The ruthlessness of the Holocaust and the dignity of Jewish resistance
By Alex Ryvchin, ABC
(First featured in the ABC online)
The historian and resistance fighter in the Vilna Ghetto, Meir Dworzecki, demanded that when we examine the question of resistance during the Holocaust we do so only by seeking truth. “Do not depict the Jews of the ghettos and the camps as better than they were”, he said. “Do not engage in apologetics. But do not portray them as lesser than they were.” So let us consider this question of resistance in this spirit.
In his book, The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg gives what is perhaps the most sobering, confronting assessment of how the Jews reacted to their immaculately choreographed extermination. He explains that the 2,000 years of Jewish exile and dispersal, and the experience of living in almost constant danger, had given rise to a precise, formulaic and deeply internalised reaction to danger.
The Jews had come to believe that in order to survive they had to refrain from resistance. When faced with a persecutor, they would try to appease or placate them. They could try to ransom themselves, make appeals to people in high places or to public opinion – failing that, they accepted their fate. As the deluge would set in, they waited for it to pass over them and then subside. They could not reason with the Crusaders or the Cossack horsemen, but they could outlast them; they collectively outlived them all. The Jews had come to believe that, because of the nature of God or man, they could not be annihilated. This too shall pass. Am Yisrael Chai.
They did not comprehend that Nazism was unique. Whereas Rome or Spain or Tsarist Russia were satisfied to exploit and brutalise or expel the Jews in their midst, Nazism would not rest until it hunted and destroyed every single living Jew. As Hilberg concludes, the Jews could not make the switch. A 2,000-year lesson could not be unlearned. And so, they were helpless.
The Germans, for their part, exhibited a chilling genius in their understanding of human nature, of how people can be broken so absolutely as to comply in their own destruction. In the ghettos, the Germans appointed former Jewish communal leaders to form Jewish Councils with which they would liaise. This appealed to vanity and created the illusion that these Councils had some agency, some ability to influence what was unfolding.
They undoubtedly believed they were acting in the best interests of their people, doing all they could to obtain information, negotiate concessions, additional medical supplies or hygienic products, maintain some semblance of routine for the condemned Jews by overseeing education, cultural performances and support services. We now know they should have been consumed with escape or rebellion and nothing else. Instead, they busied themselves educating children who would never become adults.
Armed resistance was strictly discouraged. It would only aggravate the Germans more and lead to even greater suffering. It seemed things could always get worse. Instead, these Council leaders believed their powerful intellects could tame the beasts. They appealed to the Germans, wrote letters to them, each word carefully weighed by men of esteem, believing their fine rhetoric, wit and logic must surely have some effect. In reality, they were helping to maintain order and achieve the pacification of the enslaved people that made their extermination considerably easier.
The Nazis also extinguished the capacity for resistance among those they enslaved by employing every psychological device used by the captor and the torturer. They engaged in deception, assuring the Jews that deportation to death camps meant resettlement, gas chambers meant showers, and forced marches to pre-dug graves meant reporting for work assignments. Jewish leaders were forever trying to find out from the Nazis what was going to happen next. The answers were always vague, dismissive or dishonest. The truth that their annihilation was imminent was always kept from them.
The Nazis used the element of surprise, conducting pre-dawn raids of ghettos using baying dogs and live fire to shock the ghetto population into submission. They degraded the Jews so completely as to crush any individualistic spirit. They used startling, unspeakable brutality to both shock and desensitise the Jews to suffering, and they could insert the occasional moment of respite, even a word of reassurance, to nurture docile compliance.
All of which is to say they kept the Jews off balance at all times. Nothing stayed the same for very long. There were constant transports, new labour assignments to factories, movements from ghetto to camp, camp to camp.
Alexander Pechersky, a captured Jewish soldier of the Red Army, spoke of this process as like the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. You constantly wondered what was next and when it would all end. In this uncertainty, doing nothing seemed a better option than stepping out of line and facing the sadism of the guards and the certainty of an immediate and violent death. By the time death became an inescapable fact, it was much too late and the Jews usually fell into a paralysis and drifted to their graves.
