An Inquiry into the General Lack of Violent Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust
by Ian McCollum
The Holocaust brings to mind visions of docile and helpless Jews being led to their demise in gas chambers, not visions of determined Jews fighting to defend their homes against German aggressors. Why is this? Why did six million Jews allow themselves to be slaughtered like so many sheep? Did they really just submit to the Germans’ orders? The answer, sadly, is yes the number of violent, planned Jewish revolts against the Nazis can almost be counted on one hand. It is true that many Jews attempted to evade the Germans through passive means by hiding, adopting new identities, or fleeing but when they were caught, the vast majority gave up and went meekly to the camps. One must wonder, why did so few resort to violence to save themselves?
For a Jew caught up in the Holocaust, there were many factors to consider when deciding on a course of action. For an individual considering armed, violent resistance, these included:
By investigating the relative importance of these factors in several instances of armed Jewish resistance, it should become clearer what was required for the average victim to resort to violence.
Cases Under Investigation
The Vilna ghetto. After the first major Aktion in Vilna, the idea of armed resistance spread among youth Zionist groups and Communist groups. They formed an anti-Fascist federation (The FPO, or United Partisans Organization) with the express goal of defending the ghetto against a final liquidation, and at their peak had 300 fighters. When the final liquidations began on September 1, 1943 the FPO issued a general call to arms, but it was completely ignored by the population of the ghetto. After one brief exchange of fire with German troops, the FPO decided to evacuate the ghetto and join partisans in the forests.
The Warsaw ghetto. The best-known example of violent Jewish resistance is the Warsaw ghetto uprising. When mass deportations (300,000 victims total, taken to Treblinka) took place in Warsaw in July and August of 1942, young Jewish activists created the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization). Eight months later, when the final liquidation of the ghetto began they held off the Germans for more than a month with firearms and homemade bombs. In the end, the entire ghetto was demolished in an effort to defeat them. Most died, but a few escaped through Warsaw’s sewer system into the forests.
The Treblinka death camp. While Treblinka had no large-scale forced labor program like Auschwitz, the Germans kept about 1200 Jews there to run and maintain the camp. The performed duties such as emptying gas chambers of corpses, moving and burning corpses, maintaining camp buildings, and the like. Having nothing to lose, they organized a plan for revolt. On August 2, 1942 they put their plan into action, shooting guards and lighting the camp aflame. About 300 managed to escape the camp, and about 70 survived to the end of the war. After the revolt, Treblinka never functioned again.
The Sobibor death camp. The situation of Sobibor was similar to that of Treblinka. While Sobibor existed solely to execute Jews, there was a contingent of prisoners kept alive to run the camp. In July 1943 a group of Russian POWs were added to the camp staff. These ex-soldiers were experienced in fighting, and in cooperation with the Polish Jews who knew the ins and outs of the camp, they created a plan to steal weapons form the Germans and revolt. Their uprising took place on October 14, 1943 with mixed results. Several hundred prisoners escaped to the forests, but only about 40 survived the rest of the war. As with Treblinka, the Germans shut down the camp completely in the wake of the revolt.
Concern for Dependants
One of the most significant factors that could keep a Jew from fighting back against his Nazi oppressors was a concern for those dependent on him. As a general rule, Jews came into the ghettos as families. As a result, those most able to fight the young adult and middle-aged men very often had wives, children, parents, or grandparents with them whom they felt a responsibility to. Those best suited to fight were also best suited to work, and because of the scarcity of food in the ghettos, their families were dependent on fit workers to keep from starving. For example, according to ghetto statisticians the Warsaw ghetto (at the peak of its population) had 550,000 inhabitants, only 27,000 of whom were gainfully employed.(1) Without the extra food that could be attained by a working family member, many families would be unable to survive. The result was that the few groups willing to fight that did form were almost exclusively composed of youth in their teens or early twenties. They were young enough to not have dependent families, but old enough to be effective fighters. In both Warsaw and Vilna, the main resistance groups were alliances of political activist youth groups, both Zionists and Communists.
