During World War II an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought bravely as partisans in resistance groups that operated under cover of the dense forests of eastern Europe. Among them was a Polish Jew named Izik Sutin. In summer 1942, before he had joined up with partisans, Sutin was one of 800 Jews crammed into the Mirski Castle — in Polish, the mir zamek — on the outskirts of Mir, a small Polish town near the Russian border. The Germans had moved him and their other prisoners, mostly skilled laborers, to the castle after liquidating the Mir ghetto in town. Over the course of two days, Germans had marched most of the Jewish men, women, and children from the ghetto to the outskirts of town and forced them at gunpoint to dig their own mass grave. The mass killings went on for two days. Recalling what happened after he survived the massacre in which his mother, Sarah, was murdered, Sutin said:
It was during that summer in the zamek that roughly forty of us younger persons — many of whom had gotten to know one another in the Hashomer Hatzair [the labor-oriented Zionist youth organization] — began to attempt to organize some sort of resistance. We ranged in age from roughly sixteen to thirty. The majority were men, but there were some women as well. In any ordinary sense, our situation was completely hopeless. We had no weapons except for rocks, bottles, and a few knives. We were completely outnumbered and surrounded by a trained German military force supported loyally by the local population. But then again, we had no expectation that we would live beyond the next few weeks or months. Why not resist when the alternative was death at a time and place chosen by the Nazis? Desperation was what drove us, along with the desire for revenge. Our families had been butchered and piled into nameless graves. The thought of taking at least a few German lives in return was a powerful incentive.
From the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 in Germany to the end of the Third Reich in 1945, Jews like Izik Sutin, as well as other victims of Nazism, participated in many acts of resistance. Organized armed resistance was the most direct form of opposition to the Nazis. In many areas of German-occupied Europe, resistance took other forms such as aid, rescue, and spiritual resistance.
Resistance by partisan fighters using “hit-and-run” guerilla tactics during the war provides an important and necessary context for understanding the limits and possibilities of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. But one should not confuse partisan resistance to the German military effort and the German occupation of Europe, on the one hand, with Jewish resistance, on the other, even though the two sometimes overlapped, as in the case of Sutin, who fled from certain death as a Jew and ended up fighting as a partisan.
As the victims of Nazi genocide and an isolated, often scorned, minority among occupied populations, Jews were in a distinctively weak situation. Because they were doomed to destruction, they could not wait for the beginning of the German collapse in 1943 to act, as the nationalist and patriotic anti-Nazi resistance movements generally did. By the end of 1942, more than four million Jews had already been killed by mass shootings and gassings, or had died from starvation, exhaustion, and disease during their internment in Nazi ghettos and concentration and forced labor camps.
Nazi methods of deception and terror and the superior power of the German police state and military severely inhibited the abilities of civilians in all occupied countries to resist. But the situation of Jews was particularly hopeless, and it is remarkable that individuals and groups resisted to the extent they did.
In addition to many acts of unarmed resistance in the ghettos and camps and the armed and unarmed resistance of Jewish partisans operating underground in both eastern and western Europe, armed Jewish resistance took place in 5 major ghettos, 45 small ghettos, 5 major concentration and extermination camps, and 18 forced labor camps. With few exceptions (notably three major uprisings by partisans in late summer 1944 in Warsaw, Paris, and Slovakia as Allied liberators approached), Jews alone engaged in open, armed resistance against the Germans. They received little help from anyone on the outside. As Izik Sutin from Mir stated, desperation and the desire for revenge drove Jewish resistance, as courageous young men and women facing certain death had little to lose.
OBSTACLES TO RESISTANCE
Many factors made resistance to the Nazis both difficult and dangerous. The form and timing of resistance were generally shaped by various and often formidable obstacles. Obstacles to resistance included:
Superior, armed power of the Germans. The superior, armed power of the Nazi regime posed a major obstacle to the resistance of mostly unarmed civilians from the very beginning of the Nazi takeover of Germany. This was particularly true of the German army during World War II. It is important to remember that at the outbreak of war in September 1939, Poland was overrun in a few weeks. France, attacked on May 10, 1940, fell only six weeks later. Clearly, if two powerful nations with standing armies could not resist the onslaught of the Germans, the possibilities of success were narrow for mostly unarmed civilians who had limited access to weapons.
German tactic of “collective responsibility.” This retaliation tactic held entire families and communities responsible for individual acts of armed and unarmed resistance. In Dolhyhnov, near the old Lithuanian capital of Vilna, the entire ghetto population was killed after two young boys escaped and refused to return. In the ghetto of Bialystok, Poland, the Germans shot 120 Jews on the street after Abraham Melamed shot a German policeman. The Germans then threatened to destroy the whole ghetto if Melamed did not surrender. Three days later, he turned himself in to avoid retaliation in the ghetto. At the Treblinka killing center in occupied Poland, camp guards shot 26 Jews after four prisoners slipped through the barbed wire in winter 1942. After Meir Berliner, a Jewish prisoner at Treblinka, killed Max Bialas, a high ranking Nazi officer, guards executed more than 160 Jews in retaliation.
In Yugoslavia, the German army routinely executed 50 to 100 people for every German soldier killed by partisans. In Serbia, Jews and Gypsies (Roma) filled the retaliation quota, and by November 1941, German firing squads had murdered almost the entire adult male Jewish and Roma population of Serbia. One of the most notorious single examples of German retaliation as punishment for resistance involved the Bohemian mining village of Lidice and its 700 residents. After Czech resistance fighters assassinated Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the Nazis retaliated by “liquidating” nearby Lidice, whose citizens were not involved in the assassination. The Germans shot all men and older boys, deported women and children to concentration camps, razed the village to the ground, and struck its name from the map.
Isolation of Jews and lack of weapons. Jewish victims of Nazism faced an additional, specific obstacle to resistance. Jews were isolated and unarmed. Even if individuals had the physical strength, the will, and the opportunity to escape from imprisonment in a Nazi ghetto or camp, they faced great difficulties in finding hiding places on the outside, food, and a sympathetic local population willing to risk safety in favor of assistance. Most Jews could not blend easily into nonJewish communities because of various differences of accent or language, religious customs, and physical appearance, including the circumcision of male Jews.
In many occupied regions of eastern Europe, local populations, including many peasants in forest areas where Jews often had the best chances of hiding, were either hostile to Jews or indifferent to their fate. Local populations themselves were living under harsh conditions of occupation, subject to food rationing and many forms of German terror including murder, roundups for forced labor, and deportation to concentration camps. Civilians who did help Jewish escapees did so under penalty of death.
Secrecy and deception of deportations. The speed, secrecy, and deception that the Germans and their collaborators used to carry out deportations and killings were intended to impede resistance. Millions of victims, rounded up either prior to mass shootings in occupied Soviet territory or for deportation to Nazi killing centers where they were gassed, often did not know where they were being sent.
Rumors of death camps were widespread, but Nazi deception and the human tendency to deny bad news in the face of possible harm or death took over as most Jews could not believe the stories. There was no precedence for such a monstrous action as the planned annihilation of a whole people as official government policy. The German or collaborating police forces generally ordered their victims to pack some of their belongings, thus reinforcing the belief among victims that they were being “resettled” in labor camps.
When, as late as summer 1944, almost one-half million Jews were deported to Auschwitz from German-occupied Hungary, many had not even heard of the camp. To further the deception for those Jews left behind after the first wave of deportations, many deportees at Auschwitz were forced to write postcards to friends and relatives just before they were gassed: “Arrived safely. I am well.”
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