The Problem of Jewish Resistance

During a class discussion of Nazism, one of my students said he simply could
not understand why the Jews hadn't resisted the efforts of the Germans to
exterminate them. This assertion is, of course, quite common and not limited
to undergraduates. The noted historian Raul Hilberg, for example, wrote,
"The reaction pattern of the Jews is characterized by almost complete lack of
resistance. Measured in German casualties, Jewish armed opposition shrinks
into insignificance." My response to the student, which became the topic of
this book, was that the Jews had not only resisted but actually played a major
role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The question, I said, was not whether the
Jews fought but where and by what means.
Let me make two points at the outset. First, Jewish resistance to the Nazis
should be characterized as a form of cumulative rather than collective action.
That is, for the most part, Jewish resistance lacked even a modicum of central
coordination or leadership. It consisted of a host of disparate groups, individuals,
and organizations on several continents mounting various responses,
ranging from partisan warfare through nuclear research, to the threat of Nazism.
These uncoordinated efforts, however, were channeled by a common
threat and cumulated into what we shall see was a potent, albeit sometimes
futile, response to the Germans.
A second point concerns the meaning and scope of the term "resistance."
Jewish resistance is often defined narrowly to refer to the activities of Jews in the
occupied lands of Europe. Yet, just as the French Resistance operated outside as
well as inside France, Jewish resistance and opposition to the Nazis manifested
itself in a number of settings both inside and outside German-occupied territory.
To ignore this point is to risk distorting the historical record. The discussion of
Jewish resistance normally focuses on villages, ghettos, concentration camps,
and other locations where whatever resistance arose was certain to appear
feeble and was usually futile. Desperate and unarmed Jews in Eastern European
shtetlekh (villages), city ghettos, and death camps hardly had the means to resist.
Unarmed individuals cannot exactly mount armed resistance. Some fought
nonetheless. There was resistance in nearly every major ghetto, and revolts broke
out in virtually every concentration camp. Jewish undergrounds were organized
in, for example, the Warsaw, Minsk, Vilna, and Bialystok ghettos, and some Jews
who survived the liquidation of those ghettos, as we shall see in chapter 5, joined
partisan groups in the forests. And revolts broke out even at the Treblinka, Sobibor,
and Auschwitz Vernichtungslager (extermination camps), among others.
These were, however, easily and quickly suppressed by the Germans.
There seems little doubt, though, that in the ghettos and death camps,
hoping to save their own lives and those of their family members, more Jews
cooperated and even collaborated with the Germans than resisted. How could
it be otherwise? Without weapons or military training or outside support, and
guarded by ruthless and heavily armed German paramilitary police and their
Ukrainian, Croatian, or other Hilfswillige (non-German volunteers known as
Hiwis who worked in various capacities for the German army), few would resist,
whether they were Jews or Americans, Englishmen or Frenchmen. Most
would cooperate hoping to live another day. Some would collaborate hoping
to survive even longer.
Hannah Arendt claimed that the Nazis depended on the cooperation of the
Judenräte (the Jewish Councils established by the Germans to administer the
day-to-day life of the ghettos), the Jewish police, and so forth to administer
the "final solution." "To a Jew," said Arendt, "this role of the Jewish leaders in
the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the
whole dark story." Arendt's claim is certainly true, particularly in the case of
the Lodz ghetto, led by Chaim Rumkowski, who insisted on cooperation with
the Germans until the very bitter end. Arendt was correct to view this as an
exceedingly dark story. But the part of the story that so offended her doesn't
distinguish the Jews from anyone else.
The head of German security in Amsterdam, for example, said, "The main
support of the German forces in the police sector and beyond was the Dutch
police. Without it, not 10 per cent of the German occupation tasks would have
been fulfilled." Members of the Dutch police, along with thousands of Dutch
Nazis, volunteered to serve in the Wehrmacht and formed the Thirty-fourth
SS (Schutzstaffel) Volunteer Division, Landstorm Nederland. The same was
true of the French. As many, if not more, collaborated as resisted. Until the
Americans, British, and Canadians landed at Normandy, the Germans had
little trouble occupying France with 3,000 to 4,000 of their own military police
officers and the assistance of 100,000 cooperative French policemen and
40,000 members of the French paramilitary Milice. As in the Netherlands,
French volunteers, many drawn from the Milice, joined the German army,
forming the Thirty-third Waffen SS Division, Charlemagne.
