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Section: Responses to the Holocaust

How did Jews respond?

A post-war portrait of two female Bielski partisans who carried weapons during the war
A post-war portrait of two female Bielski partisans who carried weapons during the war © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Many people ask: ‘Why did the Jews of Europe not resist the antisemitic and inhumane policies of Nazi Germany and her collaborators?’

There are many answers to this question. For example:

In Nazi Germany the steps toward the events that we now call the Holocaust evolved over the years and involved many stages. Many people did not believe until it was very late that the Nazis would act in the the way they did. As the Nazis marched into other lands they acted against the local Jewish populations with speed, force and brutality, often supported by local collaborators. Jews in these countries often had very little opportunity to escape the Nazi hatred.

The Jewish population in Germany was a very small minority of the total population; how could they successfully oppose or fight back against the size and depth of the Nazi machine? Furthermore, how could this minority oppose the Nazis when the world largely stood by and watched?

However, Jews did resist; they did fight back. In fact, there is much evidence that large numbers of brave Jews resisted the Nazis in many different ways.

In this section of the site you will be able to read, see and hear about many brave examples of unarmed and armed resistance carried out by individuals and groups across occupied Europe, and in the ghettos and Nazi camps.

Unarmed Jewish resistance

Jews resisted the Nazis in many ways. Even in the ghettos and camps many managed to preserve their cultural and religious identity. They maintained schools and prayer groups. Others organised cultural and artistic groups. There are many examples of this kind of resistance.

In the Vilna ghetto, they managed to maintain an underground lending library. In the Warsaw ghetto a great teacher, Janusz Korczak, set up an orphanage. He taught the children, organised plays for them and tried to make their lives as normal as possible. He even accompanied them to their deaths in Treblinka so that they should not be frightened of the dark.

Many people wanted the world to know what was happening and kept diaries. One person hid his diaries in six milk churns in Warsaw; five of them were discovered after the war and the diaries were published.

Other forms of unarmed resistance were common within the ghettos. The smuggling of food was mainly carried out by the young. It was a form of resistance that was significant as it enabled people to eat and therefore survive.

Anne Frank

Who was Anne Frank?

The face of Anne Frank is one of the most well known images of the Holocaust. Who was this remarkable young lady? What is the significance of her amazing diary?

Anne Frank was born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929. When, in 1933, the Nazis came to power in Germany, her family thought they would be safer in Holland, so went to live in Amsterdam. For a few years they were safe. However, in 1940, the Germans occupied Holland. The family was once again living under Nazi control.

Otto, Anne’s father, began making plans to hide himself and his entire family until the War was over.

On 6 July 1942, a month before Anne’s 13th birthday, the family went into hiding in a part of Otto’s office building. Within a few months four other people joined them. Four of Otto’s staff knew about the hiding place and helped them survive.

By August 1944 Anne Frank and her family had been in hiding for just over two years. The Franks were then betrayed. On 4 August 1944, the Nazis found out about the hiding place and raided the office, arresting all eight people. All were sent to Westerbork, a transit camp near to Amsterdam. From there they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau on the last ever transport from Westerbork to the camp. Anne’s mother, Edith died in Auschwitz.

In October 1944 Anne and her sister, Margot, were sent to Bergen-Belsen. The camp was extremely overcrowded; the conditions were terrible. Anne and her sister both died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. Anne had lived until she was 15 years old.

What is the Diary of Anne Frank?

On her 13th birthday – she had gone into hiding by then – Anne was given a diary as a birthday present. For the two years she was in hiding Anne wrote a detailed diary. She invented an imaginary friend, Kitty, who was the person she imagined telling her thoughts to. Anne wrote about life in hiding, her family relationships, the other people in hiding with her and her own physical and emotional development. It is a very moving personal record of what happened during the Holocaust.

The Diary of Anne Frank is not just an historical document. It is the testimony of a young woman who refused to give up. She resisted the Nazis. Throughout those two years Anne held on to her culture, her ideals, her hopes and her dreams in the face of adversity, even though she was trapped within the confines of the family’s hiding place.

