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Section: Resistance, Responses and Collaboration

Resistance

A group of Jewish partisans, initially formed in the Vilna Ghetto, who went on to operate in the forests outside of Vilna between September 1943 and July 1944. They were led by Abba Kovner (centre back). This photograph also shows Rozka Korczak (third from left) and Vitka Kempner (far right).

A group of Jewish partisans, initially formed in the Vilna Ghetto, who went on to operate in the forests outside of Vilna between September 1943 and July 1944. They were led by Abba Kovner (centre back). This photograph also shows Rozka Korczak (third from left) and Vitka Kempner (far right).

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Despite the repression of their opponents, resistance to the Nazis occurred throughout their time in power. This resistance manifested in different ways.

Some people joined organised groups of resistance, some participated in armed uprisings, some refused to do the Hitler salute, and others produced secret writings condemning the regime.

This section will discuss and give examples of resistance, opposition and non-conformity, starting with organised and more risky examples of resistance.

Armed uprisings

Within the camps and ghettos of Nazi occupied Europe, there were several instances of resistance through armed uprisings.

Ghettos

Following the start of the Second World War in September 1939, the Nazis imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jews in ghettos across occupied Europe.

In response to their imprisonment, around one hundred underground resistance movements developed within the ghettos. These movements resisted Nazi rule through distribution of illegal newspapers and radios, sabotage of forced labour efforts for the war, aiding escape from ghettos, and armed uprisings. Armed uprisings were difficult to organise, as most ghettos had high security measures and if resistors were caught they faced harsh punishments. Despite these obstacles, several armed uprisings did take place.

The most famous of these armed uprisings was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place from 19 April 1943 – 16 May 1943. In addition to the uprising in Warsaw, several smaller uprisings took place such as the Białystok Ghetto Uprising (16 August 1943).

Despite the desperate efforts of those involved, most of the armed uprisings were quickly crushed by the Nazis. Many of those involved were either killed while fighting or caught, tortured, and deported to extermination camps.

Camps

As with ghettos, armed resistance in camps was extremely difficult to organise and carry out.

However, whilst difficult, some still managed to create underground groups – undetected by the Nazis – where they coordinated efforts to resist.

In the extermination camp of Sobibór, these efforts culminated in the Sobibór Uprising of 14 October 1943, during which eleven SS guards were killed by members of the Sonderkommando. Three hundred prisoners managed to escape the barbed wire and cross the minefield which surrounded the camp. Approximately one hundred escapees were recaptured and shot.

A similar uprising took place six weeks earlier on 2 August 1943 in Treblinka, where one thousand prisoners revolted and set fire to the extermination camp. Two hundred prisoners managed to escape, but one hundred were recaptured and murdered.

Other armed uprisings also took place in the largest extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau and other smaller camps, such as Janowska in eastern Poland.

Organised groups and networks

One common way of resisting Nazi rule and persecution was participation in resistance groups and networks. These groups had a variety of different aims. Some aimed to sabotage the Nazi war efforts by destroying equipment, some helped people escape from camps and ghettos, and others disseminated anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Youth – Baum Group

The Baum group was an underground resistance movement based in Berlin and led by Herbert and Marianne Baum. The group was founded shortly after the Nazis rise to power in 1933 and its members were mostly young Jews who had Zionist and communist sympathies. Prior to the Second World War, the group focused on producing anti-Nazi leaflets and anti-fascist graffiti.

After 1939, the group’s actions became more aggressive. In 1941, they spread information regarding the Nazi atrocities on the eastern front. In 1942, they set fire to a prominent Nazi exhibition in Berlin entitled Soviet Paradise which sought to ridicule communism and identify Jews with the Soviet system. Although the fire was put out fairly quickly, one section of the exhibition was destroyed. The group were severely punished for their actions – in total 32 members of the Baum group were murdered by the Nazis, in addition to several of their family and friends who were sent to concentration camps.

