Since the Knesset passed a resolution establishing “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day” in 1951, the understanding of what it means to have resisted the Nazis has expanded by leaps and bounds.
As its central theme for this year’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on April 18, the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem chose “Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Marking 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” In addition to highlighting examples of Jews taking up arms, attention will be given to ways in which Jews resisted their oppressors spiritually.
“Not all resistance was physical, and spiritual resistance was even more widespread than physical fighting because everyone and anyone could practice it regardless of their circumstance or resources,” said Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen.
Importantly, Allen told The Times of Israel, “resisting the Nazis also included maintaining one’s humanity.”
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, several hundred poorly armed Jewish fighters held off German SS units for more than a month. Thousands of Jews hid in bunkers until the SS ordered the ghetto burned down, building by building, with the resulting inferno ending thousands of lives.
“The will to resist has been sparked among thousands of men and women, elderly people and children, a will which conquers the natural anxiety and the fear of death and hardship,” wrote eyewitness Hersh Wasser, a member of the Warsaw Ghetto’s clandestine “Oneg Shabbat” group.
“The masses have understood that by resisting surrender they are fighting the enemy in a unique way, hindering his deeds of destruction,” wrote Wasser. “The Germans were forced to conquer every single shelter and bunker with full force of arms.”
‘I was walking on air’
To help people see resistance as multifaceted, Yad Vashem created online programs and an onsite exhibition about art as a form of Holocaust resistance.
“Anyone who managed to helped their fellow Jew during the Holocaust, by sharing their measly food rations, picking up the slack of someone who couldn’t meet their daily labor quotas, or creating art during this horrific time, resisted and did not give up,” said Allen.
Online, Yad Vashem’s “Personal Milestones during the Holocaust” exhibition depicts how Jews observed religious traditions and honored each other with — for example — a bar mitzvah at Terezin, or a “yellow star” wedding in Amsterdam.
On the cover of a colorfully illustrated birthday card made by Auschwitz prisoners, three inmates stand laughing in striped uniforms. The multi-paneled, fold-out card depicts happy scenes from the recipient’s life, including his work as a tailor, as well as grim scenes from German concentration camps.
According to Yad Vashem, the lavishly designed card was made for prisoner David Goldstein during the first week of 1945, not long before most Auschwitz-Birkenau inmates were forced into death marches.
Another set of “Personal Milestone” documents relate to German-born survivor Martin Weil, particularly his bar mitzvah in 1936 under the cloud of Nazi rule. Three years later, in 1939, Weil urged his parents to let him go on a Kindertransport rescue mission to England, which ultimately saved his life.
Among the artifacts tied to Weil’s story are his original bar mitzvah speech and a telegram sent to Weil in England from his parents in Germany. Within weeks of writing the telegram, Weil’s parents and siblings were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“I was sixteen, enthusiastic and determined to leave,” Weil later said. “The time came… the moment I boarded the Kindertransport ship in Hamburg, I was walking on air. I was sure that the others would follow me there,” said Weil, who was haunted for the rest of his life about leaving his family in Germany.
‘Is there any chance of rescue?’
Armed resistance against the Germans took place most spectacularly in Warsaw, but Jews fought back with weapons in dozens of other ghettos and also from within Nazi death camps.
For example, Germany’s “escape-proof” death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka were each breached and set ablaze by Jewish prisoners a few months after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The two death camp revolts were not connected to each other logistically, but in each case some prisoners escaped and survived the rest of the war.
At the end of 1941, before Sobibor and Treblinka became operational, Jewish resistance trailblazer Abba Kovner met with community leaders in Lithuania’s Vilnius Ghetto. Kovner’s remarks were deeply disturbing to his listeners, but his words proved to be prophetic:
“Is there any chance of rescue? We must give the true answer, cruel though it may be. No. There is no rescue,” said Kovner, who urged ghetto leaders to consider armed resistance in the face of Germany’s plan to murder every Jew in Europe.
“Our answer must be clearer still — perhaps there is a possibility that tens or hundreds of Jews will be saved: But for our people as a whole, the millions of Jews in the area of German occupation, there is no chance,” said Kovner, who activated couriers — mostly women — to send his message of resistance to other ghettos.
Whether through armed fighting or spiritual resistance, thousands of Jews trapped in Germany’s genocide machine proved willing to risk their lives to preserve Jewish honor. Some of them took up arms against the Nazis; others used pen and paper (and cameras) to record the destruction of European Jewry.
“The women worked ceaselessly, kneading dough, preparing loaves of bread and making noodles,” wrote diarist Mordekhai Lanski of life in the Warsaw Ghetto before the uprising.
“As they worked, carrying the dough to the bakeries, their faces bore an expression of exhilarated tension and an almost religious anxiety; they were preparing for what was to come,” wrote Lanski. “No one considered going to Treblinka willingly. These people, survivors of previous deportations, now prepared everything needed to survive in hiding for months.”
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