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Flying Tiger, Hidden Eagle
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Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
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Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
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US Army in Czechoslovakia '45 to '48
Jewish Resistance in WWII
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How Arnhem was Lost
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Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
Confucian Martial Culture
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Legacy of WWII Sub Veterans
Lausdell Crossroads
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Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
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Sir Winston Churchill
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The OSS in Greece
Strategy of Blitzkrieg
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Small Battle: Big Implications
Harris Class APA's
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Why the Bulge Didn't Break
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Failure and Destruction
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Was Hitler right to invade Russia?
Hitler, Germany's Worst General
Surface Actions of World War II
MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines
Japan's Monster Sub
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The Soviet Formula for Success
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Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
After Midway: The Fates of the Warships
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Long Range Desert Group
Island of Death
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Only the Admirals were Happy
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Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
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How Hitler Could Have Won
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Rulers of the World: Hitler Youth
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Pearl Harbor and Midway
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Abigail Pfeiffer Articles
Jewish Resistance in WWII

Recommended Reading

The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews

Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War
Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Fact or Fiction?
Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Fact or Fiction?[1] 
by Abigail Pfeiffer

For close to fifteen years after the Holocaust there was little written about the resistance of the European Jewish population against the Nazis and their collaborators. According to Michael Marrus in his article “Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust” the reason for this is “…most Jews had little stomach for myth-making of any kind about Jewish resistance in the immediate shock of the war. It was all Jews could do in the first postwar years to absorb the reality of mass murder on an unimagined scale…”[2] Only after the shock of the attempted liquidation of the whole population of European Jews wore off did some solid historiography emerge about Jewish resistance. The trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel also prompted more historians to examine Jewish resistance, especially outside of Israel and Yiddish speaking populations. Two historians emerged during this time, Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg, with views that the Jews did not resist, at least not on a scale that would have made their resistance successful. Other historians have taken the other side of the debate and claim that the Jewish population did indeed resist. The problem with the historiography of Jewish resistance is the definition of resistance itself. Is resistance only resistance if it is armed? Can there be other forms of resistance that do not require the use of weapons? In analyzing the historiography of Jewish resistance I will first define the different types of resistance. I will also address the different arenas where resistance took place, as well as the different partisan movements that occurred throughout the continent. Finally, I will examine the opinions of the major historians of Jewish resistance to understand what the consensus is among Holocaust historians.

Coming up with a single definition of resistance can be very tricky. Most historians agree that there are two different categories of resistance: armed resistance and passive resistance. Armed resistance includes any type of violent resistance, and passive resistance is nonviolent such as continuing to practice religion in secret, smuggling food, smuggling children, etc. Michael Marrus breaks it down even further in his essay “Jewish Resistance to the Holocuast” with five subcategories of resistance as defined by the Swiss Historian Werner Rings: Symbolic resistance, Polemic resistance, Defensive resistance, Offensive resistance, and Resistance enchained.[3] Symbolic resistance is essentially holding on to a national identity that the Nazis were trying to destroy. For the Jewish population, this meant holding on to the Jewish identity, and refusing to give up everything that entailed. Polemic resistance is similar to symbolic resistance, but it goes a bit further. According to Rings the polemic protester identifies with this statement: “I oppose the occupying power by protesting or organizing protests, even at risk to myself. I say or do things calculated to persuade my fellow countrymen of the need to fight on.”[4] An example of this is the demonstrations that protested the removal of Jewish professors and civil servants in the Netherlands in 1940, which began at Leyden and Delft Universities.[5] Throughout my research I have encountered this method of the Germans disposing of the Jewish intelligentsia early in the war, therefore removing a section of the population who could inspire the rest of the Jewish population to rise up. Another example of polemic resistance is when people within the Jewish community tried to warn other Jews of the “Final Solution” including the German deportations which were a step in the campaign of Jewish liquidation. The Nazi’s used several kinds of deception to trick the Jews into thinking that they were only being deported to work camps, when in reality they were boarding trains destined for almost certain death.[6] Defensive resistance can include violence, but it is also resistance that “comes to the aid of ‘those in danger or on the run’.”[7] Marrus noted that this type of resistance happened more frequently than is usually credited and that networks were constructed by Jews throughout Europe to try and protect themselves. The problem that confronted the Jews with this type of resistance is time and the lack of it. Creating extensive and operational resistance networks takes time and as Marrus noted: “Almost invariably, Jews lacked time, which is one reason why so much of their resistance activity never extended beyond the symbolic or the polemic.”[8] Offensive resistance is resistance that includes military operations, typically unconventional, which could be perpetrated by a single person or groups of people, including underground groups and partisan groups. Many offensive resisters also organized protests, created anti-Nazi literature, and smuggled others to safety. Finally, there is Resistance enchained, which in essence is resistance by people who had little hope of surviving. A great example of this are ghetto revolts, one of the most famous being the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The ghetto fighters had little chance of survival but their honor and the honor of the Jewish population in history was at stake. Although there are several different ways to define resistance, and much of it is up to the individual historian’s interpretation, it is clear that the Jewish population did resist the Nazi’s and their collaborators throughout Europe in several different ways.