While this concern for the well-being of family members was an important issue for the Jews in ghettos, it was no factor at all for Jews farther along in the Nazi system. The usual fate of a Jew in a ghetto was deportation to an extermination camp and death in a gas chamber. The Jews who were used to run these extermination camps had already seen their families murdered (either in the gas chambers or in other places months earlier), and had no such inhibitions about fleeing the camps. There was a similar deterrent to revolt in the camps though collective responsibility. Camp policies held that in the case of escape or resistance by an individual Jew, the entire camp would be punished, often through summary executions of a large number of prisoners. However, this did not do much to hinder revolt plans. If anything, it may have encouraged the fighters to make foolproof plans to allow as many prisoners as possible to escape, as it was obvious that upon revolt, all the prisoners would be targets for the guards’ rifles.
Access to Arms
Weapons were an essential element in all violent resistance to the Nazis to prevail against the Germans, some sort of weaponry was required. The Germans, of course, forbade the Jews to possess weapons under threat of death but even in the harshest of environments willing fighters were able to acquire weapons.
The type of weaponry used by Jewish fighters varied depending on their environment. In the Vilna and Warsaw ghettos, Jewish resistance groups planned to defend the ghetto and drive out German police and military units. In the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps however, the fighters simply wanted to escape and flee. As a result, the ghetto fighters needed weaponry that could be used in a sustained fight rifles, crew-served machine guns, mines, and the like. In an April 23 letter to Yitzhak Zuckerman, Mordechai Anielewicz (the most prominent leader of the revolt) explained that "...the pistol has no value, we practically don’t use it. We need grenades, rifles, machine guns, and explosives."(2) The main sources of weapons for the ghettos were smugglers who bought them from local peasants and sneaked them into the ghettos.(3) Many handguns and some rifles were obtained in this manner. Another source was the local partisan units, but they usually refused to supply any weaponry to the Jews. The weapons they ended up with were not ideal, but the were enough to fight with. In addition to firearms they were able to smuggle into the ghetto, the Warsaw fights also had a large number of Molotov cocktails (homemade incendiary bombs), which they had manufactured inside the ghetto. Once fighting broke out in Warsaw, the fighters were able to augment their stores with weapons and ammunition taken from dead Germans, including at least one belt-fed machine gun. The resistance in the Vilna Ghetto used similar techniques to attain weapons. As well as buying arms from Polish Gentiles, they also stole a significant number of firearms and grenades from local German units where Jews were employed.
The fighters in the death camps were not planning to engage in drawn-out fighting, and as a result they were more flexible in what sort of weapons they wanted. The main sources in both Treblinka and Sobibor were, surprisingly, the German armories. In Treblinka, the prisoners were able to acquire a copy of the key to the armory, and stole a large number of rifles and grenades, which were distributed to the prisoners before the revolt broke out. Another weapon used to great effect at Treblinka was fire. The prisoners had surreptitiously doused the camp buildings in gasoline and oil, and when the revolt began, they set alight virtually the entire camp, adding greatly to the confusion and distracting the guards. At Sobibor, the prisoners were not able to get firearms before acting, but were able to revolt despite this. They began be killing several SS officers with knives and hatchets, and taking their firearms and storming the camp armory, where they acquired a number of rifles and were able to engage the guards and escape.
In all of these cases, weapons were an essential element of revolt, and nowhere were the Jews armed to begin with. However, despite the brutal Nazi control of the ghettos and camps, Jewish prisoners were regularly able to acquire the weaponry they needed. The need for weaponry was an obstacle to revolt, but a clearly surmountable one.
Hope for an Easy Solution
For a Jew in the Holocaust, the decision to fight back against the Germans was no easy one it meant abandoning all hope for German mercy and accepting great immediate personal risk. The desire to place their faith in German humanity was very strong among the Jews, although it did decline as they made their way through the extermination process.
In the absence of detailed, confirmed information about their fates, Jews in the ghettos refused to believe that their situation was worth fighting for. Since the Germans would not possibly plan to murder all the Jews, they were better off obeying German authority and thereby avoiding extra reprisals. General Bor-Komorowski, of the Polish underground army, wrote after the war about an incident when, having learned exactly what Treblinka (the destination of deported Warsaw Jews) was, his partisans offered the mainstream Jewish leadership weapons, ammunition, and aid. Their response typifies the common Jewish faith in their German overlords: (4)
The Jewish leaders, however, rejected the offer, arguing that if they behaved quietly the Germans might deport and murder 20,000 or 30,000, perhaps even 60,000 of them, but it was inconceivable that they should destroy the lot; while if they resisted, the Germans would certainly do so.
