Why did so many Jews go to the camps with no struggle?
Inside the world of the Holocaust, the first answer was hope. The Jews had hope
that the war would soon be over, hope that rescue would come from the Allies,
hope that their faith in God would protect them, and hope that life could go on.
In one labor camp there were fifteen thousand Jewish
prisoners and only a few hundred guards. Asked why so many Jews did not attack
their outnumbered guards, one survivor answered:
Here we were
still working. The Germans had told us they needed manpower. We thought: Who
knows? Perhaps? ... It was obvious that if anyone started the slightest open
opposition, all these armed guards around us would immediately open fire. ... It
is a dreadful thing to stand opposite a machine gun and to watch a boy being
... Then there
was still the hope that this war was bound to end one day. Should we endanger
all fifteen thousand men?
And once we had
escaped, where could we go? [Testimony given at the Eichmann trial]
There came a time, however, when hope began to fade.
Word of German "actions" against Russian Jews spread and the truth
about the concentration and death camps leaked out. Many Jews now began the
search for weapons and set out to resist the Germans with force.
On July 18, 1942, there was an armed revolt in the
small Jewish ghetto of Nieswiez. The Jews threw homemade sulphuric acid in the
faces of the German policemen. A machine gun had been stolen, piece-by-piece,
and when more German police came, the Jews turned the gun on them. They set the
ghetto aflame, burning their own homes. In reprisal the Germans hunted down
every last fighter; then they murdered all the other Jews who had lived in the
ghetto. This was the Nazi answer to resistance: whenever a revolt occurred in
the ghettos, the Nazis would destroy its entire Jewish population. In many cases
the only records we have of these revolts were kept by the Nazis themselves--not
a single Jew escaped to tell the tale.
Some Jews ran away to join underground movements--resistance
groups that had sprung up in every land controlled by the Germans. These groups
were made up mostly of young men and women. They stole or bought guns and
attacked the Germans whenever and wherever it was possible. In Poland they
gathered in the forests and became "partisan" fighters, what today we
might call guerrillas. They came out of hiding to strike at the Nazis, then fled
to the forests where the German army could not easily follow them. Some Polish
partisan groups allowed Jews to join them. Other groups were anti-Semitic,
hating the Jews almost as much as the Nazis did. In some cases the Jews created
their own partisan groups.
Every partisan's story is unique in some way, yet any
one of their stories can serve to illustrate what partisan life was like.
The Story of a Partisan
Yamaika was only seventeen, but she was determined to join the partisans, and
she persisted in spite of one frustration after another. She escaped from the
Warsaw ghetto in August 1942. First she made her way to a small Polish town
where she hoped to make contact with a member of the resistance who would take
her to a partisan group in the nearby forest. While she waited to meet the
partisan, she hid in the only possible place--the Jewish ghetto. As it happened,
the Germans came to round up Jews to be transported from the ghetto. Sophia was
captured and put on a transport for the camp at Treblinka.
many sick and dying people aboard the train, and at one stop the Germans opened
the doors to remove the bodies of those who had already died. Sophia slipped out
and pretended to be among the dead until the train pulled away. Then she
followed the railroad tracks back to town, still trying to find the Polish
partisan who was supposed to be her contact.
Again she was
unsuccessful. Her contact never appeared, and Sophia finally returned to Warsaw.
She wandered the streets of the Christian city until at last she met a member of
the Polish underground who gave her work on a secret anti-Nazi newspaper. In
September, the Germans raided the newspaper and captured Sophia once more. She
told them she was just a poor illiterate girl from the country who had been
allowed to sweep the floors of the newspaper offices. The Germans put her in
jail for a few months, but they never realized she was Jewish, and after a time
they released her.
determined, Sophia made her way to the forest and finally made contact with the
partisans. The group she joined was made up of both Christians and Jews, though
the majority were Jews. Since she spoke perfect German, she was assigned to do
spy work in town. Whatever she heard of German troop movements and plans she
reported to her group in the forest. At last the partisans made a move,
attacking the town of Gowarczow. They cut the telephone wires, destroyed the
German headquarters, and burned the police station. They took lists of Nazi
agents and local officials who had helped the Nazis. They were able to hold the
town for five hours before retreating to the forest.
