Jewish armed anti-Nazi resistance

From Anarchy In Action
Jewish women resisters captured with weapons in 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising#/media/File:Stroop_Report_-_Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising_13.jpg

When the Nazi empire exterminated 5 to 6 million European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, a minority of the victims took up arms and fought back. Armed Jewish resisters in Europe numbered in the tens of thousands. This included fighters in the ghettos, in the forests, and even in the extermination camps.[1] Acting autonomously from the official Jewish leadership, armed Jewish cells killed Nazi soldiers, allowed many Jews to escape slaughter, and succeeded in shutting down the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. These Jews’ commitment to resistance, in circumstances among the very direst in human history, has inspired freedom fighters in subsequent generations. In the words of historian Yehuda Bauer, the Jewish resisters “were able to choose resistance over helpless despair, life over death.”[2]

Jewish resistance groups ranged in ideology and structure. One prominent movement was the Jewish Socialist Bund, which was social democratic and anti-Zionist. Other Jewish resisters were Communists and Zionists. Some Jews remained outside all of these ideologies. Some battles, such as the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, saw collaboration between highly-structured units and spontaneous, informal fighting formations. Jews fought alongside Anarchists among others in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

Even in the direst circumstances, Jews fought back and temporarily slowed down the Nazi genocide.


Resistance in the Ghettos

Forced to move into walled-off, crowded, disease-ridden ghettos, Jews organized underground schools, social services, and synagogues.[3] A minority also took up arms. In eastern Europe, at least forty ghettos had armed units.[4]

Sometimes, young ghetto residents acted as individuals or small groups to conduct major acts of sabotage. The nineteen year-old Jewish woman Vitka Kempner conducted Lithuania’s first act of open anti-Nazi sabotage when she blew up a German train on 8 July 1942. In September 1942, Jewish Communists and Zionists sabotaged a railroad line, attacked buildings, and assassinated German officials. In the summer of 1943, a twelve year-old boy named Motele posed as a begging street violinist when a German officer hired him to perform at a restaurant full of German troops. The boy waited until the restaurant was high-ranking officers, and he set off dynamite he had smuggled. Motele escaped through a prepared route.[5]

At other times, highly coordinated revolts took place inside the ghettos themselves. On 16 August 1943, an armed revolt broke out in the Bialystock ghetto. Led by Mordechai Tennenbaum, it involved a day of open fighting and then weeks of guerrilla warfare.[6]

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Jews’ largest ghetto uprising occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto. There, a social democratic and anti-Zionist movement called the Jewish Socialist Bund had been printing a newspaper and running schools to preserve Yiddish-language culture, teach Jews how to work in new trades, and promote political consciousness. The Bund adopted the slogan, “Resistance to the Death—Arm!”[7] The Bund partnered with Communists and Socialist Zionists to form the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). Some prominent Bundists did not strictly adhere to their organization's Marxist ideology. The militia commander Berek Snaidmil espoused a socialism that “was romantic. He had no interest in weighty Marxist economic doctrines.” Another commander, Abrasha Blum, “was more humanist than Marxist. He saw not only the mass but the individual.”[8] Although the ZOB was in theory top-down military, Yehuda Bauer explains that after the first few days of fighting, militants "became increasingly isolated from the command post (at Mila Street 18), and had to act on their own, at night.[9]

The Bundist fighter Market Edelman reported that in order to organize, “psychological difficulties had to be overcome.” He elaborated, “To overcome our own terrifying apathy, to force ourselves to the smallest spark of activity, to fight against our own acceptance of the generally prevailing feeling of panic--even these small tasks required truly gigantic efforts on our part.”[10] Jews dug extensive underground tunnels between apartments so that one could travel a square block without going outside.[11]

The non-Jewish Polish resistance provided only ten pistols to the ghetto's Jewish fighters, even though the Polish resisters had thousands of rifles and pistols along with tens of thousands of grenades. The Marxist historian Enzo Traverso laments:

"The [non-Jewish] Polish partisans never tried to interfere with the deportations or sabotage the railway line on which the convoys to Treblinka travelled. Their perception of the Jews as foreigners, the result of a long history of separation and anti-Semitism, did not encourage solidarity actions either. The Jews were not Poles, and their segregation did not appear as an intolerable discriminatory measure [...] While the Warsaw ghetto burned, life went on in the 'Aryan' sector of the capital."[12]

