They were helpless. During the last decades, many Holocaust scholars undertook every possible effort to change this view of the Jews as passive victims who "were wholly and helplessly immobilized by the Nazis", while "all of their community leaders docilely served as henchmen of their mortal enemies", and to prove wrong "that they broke under pressure, that the soul of the Jewish people was destroyed". Nevertheless, in its generalized sense, the statement that Jews did not resist the Nazis at all certainly is untrue.
The fact that the earlier standard accounts of Holocaust study tell so little about Jewish reactions and greatly underestimate the extent of Jewish resistance can be, at least to some extent, attributed that the "record of what the Nazis did has been available in abundant detail ever since the war criminals were tried in Germany between and ", whereas "Jewish documents have been coming to light only gradually, in bits and pieces. In opposition to the substantially distorted views of Arendt, Hilberg and other Holocaust scholars, important breakthroughs in the research on Jewish resistance were made by using new evidence — for example the vast numbers of eye-witness reports, diaries, letters and underground newspapers collected by the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem — that nowadays allow to observe that there has been a whole "spectrum of Jewish responses to the Holocaust, ranging from the most passive collapse before Nazi power, to armed resistance", and the "challenge is to find where specific Jewish communities, Jewish groups, Jewish individuals, placed themselves along this continuum.
Which kinds of actions and reactions of Jews during the Holocaust can and must be included into the phenomenon of resistance always depends on how one defines this. In studying Jewish resistance, as well as resistance to the Nazis in general, it is crucial not to limit the scope of research merely to armed resistance. In a recent analytical work on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, Marrus stresses that the intention of the potential resisters is essential for the definition, so "what counts in the end … is not the level of violence but the motivations and objectives of resisters.
The kinds of resistance that match into the first three categories, which were by and large unarmed, can also be subsumed under what Bauer called "quiet resistance". As "the perception was that the Nazis wanted to destroy the morale of the Jewish population", the Jews in the ghettos and elsewhere "felt they had a moral obligation to make a statement against oppression and murder", not only by fighting with arms, but much more widespread by preserving their humanity and thereby resisting in every way "from maintaining schools and prayer groups, to organizing literary and artistic presentations".
Resistance understood this way means an "active struggle for life", trying to save as many lives as possible, and at the same time trying to maintain a certain degree of normality. These attempts carried out by the Jews to maintain their dignity despite the Nazis' systematic effort to dehumanise them have been called "Kiddush ha-Hayyim", meaning "Sanctification of Life". Especially in the Ghettos, where people were not only systematically starved, but where also schools were closed down, and any form of social service as well as cultural or political activity was cut off and prohibited by the Nazis, the Jewish communities accomplished many different ways of "keeping body and soul together", under "what would seem impossible conditions": synagogues and religious study groups, theatres, orchestra and public libraries, entertainment as well as education for children — all that was kept up and provided often secretly and illegally by the Jewish communities, various mutual aid groups and house committees.
Gutman also assessed the problem of Jewish resistance by "rephrasing the issue in terms of the struggle to survive". The main lifeline of the ghettos was smuggling, and especially most of the food consumed in the ghettos was smuggled in, even though smugglers were severely punished and often killed when caught. Furthermore, a political underground formed itself, "made up mainly of political activists and hardcore members of youth movements", which established and maintained contacts with other ghettos and the outside world and published clandestine newspapers and leaflets that kept people informed about developments inside and outside the ghettos.
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Altogether, Gutman concludes, "Jewish life in the ghettos was characterized not so much by passivity and pacifism as by the defiant struggle for survival. This concentration of the Jewish population later aided the Nazis in their deportation of the Jews to the death camps. The ghettos lacked the necessary food, water, space, and sanitary facilities required by so many people living within their constricted boundaries.
Many died of deprivation and starvation. Each group contained several commando units. The Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits dug earlier, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. The dead and dying would fall into the pits to be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, near Kiev , 30,, Jews were killed in two days.