In February of
1943 the Germans sent three hundred men to attack and destroy the partisans
around Gowarczow. The fifty partisans of Sophia’s group had no choice but to
retreat. Sophia and two others stayed behind to cover the retreat with
machine-gun fire. Sophia died still firing at the German troops. It had been
just six months since her escape from the Warsaw ghetto.
There were other small groups of partisans throughout
the Polish countryside, but they were so few in number that they could do little
damage to the vast war machine of Germany. Nevertheless, running away to the
forests to join the partisans was the dream of many young men and women in the
ghettos and concentration camps.
Resistance in the Camps
Those who could not, or would not, run away began to
dream of revolt. The first problem was always how to get weapons. In Treblinka a
Jew managed to get a duplicate key for the armory in which the Germans stored
their guns and ammunition. A date and time were set to take the armory. A hand
grenade thrown at one of the SS guards was the signal. Two hundred prisoners
armed themselves. The gas chambers, the railroad station, and the guards'
barracks were all set ablaze in minutes. The barbed wire fence was cut and torn
away, and people fled toward the forests.
But the telephone wires had not been cut, and the Nazis
were able to call for reinforcements. Hundreds of Jews were killed before they
could reach the forests. A few escaped to tell about the revolt at Treblinka and
word of this revolt led to revolts in other camps.
The Germans were ruthless in dealing with Jewish
resistance. In one case, they caught a Jew who had planned a rebellion in the
camp at Sobibor. They ordered him to reveal the names of others who had been
plotting. When he refused, the Nazis brought out all the prisoners from his
barracks. The Jew was forced to watch, as the Nazis cut off the head of each
prisoner. Then they executed him in the same way.
Despite this there was a revolt at Sobibor. In the
fighting three hundred Jews escaped from the camp. About one hundred managed to
survive. The rest were caught and shot, but the camp was destroyed totally,
never to be used again. The Nazis abandoned the Sobibor site.
Women resisted as bravely as men. At Auschwitz a Jewish
woman named Mala became a symbol of courage and defiance. Mala stole an SS
uniform and official documents that described the slaughter of the Jews at the
camp. She managed to escape with the documents. A Polish soldier agreed to help
her get out of Poland so that she could reveal to the world what the Nazis were
doing. But Mala and the soldier were captured at the border and sent back to
Auschwitz, where both were tortured. Mala was scheduled to be hanged in front of
the entire camp. As the SS executioner--a woman--stepped close, Mala slapped her
across the face. "I fall a heroine," she yelled, "and you will
die as a dog." Mala's story became a legend at Auschwitz.
In 1944 there was a revolt in the women’s camp at
Auschwitz. Using dynamite that had been smuggled in stick-by-stick by girls who
worked in the ammunition factory, the women blew up one of the furnaces. As
usual the cost of revolt was high. All the women who had taken part in the
revolt were captured, tortured, and finally hanged.
Rebellion in the Ghettos
In the ghettos it was usually young people--especially
Zionists--who organized revolt. The Zionists were activists to begin with. Their
aim had always been to set up a Jewish state in Palestine. They were the first
to believe the stories of torture and death told by those who had escaped from
the concentration and death camps. Other Jews in the ghettos refused to believe
these accounts, even when they heard them from eyewitnesses.
But the Zionists and other young people smuggled guns
into the ghettos and prepared to fight. Young women acted as messengers,
slipping out of one ghetto to carry news and smuggle weapons into another. And
as time went on, no one could deny the truth of what was happening. Millions had
already been killed. The underground resistance movements grew in ghettos like
Krakow, Warsaw, Wilno, and Bialystok.
At Krakow, the fighters struck not in the ghetto itself,
but in the streets of the town, surprising the SS men in places where they
gathered to drink and talk. The Germans were taken unawares, and their losses
were heavy. But as the fighting continued, most of the Jews were captured and
Many of the younger people might have succeeded in
escaping from the ghettos. But they were reluctant to desert their families or
leave behind the old, the sick, and the children. They chose to stay and they
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The most widely known Jewish revolt took place in the
Warsaw ghetto. Plans were made long in advance. Guns and ammunition were
smuggled in; grenades were collected; bottles were filled with gasoline and
stoppered with cloth rags to make homemade bombs called "Molotov cocktails"
that could be set aflame and thrown. Like grenades, they would shatter and
In January 1943, with only seventy thousand Jews left in
the Warsaw ghetto, a small revolt broke out. After it was put down, Himmler
himself came to examine the conditions in the ghetto. He decided that it was an
ill omen: Jews were supposed to accept death quietly. He ordered that the ghetto
be totally destroyed.