On 18 January 1943, Nazis entered the ghetto for deportations. Four Jewish battle groups fired back and killed about twenty Nazis. The Nazis ended their raid early, after deporting a few thousand Jews.[13]

On the eve of the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the ZOB was divided into twenty-two battle groups comprised of men and women between the ages of 18 and 25.[14] Another major fighting Jewish force was the Right-leaning Jewish Military Union (ZZW).[15] According to ZOB militant Marek Edelman, the ZOB had about 220 fighters.[16] According to his recollection, Edelman, at the age of twenty-two, was the oldest of the five commanders. All five had combined age of 110 years old.[17] Bauer estimates that the ZOB had between 250 and 300 members. Additionally, a Revisionist-Zionist militia, which the ZOB leaders considered to be "fascist," had about 120 to 130 members. This makes a total of 370 to 430 fighters.[18]

At 2 am on 19 April 1943, Nazi soldiers entered the ghetto in order to entirely liquidate it. Acting in self-defense, ZOB militants opened fire at the soldiers and burned a Nazi tank using an incendiary cocktail. Jews hurled grenades, bombs, and dynamite at Nazi soldiers.[19] Fighting continued for many hours. According to Edelman, “German dead soon littered the street” and “[a]t 2 p.m., not a single live German remained in the ghetto area. It was the ZOB’s first complete victory over the Germans.”[20] Germans returned the next afternoon.

The fighting continued for weeks, and the Nazis employed a scorched earth strategy of setting the whole ghetto up in flames. Jewish battle groups became isolated from each other.[21] Resistance spread from the ZOB to the masses of ghetto residents. Bundist fighter Bernard Goldstein wrote:

With revolvers, grenades, and incendiary bottles in their hands, wet handkerchiefs over their mouths, our fighters fought back against the overpowering force of an enemy armed with the most modern and efficient murder tools. Every remaining inhabitant of the ghetto without exception was now drawn into the battle—literally everyone, young and old.”[22] The Jews eventually ran out of ammunition and saw many of their members either go up in flames with the rest of the ghetto or commit suicide to avoid that fate. With assistance by the Polish resistance, some Jews escaped through the sewers and boarded trucks to hiding places in the forests.[23]

About 75 ZOB members escaped through the sewers on 10 May 1943.[24]

At the end of the revolt, the ghetto's roughly 50,000 survivors were deported to Treblinka and other camps where all but a few thousand were killed. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in addition to the Jews killed during the uprising:

The German authorities deported approximately another 7,000 Warsaw Jews to the Treblinka killing center, where almost all were killed in the gas chambers upon arrival. The Germans deported almost all of the remaining Jews, approximately 42,000, to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp, and to the Poniatowa, Trawniki, Budzyn, and Krasnik forced-labor camps. With the exception of a few thousand forced laborers at Budzyn and Krasnik, German SS and police units later murdered almost all of the Warsaw Jews deported to Lublin/Majdanek, Poniatowa, and Trawniki in November 1943 in “Operation Harvest Festival” (Aktion Erntefest).[25]

Unconvincingly, then-anarchist[26] author Derrick Jensen claimed in an essay published by AK Press that "the Jews who partici­pated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, including those who went on what they thought were suicide missions, had a higher rate of survival than those who went along.[27] In an email exchange, Jensen clarified that about a tenth survived of "the several thousand" who "joined the fighting in some sense or another," compared to the ghetto's overall 5% survival rate.[28] Although Jensen declined to provide any sources, the 5% figure is correct. Of the Warsaw Ghetto's 400,000 residents, no more than 20,000, or 5%, survived the Holocaust.[29] Given that about 75 of the 370 to 430 fighters escaped through the ghetto through the sewer, it can be claimed that the armed militants had at least a 17% survival rate. However, there was apparently not such a high survival rate among the "several thousand" who, in Goldstein's recollection[30] as well as Jensen's narrative, participated in some form. Jensen's estimate is contradicted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's report that only a few thousand of the ghetto's 300,000 residents survived.[31]

More realistically, the history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising can provide hope due to how it restored participants' sense of dignity and how it may have inspired other and more directly successful Jewish revolts. Traverso writes that the uprising "was a struggle to assert Jewish dignity, or more simply human dignity, in the face of extermination."[32] Writing in History, Erin Blakemore notes that news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising inspired the revolts at the Treblinka and Sobibor camps.[33] As discussed below, these revolts succeeded in shutting down the camps and liberating hundreds of inmates, about 160 of whom would survive.

