ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.
I’m once again this week joined by two people – both historians, authors and Holocaust educators. In London, once again, is my colleague Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust, who researched 70 Voices. And back this week, joining us on the line from Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, is our friend Jeremy Leigh. Martin and Jeremy, welcome.
Jeremy, I’ll throw the first question to you: what do we mean by the term resistance?
JEREMY LEIGH: The term, in a way, has lots of connotations, because obviously there’s a certain image that one imagines, which is certainly not incorrect, which is people who resist the Nazis by fighting them, and it’s an image of underground or partisans, men and women in forests with guns trying to, as it were, add an additional element to the fightback against the Nazis. But, I think the key thing to say right at the very beginning is one has to broaden it out as much as possible and use a definition which obviously we can then cut up into smaller chunks. But all of those strategies and actions that challenge the way in which the Nazis understood what the fate of the Jews should be, and that, of course, is then both physical, that is the obvious point, but it includes other parts. The Nazis have a certain conception of who the Jews are, and so one can argue that people who step forward and try and do something which challenges the very nature of being this subhuman or lesser person that the Nazis imagine the Jews to be that that is an act of resistance. So, in a way, it allows us to think both very clearly about the image of people killing Nazis or fighting back against the Nazis with guns, but it also allows us to introduce terms like spiritual resistance or cultural resistance and also religious resistance, where people create their own strategies or their own modalities to seeing themselves differently.
And maybe the only last thing I would say by way of introduction is that at some point one would look at how do we measure resistance, because obviously very few fighters see that they are going to be defeating the Nazis singlehandedly, but certainly there are people who see that they can demoralise the Nazis, but at the same time do the opposite for the Jews themselves, which is to kind of encourage people to want to stay alive. And even the most simple act that we see being recorded by inmates in concentration camps, in the death camps, are where people say, just the very simple act of seeing myself as a human being when so obviously my body is being defaced and destroyed around me, that in a way is a sort of type of resistance.
AM: And Martin, I think it’s so important that you thought to include this as one of the key themes in the 70 Voices project because I think it is often suggested Jews didn’t resist.
MARTIN WINSTONE: Absolutely. Even at the time there was a widespread perception of this and one finds it from many different types of source, whether it’s from the Nazis themselves, from supposed bystanders but equally from Jewish sources – people using really quite terrible phrases like “being led like sheep to the slaughter”. And we have to acknowledge that obviously most people were not in a position to be, as Jeremy says, taking to the forest and fighting. Realistically, to survive in the forests of eastern Europe, one probably needed to be young, relatively healthy and one probably didn’t have young children, say, didn’t have elderly parents to look after which might cause you to think, well, actually I can’t do that.
So there was this perception at the time that Jews did not fight back, but I think that it is a wholly mistaken perception. To be honest, for all civilians in Europe, not just for Jewish civilians, resistance to the Nazis, armed resistance – what we tend to think of most obviously as resistance – was enormously difficult. It’s almost as if different standards have been applied to Jews as to others – so nobody says why didn’t ordinary civilians, say, in Latvia or Greece, fight back against the Nazis? Some of them did, of course, but again the majority did not, and yet this question is somehow demanded with greater urgency of Jews. So I think we have to acknowledge that resistance was difficult, there was a huge imbalance of military forces. As Jeremy says, most Jewish fighters knew there was no way that they could actually physically defeat the Nazis in terms of beating Germany in the war – after all, at the height of the Holocaust, 1941, 42 ,Germany still seem to be dominant in Europe. And equally, for most Jews living in occupied Europe, particularly in eastern Europe, they had been subjected already to years of deprivation often in ghettos, so physically did not necessarily have the wherewithal to easily take to the life of the forests. And another key factor in this is that there was no real prospect of assistance: the Allied armies were themselves of the defensive at the height of the Holocaust and, equally, in occupied countries there were only fairly limited offers of help from whatever outside underground groups existed.
But I think crucially, as well – and this is not often taken into account when people are critical of supposed lack of resistance – there was the sense that people living in Jewish communities did not know what was going to happen next, they did not know that the Nazis were ultimately planning their extermination. And so there was a very widespread fear, what seemed to have been an eminently justified fear at the time, that fighting back in any form, any physical form, would invite reprisals and, again, for people who had families – who had elderly relatives, for example – they did not want to do anything which they thought might provoke the Nazis.