Where did Jewish resistance take place? The Jewish population was obviously not in the position to raise a traditional army. The main arenas of resistance were in the ghettos, the concentration camps, and in partisan groups. Perhaps the most famous instance of ghetto resistance happened in 1943 in the Warsaw ghetto. However, the Jews in the Lodz ghetto were notorious for their lack of resistance. What would make one ghetto rise up and another ghetto stay submissive? According to the psychologist Larissa Tiedens: “People can respond to oppression in many ways. Some react violently, while others do not, and some even seem to “cooperate” with their oppression.”[9] Could this have been the case in the Lodz ghetto as compared to the Warsaw ghetto? This question is especially interesting when considering that Warsaw and Lodz were only 60 miles from each other, so it’s not as if they were in different countries with different cultures. Tiedens noted that the Lodz ghetto has the reputation of being the most obliging to Nazi requests.[10] The psychology of the two groups comes into question as a possible theory for why the Lodz ghetto residents did not revolt. Tiedens wrote that: “Psychological theories often indicate that a certain amount of optimism is necessary for a low-power group to revolt.”[11] Possibly the Lodz ghetto residents felt more optimistic about their fates while the Warsaw ghetto residents felt increasingly pessimistic. This theory is backed up by evidence of the leaders of the Jewish council in Lodz and Warsaw. The Nazi’s would choose one Jewish man to lead the Jewish councils in each ghetto. In Lodz this man was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who “is vilified by historians and presented as a powermonger who could do anything to gain the favor of the Nazis, including sending his own people to death.”[12] He is accused by historians of hiding the truth of the deportations from the Jews in the ghetto. He would assure the Jews of their safety as they boarded the deportation trains, perhaps to keep chaos from breaking out. Tiedens noted that historian Isaiah Trunk quoted Rumkowski as saying this to the Lodz ghetto residents: “I have firm hope that the fate of the resettled people is not going to be so tragic as has commonly been feared in the ghetto. They will not be put behind wires….I guarantee with my own head that the working people will be subjected to no injustice.”[13] On the other hand, the leader of the Jewish council in Warsaw was Adam Czerniakow, who took his own life after he had arranged for the deportation of Jews from the ghetto. While both men probably did not grasp the gravity of the situation, it seems that the residents of the Warsaw ghetto were much more attuned to their fate whereas the residents of the Lodz ghetto held onto whatever shreds of optimism they could.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising has been studied extensively by historians. There was armed and passive resistance that took place in the Warsaw ghetto. According to Yehuda Bauer, author of Rethinking the Holocaust, there were attempts to educate the elementary school age children from 1939-1941, during a time when the Nazis prohibited education. Also, the Jewish community started complets, which were small groups of children that met secretly with a teacher who was usually paid in food. There were also two underground high schools, one of which was run by an underground socialist Zionist youth movement, the Dror. Bauer noted that there were approximately 600 minyanim, which were a group of ten men that were required for organized religious resistance. In addition to these resistance efforts there were also house committees created that aided in the education of the ghetto residents, assisted in forming cultural activities, and provided cover for illegal political activities.[14] In addition to the house committees, there were also a network of underground political organizations, including youth movements, and there was an illegal underground press that printed in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