If the ghettos and camps are not the correct places to look for effective
Jewish resistance, where then? My own family's story, in particular the different
paths to survival taken by my mother and father, may offer an answer as
well as an illustration of the limits and possibilities of resistance. One night
toward the end of 1941, my mother's stot (town)was entered by Germans and
their Ukrainian auxiliaries, who began rounding up Jews, beating and shooting
many of them on the spot and collecting the others for what was euphemistically
known as "resettlement." Some Jews ran while others hid, but few
resisted. My mother hid in an empty barrel, and through sheer blind luck, no
one looked into that particular refuge. She survived, but she may have been
the only survivor of that particular night's Aktion (campaign to assemble and
deport Jews). She saw her own mother taken away and never saw her again.
Should she and the others have resisted? How exactly could a scattering of
unarmed civilians resist troops armed with automatic weapons and only too
happy to kill them, then and there?
My father, on the other hand, resisted strenuously, but the context was
quite different. After escaping from a German labor camp in 1940, he fled
east and managed to reach the Soviet army. He was promptly conscripted and
trained to serve in an artillery regiment. When large numbers of Katyushas,
the famous Soviet rocket artillery, began to be deployed in 1942 and 1943, he
was assigned to fire salvos of rockets at the Germans. These Soviet rockets,
developed as it happens by Jewish engineers, were very effective against German
infantry. In response to Hilberg's comment regarding the insignificance
of armed Jewish resistance, one might say that salvos of hundreds of deadly
rockets developed by Jews and fired by a Jew represented an exceedingly robust
form of armed Jewish resistance. Even Arendt would have had no reason
to feel ashamed. The Germans feared the Katyushas, so they would have been
compelled to agree if they had known who was shooting at them.
The moral of the story is that rather than look for armed resistance among
unarmed civilians and express scorn at Jews for failing to do what could not
be done, we should look for resistance where it was possible to resist. If we
pursue this path, we come to a very different conclusion about the Jews and
their efforts during the war.
The fact of the matter is that the Jews resisted very vigorously and quite effectively
through four vehicles. The first was the Soviet army. Jews constituted
a significant percentage of the fighting strength of the Soviet army, including
both its combat and political officers, and, on a per capita basis, won more
medals and decorations than members of any other ethnic group in the USR.
More importantly, as we shall see, Jewish engineers supervised the evacuation
and reconstruction of Soviet military industry in 1941 and designed and built
many of the weapons upon which the Soviet army depended during the war.
These included the T-34 medium tank, generally seen as the best tank of the
war, the La-5 fighter plane, the Katyusha rocket launcher, and others. These
weapons allowed the Soviets to survive the disasters of 1941 and, in four
years, to drive the Wehrmacht back to Berlin.
Second, the Jews resisted through their influence in the United States.
During the 1930s, most Americans were isolationist, anti-British, or pro-German.
This included significant numbers of German, Italian, Irish, and
Scandinavian Americans. America's white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)
elite, though, was pro-British, while the Jews were anti-German. With the
encouragement of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and British intelligence,
the Jews and WASPs forged an alliance that worked to bring about
shifts in American public opinion, to discredit isolationist groups, and to give
Roosevelt the political backing he sought for rearmament, the introduction of
universal military training, and critical lend-lease aid to Britain and the USR.
During the war itself, Jewish soldiers fought in every branch of the U.S.
military. On the home front, Jews played a major role in maintaining popular
morale, selling bonds, and organizing the economics of the war effort. At
the same time, Jewish scientists worked to build the atom bomb, a weapon
that became America's ace in the hole and eventually ended the war. Hitler
had declared that the war would be a war of extermination (Vernichtung).