In addition to the nature and magnitude of the cruelty, the speed and efficiency of the Nazis meant that the Jews had no time, no space, no means, and no physical capacity to resist in any meaningful or organised way. We commonly speak of the gradual process of destruction, beginning with the rise of Nazism and the Nuremberg laws and ending in the camps a decade later. But the actual process of mass-killing, still a quantum leap from the intense persecution that preceded it, occurred not gradually but as a blitzkrieg.
In March 1942, almost 80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive. By February 1943, just 11 months later, that number was reversed. 80% of the 6 million were already dead. When the Final Solution became policy, murder became industrialised — and not a moment or a life was spared.
ACTS OF JEWISH RESISTANCE
There were Jews who did manage to escape; who somehow slipped away when being led to the killing-field or made their getaway when being marched from their slave labour back to the camp. There was almost never a happy ending to their stories.
In the Lublin area of Poland, police battalions were given the task of combing the forests to find any last hiding Jews. The battalions called this the “Jew hunt”. Squads of three or four would ride out eagerly each morning to discover the underground bunkers in which starving, petrified individuals or sometimes whole families hid, finishing them off with hand grenades or pistols, often subjecting them to torture first. The only real choice the Jews had was to comply with an anonymous death among the hundreds and thousands or hiding in the soil of a forest waiting for death to find them.
But acts of resistance great and small, organised and individual, can be found in every aspect and in every phase of the Holocaust. Jews being deported to the camps, travelling in cattle cars for days with no food or water, would rip planks off the carriages with their bare hands, jumping from moving trains in the hope of making their escape.
In the Polish ghettos, clandestine publications were created and smuggled out beyond the ghetto walls to alert the outside world to the fate of the deported Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were saved by Jewish resistance organisations which obtained false identity papers, established smuggling routes and sheltered hiding Jews.
In Poland and the former Soviet republics, tens of thousands of Jews who managed to evade identification and capture, participated in armed resistance. As many as 25,000 Jews fled the ghettos of western and central Poland to join partisan groups. Some 10,000 Jewish men and women from Lithuania did likewise. A Jewish commando succeeded in blowing up a convoy bound for Auschwitz, allowing 231 Jews to flee.
The most incredible instances of organised resistance occurred at the Sobibor death camp and in the Warsaw Ghetto. Sobibor was a purpose-built extermination camp. Whereas at Auschwitz, prisoners and new arrivals were selected for the gas chambers if they could not be worked to death, at Sobibor this process was reversed. Everyone was immediately gassed unless they were of the tiny minority selected for some form of work detail. As a result, almost no one survived Sobibor.
By October 1943, transports to the camp were becoming less frequent because there were so few Jews left to kill, and rumours began to circulate that the camp would soon be dismantled. When the nearby Belzec death camp was dismantled, the last remaining prisoners were assured that, after they completed the work of exhuming and burning bodies and concealing the evidence of genocide, they would be transferred to a camp in Germany. Instead, they were sent to Sobibor to die.
One of the men from Belzec managed to sew a note into his clothing to the last inmates of Sobibor, which was discovered by a prisoner assigned to sort the clothing of Jews killed in the gas chambers. The note said:
“Be aware that you will be killed also! Avenge us!”
The uprising was instigated by a Polish Jew, Leon Feldhendler. He knew most of the long-suffering prisoners in the camp were too broken to resist. But the arrival of Jewish Red Army prisoners of war gave Feldhendler hope. Among the new arrivals selected for work, he noticed a man named Alexander Pechersky.
When Pechersky saw a senior SS officer mercilessly beating a Jew who had collapsed while chopping wood, Pechersky leaned on his axe and stopped working himself. Intrigued by this defiance, the SS man proposed a challenge for his own sadistic pleasure. If Pechersky could split a tree stump in under five minutes, he would give him a pack of cigarettes. If he failed, he would be lashed twenty-five times. Pechersky completed the task in four-and-a-half minutes. To demonstrate he was a man of his word, the SS man offered up the cigarettes. Pechersky declined, saying that he didn’t smoke. The SS man suggested some additional rations instead. The starving Pechersky replied that he found the standard camp provisions to be adequate.
Feldhendler recognised in Pechersky, a rare coolness and steel, and knew he was the only man who could lead the uprising. Together, these men coordinated the simultaneous killings of several of the camp guards. They killed the acting commandant of the camp with an axe while the camp tailor was fitting him for a jacket that had belonged to a murdered Jew. The resistors then killed ten more SS guards before rushing the perimeter fence.