It is important to note that during the preparations for uprising, the Jewish participants had no illusions of grandeur or victory. According to Shmuel Krakowski, author of The War of the Doomed: Jewish Armed Resistance in Poland, 1942-1944: “It was necessary to prepare for an uprising that was doomed to defeat from its onset, an uprising in which it would be impossible to surrender, and which all know must end with the destruction of the entire ghetto.”[15] Polish Colonel Henryk Wolinski summed it up nicely: “The stand of the Jewish Fighting Organization was that the fate of the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as that of other Jewish communities, had been decided. Extermination awaits them sooner or later, and because of that they want to die with honor, that is, with arms in hand.”[16] While the resistors knew it was destined for defeat, they still prepared meticulously and carefully. There were different stages to preparation: political preparations, propaganda, organization of armed units, and the arming and training of the combat units. Although the Jews that took place in this uprising were almost certain of their own deaths, this type of resistance was necessary for them to be able to die with honor, and to demonstrate to future generations that the Jews did not go to their deaths like sheep to slaughter.

In addition to resistance in the ghettos, there was also resistance in the concentration camps. One of the most famous is the Sobibor revolt, which was located 100 miles east of Warsaw. The Warsaw Institute of Jewish Historical Research approximates around 350,000 Jews lost their lives at this camp. This camp was almost strictly for exterminations, which at the time of the revolt was around 600 prisoners, and the population that remained alive was there to keep the camp running. The revolt was led by a Russian POW named Alexander Pechorski, who had only been a prisoner in Sobibor for three weeks. In October of 1943, the 600 prisoners escaped by killing most of the guards and SS officers of the camp; about a third of the Jews survived.[17] A year earlier, in August of 1943, there was an uprising at the Treblinka concentration camp, which was 60 miles northeast of Warsaw. Of the several thousand prisoner population, there were only several hundred by the time of the revolt. These prisoners escaped by killing the guards and fled through the barbed wire to freedom. Lucien Steinberg noted in his book: Jews Against Hitler: The Seminal Work on the Jewish Resistance, that many of the survivors of the Treblinka uprising managed to survive for the next year until the arrival of the Red Army.[18]

Another area of resistance, apart from the ghettos and concentration camps, was the forests. Many partisan groups called the forests of Europe home and headquarters, including one of the most famous partisan groups headed by the Bielski brothers. The group was based in the Byelorussian forest. There were 1200 Jews that made up the group, with approximately 300 that were resistance fighters. This group was a unique partisan group in the sense that they accepted any Jewish survivors that came to them; elderly, children, and women. The people who were not resistance fighters filled support roles throughout the camp. James Glass, author of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust: Moral Use of Violence and Will, wrote about the Bielski group: “This shtetl in the forest exacted vengeance on the Germans, while encouraging caring and cooperation as the primary objective of a civilized and human existence. Rescue and community for the Bielski group were as important as killing.”[19] This group would be classified as armed resistance as they had no qualms about killing and violence when they deemed it necessary. In addition to the Bielski brothers, there were also many other partisan groups that operated in the forests, one of which was called “The Avengers” led by Abba Kovner. This group originated in Vilna, but they eventually moved their operations to the Rudnicki forest in southern Lithuania where they met up with other Jewish partisans who had already established a camp there. As Rich Cohen noted in his book The Avengers: A Jewish War Story, the Jews in the Rudnicki forest grew over time: “Over time, a network of bases sprang up in the forest, turning Rudnicki into a dark place on the German map, where over a thousand partisans lived.”[20] It was difficult for Jews to attain arms, but in this group each partisan carried at least one gun, while some had multiple weapons.

