Following the bloody month-long Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, a cable was sent from British Mandate Palestine to occupied Poland’s Jewish Fighting Organization members. It contained the Jewish settlement leaders’ instructions to the Jews of Poland, telling them to “exploit all ways to emigrate,” according to a 2014 article by Prof. Avihu Ronen of Tel Hai College.
This order, writes Ronen, was “construed at the time as an instruction to desist from uprisings.”
By many in Nazi-occupied Poland, that order was a bitter to pill to swallow. There is notable historical evidence from an underground leader in the town of Będzin, where ahead of World War II Jews were the majority population, that the underground was dissatisfied with the Palestine-based leadership’s orders. After Germany occupied it in 1939, the Jews there were murdered, persecuted, and by 1942, forced into a ghetto.
After receiving the cable, the town’s Hashomer Hatzair leader, Chajka Klinger, wrote in her diary that the underground there “rejected trying to save themselves in abandonment of the community and of their ideals”; its members stayed but ceased to fight. By war’s end, as it was one of the last towns liquidated in occupied Poland in 1943, a relatively large number of the Będzin Jewish community survived.
The Będzin Jewish underground’s choice of solidarity over the rescue of individual members was just one expression of the dilemmas facing Jewish resistance during WWII. At a symposium at the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center this week, international scholars discussed similarly complicated situations facing Jews in their quest for personal and communal survival.
“It’s clear that in this issue there are many stories of courage and bravery. At the same time, there are complex stories in which not all is black and white. There are a lot of gray areas, which is understandable during this era,” said Dr. David Silberklang, senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research at the December 11 symposium.
During his brief lecture slot, Silberklang pointed to the all-too-human challenges facing Jews during World War II and the nuanced approach needed to examine them.
Speaking from a personal perspective, Silberklang said that unlike most other American-born Jews, he was exposed to the complexities behind the idea of Jews saving Jews early: His mother was one of the 1,236 Jews saved by the Jewish partisans led by Tuvia Bielski and his brothers. “I didn’t understand the significance behind it for years,” he said.
But there are lingering rumors about the mistreatment of several of the women in the group, said Silberklang. Additionally, there is evidence that the Bielskis killed Jews who didn’t agree with their leadership and attempted to incite against them.
In an essay about the brothers’ cousin Yehuda Bielski (Bell), his daughter Leslie writes, “The rules of the camp were made and strictly enforced by the three Bielski brothers. For those who broke them, there was a jail. Challenges to the leadership of the brothers were sometimes resolved through the end of the barrel of a gun.”
Nevertheless, the Bielskis are clearly Jewish heroes, said Silberklang.
How does one act on a sinking ship?
According to Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research in Yad Vashem, the extreme situations encountered by most Jews during the Holocaust would seem to be sufficient cause for every Jew to dedicate himself to taking care of his own survival, and perhaps that of his immediate family.
“Because they needed to take care of themselves, the social norms of Jews — mutual assistance — would have been wiped out. But we see the opposite: In spite of what once would normally assume, we see many cases of mutual help and solidarity,” said Orvieto. And on top of that solidarity, “there is also a group of Jews who endangered their lives to help other Jews.”
Yad Vashem has been researching the phenomenon of Jews saving Jews since the 1960s, but more research is still needed in the field, said Orvieto.
The stories of these Jewish heroes are slowly becoming more prominent, in no small part due to the 2008 Hollywood film on the Bielskis, “Defiance.” The initially controversial idea of commemorating Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust has gained steam in the past two decades.
In 2000, B’nai B’rith founded the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust in an effort to research the stories of Jewish rescuers and bring them to audiences in Israel and abroad, according to Alan Schneider, director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem.
Schneider’s center holds an annual ceremony on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day for soldiers, students, rescuers and survivors, “dedicated to the heroism of Jewish rescuers.” It is jointly organized with the Jewish National Fund and has been held at the B’nai B’rith Martyrs Forest since 2002.
Along with the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust, since 2011, B’nai B’rith has awarded a Jewish Rescuers’ Citation to some 196 heroes who operated in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Holland, Italy, Ukraine, Latvia and Austria.
The preservation of these stories is essential, said B’nai B’rith’s Schneider.
“The stories of the Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust – people who endangered their lives and performed acts of extraordinary courage in attempts, many of them successful, to save the lives of endangered Jews – are a shining examples of Jewish and human solidarity under the most dangerous conditions,” said Schneider.
“These are true heroes whose legacy must be preserved for us and future generations, particularly at a time when the Jewish people and the people of Israel will be called upon to act with unity to counter today’s threats,” he said.
But current efforts are not enough, according to Holocaust survivor Haim Roet, a leading voice in encouraging the commemoration of Jewish rescuers who spoke on the issue last year at the United Nations and this week at Yad Vashem. Diaspora Jewry is barely aware of the Jewish rescuers’ bravery, said Roet.
20-20 vision into a pitch black world
A few of the dilemmas facing the Jews at the beginning of the Nazi persecution are difficult to grasp with hindsight.
“To save a Jew, you need to know what they’re being saved from,” Silberklang said. “Several knew they were saving Jews from certain death, but many Jews didn’t know what the Nazis’ plan was. Some believed the propaganda” that said they were being taken for work or relocation alone.
Once it was established that the Nazis were pursuing the Final Solution, the total genocide of the Jewish people, Jews who were still in a position to act were faced with the dilemma of whom exactly to save — and whom to abandon.
When it comes to those Jews who participated in active resistance — armed or not — their activities could have caused collective punishment or murder, said Silberklang. “Even the attempt to save Jews could have caused collective murder; to try or not?” he asked.
In all of these impossible situations, said Orvieto, “For every one individual that was saved, there may have been another — or more — who were not.”
“With the saving, there was also desertion and betrayal,” said Orvieto.
In examining the Jews’ deeds — or misdeeds — it is important, said Silberklang, to remember the war-torn context alongside human frailty.
“We often call people heroes, but they’re not always angels,” said Silberklang.