In addition to their operations in the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass murder in eastern Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It is estimated that by the end of , the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than 1. On January 20, , several top officials of the German government met to officially coordinate the military and civilian administrative branches of the Nazi system to organize a system of mass murder of the Jews.
While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. All were located near railway lines so that Jews could be easily transported daily.
A vast system of camps called Lagersystem supported the death camps. The purpose of these camps varied: some were slave labor camps, some transit camps, others concentration camps and their subcamps, and still others the notorious death camps. Some camps combined all of these functions or a few of them. All the camps were intolerably brutal.
In nearly every country overrun by the Nazis, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as Jews , they were rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps and then gradually transported to the killing centers. The death camps were essentially factories for murdering Jews. The Germans shipped thousands of Jews to them each day. Within a few hours of their arrival, the Jews had been stripped of their possessions and valuables, gassed to death, and their bodies burned in specially designed crematoriums. Approximately 3. Many healthy, young strong Jews were not killed immediately.
These people, imprisoned in concentration and labor camps, were forced to work in German munitions and other factories, such as I. Farben and Krupps , and wherever the Nazis needed laborers.
They were worked from dawn until dark without adequate food and shelter. Thousands perished, literally worked to death by the Germans and their collaborators. The Germans forced the starving and sick Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Most died or were shot along the way. About a quarter of a million Jews died on the death marches. Jewish resistance did occur, however, in several forms. Staying alive, clean, and observing Jewish religious traditions constituted resistance under the dehumanizing conditions imposed by the Nazis.
Other forms of resistance involved escape attempts from the ghettos and camps. Many who succeeded in escaping the ghettos lived in the forests and mountains in family camps and in fighting partisan units. Once free, though, the Jews had to contend with local residents and partisan groups who were often openly hostile.
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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest ghetto revolt. Massive deportations or Aktions had been held in the ghetto from July to September , emptying the ghetto of the majority of Jews imprisoned there. When the Germans entered the ghetto again in January to remove several thousand more, small unorganized groups of Jews attacked them.
After four days, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto, having deported far fewer people than they had intended. The Nazis reentered the ghetto on April 19, , the eve of Passover , to evacuate the remaining Jews and close the ghetto. The Jews , using homemade bombs and stolen or bartered weapons, resisted and withstood the Germans for 27 days.
They fought from bunkers and sewers and evaded capture until the Germans burned the ghetto building by building. By May 16, the ghetto was in ruins and the uprising crushed. Jews also revolted in the death camps of Sobibor , Treblinka and Auschwitz. All of these acts of resistance were largely unsuccessful in the face of the superior German forces, but they were very important spiritually, giving the Jews hope that one day the Nazis would be defeated.
The camps were liberated gradually, as the Allies advanced on the German army. At the end of the war, between 50, and , Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet.
An Introductory History of the Holocaust
Within a year, that figure grew to about , The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons DPs. The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine , and later Israel , the United States, South America and other countries.
The last DP camp closed in Below are figures for the number of Jews murdered in each country that came under German domination. They are estimates, as are all figures relating to Holocaust victims.
American Response to the Holocaust
The numbers given here for Czechoslovakia , Hungary and Romania are based on their territorial borders before the Munich agreement. The total number of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust , which emerged from the Nuremberg trials , is also an estimate. Numbers have ranged between five and seven million killed. The exact number will never be known because of the many people whose murders were not recorded and whose bodies have still not be found. Sources : David S. Wyman, ed. Download our mobile app for on-the-go access to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Basic History. Introductory History to The Holocaust. Could We Have Stopped Hitler? Life for Jews in Pre-War Germany. Simon Wiesenthal's 36 Questions. Why is the Holocaust Unique? Displaced Persons. Glossary of Terms. Holocaust Maps. Resistance to the Holocaust. Concentration Camps. Euthanasia Program. Final Solution. Forced Labor. Medical Experiments. Nuremberg Laws. Nazi War Crimes. Yellow Badges. Timeline of Jewish Persecution.
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