So there are all sorts of reasons why resistance was difficult, so what I think is actually remarkable is just how much of it there was in the various forms that Jeremy mentions. So we have many forms of non-physical resistance, but even physical resistance itself, I think, is much more widespread than most people realise. If anything, most people have just heard of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and it’s almost assumed that is the sole example, but actually this was very widespread phenomenon.
AM: So that’s fascinating: we are widening our definition of what we mean by the term resistance – it’s not always strictly armed resistance but of course armed resistance is a noteworthy part of this category. What are some examples of the forms that armed resistance might have taken, Jeremy?
JL: The first level, I suppose, was all the organisations for resistance was taking place within the ghettos, this is largely an east European phenomenon – we find Jews joining non-Jewish underground movements in western and central Europe, but if we focus ourselves really largely on eastern Europe, this is usually happening from within ghettos themselves. I would want to just add, to follow on from something Martin said. He mentioned the forest, and that’s absolutely correct, of course. You need to have a forest: if you don’t have a forest, then the chances of being able to resist outside the ghetto, to join partisans and conduct sabotage operations, was very, very limited.
That already gives us at least one different type of resistance: the difference between ghetto uprisings, or actions where the Jews were living, as opposed to sabotage or rescue operations which involved Jews living outside the ghetto in forests. So in north-eastern Europe, for instance, where there are rich deep, thick forests where Jews could survive during the war, we find resistance groups. It’s an interesting thing – one thinks of the most famous, which are the Bielski brothers, which are a group in the area in what today is Belarus, who were doing two things: one is they were looking after a family camp, people who had managed to escape from the ghettos and who were living in the forest and they were kind of protecting them, but then at the same time there is another group who is involved in sabotage against various Nazi operations.
But, I think the core part, in a way, is that which evolved out of discussions amongst young people – when I say young, I mean late teens and early twenties – in Warsaw in the autumn of 1942 onward. A critical, critical piece was that this type of physical resistance almost never happened unless people were sure that they were going to die anyway. In other words, this was not a strategy of survival. The most important thing, I think, to say about this as a strategy was that it was about the maintenance of Jewish dignity and it was about trying to go to one’s death giving a message: that Jews embrace themselves, they proclaim their identity and, as it were, show that they are not slaves, that they are not accepting their fate. And the way of doing that was to show that they’re not weak and they’re not the things Nazism imagined of them. So, after the big deportation in Warsaw in the summer of 1942, when close to a quarter of a million people were deported in two months, we have this group of people gathering themselves together in the ghetto to plan some sort of strategy. And what seems so remarkable, by the way, for there – and then, of course, the idea spreads elsewhere in Poland – is that they think of this idea of resisting the Nazis, but they have almost no weapons, they have very little military training, more or less as Martin said.
Maybe the other thing to say [is] just to look a little bit at the biography of most of who these people are. And this maybe broaden outs: we always seem to use Warsaw as our key example, as it is obviously the most well documented and it’s the largest, but actually, if one looks around all the various ghettos, the types of things that people are talking about, they’re coming from the same sorts of people. These are usually young, very ideologically motivated young people. As Martin said, unattached, maybe less connected to parents and so on, but really people who at the same time are also very very empowered and inspired by ideologies, usually of Zionism, of Jewish nationalism, in a lot of cases of socialism, in its all of its various different varieties. And they are people who basically said ‘previously we saw ourselves fulfilling our ideology in peaceful means, it is only now that we see our death is before us that we have to change strategy, taking up weapons, taking up guns, killing Nazis or defending ourselves, that’s the way that we have left to defend our honour or to fulfil our ideology.’
One last group that one has to mention, of course, are the revolts or the uprisings that take place in camps. If we focus again, it allows us to see the model working very clearly, certainly in death camps. In most cases where people can see death happening all around them, of course the chance of survival is very minimal. And therefore the people that are leading sabotage operations come from the Sonderkommando, who are still alive in the camp, they find ways of rising up usually trying to destroy the facilities around the crematoria or the gas chambers. Put them all together we have all of these different models. Mainly, just to summarise, it is ghettos, partisans in the forests and a few isolated examples within the camps.
MW: I would just add a couple of points to that. Also it’s worth noting with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, going back to this question of people sometimes having this perception of Jews not resisting: not only is it the first great Jewish uprising, it is really the first urban insurrection by civilians anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. And as Jeremy says, there were similar movements in other ghettos. Maybe why they’re less well known is partly to do with the nature of those ghettos themselves. Warsaw was unusual because it occupied a fairly large urban area; most other ghettos were very small – often just a few streets – so there was no hope of holding down the Nazis for the length of time that was the case in Warsaw. But nonetheless there were significant acts of armed resistance there. And of course, again, in terms of the importance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, is the fact that essentially the Nazis were tied down for the best part of a month.