Anne’s father Otto was the only member of the whole family who survived the Holocaust. He was liberated in Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. Later he returned to Amsterdam. On his return, Miep Giese, one of his worker’s who had helped the family during their two years in hiding, gave him the pages from Anne’s diary that she had saved from the hiding place. In 1947, Otto published the diary.

Anne Frank’s diary remains one of the best-known published works throughout the world.

Camp rebellions

Rebellions were organised by Jewish prisoners at three of the six extermination camps – Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Sobibor

There were several escape attempts from Sobibor, some of which were successful. However, the Nazis executed many prisoners as punishment and as a warning to others.

In the summer of 1943, led by Leon Feldhendler, the prisoners began planning a mass escape. This was helped by the arrival at the end of September 1943 of many Soviet Jewish prisoners of war. This group included Lieutenant Aleksandr Pechersky. He was made leader of the underground group, with Feldhendler as his second-in-command. The prisoners planned to kill the SS soldiers, steal their weapons and escape from the camp.

On 14 October 1943, the prisoners managed to kill 11 SS men and several Ukrainian guards. Around 300 prisoners were able to escape. However, many of them were captured and killed. Most of those who had not joined the escape were also killed. About 50 of the escapees survived the war.
After the uprising, the Nazis destroyed Sobibor. The whole area was ploughed, planted with crops and given to a Ukrainian guard.

Treblinka

There were several attempts to escape en route to Treblinka. Most failed. There were also attempts to escape the camp itself. One such attempt was planned as the Germans prepared to liquidate the camp.

The SS and their Ukrainian collaborators suppressed the uprising and killed most of the 750 Jews who had attempted to escape.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

In October 1943 a transport of Jews arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau from Bergen-Belsen, a camp in Germany. All of the people on the transport were selected for death.

In the undressing room of crematorium II one of the women seized the pistol from an SS officer. She shot two SS guards, one of whom later died from his wounds. Other women joined the attack. The SS overcame the mutiny and killed all of the women.

There are examples of Jews escaping from the crematoria and gas chambers. One such incident involved men, women and children who had been transported from Hungary. On the night of 25/26 May 1944, they escaped and hid in the woods and in ditches. The SS tracked them down and killed them.

On 10 June 1942 Polish prisoners in a work detail attempted to escape while working on a drainage ditch in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Very few got away. Twenty prisoners were shot by the SS. To prevent future acts of resistance and in revenge, more than 300 Poles were murdered in the gas chambers.

The most ambitious uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau involved the actions of 250 Jewish Sonderkommando on 7 October 1944. They set fire to one of the crematoria. They managed to cut through the fence and reach the outside of the camp. The SS surrounded them. In the fight that followed, they managed to kill three SS guards and wound 10 of them. All 250 Jews were killed.

One of the work camps made arms for the German army. The SS discovered that four Jewish women had stolen explosive material from this factory and given it to the Sonderkommando. The women were captured and hanged in front of other prisoners – again as an act of revenge, but also to stop others resisting.

Armed resistance by Jews

Nazi treatment of any act of resistance was extremely harsh. In addition it was almost impossible to get hold of weapons.

The majority of people lived within family groups, which included the elderly, the young and the vulnerable. Initially people did not resist, fearing it would affect their families. However, there were many examples of physical resistance in the ghettos after the deportation of the children and the old.

In France at least a quarter of the famous French resistance was Jewish. Jewish armed resistance groups also operated in Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Yugoslavia. Thousands of Jewish men and women joined the partisans in Yugoslavia and fought in the forests of Slovakia and Eastern Europe. Very few Jews who took up arms against the Nazis survived.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising

As early as the spring of 1942, groups of young Jewish political activists had begun to discuss armed resistance. It was only after deportation of the majority of Jews from the ghetto that it began.

On the eve of Passover, 19 April 1943, the Germans began the final liquidation of the ghetto. A group of young Jewish men and women, with very little ammunition, held out against a far superior German force. The Germans responded by systematically burning down the buildings. The Jewish defenders of the ghetto fought for a month until the Germans finally succeeded in gaining control.

There were very few survivors.