Partisans – Bielski brothers

The Bielski brothers were a group of partisans who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forests of Belorussia. After their parents and two of their siblings were murdered by the Nazis in the Nowogrodek ghetto, Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielski escaped fled to the nearby forests. Initially, their aim was to simply survive and rescue their own family. However, the group soon grew and helped others to escape. By 1942, the group had grown to over seven hundred people.

As the Germans increased raids to crack down on the partisans in late 1943, the group moved to the Naliboki forest, west of Minsk, which was less accessible and therefore better protected. The group refused to turn people away, and the community grew to include a synagogue, bakery, school, synagogue and a basic hospital.

As well as ensuring the survival of the group itself, several members also carried out sabotage missions, helped escape attempts, and attacked German and Belorussian officials suspected of antisemitic persecution.

In mid-1944, the area was liberated by the Soviet army. By that time, the group had grown to 1,230 people, 70% of which were women, children, or elderly.

Intellectuals – White Rose Group

The White Rose was a non-Jewish resistance group created by Professor Kurt Huber and his students (including brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl) at the University of Munich. The group primarily focused on creating and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets and anti-Nazi graffiti. They criticised the Nazis persecution and oppression of Jews, and called for wider resistance to Nazi rule.

After starting their anti-Nazi activities in June 1942, and the group continued until the majority of its leadership were arrested by the Gestapo on the 18 February 1943. Most of those arrested were put on trial and executed, including Professor Huber and the Scholl siblings.

Assassinations

A portrait of Ernst Eduard vom Rath. Vom Rath was a Nazi German diplomat working in the German embassy in Paris. In 1938, vom Rath was shot by the Polish-German Jew Herschel Grynszpan, in retaliation for his parent’s deportation from Germany to the Polish border. Vom Rath died of his injuries two days later. His death sparked numerous pogroms on Jews across the Third Reich.

A portrait of Ernst Eduard vom Rath. Vom Rath was a Nazi German diplomat working in the German embassy in Paris. In 1938, vom Rath was shot by the Polish-German Jew Herschel Grynszpan, in retaliation for his parent’s deportation from Germany to the Polish border. Vom Rath died of his injuries two days later. His death sparked numerous pogroms on Jews across the Third Reich.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Assassinations of Nazi officials were another form of resistance which aimed to weaken or cause the collapse of the Third Reich.

Hitler assassination attempts

Several individuals and groups attempted to resist the Nazis by murdering their leader, Adolf Hitler. Some hoped that by removing the Nazi leader the Third Reich would collapse, whereupon the German people could end the war and surrender to the Allies. Others were motivated more specifically by opposition to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy, but this varied from attempt to attempt.

After 1939, the attempts on Hitler’s life became more numerous, with approximately ten attempts before the end of the war.

One of the best-known attempts to murder Hitler was carried out on 20 July 1944 by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an officer in the Germany Army. Stauffenberg acted as part of a group of army officers and civilians who were opposed to Hitler.

On 20 July 1944, Stauffenberg travelled to Hitler’s headquarters, commonly known as the Wolf’s Lair, and placed a suitcase with a bomb inside under Hitler’s table. After Stauffenberg had left the room, however, the briefcase was moved slightly further away. The bomb detonated and killed four people, but only injured its intended victim – Hitler.

As soon as Hitler was discovered to have survived the plot quickly fell apart. Most of those involved were arrested and brought before the People’s Court for show trials and then executed. In total more than 7,000 people were arrested, and 4,980 were murdered.

The assassination of Heydrich

Other leading Nazis were targets of assassination.

As a leading figure in the Nazi Party, Reinhard Heydrich was a high-priority target, especially following his appointment as Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (previously part of Czechoslovakia) on 29 September 1941.  On 27 May 1942, soldiers from the Czechoslovak army-in-exile, in cooperation with the British government, attempted an assassination of Heydrich. Heydrich was badly wounded, and died of his injuries one week later.

In retaliation for Heydrich’s death, the Nazis destroyed the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and murdered or deported almost all of their inhabitants.