And also on the camps, as Jeremy says, resistance tends to come to the fore – and I think this is true not just with Jews but with other groups – when people feel there is nothing left to lose. Also there, with some of the camp revolts, there is a sense that they do achieve something. In the two great revolts which took place in 1943 in Treblinka and Sobibór extermination camps, these were people who were condemned to death, and in each case maybe a couple of hundred people were able to escape out of the 800 to 1,000 people who were in each camp and roughly in each case about 50-60 of those people survived to the end of the war, which is obviously a small minority of those there but these are people who would otherwise have died. So there is very much this sense of resistance at least offering the opportunity of saving the lives of some people.
AM: Martin you mentioned Warsaw and Jeremy mentioned the Bielski brothers. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is fairly well known, the Bielski brothers story has been popularised in a big budget Hollywood film, but of course the 70 Voices project is about trying to look at some of the lesser known stories as well. Tell us a little bit about the story behind the stories that people will have accessed online. What sort of sources were you looking for and how did you find them?
MW: Some of these are actually well-known sources – we started the week with Mordechai Anielewicz, in a way the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But I think one of the things that we find with the Holocaust is just how much is out there and how much is still untapped in many senses. So I think one of the most remarkable stories we’ve touched on this week is from Belgium, that of Youra Livchitz, a Jewish doctor who was active in the Belgian Resistance – Jeremy mentioned earlier that in western and wentral Europe Jews were more likely to be involved in the wider resistance movement – who, on the same day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began, organised a raid on a deportation train which was carrying people to Auschwitz from Belgium and facilitated the escape of more than 100 people who otherwise would have been murdered. And, talking about the Bielski brothers, this [Youra Livchitz] is such an astonishing story that I am astonished it has not been made into a movie as well. Because there are so many inspiring stories here, but I think, in a way we are still looking. There are still so many different sources that are out there and we are drawing on the testimony of survivors, of course, but also records that were created at the time.
Again, one of the things which is fairly well-known to Holocaust historians, but maybe not to the wider public, which we’ve highlighted this week is perhaps the most remarkable source to emerge from the Holocaust, which is a huge collaborative source – the Oneg Shabbat archive, which again takes us back to Warsaw, created in the Warsaw Ghetto, this very conscious attempt to record Jewish experiences during this period. Initially it was something that was created before the Warsaw Ghetto had been established, and certainly before it was clear that people were going to be murdered, but as time goes on it takes this function of, as I say, recording Jewish experiences, recording Nazi crimes, also preserving Jewish culture which begins to take us into some of the other areas of resistance. And this archive exists in Warsaw, there is maybe nothing that is quite so comparable, but in many other parts of particularly eastern Europe there are also other archives which now historians are only just beginning to really delve into properly. Looking at the experiences of Jews, whether they’re official records created by Jewish Councils or they’re diaries which are written by individuals. And again that raises questions which relate to resistance, about when someone was writing a diary or when they were writing a chronicle in a ghetto, how far were they thinking with posterity in mind? And I suspect initially probably not, but I think as time goes on, if one reads lots of diaries, one finds this is a key theme: people are increasingly realising they may not survive but they do want some memory of themselves and what they went through to be preserved.
AM: The theme that comes up when we think about different forms of resistance – there is so much spiritual resistance. Jeremy, I can remember being in a room at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum looking at paintings that prisoners in that camp were able to produce. Can you just touch on the issue of spiritual resistance, what are some examples or some forms of it?
JL: Obviously, spiritual has a connotation of religious although it certainly doesn’t have to; it’s the survival of the spirit – the human spirit – and any of the areas where one sees that happening. Those examples which are really probably the most extreme, where people are seeing death all around them, one imagines what on earth an artist could possibly do by recording any of that, is that really to remind people that human beings are still there, that they can still draw, they still have artistic creativity and that there was some act of resistance going on there, or was it in the hope that somehow this would be preserved as future evidence?