Resistance in the Forests and Towns

Some Jews fought outside of the ghettos, often hiding in the forests in between their attacks. At least 15,000 Jewish militants lived and fought in the woods of Lithuania, eastern Poland, and the western USSR.[34]

A Communist band in Belgium derailed an Auschwitz-bound train on 19 April 1943, allowing several hundred prisoners to escape.[35]

On 1 August 1944, the Polish resistance launched a sixty-three-day uprising in Warsaw, and participants included Jewish Bundists who had fought the prior year in the ghetto.[36] Two Anarchist-leaning groups also participated in the Warsaw Uprising. The Polish Syndicalist Union (ZSP) had 2,000 to 4,000 members. The Freedom Syndicalist Organization (SOW) had several hundred members.

Wearing red and black bands, 200 ZSP soldiers fought in the 104th Syndicalist Company. Midway though the uprising, in September, this formation joined with SOW soldiers and formed the Syndicalist Brigade.[37]

Resistance in the Camps

In western and central Poland, armed resistance units existed in seventeen concentration and extermination camps.[38] These camps were death factories where prisoners were forced to perform hard labor (in some of history’s most inhuman conditions) until they were shot or gassed to death. An estimated three million Jews were killed in these camps, comprising about half of the Jews’ total death toll during the Nazis’ holocaust.[39]

In August 1943, inmates at the Treblinka extermination camp rose up and caused so much damage that the camp was not rebuilt.[40] 300 inmates escaped, and 100 of them survived a manhunt.[41]

On 14 October 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp revolted and killed nearly a dozen Nazi officers with hatchets. 400 of the camp’s 600 inmates escaped. Most died from mines or were killed, but sixty survived and joined the Soviet partisans. Two days later, Himmler ordered the camp to be closed down.[42]

In October 1944, inmates at the Auschwitz extermination camp revolted and destroyed a crematoria.[43]

Confronting Passivity and Collaboration

Facing intense physical and psychological intimidation, the official Jewish leadership most often took a stance of passivity or collaboration. There was an “almost complete lack of resistance” according to historian Raul Hilberg.[44] Insofar as there was resistance, it was mainly nonviolent throughout the 1930s.[45]

Nazi-sanctioned Jewish Councils, known as Judenrat participated in the operations of rounding up Jews and sending them to death camps. Hannah Arendt observed that Jewish leaders “almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis.” According to the former Judenrat member Pinches Freudiger, half of the murders of Jews could have been avoided if Jews had not followed the Councils’ instructions.[46] In Shavel, Latvia, the Council went even beyond Nazis’ orders and decided to proactively prevent new Jewish births. There, the Judenrat used threats to make Jewish women get abortions, and in one case they even assisted a nurse in killing a newborn Jewish child.[47] More than two-thirds of the Judenrat were supporters of Zionism.[48]

The Zionist leadership were among the most treacherous of all. This movement shared with Nazism a belief that Jews did not belong in Europe. On 21 June 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany sent the Nazi Party an official memo saying, “[W]e, too, are against mixed marriage and for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group...For its practical aims, Zionism hopes to be able to win the collaboration even of a government fundamentally hostile to Jews.”[49] The Federation’s newspaper urged Jews to “respect racial consciousness and the racial interest of the German people absolutely.”[50] The paper also republished a Nazi statement saying that the Nuremberg Laws (stripping Jews of citizenship and prohibiting their intimacy with non-Jews) were “both beneficial and regenerative for Judaism as well.”[51] An editor later admitted that the paper “sometimes went too far in its approval of the Nationalist State.”[52] The Federation affiliated with the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and supported the WZO's August 1933 pact with Nazi Germany. Through this pact, known as the Transfer Agreement, the Zionists bought German goods and sold them in Palestine. While Jews were already allowed to leave Germany, the pact allowed them to transfer capital. Most Jews worldwide opposed the pact because it scabbed on an international boycott of Germany led by Jews and Leftists.[53]

