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Holocaust--search words: Rossel, Seymour Rossel, Holocaust, Genocide, Hitler, anti-Semitism, prejudice, ladder of prejudice, war crimes, war crimes trials, World War II, Second World War, Himmler, Eichmann, concentration, concentration camps, ghetto, ghettos, shtetl, Nazi, Nazis, Nazism, Nuremberg, Kristallnacht, boat people, revolts, Warsaw ghetto, death camps, Heydrich, rescue, escape, slavery, discrimination, racism, racist, racists, Shoah, aftermath, roundup, roundups, transport, transports, selection, selections, medical experiments, Nazi hunters, echoes of Holocaust


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 hanged.    
     ... 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

Sophia 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.

There were 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.

Still 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 shot.

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 died fighting.

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 explode.

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.

Meeting Death

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 they fell.

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 in Jerusalem]

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."

Order The Holocaust at Amazon

The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence is now available
in paperback and Kindle.

“Seymour Rossel, a long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.”David Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

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