremarkable black-and-white Nazi-era photo, until you learn that the woman, Lizi Rosenfeld, a Viennese Jew, is breaking three laws at once: sitting where she’s not allowed, having someone document her crime and planning to smuggle the negative out of Austria.

And she’s smiling.

It turns out such acts of rebellion happened all over Germany and Austria. In his new book “Resisters: How Ordinary Jews Fought Persecution in Hitler’s Germany,” Wolf Gruner does something painstaking and remarkable: research and report a new historical narrative that challenges the widely accepted notion that Jews were passive victims of the Nazi regime.

It’s a narrative that both shocks and inspires.

Gruner, a professor of history at USC, expands the definition of “resistance” beyond escape, espionage, sabotage and actual fighting. Diving into police and court records, he finds numerous examples of Jews who evaded curfews, defaced Nazi signs, refused to wear yellow stars or register as Jews, ignored anti-Jewish restrictions, denounced Hitler in public and engaged in other forms of active disobedience.

Gruner, a non-Jewish German native, shares the stories of several “resisters,” including 19-year-old Hans Oppenheimer, who snuck out during Allied bombings and pulled fire alarms around Frankfurt to confuse officials and sow further chaos. Siegfried Heumann, 57, sent anonymous letters to high-ranking army officers accusing Hitler of defaming Jewish front-line soldiers and the German army. Benno Neuburger, a 70-year-old businessman, dropped 14 postcards with Hitler stamps and no addresses in various Munich mailboxes, with the words “Robber,” “Criminal” and, presciently, “Murderer of 5 million!” scrawled on them.

The consequences of protesting a dictatorship were often brutal.

Oppenheimer — no relation to the physicist — was arrested and locked in solitary confinement for eight months until he died from starvation. The Gestapo tracked Heumann down and sent him to prison. He was later deported and murdered. The Gestapo also arrested Neuberger, beat a confession out of him, charged him with “preparation for treason” and executed him by guillotine.

Despite the risks involved in resisting, thousands of Jews sent in petitions, wrote letters, filed complaints, shouted and argued with Nazis and Nazi supporters on the street.

The Nazis frequently used the phrase Der freche Jude — “impudent Jews.” Vandals painted it on the windows of Jewish-owned stores. Mayors used it to describe Jews who petitioned against unlawful eviction. The charge of impudence itself became a self-serving reason for discrimination and violence.

Yet the impudence continued, and it included actual fistfights. Drawing on testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation, Gruner found that among the 170 interviews of German Jews that mention acts of defiance, 32 survivors physically defended themselves.

Of those, 11 were women and girls. One of them, Daisy Gronowski, recounted how around Kristallnacht, Nazi youths attacked the agricultural camp where she and other Jewish kids were preparing for immigration to Palestine. Gronowski wrestled away one young man’s knife, stabbed him with it, then rolled him, bleeding, under a sofa until she and others could escape.

Gronowski was inspired by her rabbi, Joachim Prinz, the Berlin Reform leader whom the Gestapo arrested at least three times for diatribes against the Nazis. Gruner writes that, beginning in 1934, rabbis including Prinz, Dr. Max Nussbaum in Berlin and Dr. Joseph Carlebach “used sermons and prayers to subtly criticize Nazi politics.”

That rabbis, teenagers, middle-aged pensioners, housewives and businessmen even dared resist — given such life and death stakes — shakes up much of what we think we know about the fate of European Jewry.

Why didn’t we know about this? Germans destroyed most of the official records from the war years, and most of the women and men who defied the Nazis were eventually killed, according to Gruner. Of those who survived, they often didn’t think that their individual acts of resistance mattered, that resistance had to be organized and armed to count.

But it does matter, not only for our historical understanding, but because it sets an example for us, now.

As democracies falter, whether here, in Europe, Israel or Russia, we can look back to the men, women and children who dared speak and act against a brutal regime, despite the risk of imprisonment or death.

Or, as Gruner writes: “When ordinary Jews under the most repressive regime imaginable were bold and brave enough to criticize Nazi and racist ideology, defy humiliation, break laws, oppose local restrictions, and defend themselves against physical attacks, resisting individually in large numbers without any substantial support, it affirms that everyone is able under any circumstances — and, thus, also has a responsibility — to resist racist or oppressive ideologies and policies anywhere in the world, especially now.”

Long live impudence.

Rob Eshman