Unlike Lambs to the Slaughter: Remembering the Holocaust and the Resistance

As Jews observe Yom Ha Shoah, the remembrance of the Holocaust, I hear again the question, “Why didn’t the Jews resist?” and I am angry. The myth of “the passive Jew” has joined the folklore of bigotry along with the myth of “the happy Negro” in the pre-Civil War South.

But if passivity is a myth, what is the reality? Fortunately, a growing body of research is reconstructing for Jewish resistance fighters the history the Nazis tried to destroy.

The answer, as researchers present it, demands at least three areas of explanation: the mind of the Diaspora Jew, the Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s, and the actual resistance.

Ever since the Diaspora, Jews have faced the question of how to be a Jew in a gentile society. Many shed the hardships by conversion or assimilation. Others clung to Orthodox Judaism, which they practiced in small communities apart from the mainstream.

Often, Jews lived in ghettoes under harsh conditions. Anti-Semitic laws barred them from certain trades, and they were made scapegoats by monarchical regimes to divert the attention of peasants from legitimate grievances. Many individuals, and sometimes entire communities, responded by escaping to other countries. The mass migration of Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1920 was in response to pogroms encouraged by the czar of Russia.

But usually Jews endured the hardships and prayed for better times, which often returned. By the time Hitler came to power, German Jews were the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Many had been leaders of the enlightenment that swept Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Within the religion, they were founders of the Reform Movement, which encouraged assimilation as a survival tool. Many had wealth and status.

Then came Hitler. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews lost all civil and political rights.

Why didn’t they flee? Partly because the troubles were expected to pass. But many tried. Unfortunately few countries would accept them, including the United States, which approved 850 visas a month from a pool of 110,000. Still, before 1939, 400,000 Jews left Germany. Many fled to Poland. Then Hitler came to Poland. Ghettoes were set up and became holding tanks for Jews on their way to the death camps.

Although armed resistance was rare before 1942, when the truth about the camps leaked into the ghettoes, nonviolent resistance was common. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer cites a study of 73 Jewish councils in southeastern Poland, which showed that 45 resisted, even before they knew their lives were in danger. Resistance included refusals to hand over names of people, money, and clothing to the Nazis. Sixteen of the chairmen of the councils were later executed; five others committed suicide. More than forty ghettoes in Eastern Europe had armed underground units.

Jews were also in the resistance movements of Western Europe. Numerous acts of sabotage included blowing up trains, bridges, and SS headquarters. Inmates at five of the camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz, staged uprisings.

But Jewish resistance failed. Lack of arms was one reason. Lack of contact between ghettoes and with Jews on an international level was another. Also, the Jews were being systematically starved. According to Bauer, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto lived on 336 calories a day, a third of which was smuggled in by children who were shot if they were caught. No social or medical services were available.

Finally, there never was a long-range plan of extermination that might have warned the Jews. According to Bauer, this plan only came into being as a result of the Nazi decision to attack the Soviet Union. “How, then, can the victims be blamed for not foreseeing their fate at a time when the murderers had not yet decided it?”

This fact alone makes belief in the “passive Jew” myth startling by assuming that the Jews of the 1940s had the benefit of a 1980s retrospective view. How much easier it might have been had this been so.

[I was going to post my latest entry on the underground press digital project today but, as it turns out, today is Yom Ha Shoah, the day Jews commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust; so instead I posted the above story, which appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune on Monday May 5, 1986, under the title “For Jews, myth becoming passive.”]

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