So long as a person held this view (or similar ones, like believing that the Germans were dependent on the Jews for labor), revolt was out of the question. The only cure for this ignorance of the true German intentions was information. In this area, many of the youth organizations held a crucial advantage they already had a network of colleagues in other ghettos through which they could share information via courier. These groups were able to acquire information about German actions across Poland, and synthesize them into a sufficiently accurate overview of the Final Solution. This information made it clear that passive obedience would have devastating consequences, and its importance in their planning can hardly be overstated.
As a general rule, the rest of the general Jewish population of the ghettos either were unaware of German plans, or had seen little enough evidence that they were capable of denying it to themselves. In the Vilna ghetto, this ignorance and denial among the populace never ended. The main resistance group in Vilna, the FPO, had been planning their defense of the ghetto for almost two years, and when the Germans finally sealed the ghetto to liquidate it, they issued a call-to-arms for the populace. "The hand of the hangman will fall upon every person. Flight and cowardice will not save life! Only armed resistance can save our lives and honor. ..."(5) Sadly, the Jews of Vilna continued to cling to their belief in German benevolence, and there was no response to the FPO’s cry for action. The resistance fighters, knowing that their numbers were too small to be effective without community support, scrapped their plans and fled to the forests to join up with partisan groups.
The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had an entirely different reaction to the attempted liquidation of their ghetto. Unlike Vilna (with ~40,000 inhabitants at its peak and several small deportations), the Warsaw ghetto housed several hundred thousand Jews, and got a harsh introduction to German plans when over seven weeks from July until September 1942 some 265,000 Jews were deported. This rapid, gargantuan deportation broke the illusions of many inhabitants. The resistance organizations in Warsaw (Mordechai Anielewicz’ ZOB is the best know, but by no means was the only such group) had many more fighters than the groups in Vilna. In addition, the general population of the Warsaw ghetto sympathized and cooperated with the fighters. After the outbreak of fighting on April 19, many residents who were not members of resistance groups desired to fight, but had no weapons due to a lack of preparation.
The Jews who had been deported from their home or ghettoes and were imprisoned in death camps had no illusions whatsoever about the German plans. They watched day after day as trainloads of their fellow Jews were slaughtered in such an environment they had no misconceptions about their fates.
Any sort of organized mass action requires effective leadership, and the armed Jewish revolts during the Holocaust were no exception. The leadership of a revolt was needed for a variety of reasons to organize sources of money and arrange for its use in purchasing firearms and ammunition, to divide the fighters into units and coordinate their actions, and to give the revolt the legitimacy needed to attract participants. These may seem like daunting tasks, but none of the example revolts suffered from a lack of adequate leadership. Because of their physical concentration, the Jews in captivity nearly always had capable leaders and respected personalities close at hand.
The revolts in the death camps of Treblinka and Sobibor are excellent examples of flexible and spontaneous leadership. The revolts were planned by small groups which were formed for the sole purpose of escaping the camps. There were no rivalries over titles, positions, money, of power (as none of these things existed for the prisoners) and this made for very effective and cooperative planners despite the hardships of their environment. These planning groups were also able to endure the loss of key members without fragmenting. For example, one of the major figures in the Treblinka revolt Dr. Julian Chorazycki, a well-known medical doctor and former army officer was caught by an SS guard with a pocket full of money (750,000 zlotys intended for use buying firearms). He took poison and died to avoid being interrogated, and the revolt planning didn’t miss a beat, as another man stepped up to take his place.
Much of the leadership for the ghetto revolts was actually in existence long before the ghettos were even created. The backbones of the ghetto fighting groups were formed by political youth groups, primarily Zionists and Communists. These groups had organized and effective leadership hierarchies before the war and when the decision to form fighting groups was made, the leadership elements of the groups merged fairly easily. For most of the ghetto fighters, their leaders were well known, trusted, and respected from the very beginning.