He presumably had the Jews and other Untermenschen (subhumans) in
mind, but had the Germans fought on just a few months longer, or had the
Jewish scientists of the Manhattan Project completed their work just a few
months sooner, the war would certainly have brought Vernichtung—for the
Third, Jews in the Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain were
very important in the realm of intelligence and espionage. The Soviet Union's
major—and very effective—spy rings, including the Red Orchestra, were led
by Jews who, in some instances, had been schooled in the arts of espionage
by Soviet intelligence services before the war. In the United States, Jews were
among the leading figures in the realm of cryptanalysis. In fact, the term
"cryptanalysis" was coined by America's foremost cryptanalyst, William
Friedman. Friedman's heavily Jewish group at the U.S. Army's Signals Intelligence
Service (predecessor of today's National Security Agency) pioneered
modern code breaking and designed the U.S. military's SIGABA cipher machine,
whose encryptions were never broken during the machine's period of
service, which ended in the 1950s.
Jews were also involved in the British cryptanalysis effort. In Britain,
however, Jews were more important in the area of covert operations. In particular,
the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited a sizeable
group of foreign-born Jews whose linguistic and cultural skills would help
them operate in the German-occupied countries of Europe. These individuals
became important actors in British covert operations in Europe. There were,
of course, Jews in regular British and Commonwealth forces, including the
famous Jewish Brigade, and many fought bravely. The number of Jews in
Britain, Australia, and so forth was, however, minuscule, so their number in
the military was necessarily very small as well.
Finally, Jews played important roles in several of the major European anti-Nazi
resistance movements. When Americans think of resistance to the Nazis,
they tend to think of the French and, perhaps, the Norwegians and Danes.
The Norwegians helped the British SOE destroy the German heavy water
plant at Vemork, and both the Norwegians and the Danes heroically smuggled
large fractions of their small Jewish communities to safety in Sweden.
Generally, though, these two movements posed little threat to the Germans.
The French, for their part, with the exception of the Jews and the Communist
Party, did not resist very vigorously until after D-day. Asked at Nuremberg
about the impact of French resistance on German military production,
Reich armaments minister Albert Speer quipped that he wasn't aware that
there had been any French resistance. In both Western and Eastern Europe,
however, Jews helped to lead resistance groups whose acts of sabotage and
attacks on the always-fragile German supply lines to the east did hinder the
Germans and help the Allies. This includes the Polish, Greek, and Yugoslav
resistance movements and the most important of the World War II resistance
movements, the partisans of the Soviet Union.
In these four ways the Jews not only resisted but played a major role in the
defeat of Nazi Germany. Could the Allies have won without the help of the
Jews? Perhaps. Did they win without the help of the Jews? No.
In 1945, Hitler was dead, the Germans had been defeated, and the Allies
were victorious, but it cannot exactly be said that the Jews had won. More
than 6 million Jews were dead. The several hundred thousand Jewish survivors
in displaced person's camps were unwelcome almost everywhere, while
former Nazis were given asylum in the United States and Canada and provided
with humanitarian assistance by the Vatican and the Red Cross. In the
Soviet Union, Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign, halted temporarily by the war,
resumed with a vengeance. In the United States, Jews, who had been among
the first to warn of the Nazi threat in the 1930s, were accused of "premature
anti-Fascism" by various anti-Communist crusaders in the postwar period.
When he launched his postwar campaign against the Jews, even Stalin
usually had the good grace to eschew outright anti-Semitism in favor of
campaigns against "cosmopolitans" and the like. As the memory of the war
and the Holocaust faded, however, as if to confirm Marx's well-known comment
that history repeats itself—das eine Mal als Tragodie, das andere Mal als
Farce (the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce)—a more overt anti-Semitism,
containing more than an element of farce, reemerged in Western
Europe in the odd form of liberal anti-Zionism. This time the question of
Jewish resistance in Europe was moot, since there were hardly any Jews left.