The Holocaust is one of the worst memories among the Jews and the world at large. It was characterized by mass murder, torture and maiming of millions of Jews. The murder of six million people during that period led to many questions being raised about the nature of resistance that the Jews put in place to counter such attacks and if at all they received help from other people. It would be appalling for anyone to believe that the Jews were just brutally murdered without posing any resistance or fighting back to protect themselves. It would equally be out rightly wrong for one to believe that the non-Jews in Europe did not offer support to them. Against all the odds, the Jews posed different forms of resistance such as cultural/spiritual and armed resistance to protect themselves from being slaughtered. They encountered a lot of challenges in defending themselves since they had little access to weapons, they were not allowed to freely move about and most of them for various reasons were not interested in resisting the Nazis. Initially, an open conflict was not the best solution to their mistreatment until it became clear to them that the Nazis intended to kill every Jew in Europe. The primary objective of this paper is to discuss the specific problems and dilemmas of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.
Resistance connected with the Jews and the Holocaust has a special definition which might slightly be different from the common understanding of the term. The Jews of Holocaust period were resisting against among other things, the murder of every single Jew that lived under Nazi tyranny, isolation, starvation, dehumanization and being subjected to harsh environmental conditions that led to the development of infectious diseases (Sterling 15). The Jews posed different types of resistance such as cultural and spiritual resistance and armed resistance to counter German attacks. Majority of the Jews exercised cultural and spiritual resistance since it was the safest among other strategies. Armed resistance was later adopted when the Jews realized that the Nazis were up for their lives but it posed serious consequences and dilemmas on the Jews since a single act of armed resistance would result in the murder of all individuals involved.
There were different varying cultural and spiritual resistant activities that took place in different Jewish ghettos. Most of these activities were secretly done and they entailed literary evenings, concerts and gatherings that marked the anniversary of Jewish artists (Glass 111). The Jewish authors and poets also produced different works in the ghettos and there were secret libraries where the members of the society would study and present their artistic works. Other forms of cultural resistance practiced by the Jewish were creation of schools, sticking to religious customs, painting, drawing, printing and secretly distributing newspapers that created awareness of tribulations that they were going through and the actions that they ought to take to overcome such challenges and record keeping of what was happening then (Sterling 23). These activities played a fundamental role in encouraging the Jews and making them forget about the tribulations that they were going through that time. However, such activities were criticized to be very inappropriate since such moments required affirmative actions based on the number of people who were being killed daily. The lives of the Jews in the camps were relatively harsh as compared to their lives in the ghettos and they barely exercised cultural and spiritual resistance. They struggled for life and normalcy, exercising such practices with a lot of caution. Others underworked and at times manufactured defective goods for their oppressors just to gain personal satisfaction by believing that they were reducing the effects of harsh treatment on them (Glass 6). It was very hard to quantify the impact of their actions on Nazi war but the effect on their morale was strong. The cultural and spiritual resistance was very pivotal in creating a personal world for the Jews in which their own decision making mattered as a means of preserving their own culture and lives.
As days went by, more Jews were murdered by the Nazis and that prompted them to resolve into armed resistance which took place in both the ghettos and the camps. Underground organizations were formed in approximately one hundred ghettos (Rappaport et al. 13). Their primary objective of forming these organizations was to protect themselves from mass killing by the Nazis. In the process, the Jewish were subjected to extreme brutalities and millions of them were murdered. Their uprising became spontaneous and some of them eventually broke out of the ghettos. However, the secret groups faced extremely difficult challenges such as training the fighters under the extreme conditions of the ghetto, smuggling arms into the ghetto and developing mechanisms of putting the fighters on alert in case there was an ambush by the Nazis (Rappaport et al. 14). Gaining the support of the residents was also another daunting challenge that the Jews faced in resisting harsh treatment. Convincing the residents to break from the ghettos was hard since only a few believed in the course and only a few fighters would manage to break out of the ghettos to join partisan units. The largest and most famous Jews resistance was Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which occurred between April and May 1943 and it was led by Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Sterling 21). The impact of the war was catastrophic and numerous houses were burned by the Nazis after subduing the Jewish fighters who retreated to the ghetto. The ghetto was burned systematically, house by house and the flames and the heat turned life in the ghetto into hell, with all stored goods burned and water no longer being suitable for consumption. The Jewish were eventually subdued and on May 16, 1943 when the German general announced that the war was officially over.