As they had done so often, the Nazis first sent the
Gestapo to tell people in the ghetto not to despair and not to believe that Jews
were being put to death. The Jews, they said, should go to the trains quietly,
for they were being sent "to work."
This time, no one was deceived. When German tanks rolled
into the Warsaw ghetto on April 19, 1943, the Jewish fighters were ready for
them. The leader of the Jewish revolt was a twenty-four-year-old, Mordecai
Anilewicz, who commanded a small force of about a thousand fighters. All told,
the Jews had three machine guns, about eighty rifles, some hand grenades, some
Molotov cocktails, and perhaps three hundred pistols and revolvers. They faced
more than two thousand fully-armed German troops.
The Jewish force stopped the German tanks near the
entrance to the ghetto. They blew up several tanks to block the streets, and the
German soldiers were forced to retreat.
The Germans returned with more soldiers, and the
struggle escalated rapidly. The Jews were driven from the streets, so they
fought on from house to house. In each house the Jews resisted until they had no
more ammunition. Then they hid in caves that had been dug beneath the buildings.
As they retreated slowly, they continued to kill German soldiers. The German
commander had to send for more troops.
A week passed and then two weeks, and the Germans still
could not conquer the ghetto. On May 8 the Germans finally found the central
command post of the Jewish fighters and set out to destroy it. Over one hundred
fighters fell in that one apartment building. Many took their own lives so that
the Germans would not kill them. Anilewicz himself died in the fight.
Still the revolt raged. On May 22, Goebbels wrote:
"The battle of the Warsaw ghetto goes on. The Jews are still resisting."
It was not until June that the fight was over. The ghetto was burned to the
ground. A few fighters escaped through the sewers. The Germans had at last
destroyed the Warsaw ghetto.
When resistance proved futile, many Jews met death
calmly in the conviction that they were dying for a noble cause. Religious Jews
said it was al kiddush hashem, "to
glorify God." In the end, they believed, God would come to the aid of the
Jewish people and the Germans would be defeated.
As the Einsatzgruppen
stood ready to shoot Russian Jews in the forests, rabbis or community
leaders would talk to their people or lead them in singing. Survivors later
remembered some of these valorous speeches. One rabbi told his people:
We are suffering
the worst fate of all Jewish generations. In a few minutes we will fall into
this open grave, and nobody will even know where we are buried nor recite a
prayer for us. And we yearn so much to live. ... In this moment let us unite.
... Let us face the Germans with joy for glorifying the Lord's name. [Quoted in
Eliezer Berkovitz, With God in Hell]
German documents captured after the war record that Jews
went to the gas chambers with prayers on their lips or voices joined in song.
Nazi officers were amazed by this behavior. They could not understand how a
people they thought so inferior could die with such dignity.
The Last March
When at last the Germans realized that they were losing
the war and that Russian troops were nearing the concentration camp at Auschwitz
in Poland, the order was given for the prisoners to be marched back into
Germany. It was a cold January day in 1945. Some 54,650 prisoners, all that
remained of the millions that had been sent to Auschwitz, were taken out of the
camp and marched westward. There was no food for them, and they were on the
brink of exhaustion. Many fell along the roadsides. The SS men killed them where
On some days
there were as many as five hundred shootings. ... We spent the nights in stables
or just in the open. ... Once they put us for the night into a very long under
ground excavation and locked the entrance. ... We were suffocating but they did
not open to our shouting and knocking. ... The next day there were a thousand
dead among us. [Quoted in Gideon Hausner, Justice
Those who survived the last march were placed in
concentration camps inside Germany. There, the Allied troops found them--they
were skeletons, starved and shrunken, with huge eyes staring out of swollen eye
sockets. It was hard to believe they had once been ordinary human beings. Some
were too weak to rise from the wooden shelves the Nazis had supplied as beds.
In the world of the Holocaust, survival itself had
become the main form of resistance. As Gerda Klein, one of the survivors wrote,
"It seemed almost a luxury to die, to go to sleep and never wake up again."
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