Women of Valor: Partisans and Resistance Fighters

Halakha and the Holocaust

Halakha is the collective literature which deals with the Jewish legal tradition. It is the means by which Jews are guided in their daily lives. Responsa (pl.) are queries and replies, usually in the form of letters, by which one party consults a rabbinic authority on a Halakhic matter. This practice began in Talmudic times and continues today.

The unspeakable conditions created by the Nazis often made it difficult, if not impossible, to observe Halakha. Still, despite the circumstances, many Jews did try, to the extent that they could, as best as they were able. Others, faced with questions they had never encountered, turned to Rabbinical authorities in their midst for guidance.

It is the intent of this column, Halakha and the Holocaust, to focus on those Halakhic answers which were delivered in response to prevailing conditions.

Joining the Partisans at the Risk of One's Life

In Ghetto Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania), Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was asked to address the issue of whether Jews living in the ghetto may endanger their lives to escape and join Partisan groups in the forest.

Life in the ghetto was dangerous. Death came quickly to many of the thousands of Jews taken each day to slave labour at the airfield of Kovno, as well as to those who were caught in the ghetto and tortured individually. All sorts of rumours proliferated in the ghetto, and were seized upon by Jews eagerly seeking a glimmer of hope in their desperate situation.

One day a rumour spread that Germans were going to transfer a large number of Jews to another camp. This was interpreted as an impending transfer to a death camp. As a result, news spread that large numbers of Jews were escaping the ghetto at night to join the Partisans in order to take revenge and not go passively to their deaths.

Joining the Partisans, however, was fraught with danger. The ghetto was surrounded by electrified barbed wire with guard towers and search lights. Anyone leaving the ghetto was shot on sight. Groups of Jews leaving the ghetto also posed a threat to those who remained, for if the daily quota of one thousand labourers was not met, the Germans would spread out in the ghetto, venting their anger indiscriminately, until they filled the quota.

Joining the Partisans was problematic for other reasons. Most Partisan groups accepted only army fighters; an armed Jew who was caught by the Germans was killed immediately. Some Partisan groups refused to accept Jews, and Jews who hid their identities often paid with their lives if their identities were discovered.

Rabbi Oshry was therefore asked whether Halakhah permitted the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, who characterized themselves as "the dead on vacation", to further endanger their lives by attempting to escaoe to join the Partisans.

Rabbi Oshry analyzed the situation in terms of certain dangers and unknown dangers. Ghetto existence itself was a danger to life, with its constant Aktions, senseless killings, starvation and hard labour. These dangers were recognized and familiar. Life outside the ghetto posed dangers not only from the Germans but from their local collaborators and from the fragility of life for Jews outside the Jewish community.

Rabbi Oshry's response took note of various rabbinic precedents for allowing tremendous halakhic latitude where the question of preserving life is concerned. He expressed the opinion that one is obligated to enter into a potentially dangerous situation if there is a chance it might save oneself from a definite danger. The situation in the ghetto can be defined as a definite danger, whereas the dangers of escape and life with the Partisans were less clearly defined. Rabbi Oshry defined the situation of the Jews in the ghetto as a battle for life and death; he felt that it is an halakhic obligation to fight the Germans until they are defeated. He therefore encouraged the Jewish community to support and strengthen the Jewish Partisan forces, to assist them in obtaining arms and ammunitions and to be prepared to join their forces. He expressed the hope that the few Jews who succeeded in escaping to the forests would be the vanguard of a victorious force.

Text adapted from: She'elot Ut'shovot Mimaamakim by Ephraim Oshry, Vol. 4, NY: Modern Linotype, Co., 1975, pp93-99.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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