What do historians have to say about Jewish resistance? From my research most historians argue that the Jewish population did indeed fight back, and the issue isn’t so much did they resist, but how that resistance can be defined. Is passive resistance still considered resistance? was it more of a defense mechanism to get through the horrors the Nazis were inflicting on the Jewish population? Raul Hilberg is one of the few historians that claimed that the Jews did not do enough to resist, especially considering their circumstances. Hilberg is the author of one of the most definitive books on the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews. Hilberg claimed that “The Jews were not oriented toward resistance. Even those who contemplated a resort to arms were given pause by the thought that for the limited success of a handful, the multitude would suffer the consequences.”[21] He goes on to write that “measured in German casualties, Jewish armed opposition shrinks into significance.”[22] Although my personal opinion is that the Jews did indeed resist, Hilberg makes a compelling argument. The Germans employed a number of tactics to discourage the Jews from resisting, such as the killings of Jews in retaliation for other Jews who attempted escape, and the abovementioned elimination of the Jewish intelligentsia in an effort to keep them from encouraging the remaining Jewish population to resist. Yehuda Bauer, author of Rethinking the Holocaust, is a prominent Holocaust historian who argues that the Jews did resist: “This review of active Jewish responses to Nazi oppression could be summarized in an almost triumphalist fashion: there was unarmed resistance, there was sanctification of life, there was armed resistance.”[23] But Bauer also understands that this view of Jewish resistance should not be romanticized. He goes on to write: “But the summary would give a completely skewed picture. It would show a nostalgic, sickeningly sweet dreamworld, not the reality of the Holocaust. There would be no traitors in it, no desperate leadership groups trying to bribe and cajole the murderers even after they knew the situation was hopeless, no masses of disoriented, frightened people, numbed multitudes who gave up hope and therefore became easy prey for the murderers.”[24] Lucien Steinberg also argues that the Jews did resist, but he also acknowledges the help of the non-Jewish resistance. He references the higher survival rate of the Western European Jews thanks to the assistance given to them by the non-Jewish resistance, while he notes that the Eastern European Jews did not have the assistance of a non-Jewish resistance which factored into their demise. Steinberg wrote of Jewish resistance that “By revolting against the Hitler regime which intended to exterminate the entire Jewish population, the Jews were not engaging in an act of heroism, they simply wished to preserve the material and moral substance of their people. Their success won them immortality.”[25] Michael Marrus’ opinion of Jewish resistance is that the Jews resisted in the face of almost no hope and little outside help. “Its distinctiveness lies in the several characteristics that we have considered in this paper-that it may be the most poignant in its appeals, coming so often from the grave, that its fighters were often the most cut off, without allies or resources, and that its struggle, being so often without hope, was the most completely directed to ourselves, those of us who are responsible for how the history of these years will be told.”[26]

From my research on this topic, I believe that the Jews did resist, at least to the best of their abilities in that situation. Many Jews were in denial about what was happening to themselves, their families, and their race, and wanted to believe that the Nazis weren’t systematically exterminating them. At the beginning of WWII the Nazis eliminated many of the intelligentsia and religious leaders, leaving the rest of the Jewish population without leadership.

Also, it was difficult for Jewish resistance groups to obtain arms and when they did the arms were usually not the same caliber as the German arms. In the face of the situation the Jewish population found themselves in, I believe they resisted to the best of their ability. Not only were their lives at stake, but so were the lives of future generations. While the majority of historians believe the Jews resisted, some still question the extent of that resistance and whether or not it was enough. In a sense, it wasn’t enough since six millions Jews perished. On the other hand, it can be considered enough since it is clear that many of the Jewish population did not approach their deaths like sheep to slaughter.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2011 Abigail Pfeiffer.

Written by Abigail Pfeiffer. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Abigail Pfeiffer at: Her history blog is at:

About the author:
Abigail did her undergraduate studies at Northern Arizona University and has a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities. She is currently a graduate student at Norwich University in Vermont studying for a Master of Arts in Military History. She is interested in military history of all periods of history but she is especially intrigued with the Vietnam War and WWII, especially Holocaust history and POW history. Her work strives to understand the human condition an war, the social and political factors that drive humans to the extreme of war, and the individual human experience of war. She currently lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband and stepdaughter. Her history blog is at

Published online: 08/21/2011.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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