Only 58 Jews of the 300,000 who were sent to Sobibor survived. The majority of those who participated in the uprising were either shot, blown up by land mines surrounding the camp, or mopped up by German patrols or Polish nationalists in the forests. Feldhendler himself survived, only to be murdered by Polish antisemites in his apartment in Lublin in 1945. Pechersky, the magnetic leader of the uprising survived in the forest, joined the partisans, returned to Soviet territory, survived Stalinism and died in old age in the Soviet Union.
RESISTANCE IN WARSAW
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – whose eightieth anniversary we marked on 19 April 2023 – is one of the most significant events in Jewish history.
In November 1940, the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Europe. Around 450,000 Jews had been taken from Warsaw and its environs and crammed into an area of just over a square mile. By April 1942, 75% of those Jews were dead. Most had been deported to Treblinka and gassed, others were shot in the ghetto, or succumbed to disease and starvation.
A force of 700 Jews led by Zionist and Communist groups led the uprising. It unified Jewish nationalists and internationalists, hitherto bitter political foes. They created a network of dugouts linked to the sewage system. They smuggled in small arms, fashioned molotov cocktails, and took down collaborators, informers, and policemen inside the ghetto before engaging in combat with the SS.
They held the factories for as long as they could — jumping from collapsing buildings or escaping through the sewers when the SS battalions began the systematic destruction of the ghetto, scorching or toppling buildings and all inside them, to end the uprising. For all their valour and determination, the Jewish fighters killed no more than 16 of their tormentors. The uprising was crushed. The remaining Jews of the ghetto were either shot on site or deported to the death camps.
But the 2,000 year pattern of helplessness in the face of torment that Raul Hilberg had observed had been forever broken. Emanuel Ringelblum, who managed to escape the ghetto before being betrayed in hiding and executed along with the Polish family that hid him, wrote in lamentation:
“Why didn’t we resist when they began to resettle 300,000 Jews from Warsaw to the camps? Why did we allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter? Why did everything come so easy to the enemy? Why didn’t the hangmen suffer a single casualty? Why could 50 SS men and 200 Ukrainian guards carry out the operation so smoothly?”
No one among us can judge the actions of those placed in that purest rendering of hell that was the Holocaust. No one can say how they would have conducted themselves if faced with their circumstances.
Perhaps the greatest difference between those who could resist and those who could not was their conception of hope. The resistors did not engage in self-delusion or false hope. They did not kid themselves that the killing process would just exhaust itself. Or that anyone was coming to liberate them. They knew they would die. Their hope was that by rebelling they could briefly create a new reality — a dawn they knew they would never see.
They resisted to restore their dignity and that of their people, to assert their honour, to restore some individualism, wrest back some scrap of freedom after everything good in this world had been burned and choked off. This, to me, is the height of bravery and nobility.
They also sought to inspire others, and in this they succeeded. As Yehuda Bauer notes:
“armed groups resisted the Nazis in 110 ghettos and camps. There were 63 armed underground groups.”
In addition to the uprising at Sobibor, Jews rose up in Treblinka and Birkenau. The Jewish resistance in Warsaw sparked major ghetto uprisings in Minsk and Bialystok.
In the dying words of the resistors, we see another common theme. Amid it all was a crushing loneliness, a sense that they existed and were being erased as if on an island, unseen, unknown, cut off from all the world that was indifferent and oblivious to their tortured fate. That no one would know they ever lived and died.
But the resistors speak to us now. They tell us that they lived, did not succumb, they did not go quietly, they did not give up. They teach us what it means to have courage, to be strong even when faced with an unstoppable force. To see a world and a destiny beyond our own lives. And we, even here, so far in space and time from the scenes of the crimes, honour them, remember them — we speak their names and we marvel at their greatness.
CHAIM ENGEL DESCRIBES PLANS FOR THE SOBIBOR UPRISING
About the writer:
Alex Ryvchin is the Co-Chief Executive Officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. His new book on antisemitism, The Seven Deadly Myths, will be published next month. This piece is based on speeches delivered at Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies in Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and the Sunshine Coast on Sunday, 16 April 2023.
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