Women in the Jewish Resistance to Nazi Occupation
Part I | Part II | Part III | Author's Biography

Part I

Dr. Dalia Ofer

This paper was delivered at Yale University during a conference and is being published here with the permission of the author.

In December 1941, a manifesto was distributed in the ghetto of Vilna, written by Abba Kovner, a young youth movement member of Hashomer Hatz'ir, calling Jews to resist Nazi deportations and "let us not be led like sheep to the slaughter!"

Independently, this very phrase was repeated by other individuals in occupied Europe.

In January 1943, in Jerusalem, the prominent Polish Zionist leader Yitzhak Grünbaum, head of the rescue committee for European Jewry, asked in grief how it was possible for Jews of Poland, the paradigms of Jewish self defense, whose sophisticated political methods had ensured their rights in Poland, were led like sheep to the slaughter.

This image of the Jews became dominant during the 1950s to describe Jewish passivity vis-a-vis Nazi mass killing operations. In Raul Hilberg's standard work, The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961, he described, the modes of Jewish reaction to Nazis: When confronted by force, a group can react in five ways: by resistance, by an attempt to alleviate or nullify the threat (the undoing reaction), by evasion, by paralysis, characterized by almost complete lack of resistance.

Jews were not oriented toward resistance.

Now in the late 1990s the naivete of this evaluation is self evident. The streams of refugees in Kosovo in the last few weeks, the escapes and killing in Bosnia and in Africa have once again shown us that a civilian population confronted with such a vigorous onslaught - if it was not paralyzed - was trying to escape.

The responses to Jewish reactions to Nazi persecution seem similar at the first glance, yet Kovner in Vilna, for example, expressed a unique understanding that what was happening in Vilna was part of a plan for total destruction of the Jews. He had come to this conclusion after witnessing the first wave of mass killings in Lithuania perpetrated by Lithuanians and, Germans together. Only a few people were able to conceptualize or emotionally accept such a threatening conclusion. Therefore, Kovner called on the Jews to take the only choice left - to select the way they would die - since he had concluded that death was inescapable under the circumstances. He wished to live his last months or weeks in active preparation for an an-ned resistance that would express a Jewish Zionist response to Nazism, that would make life difficult for the Germans, and provide a legacy for the future of the Jewish people.

Gruenbaum, however, lived outside occupied Europe, and his judgmental approach shows that he did not comprehend the true European Jewish reality. He moumed. the lack of Jewish reaction and was ashamed of his fellow Jews. Hilberg's topological assessment was not based on careful analysis of the sort evolved in his examination of the Nazis themselves. Resistance, for Hilberg, meant using force against the Germans. A genuine true reconstruction of Jewish resistance, however, involves other considerations. Both HiIberg and Gruenbaum expressed a hidden assumption that had the Jews themselves reacted in a different way, they could have change their fate. This assumption was absent in Kovner's understanding as well as among Jews who called for armed resistance overall. For them, death was the reality: only the way of dying and the price the Nazis would pay for their death could be changed.

Hilberg studied the Nazi bureaucracy of annihilation, and the work of other historians and. social scientists has demonstrated how comprehensive and well-prepared was the Final Solution. Military historians established that the destruction of the Jewish race was a major Nazi war aim, and that they were ready to make a great investment in carrying it out. And, the analysis of Hitter's Weltanschauung demonstrated how his opposition to liberalism, democracy, universalism, and the equality of mankind, was crystallized in antisemitism, which was an essential element of Nazism. Therefore, the meaning of Jewish resistance should refer to the particular fate of the Jews during this war, and to the nature, motivations, and character of the Jewish response to Nazism.

Another definition of resistance was offered by Prof. Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University: "any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions, or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters." This definition opposes Hilberg who confined resistance to the use of force. For Bauer, only paralysis, and in some cases the collaboration of Jewish leaders, is non-resistance. All actions should be examined in reference to the motivation and intention. The Jewish Councils, the self-help organizations, the Jewish youth movements, and the political parties were among those who affirmed Jewish life.

Although in general I agree with Bauer's definition, I would. like to take issue with his notion that only a group action would fall into the definition of Jewish resistance. True, from a national point of view it is the constructed collective who may oppose an oppressor. However, in the case of the Holocaust, when the very definition of who was a Jew was that of the oppressor, and his main goal was to kill all people who fell into that category, many manifestations of unorganized responses by individuals demonstrated a conscientious resistance to Nazi policy. In addition, I think that a gender perspective to the description and interpretation of resistance demonstrates this beyond doubt.

I would like to present a story of one family which represents a form of resistance in a different perspective.

A woman interviewed at length by Slepak was Mrs. R3, the wife of an independent printer from Warsaw and the mother of two unmarried. sons. Until the outbreak of war, Mrs. R3 had run the home and had taken care of her sons' education. At first, her husband was able to continue his printing business, albeit on a reduced scale. On July 8, 1940, all of the Jewish printing plants in Warsaw were closed down.  A gang of German policemen burst onto the premises, where Mr. R3 was working alone, beat him badly and. confiscated. the business. As with Mr. F., it took months for Mr. R3 to recover from the injuries he sustained.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.