Leadership for Jewish revolts was an essential element, but not a difficult one to fulfill. In most cases, the necessary leadership already existed or was easily found.
Very few people will risk their lives fighting without a good reason, and without some motivating purpose, attempts at Jewish resistance would have been abortive. As with quality leadership, this necessary component of resistance was easily satisfied. The motivations varied with the fighters, but in a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, there were very few Jews who were unwilling to fight when the other necessary conditions were met. For many in the death camps, the compelling issue was a desire to survive so they could bear witness to the Nazi atrocities. To quote Jankiel Wiernik, a participant and survivor of the Treblinka revolt, from the beginning of his report on Treblinka, which was published clandestinely in Warsaw in May 1944 after the revolt: (6)
It seems as if I were carrying the load of a hundred centuries on my shoulders. The load is wearisome, very wearisome, but for the time being I must bear it. I want to bear it, and bear it I must. I, who witnessed the doom of three generations, must keep on living for the sake of the future. The whole world must be told of the infamy of those barbarians, so that centuries and generations to come may execrate them.
Other prisoners expressed similar reasons for fighting. Zelda Metz, a typical survivor of the Sobibor revolt, described her motivation candidly: "We wanted to escape and to tell the world about the crimes of Sobibor."(7)
The other major motivating factor for death camp inmates was a desire for simple revenge upon the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Simha Bialowitz, a survivor of Sobibor, is quite frank about his motivation: "We were obsessed with the idea of avenging our dead and killing the SS … The day after the escape, we were glad to watch the procession of cars carrying the coffins of the murdered Nazis of Sobibor."(8) Another Sobibor survivor, Hella Fellenbaum-Weiss, recalls being given the will to survive by finding Yiddish notes in the pockets of slain Jews brought to Sobibor from Belzec which read "We are told we are on our way to work. It is a lie. Avenge us."(9)
For Jews in the ghettos, the strategy of how to fight the Germans was different from that of the death camps, but the basic motivations were the same. The Jews in the ghettos had the luxury of fighting for principles as well, instead of bare survival as in the death camps. The essence of the general motivation in the ghettos was expressed well by Hirsh Berlinski, one of the organizers of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: (10)
Even if the deported are really settled in labour camps, 75 per cent of them are bound to die. Therefore, in one way or another deportation means annihilation. It is therefore better to die with dignity and not like hunted animals. There is no other way out, all that remains to us is to fight. Even if we are capable of putting up a fight that will only resemble real fighting, it will still be better than a passive acceptance of slaughter.
Not surprisingly, motivation for Jewish resistance was quite easy to find. Lack of motivation was never a problem for potential violent revolts.
Clearly, there were a number of reasons behind the general lack of Jewish violent resistance to the Holocaust. Some, however, were much more significant than others.
One major factor in the ghettos was a concern among potential fighters for the wellbeing of dependant family members. There were surely many Jewish men and women who would have been willing to fight the Germans, if they had been confident that their families could survive their actions. In the death camps, families were a subject of mourning, not continuous concern. Virtually all inmates of the camps had seen their families murdered or heard of their murder. Having no loved ones left, these prisoners were not hindered in their actions by such concerns.
Another critical element to resistance was weaponry. The cases investigated suggest that Jews were consistently able to obtain firearms, no matter their situation. A variety of sources were utilized, and the weapons were not always optimal but they were enough to do the job in every case. A lack of armaments is not likely to have squelched any attempted revolts in ghettos, although it was probably a greater factor in death camp revolts. Getting arms took time in any environment, and prisoners in the camps generally did not survive long. It is likely that one or more conceived camp revolts failed because the conspirators perished before they were able to acquire weapons for their revolt.
Information was a vital element for any revolt. Without an understanding of the true risks they faced, Jewish individuals were not willing to risk their lives by fighting back against the Germans. For a large majority of the people, it was likely a lack of comprehension of the situation that prevented resistance. The desire to place trust in the Germans and take the easy path of obedience was very strong in most Jews. Only in the face of the most blatant German actions, such as the mass deportations from Warsaw and the cremations in the death camps were potential fighters able to understand that obedience would not lead to salvation.
