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The Holocaust
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Jewish Resistance
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A map of Jewish Partisan Resistance in Eastern Europe
The Warsaw Ghetto
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Jewish Resistance
Portrait of a Jewish partisan group operating in the Lithuanian forests.

Jews resisted the genocidal policies of the Nazis in many ways. They could count on little support from local populations due to anti-Semitism and the fear to be harmed themselves. Also, the rest of the world, including the United States, lacked the motivation to intervene in the mass killings of the Jews. But for the Jews themselves, resistance was a matter of life or death, or at least dying in dignity.

Forms of Resistance

The Nazis wanted to murder all the Jews of Europe and ban Jewish culture from the continent forever. In this atmosphere, merely participating in Jewish rituals, reading Jewish religious books or speaking Hebrew was a form of resistance. But thousands chose more active ways of resisting. They helped in the printing of illegal newspapers, destroyed records, stole German army supplies, sabotaged trains and factories, or blew up bridges and roads. Thousands also took up arms and joined partisan groups in the forests. Many Jews in the United States armed forces volunteered for extra dangerous missions.

Any kind of armed resistance or sabotage was extremely dangerous. One was not only risking one’s own life, but the Nazis often took revenge by killing innocent civilians. So those who took this course of action had a real dilemma. Doing severe damage to the German war machine meant an even harsher response by the German military against innocent men, women and children. Such terrorism was seen by the German military as an acceptable way to stop its enemies from causing too much damage.

Resistance in the Ghettos

Before Jews were sent to concentration camps or death camps, they were forced to live together in ghettos. Many Jews tried to escape the ghettos, but this was not easy since armed guards were positioned outside the ghetto walls and fences.

Sometimes, those in the ghetto would rise up against the German army. Because they were always outnumbered and because the army had much more weaponry, such efforts were always doomed to fail. But these actions did help people escape.

Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Perhaps the most famous ghetto uprising was the one that took place in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto initially had half a million residents, all Jews. The ghetto started to empty as the Nazis sent the residents to death camps, where they would almost certainly perish.

By early 1943, there were only 60,000 people left. But these people had organized themselves. They created a mostly unarmed group of about 1000 fighters that were determined to fight until the last person was left standing. In January 1943, the SS entered the camp to round up more Jews for the death camps. The people in the ghetto chose this moment to fight back. Thousands of other Jews in the ghetto joined the fighters. For four weeks, the German army used tanks and artillery to put down the rebellion. Hardly a building was left standing as fires raged in the ghetto. The fighting cost the lives of 15,000 Jews. Hundreds of German military were also killed.

Resistance in the concentration and death camps

There were many forms of resistance in the concentration camps as well, though as in the ghettos, most paid the ultimate price for doing so.

In May 1943, inmates at the Treblinka Death camp made plans to take over the camp. They had heard about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and drew inspiration from this. Using shovels, a few homemade grenades and some stolen guns they were ready to attack the heavily armed SS guards. Because the inmates did not coordinate well enough, things did not go according to plan. But some 200 inmates escaped from the camp. About half of them survived.

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Photo credit: USHMM, courtesy of Eliezer Zilberis.
Anne Frank Guide
This day in history
Today: 12 December 2017
Then: 11 December 1941

Germany and Italy declare war on the United States; the U.S. respond in kind.

View the timeline