THE "CANADA" COMMANDO AS A FORCE FOR RESISTANCE IN AUSCHWITZ: REDEFINING HEROISM
As Pawelczynska points out, the work of the "Canada" commando was hindered not only by limited contact with the arrivals and the need for secrecy, but most of all by the surreal quality of the life-saving information, necessarily delivered succinctly and without context. The difficulty is emphasized by one "Canadian," Rene Molho of Salonika, who had hoped to inspire a rebellion among the new arrivals:
I would go out where people were coming off the trains to tell them what was going to happen and to tell them to start something, but nobody believed me. I couldn't make them believe it, just like the others couldn't make me believe when I came. (qtd. in Rothchild 1981, 169-170)
How did older prisoners choose whom to help? Paweiczynska suggests that "the choice was ... determined by ties of blood, friendships with specific people, prison acquaintanceships, persons from one's hometown or region, persons of the same nationality" ([ 19731 1979, 61). While these may have been determining factors among the prisoners already interned in the camp, they seem not at all to have been determining factors at the train station. In many of the accounts, the "Canadian" spoke Yiddish. The sole "Canadian" whom I can identify by name and nationality, Rene Molho, was Greek. Those newly arriving were from Hungary or from the Hungarian-occupied section of Rumania. It appears that the "Canada" commando spoke to whomever possible, regardless of ties of blood, friendship, or nationality. T'hey approached total strangers, using Yiddish as a lingua franca. Age appears to have been the primary factor in determining whom to try to save.
The deeds of the "Canada" commando are clear examples of Jews working to save Jews and, at least in some cases, its people were successful. Yet their deeds are nowhere mentioned in histories of the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowic's history, The War Against the Jews, observes that "the religious tradition elevated powerlessness into a positive Jewish value.... [Jews] learned to practice non-violent means of resistance"([ 1975] 1986, 343). But Dawidowicz's discussion of Jewish resistance does not go beyond the reactions of the Jews in the ghettos. Raul Hilberg's richly documented history disappoints by focusing almost exclusively on Jewish passivity in the face of the Holocaust and the ineffectiveness of the Jewish community's attempts to avert doom (1985, 1030-1044). But by stripping their acts of physical and emotional context, he impoverishes the meaning and complexity of their actions. Martin Gilbert (1985) provides a more sympathetic view, noting three categories of Jewish response: resistance, acts of defiance, and acts of courage. Gilbert includes copious examples drawn from the accounts of survivors but does not mention the "Canada7" commando as a force of resistance. Nor does the "Canada" commando appear in Hermann Langbein's chapter on resistance in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (1994), a work that, like Gilbert's, does acknowledge a wider range of resistance activities than usual.
Why has the work of the "Canada" commando been overlooked even by sympathetic historians? Three reasons may account for this. First, as Langbein points out, resistance activities are difficult to trace because few survived to speak of them and because resistance itself required strict secrecy (I 994, 485). Second, the resistance activities of the "Canada" commando were easily overlooked because they so rarely took on full narrative form. The workers of "Canada" appear in the survivor accounts as voices giving odd and incomprehensible instructions. Their hasty sentences are easy to miss in the flood of events that comprise survivors' narratives. And, since each survivor generally commented only upon his or her own experiences, no one survivor could provide an overview on the "Canada" commando's counter-selection. 'The scope of their resistance work, therefore, has been, and remains, difficult to judge.
Third, acts of resistance may be overlooked because of the way in which resistance is traditionally defined. Resistance is noticed if it is active and effective, culminating in visible and measurable results, and quite often, it is thought of only in terms of armed resistance. Acts, such as sharing bread, would not be deemed resistance and have sometimes been said to water down the "true" meaning of resistance. However, any type of resistance, no matter how slight, was heroic in Auschwitz' Most helpful in explaining the nature of Jewish resistance is Leni Yahil’s The Holocaust.- 7he Fate of European Jewry. Yahil notes the Jewish tradition of the sanctification of the Name which in earlier times meant that self-sacrifice was preferable to forced conversion; however, during the Holocaust, this was modified by Rabbi Yitzak Nissenbaum of Warsaw:
In these times, the Sanctification of the Name is practiced by sanctifying life. In the past, when our enemies demanded the soul, the Jew sacrificed his body for the Sanctification of the Name in order to save his soul [from conversion]. Now, when the enemy wants to take the body's life, we must not give him what he wants; rather, we must defend the body, preserve the life. (1987, 558)
Yahil therefore identifies the struggle simply to remain alive within the ghettos and the camps as an active form of rebellion and a "demonstration of heroism ... against the Kingdom of Death" (558). The actions of the "Canada" commando fit this definition of resistance well. The whispered words, "Say you are sixteen," uttered at the risk of life to save a life, were a potent form of resistance at Auschwitz.