The uprising had been led by the 24 year old Mordechai Anielewicz who died along with his people. This is an extract from his last letter:

‘I cannot describe the conditions in which the Jews are living. Only a few will hold out; the rest will die, sooner or later. Our fate is sealed. In all the bunkers where our comrades hide, you cannot light a candle through lack of air…The main thing in my life’s dream has come to be. I had the privilege of seeing the Jewish defence of the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.’

For Mordechai Anielewicz the very act of resisiting, fighting back against the Nazi war machine, was highly significant. The fact that the ghetto fighters had held out for a month against the brutality of the German Army was success itself.

As news of the Warsaw ghetto uprising spread, it served as an example for Jews in other ghettos and camps. There were many uprisings in the camps and ghettos of Eastern Europe.

The Bielski Brigade

Throughout the War the Bielski brothers carried out a continuous guerrilla war against the Nazis. They often used captured German weapons gained from ambushed German patrols. They also derailed troop trains and blew up bridges and electricity stations.

Who were these remarkable resisters to the Nazis?

The Bielski family were millers and grocers living and working in and around a town called Novogrudek, in the Soviet Union. In 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in the town. In December 1941, after their parents were killed in the ghetto the brothers fled to the nearby Naliboki forest.

In the spring of 1942, some 40 people had formed a partisan group deep in the forest. The oldest brother, Tuvia, was their leader. They formed a camp that was more like a small village in the forest. Eventually the partisan group had 1,236 members, 70% of whom were women, children and the elderly. Within the camp they built kitchens, a mill, a bakery, a bathhouse, a medical clinic and a metal workshop to repair damaged weapons. There was also a school and a synagogue.

About 150 from the group were involved in armed resistance against the Nazis. They attacked the Nazis and their collaborators, often carrying out sabotage missions. Under Tuvia’s leadership the Bielski group remained independent from other resistance groups and worked to protect Jews and attack Nazis. At one point the Nazis had to allocate a large amount of vital resources to try to defeat the partisans.

The Bielski group was eventually divided into two groups. One led by Tuvia became the Soviet Army’s Kalinin Unit. It eventually returned victoriously to Novogrudek as the War ended. Three of the four brothers survived the War and as their story became widely known, they became regarded as leading resistance fighters against the Nazis.

Jack talks about the Bielski Brigade

Jack was born in Novogrudek in the Soviet Union. The town is now in Belarus.

In 1941, the town was invaded and taken over by the Nazis. Jack was only 12 years old, when the Nazis invaded, but remembers vividly how the Nazis brought in many anti-Jewish laws. He also remembers the terrible atrocities committed by the Nazis and their accomplices.

Jack remembers life within the ghetto. Very soon after being imprisoned Jack managed to escape and joined up with the Bielski brigade.

Watch this video to learn about his experiences.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

 

Jewish memories of resistance

The resistance within France

Throughout the war, the Maquis, a French resistance movement was active against the Nazis and the Vichy Government. The Maquis’ leader, Moulin, was the representative of General Charles de Gaulle.

Some Jews also took part in the activities of the French Resistance, whilst many others joined Jewish resistance organizations, such as the Armee Juive. Some Jewish resistence organisations hid Jews, especially Jewish children, whilst others sought to enable their escape from France.

Some Jews tried to escape southward to Spain or eastward to Switzerland. However, the journey to those countries was extremely dangerous, and very few Jews made it successfully.

Survivor video memories

Watch Joan and Freddie’s video interviews to learn more about the work of the resistance.

Firstly, Joan talks about her father being sent to an internment camp in France. She recalls how he was picked on by some of the other prisoners, but also tells us that other inmates and guards helped and supported him.

 

In her second video Joan explains that she and her family had been hiding in Nazi occupied France for some time. Eventually they travelled southwards until they were near to the Spanish boarder.

After the resistance had helped Joan’s father escape from an internment camp he set about helping his family to escape from France to unoccupied Spain.

In his interview Freddie, an Austrian Jew who escaped to Belgium and then France, describes how, in 1943, he joined the resistance.

As you watch the videos, reflect on the heroic activities of the resistance in helping Jewish refugees and French Jews escape the German and Vichy authorities.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

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The Bielski Brigade

The Bielski Brigade

What happened in May