It sometimes feels like our pop culture is over-saturated, even obsessed with the Holocaust and the National Socialist era as a whole. Widespread public interest in this period of history is undoubtedly an advantage when speaking with students; even children as young as 8 years old are usually familiar with the name Adolf Hitler and many are aware that Jewish people were victims of Hitler and other Nazis. In FSWC workshops, students love to share what they have heard about the use of poisonous gas and other mechanisms of death, medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors, and lurid conspiracy theories they learned online.
These topics are titillating and can be a useful starting point for more in-depth inquiry, but our cultural obsession with Nazism has also had unforeseen consequences: in narratives on the Holocaust, too often Jewish people become passive victims without agency or awareness about the horrors unfolding around them. When students arrive at our centre, they rarely know how Jewish communities responded to anti-Jewish persecution and struggle to understand the “other” status of Jews in Germany and other European states without background knowledge on antisemitism as an ideological force in European history. This is arguably a reflection of the ways the Holocaust has been written about for decades. Historian Arnold Paucker, renowned scholar on the Jewish Resistance to Nazism, has demonstrated that perceived weakness in the response of Jewish authorities to the Nazi regime, coupled with our knowledge that the Holocaust was one of the most horrific genocides in recorded history, has resulted in a tendency among historians to frame Jews as the passive victims of the Nazi Final Solution,without voice or agency in the face of widespread destruction.
On a more fundamental level, many do not understand the multidimensional nature of Jewish identity or what it even means to be “Jewish.”Contrary to long-held antisemitic fantasies about a global Jewish conspiracy,Jewish identity is not unified or monolithic, but fractured. Jewish history in Europe is a history of tension and dualities: assimilation vs. separation, orthodoxy vs. secularism, east vs. west, communism vs. capitalism, and so on. Given the extremity of the persecution all Jews faced under National Socialism and the fact that Jews were a diverse group of people that came from a variety of national, cultural, and ideological backgrounds and who pursued different goals in their opposition to the regime, it is not surprising that there is virtually no evidence for the existence of a unified “Jewish Resistance” movement that is representative of the entire European Jewish community.
During the Holocaust, Jewish individuals, organizations, and communities responded to persecution in a variety of ways and resistance efforts exist on a broad spectrum of behaviour. By giving Jewish responses to Nazism a more central place in histories of the Holocaust, students will gain a more comprehensive picture of how events unfolded from multiple perspectives while also helping to dismantle the myth of Jewish passivity and the inevitability of the Final Solution.
The following sections will illuminate Jewish responses to Nazism within an inclusive framework of what constitutes “resistance”, as proposed by historian Konrad Kwiet:
"Any action aimed at countering the ideology and policies of National Socialism is described as being resistance. This includes activities […] by Jewish individuals and organizations, which even without that intention, were none the less directed against National Socialism and are thus objectively seen as a threat and a danger to the Nazi power. These are actions which contradict the general pattern of behaviour or
role-playing ordained for the Jewish section of the population by Nazi authorities."
Definitions of resistance offered by Kwiet and other historians of the Jewish Resistance speak to the fact that as Nazi policies evolved towards the Final Solution, every desperate action taken by Jewish groups or individuals in the name of survival could be interpreted as resistance to the Nazi regime. In some cases, even actions taken to end one’sown life can be included within this framework as death could become an assertion of agency and refusal to submit to slave labour and other abuses.
In the following sections we will frame Jewish responses to Nazi persecution within the following categories:
1. Broader historical context of antisemitism in Europe, how Jewish communities learned to cope.
2. Passive Resistance: Emigration, hiding
3. The legal and spiritual resistance of Jewish religious and communal authorities
4. Leftist resistance of partisan and worker’s groups
5. Resistance of the Jewish youth and student groups
6. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
7. Armed uprisings in the extermination camps.