Authors: Nechama Tec
Jews and Christians Who Defied the Nazi Terror
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Â© Nechama Tec 2013
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tec, Nechama, author.
Resistance : Jews and Christians who defied the Nazi terror/Nechama Tec.
pages ; cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. World War, 1939â1945âJewish resistanceâPoland. 2. World War, 1939â1945âUnderground movementsâPoland. 3. Holocaust, Jewish (1939â1945)âPoland. 4. PolandâHistoryâOccupation, 1939â1945. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
To my husband, Dr. Leon Tec, who encouraged me to write and never to stop
came to the study of resistance indirectly, through my long involvement with Holocaust research and teaching. As a frequent lecturer on the subject of German policies of Jewish annihilation, I have always been eager to take audience questions. The more challenging the queries, the more I welcome them. And precisely because I look forward to questions and the discussions they stimulate, I became puzzled that certain queries made me feel uncomfortable and even resentful. Invariably the questions were variations of the following:
Why didn't the Jews strike back at their oppressors? Why did the Jews submit so passively to the German assaults upon their dignity and their lives? Why did the Jews refuse to fight?
Woven into the fabric of these queries was the clichÃ© that Jews went like sheep to their slaughter. At bottom, the questions involved Jewish resistance during World War II, in which scholarly interest grew during the 1960s and has continued to this day. However, nearly a half-century of exploration of this topic has still let stand, unchallenged, a myth.
It crossed my mind that these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance. Yet, rather than make an effort to fill the implicit gaps in knowledge behind them, I dismissed the questions as rhetorical. Those who posed them did not seem to expect answers. Each contained unsubstantiated claims but also implicit assumptions. One was that the opportunities to resist were present, but that Jews simply failed to take advantage of them, and since the
Jews took no advantage of such opportunities, they themselves were partly to blame for what happened to them. In a roundabout way then, assumptions about Jewish passivity led to the conclusion that Jews had become collaborators in their own destruction. This idea effectively absolves the perpetrators of the responsibilities for the crimes they had committed against the Jewish people.
Similar kinds of “blame the victim” accusations have been leveled against a variety of others. Usually, however, they appear within the context of discussions about racism, sexism, slavery, and, of course, anti-Semitism.
Throughout history a wide range of accusationsâsometimes concealed innocently as complaintsâhave been directed at the Jews. If only they would stop dressing in conspicuous ways, no one would bother them. If only they were not so greedy, manipulative, and loud, they would be fine. If only Jews were not communists, capitalists, and religious fanatics. The list seems endless, particularly when presented by anti-Semites. History shows how pernicious this mindset was and the tragic consequences it had.
My interest in Jewish resistance during the Holocaust grew out of these persistent queries. Discussions about Jewish resistance are burdened by their close association to queries such as these, presented as facts, but in reality driven by unsubstantiated assumptions. Similar to them are assertions about Jewish complicity. They continue to surface in current debates. As I delved into these issues, I became convinced that neither these assumptions, nor their implications, could be settled during a question-and-answer session. They needed to be clarified through systematic, comparative examinations of historical facts. This project sets out to do just that. In addition, it explores some of the contextual sources connected to queries, assumptions, accusations, and counteraccusations. The results could be of value to Holocaust scholars, but they are also intended to address those questions from the audience about Jewish and non-Jewish resistance, in particular.
At the end of the war, conspicuously absent was any attention to Jewish resistance. Similarly, Jews as a category of victims did not even appear in the many postwar court deliberations. In 1945â46, at the International Military Tribunal the Jews were not discussed as a distinct entity. Also, at the subsequent Nuremberg Trials (1947â48), they were not considered as a special category of victims. Jews appeared only in individual documents and only when specific charges were made against the German occupation.
By the 1950s and beyond, historians who had examined the destruction of European Jewry concentrated on the perpetrators rather than the victims. Later on, when attention was paid to these victims, they were identified simply as Jews. There was little if any discussion about the different fates of Jews, nor any particularsâage, sex, or nationality. This inattention should not come as a surprise, given that the enormity of the German crimes overshadowed their victims. Perhaps, too, it should not come as a surprise that early historians of that period were primarily interested in learning about the forces that caused such unprecedented destruction. Only after the basic outlines of the processes of Jewish annihilation had been explored did scholars begin to notice the less visible parts to the puzzle, namely, the different categories and subcategories of victims.
And that included Jews who tried to resist the annihilation. Under the German occupation, continuous oppression and targeted abuses of diverse local populations was met by three distinct reactions: submission, resistance, and collaboration. Each of these responses varied with time, place, and specific populations. Submission was the most common reaction. Resistance was the exception. Severe German retaliations limited resistance activities of the conquered majorities. However, the threat of retaliation did not affect the majorities' resentments toward their occupiers. Passive or not, they saw the mere existence of organized opposition among them as a validation of that resentment.
As for collaboration with the occupiers, it was more common than most people were willing to admit. Denials about collaboration grew with Germany's approaching defeat. But not all conquered groups had real options to become collaborators. Exceptions applied to groups destined for destructionâthe Jews and the Gypsies. It took a while for some to realize that, unlike their neighbors, they might only be collaborators fleetingly. The more victorious the Third Reich was, the more willing some among the occupied peoples were to serve their German masters, who used them against those whom they perceived as special “threats” to the Third Reich. Hence, anti-Semitic countries, such as Latvia, Lithuania, and, in part, Poland, provided fertile ground for active collaboration with Nazi policies. As German defeat loomed on the horizon later in the war, many of the collaborators attempted to switch sides. Similarly, when confronted with severe reprisals from Jewish and non-Jewish undergrounds, collaborators were more likely to retreat from their
pro-German duties. Nevertheless, collaborators were recruited from all groups, even Jews, however short-lived the advantages for Jewish collaborators, a fact which many of them did not understand.
Rather than collaboration or submission, the subject of this book is resistance, best defined as a set of activities motivated by the desire to thwart, limit, undermine, or end the exercise of oppression over the oppressed. Toward the end of 1943, as German defeat grew ever more likely, opposition to the Nazi occupation became a more attractive option for local populations. But by 1943, most Jews in Eastern Europe had already been murdered or forced into concentration camps. Those who wanted to stand up to the Germans had little time. Till the very end, the Germans continued to vigorously pursue their policies of annihilation. The fact that Jewish and other groups had different resistance chronologies does not necessarily invalidate comparisons between them and other national resistance groups.
The emergence of resistance is contingent on the presence of several conditions. One of these central conditions is oppression itself; without oppression there would be no reason to resist. For it stands to reason that the more oppressed people are, the greater is their need to resist. Yet, at the same time, the more oppressed people become, the less capable of resistance they are. Thus, there seems to be a paradoxical relationship between the oppressor and the victims. German oppression was specifically designed to strip Jews of their resources and to undermine their ability to resist.
The second condition is cooperation, which is key to facilitating resistance. It is indeed the key to resistance itself. I have written in the past about resilience, the ability some had under horrific conditions not to yield to despair and passivityâthose who could find some inner core of self-reliance to maintain their sense of themselves. But resistance is more than not submittingâit is active and requires taking action, and that means cooperation with others. Resilience is individual in orientation; resistance assumes others. Under German occupation, the emerging Jewish leaders searched in vain for cooperative parties. The Allies, for example, took virtually no interest in the plight of Jews. This indifference translated into a disregard for all known pleas, including those for arms and ammunition. Throughout the war, Jews experienced chronic shortages of the means to resist, their needs far more dire than other resistance groups.