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Resistance to the Holocaust: Not Like Sheep to the Slaughter: Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust

Eric Gartman

One of the most persistent yet false assertions concerning the Holocaust is that the Jews did not resist, but simply went “like sheep to the slaughter.” The Jews fighting in partisans bands, the death camp revolts, and the ghetto uprisings disprove the argument that the Jews of Europe of were passive in the face in the face of Nazi genocide. This line of reasoning states that the Jews, unused to martial action in their centuries of exile, were unable to organize a resistance to the Nazis, and generally complied with German orders for hope that they would be delivered from evil, rather than actively resisting themselves. This argument is problematic for several reasons. First, despite claims to the contrary, there were many instances of Jewish resistance, from the partisans to the concentration camp revolts, to the ghetto uprisings. The best known is the Warsaw Ghetto revolt in 1943, in which several hundred poorly armed Jewish fighters with no military training held off the might of the German Army for a month. The fighters had begged the Polish resistance for arms, but virtually none were forthcoming. Had they been armed, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto might have held out for even longer. There were other ghetto revolts as well, but these were less successful, as the Germans were prepared for revolts after Warsaw, and the Jews in the other ghettoes were unable to acquire any weapons from the outside. Additionally, Jewish inmates staged major revolts at the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, both of which succeeded in shutting down those camps. There was also a failed revolt at Auschwitz. The Jews at the death camps had even fewer resources than those in the ghettoes, as they were kept under lock and key and surrounded at all times by armed guards and barbed wire fences topped with watch towers. Nonetheless, they planned and carried out successful revolts against all odds. Additionally, several thousand Jews fought as partisans in the forests and mountains of Nazi-occupied Europe.  

Measured in terms of German casualties, these episodes are unimpressive, but any time a group of unarmed civilians rises up against heavily armed and trained soldiers, heavy losses among the professional fighters is not to be expected. What is most striking about these episodes is the courage required for defenseless men and women to fight in spite of the great odds against them, and the almost certain death they faced. “In fact, our mission has been accomplished,” an underground survivor of the krakow ghetto uprising wrote. “We showed the world that the Jewish nation knows how to fight for its life and die in the name of justice. We reported for battle against the enemy, and once and for all shattered his illusion that he could murder masses of Jews and escape punishment.” There were also many instances of resistance which failed and therefore went unrecorded. “But people fought back,” survivor Esther Raab relates. “They fought back in the woods, they fought back on the train stations, they fought back every step of the way, but they are not here to tell.” While these acts did not succeed, the courage required to run into machine gun carrying soldiers is stunning. Moreover, these episodes contrast against the five million Soviet prisoners of wars who were held in German camps and did not rebel, even though they had military training. There were also no rebellions among the hundreds of thousands of Poles, political prisoners, and Gypsies in concentration camps.

Second, most of the killings took place before the Jews’ knew what was really happening to them. In order to make the process run more smoothly, the Nazis used an elaborate set of ruses. First, the Jews were told they were being taken to work camps. Upon arrival at the camps, the deportees encountered more tricks. At the Treblinka terminal, the Germans had constructed a false railroad station, complete with signs pointing to directions for other destinations, a uniformed ticket collector, a restaurant façade, and a station clock. Similarly, at the Sobibor death camp the deportees saw what seemed to be a beautiful village upon arrival. In front of them was black paved road lined with flowers. There were signs and nicely carved figures showing a waiter holding a plate, and a barber with a razor. Next, an immaculately dressed Nazi guard would address the crowd, and apologize for the inconveniences they had experienced. He would promise them a better life in the work camps, where they could live together with their families. Food and quarters would be plentiful, much better than in the ghettoes. He would tell them they needed to disinfect from the long journey. Changing quarters complete with hooks for clothing and a cashier’s booth where they were handed receipts were provided. It all seemed in order. Only after they had taken off their clothing would they have noticed something was wrong as the guards mercilessly drove the crowds into the fake bath houses. But by then it would be too late.

Some have claimed they practiced a form of self-delusion, but numerous eyewitness accounts demonstrate otherwise. Most did not know, and could not believe that such evil and irrational action could actually occur, perpetrated no less by the most advanced nation in Europe. After all, the Jews provided the Germans with valuable war time labor. Killing them was counter to German interests. The stories of the death camps were disbelieved, and not just by the Jews. Even those who suspected the truth still clung on to the hope that they would somehow survive, a natural human response in the face of danger and uncertainty. Those who did realize what was happening to them as they approached the gas chambers - starving, beaten by whips, hounded by dogs, stripped of all their belongings – were eager to get it over with, as is understandable. As for those who did not resist the deportations even after it was clear that they were not being resettled, it must be noted that they did not go voluntarily. They were rounded by heavily armed SS men at gunpoint, often accompanied with brutal dogs. Those who did not cooperate were shot on the spot.  

There is also the question of means: The Jews, locked up and secluded in their ghettoes, lacked the capability to stage large-scale revolts. Had they been able to acquire weapons, it is clear that there would have been even more resistance. But the Germans kept the ghettoes quarantined, restricting the flow of possible into the ghettoes. Moreover, the non-Jewish resistance groups, with minimal arms themselves, turned down the Jews’ requests for arms, not wishing to turn over their precious resources to a cause they deemed would fail. They kept the weapons for themselves, and used them against the Nazis in their own revolts later in the war.

Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel summed it up best: “The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find the strength – spiritual and physical – to resist?” Despite Wiesel’s explanation and abundant proof to the contrary, the charge of Jewish were passivity continues to fester. The charge is factually and historically incorrect, yet another black eye on the multiplicity of evils spawned by the Holocaust.

Source: This is common argument was most forcefully put forth by Raul Hilberg makes this case in the Destruction of the European Jews. NewYork: Holmes and Meier, 1985;
Gutman, Fighters Among the Ruins, 149;
United States Holocaust Museum. Oral testimony of Esther Raab.;
Raul Hilberg makes the case for self-delusion in the Destruction of the European Jews, 301;
Strom, Facing History and Ourselves, 335.