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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team





"Jewish resistance – myth or reality?"

(Yehuda Bauer). Discuss.


by Hayley Cassidy


In Chapter Six of his book 'Rethinking the Holocaust', Yehuda Bauer examines the idea of Jewish resistance and whether this should be seen as myth or reality. It may seem inaccurate, perhaps even offensive, to suggest that there was no resistance from the Jewish people to the atrocities they faced during the Holocaust. However, Bauer simply aims to highlight the difficulties historians face in understanding the definition of 'resistance' as a concept, when we consider the Hebrew term amidah, translated literally as “standing up against”, and the idea of 'sanctification of life' or meaningful Jewish survival. While the former may involve both unarmed and armed resistance, the latter tends not to include the use of force.[1] It is here that trying to define 'resistance' becomes difficult. Ruby Rohrlich agrees that “ideas about the nature of resistance, as about everything else, are various and differ greatly”.[2] Some may use the term to denote 'active' action, such as uprisings or revolts seen in both camps and ghettos, but this ignores actions such as smuggling, maintaining Jewish culture or even simply staying alive. Although this activity involved unarmed resistance, it still defied the reign of terror imposed by the Nazis. From this, we can suggest that there is a wide spectrum of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust and Michael Marrus has discussed various elements that would fit this idea, from the symbolic assertion of Jewish identity to the polemic resistance of non-compliance, from the defensive actions of helping those in danger, to the proactive operations performed by the underground groups.[3] In order to dispel the idea of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust as a myth, we shall examine some of these elements and provide examples to show that the Jewish people did not simply accept the fate dealt to them by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.

To support the claim that Jewish resistance was indeed a reality, in many different forms, we should first look at those actions which may seem 'passive' in comparison to armed uprisings, such as smuggling. However, rather than using the term 'passive', which seems to contradict the very meaning of resistance, we could instead label this 'covert', or hidden resistance. Carol Battrick states that “non-combative resistance... was not only as important as armed resistance, but also... the only feasible option”.[4] Smuggling goods into, and people away from, the ghettos was an act of defiance by the Jewish people against the German aim to starve them to death. It was no easy task and the Warsaw Ghetto became a highly organised network that was able to adapt if necessary. When Jewish and 'Aryan' German houses were joined, before the enclosing wall was built, “Windows opening out on to the ghetto were used for hoisting and lowering merchandise”.[5] After the wall separated the Jews, bribery became much more prominent. Smuggling was a way for the police guards to supplement their minimal basic wage, by receiving money to allow goods to pass through the gates.[6] 

Such action shows the determination employed by some Jewish people to survive the ghettos and according to Bauer, smuggling can be seen as part of the sanctification of life, or amidah, in relation to defining resistance, whether through smuggling food for the starving or smuggling people to escape the horrors of ghetto life.[7] Some may consider the idea of smuggling as resistance difficult to accept, as this could suggest some were motivated by profit rather than good intentions. However, this view would “belittle the achievements of the smugglers and the dangers they faced”.[8] Without such courageous activity many would not have survived the horrific reality of life in the ghettos, so we must therefore accept that smuggling and other forms of 'covert action' can also be considered resistance in the context of the Holocaust.

In contrast to the covert method of action observed in smuggling, uprisings and revolts by Jewish people against the Nazis are more frequently recognised as acts of resistance. We could label this as 'overt', but it is important to remember that categorising resistance is not a simple task. Other actions which may not seem the same as a revolt, such as upholding Jewish cultural practices or even refusing to die, are also openly shown acts of defiance. However, to maintain a clear picture of what is meant by overt resistance in this study, we can use Yitzhak Arad's example of Jewish prisoner uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor, as both these camps experienced uprisings that led to their liquidation.

Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec were three death camps constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, the name for the proposed liquidation of Jews in the General Government of Poland. In Treblinka, prisoners are said to have been inspired by Meir Berliner, who murdered SS Unterscharführer Max Bialas in September 1942 by jumping out of the roll-call line and stabbing him with a knife.[9] In his memoir, Shalom Kohn, a prisoner of Treblinka, recalls that “young man from Warsaw became our ideal”.[10] On 2nd August, 1943, less than a year later, the uprising saw many prisoners survive, but nearly half of the 850 were killed in their attempt to escape, with local people handing prisoners over to the German forces.[11]

On 14th October 1943, after many failed attempts, the underground members of Sobibor finally staged their own revolt. Of the 600 prisoners, 300 escaped, although a third of these were captured or shot within a week.[12] These two examples confirm the stereotype of overt and effective resistance we understand in relation to the Holocaust, but also prove that Jewish people did not simply stand by and accept their fate. For many, resistance against Nazi Germany was indeed a reality, even if they were unsuccessful.

There is no doubt that Jewish resistance took more than one form during the Holocaust – both the covert network of smuggling and the overt revolts of prisoners prove this to be true. However, we can also look to the more controversial notion of resistance through conformity. Many Jews conformed to the Nazi rules imposed upon them, such as the informants in camps, the Sonderkommandos who disposed of corpses in crematoriums or the Jewish councils of the ghettos. Conformity or compliance with the Nazi enemy would initially provoke the reaction that Jewish resistance to the Holocaust was a myth, but we may alter this perception by using the Jewish councils as an example.