The lack of resistance was not entirely was not entirely the fault of the leadership. One impediment to resistance was that many Jews had deeply internalized the anti-Semitic attitudes of the dominant culture. Within the camps, most longtime prisoners eventually “believed in the superiority of the German race” according to camp survivor and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim[54] Prisoners even scavenged pieces of scrap metal to help the Nazi war effort, and they complained when journalists exposed the concentration camps in foreign newspapers.[55] Within the ghettos, according to the Jewish militant Shmuel Braslaw, many Jews held a dream to “be like [the Germans]—handsome, strong and self-confident.”[56]

Overall, passivity and nonviolence failed to stop or slow down the Nazis’ extermination of Jews and other targets. On this history, American Indian Movement militant Ward Churchill commented, “the Jewish experience reveals with stark clarity the basic illogic at the core of pacifist conceptions of morality and political action.”[57]

  1. Yehuda Bauer, They Chose Life: Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1973), 46.
  2. Bauer, They Chose Life, 57.
  3. Bauer, They Chose Life, 34-35.
  4. Bauer, They Chose Life, 46.
  5. Bauer, They Chose Life, 47-48, 50-51.
  6. Bauer, They Chose Life, 47-48.
  7. Bernard Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto (Oakland: AK Press, 2005), 19, 27, 93.
  8. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 39.
  9. Yehuda Bauer, "A hopeless fight by the very young," The JC, 20 April 2017, https://www.thejc.com/news/features/warsaw-ghetto-1.436504.
  10. Marek Edelman, “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” accessed 23 July 2018, http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/warsaw-uprising.html.
  11. Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 333.
  12. Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz, trans. Peter Drucker (London: Pluto Press, 1999), 87.
  13. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 155.
  14. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 324.
  15. Barnett, "Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."
  16. Hannah Krall, Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising trans. Joanne Stasinska and Lawrence Weschler (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986), 88.
  17. Krall, Shielding the Flame, 3.
  18. Bauer, "A hopeless fight."
  19. Edelman, “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Bernard Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 164.
  20. Edelman, “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
  21. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 166.
  22. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 166.
  23. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 173-177.
  24. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 339.
  25. "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 19 December 2020, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/warsaw-ghetto-uprising.
  26. He has subsequently drifted toward ecofascism. https://ecology.iww.org/texts/AlexanderReidRoss/AgainstDeepGreenResistance?bot_test=1
  27. Derrick Jensen, "Preface," in Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), 12.
  28. Derrick Jensen, email to Dan Fischer, July 25, 2018.
  29. Azmat Khan, "Returning to the Haunted Ground of the Warsaw Ghetto," PBS, 13 May 2013, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/returning-to-the-haunted-ground-of-the-warsaw-ghetto/.
  30. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto, 173-177.
  31. "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."
  32. Traverso, Understanding, 79.
  33. Erin Blakemore, "How the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Inspired Rebellion in a Nazi Death Camp," History, accessed 19 December 2020, https://www.history.com/news/holocaust-treblinka-uprising-facts-warsaw-ghetto.
  34. Bauer, They Chose Life, 49-50.
  35. Bauer, They Chose Life, 53.
  36. Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto.
  37. Rafal Chwedoruk, “Polish Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism in the Twentieth Century” in New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational edited by David Berry and Constance Bantman (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 159-160.
  38. Bauer, They Chose Life, 53.
  39. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 767.
  40. Bauer, They Chose Life, 54.
  41. “Treblinka Death Camp Revolt,” accessed 24 July 2018, https://www.ushmm.org/research/the-center-for-advanced-holocaust-studies/miles-lerman-center-for-the-study-of-jewish-resistance/medals-of-resistance-award/treblinka-death-camp-revolt.
  42. Bauer, They Chose Life, 53.
  43. Bauer, They Chose Life, 54.
  44. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 662.
  45. Bauer, They Chose Life, 32.
  46. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 125.
  47. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 664-665.
  48. Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation (New York: MacMillan Company, 1996), 32.
  49. Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (Atlanta: On Our Own Authority! Publishing, 2014), 65.
  50. Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, 69.
  51. Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, 72.
  52. Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, 71.
  53. Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, 82, 86. Edwin Black, The Transfer Agreement: The Untold Story of the Secret Pact Between the Third Reich & Jewish Palestine (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984), 109, 201.
  54. Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 81.
  55. Bettelheim, Surviving and other Essays, 79-80.
  56. Marcus Barnett, “Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” Jacobin, 19 April 2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/04/warsaw-ghetto-uprising-anniversary-socialists-radicals.
  57. Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology (Oakland: AK Press, 2007)51-52.