The struggle for freedom of expression, movement and basic fundamental human rights by the Jews was riddled with numerous problems and dilemmas, particularly after adopting the armed resistance during the Holocaust. The conditions of the ghettos were horrible and this forced their occupants to struggle daily for survival. Majority of them died of hunger, diseases, overcrowding and cold. The primary battle of the ghetto residents was physical survival. However, their indulgence in armed resistance was totally different and a deadly type of battle. Majority of the residents, including the children, were very weak to engage Nazis in a fight and the few individuals who joined the resistant group had to be more determined, resolved and possessed the physical power to act out of the interest of their people in the ghettos and camps. A close examination of the Jewish armed resistance in the historical context of the Holocaust shows the deadly trap in which those who dared to resist found themselves. They had 'choiceless choices' as described by Sterling in his research (11). The crushing reality of life in the ghettos was defined by decisions that were followed by poor results, which in most circumstances was a lose-lose situation. Thus, the resistors in most circumstances found themselves between a rock and a hard place in relation to decision making. Most of them were undecided on whether to resist when such actions would endanger their own families. They also wondered how they could resist when financing a revolt meant that they would minimize their expenditure on other important needs of the people.
The Jews who resisted against the Nazis were exposed to the risk of collective punishment. They were risking their own lives and the lives of the people around them. A mistake by one Jew would result into ten people or the entire community being subjected to serious torture, which sometimes resulted into death of some of the members of the community (Rappaport et al. 24). Collective punishment was one of the most effective tactics used by the Nazis to control any resistance since no one was willing to put the lives of their families or society in danger. Only very few individuals would contemplate of resistance when the lives of their families and friends were at stake. How to procure weapons in the ghettos was another dilemma that faced the Jews. The decision to stage armed resistance required the acquisition of weapons which was an impossible task during the Holocaust period. It required an incredible courage, proper connection with the non-Jewish members of the underground and enough money. The situation was made worse by the fact that majority of the members of the underground movement who owned guns did not know how to use them. Eventually, the youth movement fighters managed to get only a very small number of weapons.
Another "choiceless choice" that was very evident in the Jewish resistance was that fighters had to abandon their families. Based on the environmental conditions of the ghettos and its security in general, one could barely contemplate of leaving their families behind to go and fight. Abba Kovner was one of the most prominent figures among the fighters in the forests of Lithuania. Despite being a commander in the Vilna Ghetto underground, Kovner could not save his mother from being killed by the Nazis in the ghetto. Hence, powerlessness and the inability to save parents and family members made the decision to go and fight extremely difficult for the majority of the Jews and for those who left for war, their decision exacted a heavy price, which lasted for ages. For instance, Abba Kovner's decision to leave his family behind haunted him for years as reflected in some of his poems (Rappaport et al. 23).
The resistance that the Jewish staged against the German rule was unique since it was marked with numerous problems and dilemmas. The Jews staged both religious/cultural and armed resistance. The cultural or religious resistance was a passive way of going against the German oppression and it did not pose a lot of challenges as compared to armed resistance which required acquisition of weapon which was hard to find. The ghettos were also under tight surveillance hence one would not dream of making such a mistake. Collective punishment was also a major hindrance in acquiring weapons or resisting the regime since if one person staged resistance, more than ten people or the whole community would be punished. Additionally, the money that was to be used to purchase the weapons was meant to take care of the Jews in the camps and this left them in a serious dilemma. The Jews were also faced with the dilemma of leaving their families behind
Glass, James M. "Introduction: Memory, Resistance and Reclaiming the Self." Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, 2004, pp. 1-7.
Glass, James M. "Spiritual Resistance: Understanding its Meaning." Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, 2004, pp. 103-119.
Rappaport, Doreen, et al. Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. 2014.
Sterling, Eric. Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust. Syracuse UP, 2005.
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