In a letter dated 21st September 1939 Reinhard Heydrich, of the SS Security Service, outlined the creation of a Jewish Council of Elders in each ghetto community. They were to be “completely responsible for the exact and punctual implementation of all orders issued, or to be issued”.[13] With hindsight we can question the morality of the Council's duties and decisions to supply labour forces for the German extermination camps. Often victims were spared the truth of their destination, leading to “charges of collaboration”.[14] However, an argument can be made in their defence to relate back to the idea of resistance through conformity. Council members often saw it as their duty to make these selections themselves, in order to preserve the “best elements of the community... for its future rehabilitation”.[15] In a tragic way, we can relate this 'duty' back to Bauer's examination of the sanctification of life, by saving the strongest people for the future hope of rebuilding the Jewish community. Yet even though some elders abused their Council positions, we can see that many used their position to maintain hope for the future of Jewish people in any way they could, suffering tragedy in order to succeed.

The debate as to whether Jewish resistance to the Holocaust is myth or reality is, according to Marrus, a result of the post-war era. The extent of resistance was exaggerated by “newly established governments [who] sought to anchor their authority in a myth of anti-Nazi solidarity”.[16] Bauer too suggests that we must be wary of nostalgia when studying Jewish resistance, for a summary in “triumphalist fashion” could neglect the reality of the Holocaust and the “multitudes who gave up hope and became easy prey”.[17] Despite this, we can clearly see that resistance is not a myth, but a reality for the determined few who still had hope and found themselves in the position to fight back, in many different ways. There is a wealth of evidence to support Robert Wistrich's argument that Jewish people did not simply accept their fate “like sheep to the slaughter”, a claim he observes as neither accurate or fair.[18] Not only does this idea neglect the suffering of Jews (and many other 'undesirables') under Nazi power, it also fails to acknowledge the evidence we have for many different acts of resistance. While Jewish resistance to the Holocaust may be seen as a myth from a narrow understanding of the concept, it becomes reality when we accept that the term 'resistance' employs a whole spectrum of actions “motivated by the intention to thwart, limit or end the exercise of power of the oppressor group over the oppressed”.[19] 




Arad, Yitzhak. 'Jewish Prisoner Uprisings in the Treblinka and Sobibor Extermination Camps' p240-283, in Michael Marrus (ed.). The Nazi Holocaust: Historical Articles on the Destruction of European Jews – Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust (7) (Westport Meckler, London, 1989)


Battrick, Carol. 'Smuggling as a Form of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto' p199-224, in The Journal of Holocaust Education, vol.4, 1995 (Frank Cass, London)


Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust (Yale University Press, London, 2002)


Hochstadt, Steve (ed.). Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2004)


Marrus, Michael R. 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust' p83-110, in Journal of Contemporary History, vol.30, 1995 (SAGE, London)


Rohrlich, Ruby (ed.). Resisting the Holocaust (Berg, Oxford, 1998)


Trunk, Isaiah. 'The Jewish Councils' p303-311, in Dwork, Deborah (ed.) Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust (Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, New York, 2002)


Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001)


[1]    Bauer, Yehuda. 'Jewish Resistance – Myth or Reality?' in Rethinking the Holocaust, (Yale University Press, London, 2002), p120.

[2]    Rohrlich, Ruby (ed.). Resisting the Holocaust, (Berg, Oxford, 1998), p1.

[3]    Marrus, Michael R. 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust' in Journal of Contemporary History, vol.30, 1995. (SAGE, London), p94-100.

[4]    Battrick, Carol. 'Smuggling as a Form of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto' in The Journal of Holocaust Education, vol.4, 1995. (Frank Cass, London), p199.

[5]    Ibid., p209.

[6]    Ibid., p211.

[7]    Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (2002), p125.

[8]    Battrick, 'Smuggling as a Form of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto' (1995), p221.

[9]    Arad, Yitzhak. 'Jewish Prisoner Uprisings in the Treblinka and Sobibor Extermination Camps' in Michael Marrus (ed.). The Nazi Holocaust: Historical Articles on the Destruction of European Jews – Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust (7), (Westport Meckler, London, 1989), p247.

[10]  Kohn, Shalom. 'Memoir by Shalom Kohn of the revolt in Treblinka on 2nd August, 1943' in Hochstadt, Steve (ed.). Sources of the Holocaust, (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2004), p235.

[11]  Arad, in Marrus. The Nazi Holocaust (1989), p264-265.

[12]  Ibid., p278-281.

[13]  Heydrich, Reinhard. 'Letter planning the 'concentration' of Polish Jews, 21st September 1939' in Hochstadt, Sources of the Holocaust (2004), p88.

[14]  Trunk, Isaiah. 'The Jewish Councils' in Dwork, Deborah (ed.) Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust, (Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, New York, 2002), p306.

[15]  Ibid., p307.

[16]  Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust' (1995), p84.

[17]  Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (2002), p142.

[18]  Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001), p87.

[19]  Gottlieb, Roger, as quoted in Marrus, 'Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust', (1995), p90.





Copyright: 2007 Hayley Cassidy & H.E.A.R.T



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