Hiding

As persecution intensified and the Nazis occupied more of Europe, many Jews chose to go into hiding to resist further oppression or imprisonment. Some Jews changed their names and obtained false papers, and allowing them to live openly as ‘Aryans’. Others physically hid from the Nazis and their collaborators by remaining out of sight in a variety of places, such as cellars, caves or barns.

Hiding in plain sight

For those who decided to hide in plain sight by changing their identity, it was key to obtain false papers as quickly as possible as there were regular identity checks in wartime and papers were often needed to obtain items such as rationed food.

Many Jews who went into hiding also moved to a new area to avoid recognition by those who knew them. Whilst in wartime moving around was relatively common, the arrival of new people to rural close-knit communities could arose suspicion. If this suspicion was not dealt with immediately, Jews living under false papers risked being denounced to the Nazis.

Hiding in plain sight was typically only an option for Jews who looked ‘Aryan’ or did not have stereotypical or distinctive Jewish features. Anyone suspected of being a Jew risked being arrested by the Nazis.

Parents also sometimes deposited their children with ‘Aryan’ friends or in convents to hide their true identity from the Nazis. Young boys could potentially still be identified by their Jewish circumcision, and so remained at risk.

Whilst the exact figures are unknown, thousands of Jews survived the Holocaust using false papers.

Concealed out of sight

Many Jews were unable to hide using false identities and instead concealed themselves in places such as caves, cellars, attics, or barns.

This type of hiding often relied on help from non-Jewish friends or the local population, as obtaining practical provisions without attracting notice was difficult. This cooperation from outsiders also brought the risk of denunciation – from the friends themselves or their acquaintances, neighbours or even family.

Whilst many hid in attics or cellars, others hid in more obscure locations such as the 38 Ukrainian Jews who hid in the Priest’s Grotto cave southwest of Kiev between 1942-1944.

One family who went into hiding was the family of Anne Frank, who became famous after the war for the diary she kept whilst she was in hiding. The Franks hid in a secret attic annex in Amsterdam from July 1942 to August 1944. The family relied on the help of family friends and colleagues for food and clothing. After a tip off, the Gestapo discovered the annex in 1944 and arrested everyone inside. Only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust.

Escape

Trains

Many hundred Jews resisted the Nazis by escaping from deportation trains on route to extermination, concentration, or labour camps.

Several factors influenced whether or not people attempted to escape from the deportation trains, including: knowledge of the purpose of deportations, knowledge of successful escapes, geographical location of the transit camps (i.e how long the Jews spent on the deportation train and whether or not they travelled in the night), the type of train, the moral pressure of other prisoners, and family members.

Leo Bretholz and Manfred Silberwasser were both successful in escaping from the 42 Transport from Drancy to Auschwitz on 6 November 1942. Breholz and Silberwasser were two young men who had been neighbours in Vienna. They both understood that their deportation to Auschwitz would end in death, and therefore they decided to attempt to jump and escape the moving train. Those inside their train carriage heard their plan. Whilst some encouraged and helped them create a hole in the roof, others tried to persuade them to stay (for fear of punishment for themselves when it was found that they were missing, or out of fear for Silberwasser and Bretholz’s own safety). The two men were successful, and both survived the war. Just four men from their train of over one thousand Jews, including Silberwasser and Bretholz, survived the Holocaust.

Hundreds of people managed to survive the Holocaust through this form of resistance.

Camps

Although many of those who arrived at the extermination camps were killed immediately, some were kept alive to be used as forced labour. In hybrid camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or in concentration camps, such as Mauthausen, less people were killed on arrival than at purely extermination camps, such as Treblinka.

Some of those who survived the initial selection planned to escape.

Some people joined underground groups and organised uprisings and mass escapes, such as at Sobibór in 1943. Others acted individually or in smaller groups of three or four people. On 20 June 1942, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, Józef Lempart, and Eugeniusz Bendera escaped from Auschwitz after stealing SS uniforms, weapons and a car and impersonating SS soldiers. In total, approximately 928 prisoners attempted to escape from Auschwitz, although only 196 of these were successful.

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