“Armed Resistance” by Shmuel Krakowski

Reference: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

Written by by Shmuel Krakowski

Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler

The Jewish armed resistance movement during the Holocaust (1939–1945) was an unprecedented phenomenon. The enslaved Jewish population, facing annihilation, had no effective means to fight off their aggressors. Thus the Jewish armed underground organizations in dozens of East European ghettos did not see armed resistance primarily as a way to save lives. Instead, they sought what they regarded as the most honorable death possible. Even if their armed struggle was only symbolic, the Nazi murder campaign demanded active response.


Jews formed armed resistance groups only after they realized there was no possible escape from the Nazis’ aim of total annihilation. This realization came no earlier than late 1941. One of the first groups was the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsie (United Partisan Organization; FPO) of the Vilna Ghetto, established in January 1942. Members of this group, led by Abba Kovner, attempted to arouse Jews throughout Eastern Europe to undertake armed resistance. They were unable to generate an uprising within the Vilna ghetto, although a few hundred FPO fighters escaped to the Rudniki and Narocz forests, where they engaged in partisan warfare. In July 1944, they participated in the liberation of Vilna. The experience of the Anti-Fascist Organization founded in the Kovno Ghetto in July 1942 was similar. Another resistance organization that produced partisan fighters was established in the Minsk Ghetto in late 1941 and conducted a wide range of rescue activities. It succeeded in releasing thousands of unarmed ghetto residents, including children, into the forests, as well as supplying combatants for seven regional partisan units.


In contrast to these ghettos, which had formerly been under Soviet rule, resistance in Warsaw was aimed at staging an uprising in the ghetto itself. In March 1942, after information was received about mass killings at Ponar, near Vilna, and about the establishment of the Chełmno killing center, the Antifascist Bloc—a coalition of left-wing Zionist groups and Jewish Communists—was formed. The bloc tried unsuccessfully to acquire weapons, and it disbanded in May when its Communist leaders were arrested.


On 28 July 1942, six days after the beginning of mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, three Zionist youth movements established Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization; ŻOB); Bundists and Communists joined later. The Revisionist Zionists set up their own organization, Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (Jewish Military Union; ŻZW). When the Nazis renewed deportations to Treblinka on 18 January 1943, these two organizations opened fire, even though they had few usable weapons. After three days, the Nazis unexpectedly ceased deportations. The Jewish underground took advantage of this respite to expedite preparations for the uprising, which began on 19 April 1943, when German forces sought to liquidate the ghetto entirely.


The rebels in the Warsaw Ghetto responded with aggressive force. Despite the vastly superior military capability of the German army, the battle lasted for weeks. This extended ghetto revolt echoed loudly across occupied Europe and emboldened Jewish resistance fighters. On 8 May, the commander of the rebel forces, Mordekhai Anielewicz, fell in battle. After his death, scores of rebels escaped from the ghetto, establishing a partisan unit that operated in the Wyszków forest.


Inspired by the Warsaw example, other Jewish fighting organizations arose in several ghettos across occupied Poland. These organizations usually united Zionists, Bundists, and Communists. In Białystok, an uprising erupted on 16 August 1943. Most of the rebels, including their leader, Mordekhai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff, fell in the ensuing battle, but some escaped the ghetto and continued the partisan struggle outside the town.

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