For Jews in both ghettos and death camps, effective leadership was a necessary element of coordinated resistance, but an element which was fairly simple to obtain. Leaders were generally in good supply and very devoted to their tasks. It is very unlikely that any would-be revolt failed for a lack of leadership.
Without a motivation to fight, armed resistance was not possible. In both the ghettos and camps, however, motivations were plentiful be it for the sake of revenge, survival, or informing the world, most Jews had a reason to fight. Motivation was almost certainly not an element missing from any potential resistance.
Epilogue: Did Armed Resistance Ease the Plight of the Jews?
As with all major events in history, historians of the present look back on the Holocaust and try to assess whether the actions taken by those involved were good or bad, and how the outcomes could have been changed. Such inquiries are not mere intellectual exercises; they are one of humanity’s best resources for learning how best to act in present and future situations. With this in mind, and knowing that genocide is an ongoing problem in today’s world, one looks to the Holocaust to provide lessons on how to behave when the next genocide occurs.
Two controversial and under-addressed questions are the morality and effectiveness of violent resistance to genocide. Because violence is generally viewed as synonymous with crime and chaos, the fact that violence can save lives is often ignored or forgotten. The Holocaust provides several compelling examples of such salvation through violence. The death camp of Belzec operated without significant hindrance until it was closed for a lack of victims to burn after engulfing an estimated 600,000 victims.(11) After its final trainload of deportees was gassed and cremated, the Jewish staff laborers were shot dead to this day, only a handful of prisoners are known to have escaped Belzec alive. One significant difference between Belzec and its sister death camp, Treblinka, is that the killing at Treblinka ceased long before it ran out of victims. The prisoners of Treblinka rose up with arms and were able to escape and burn most of the camp to the ground. Not only were several score of prisoners able to survive to fight on as partisans and bear witness of their tribulations, but they ended the murders at Treblinka. The camp was never rebuilt in the wake of their revolt. The same is true for the extermination camp of Sobibor after the prisoners broke out of the camp, it was shut down. The revolts of the prisoners in both camps were the direct cause of their closure. It is clear that without these rebellions, Jews, Gypsies, and other German "undesirables" would have continued to be executed for weeks to come in these places.
Where these revolts occurred, German activity was slowed or halted. The Warsaw ghetto was the scene of active fighting for more than six weeks, and sporadic resistance continued, unbelievably, until mid-June of 1944 15 months after the outbreak of the revolt!(12) If such violence had engulfed German executioners wherever they had attempted to harm Jews, the Holocaust would have been stillborn. To quote Emmanuel Ringelblum, archivist of the Warsaw ghetto, (13)
…if everybody had attacked the Germans with knives, clubs, shovels, choppers; if we had received the Germans, Ukrainians, Latvians, and the Jewish ghetto police with acid, molten pitch, boiling water, and so on to put it in a nutshell, if men, women, and children, the young and the old, had risen in a single people’s levy, there would not have been 350,000 murdered at Treblinka, but only the 50,000 shot dead in the streets of Warsaw.
A final, and oft overlooked outcome of the revolts was the reclamation of simple human dignity by the fighters. The individuals incarcerated in the camps of the German extermination system died deliberately starved, beaten, helpless and dehumanized. They were subjected to the most brutal of tortures and the most degrading of conditions. No human being deserves to die in such a state. To fight back gave them the opportunity to have a hand in their fate; it gave them back the dignity that is the essence of being human.
Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe. Paul Elek Ldt, London: 1974.
Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames. Holocaust Library, New York: 1982.
Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know.New York: Little, Brown, and Co, 1993.
Donat, Alexander. The Death Camp Treblinka. New York: Holocaust Library, 1979.
Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943. Indiana University Press, Bloomington:1982.
Mark, Ber. Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Schocken Books, New York: 1975.
Novitch, Miriam. Sobibor: Martydom and Revolt. Holocaust Library, New York: 1980.
Rotem, Simha. Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Zuckerman, Yitzhak. A Surplus of Memory. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1993.
1) Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe. (London: Paul Elek, Ldt, 1974), 554
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