Maybe when there are – and these are the kind of examples we have from survivors, written up in testimony – people maintaining some aspect of belief: belief in a better world than the world that was going on around them. A very famous example is one that we use on visits to Auschwitz. It’s a passage from Primo Levi where he talks about a fellow inmate by the name of Steinlauf. Steinlauf insists on washing every morning even though clearly it’s dirty water, it serves no purpose from what we normally understand from washing. But he says that this Is a way of preserving the sense of the body and as a result I can remember the sense that I’m a human being and if I didn’t wash, however meaningless it is, then I would descend into the point that the Nazis see me as. Parallel to that, we have all sorts of other stories. People have discussed whether Elie Wiesel is really recording an event that actually happened or whether this was part of an imagination, but a group of people of religious Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial and conclude that maybe God doesn’t exist or God doesn’t love them but nonetheless they continue to pray afterwards. There is quite a lot to unpack in that, but the idea that people somehow have no choice but to continue believing in a higher power or a being that contains morality and goodness, even though they may feel terribly let down by whatever God may represent, but we are looking at people at the most extreme moments of their lives not willing to give up on the idea of belief in something.
I want to, if I may, go back to the example that Martin drew from which is the Oneg Shabbat archive, because for me it represents almost some of the most profound expressions of this term spiritual resistance. One thing is that the leader, the person behind it, was a historian by the name of Emanuel Ringelblum and Ringelblum kept a diary of the ghetto. And he records that having got some of the diaries and some of the materials out – written down but also smuggled out to the Allies – they hear some of their writings being related to on the BBC as it was broadcast in Europe in the spring of 1942 and they felt that, somehow, by writing things down people would read them and that knowledge would lead to action. Therefore this resistance was spiritual at the moment of writing but actually had a physical reality to it later on. But critically, and more important than anything else, is that these people by the act of writing something down felt that there was a future that existed even if it wasn’t a future that contained them. The Oneg Shabbat archive concluded when the ghetto uprising was about to begin, they buried all of this enormous archive – they put all the materials in metal containers buried beneath the streets of Warsaw – because they knew that fighting would take place, and two out of the three depositories or clusters of this material were uncovered after the war. And, in a way, what people are writing at the time, of this future that they don’t exist in, that is that world that we live in today. Almost all of our documents that we have of the ghettos come from this act of resistance: as it were, a protest against finality that was taking place during these desperate times.
I want to say, although it’s an example, it’s very, very powerful. [In] the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the timing was really conditioned on when the Nazis chose to come into the ghetto. Therefore people would not come out to the deportations to be deported and people with guns would come out instead. The date the Nazis initiated the final deportations was the first night of the Jewish festival of Passover, Pesach, which commemorates the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt in biblical times. And, of course, the poignancy was not lost on a historian like Ringelblum and, in fact, many of the fighters who certainly were very deeply connected to Jewish culture, religious or secular. They knew that this act of resistance that was taking place then was mirroring or in a way was a reflection of earlier stories that the Jews tell of themselves every year at Passover: that our whole identity is built on the struggle to be free people and having previously been slaves. And, of course, that moment then is that the act of rising up physically wasn’t really an act of physical resistance at all, particularly if you knew you were going to die. In a way, there are people who argue that actually all acts of resistance in the end have a spiritual character to them. The last example that I want to give just from then [is] just to balance out our ideologies here, because a lot of these were people were coming out of a Jewish nationalist or Zionist view of the world. We have a diary entry from Marek Edelman, who was a deputy commander in Warsaw and he refers to an incident on the 1st of May 1943 – in other words, right in the middle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – when a group of fighters from the Bund, the Jewish socialist revolutionary movement, stop there, halted for a moment, and they all gathered together and sang the Internationale, the anthem of international socialism which talks about the solidarity of all humans beings irrespective of race and wherever they are in the world. And he records that there was never a moment in human history where an act, where the singing of a song, seemed to be so profoundly important and connected to the struggle for freedom.
One can almost go on for ever and ever with these, to go from the camps to the forest and from the forest to the ghettos, picking up all of these stories. In a way, as I say, it may be a way of saying that all of these small little acts, as well as the big ones, all come under this banner of the resistance of the spirit, using either guns in one sense or using culture and imagination and art on the other.
AM: I think that's a fascinating story on which to end this episode. Thank you very much, Jeremy Leigh joining us from Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and Martin Winstone here in London. And thanks to all of our listeners who have been contacting us and do continue to send us your comments on Twitter – we are @HolocaustUK. And, until next week, this is Alex Maws from the Holocaust Educational Trust. Thanks for joining us.
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