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The Many Forms of Jewish Resistance

I’ve  asked myself many times, “Didn’t the Jews resist what Hitler was doing to them? Surely millions of people could have done more to stop the genocide.” One thing I didn’t realize was that most Germans didn’t care what happened to the Jews. Many Catholics in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania hated Jews and actually murdered their own Jewish neighbors when Hitler took over their countries. So it was a terrible time for Jews all over Eastern Europe. Of course, there were some who helped Jews. At least 23,000 who we know about. But that’s a small number relative to millions of people who did nothing.

In this institute, we’ve learned that there were many forms of resistance. The big insight for me is that resistance isn’t always with a rifle, and that’s not the deepest form. Resistance of spirit comes first. Jews refused to believe that they were “parasites, vermin, a diseased race” — that’s what Hitler’s racial ideology taught. 

The Jews did a lot to resist with force but they also resisted spiritually and intellectually. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

A reconstruction of the Warsaw uprising.
There are no Jewish photos of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, so artists have made visual models based on survivor accounts. 
  1. One of Hitler’s orders was that Jewish musicians could not play in German orchestras OR play music composed by anyone not a Jew. That eliminated Bach and Mozart and Beethoven among others. So Jewish musicians formed their own orchestras and gave concerts including Mahler and Mendelssohn (Jewish composers), and secretly played the others. Even in the ghettos they had orchestral concerts which were always full. These gave the Jews an hour of beauty amidst their sufferings. And some took their violins with them to the death camps! One of them said, “The Nazis can kill our bodies but not our souls.” Check out “Music from Terezin.”
     
  2. They wrote and sang folk songs. They’d take a familiar melody and compose a story about the Gestapo or one of their heroes. It was forbidden to sing, but they did it secretly.
     
  3. Artists continued to paint if they had supplies and sketch if they could find a scrap of paper. One artist took her art supplies with her to the Terezin camp so that she could give art lessons to the children there. After the war, hundreds of kids’ drawings were found. She didn’t care what they drew as long as they signed their names. The Nazis took away personal identity and dignity, so she wanted each child to realize his or her drawing was precious. You can see some of the Holocaust art by googling some of these names: Samual Bak (a survivor), Petr Edel, Yehuda Bacon and Felix Nussbaum.
     
  4. They composed and performed plays in the ghettos and in the Terezin camp. They also wrote diaries and poems. Many knew that they would probably not survive but their writings might, and they needed to tell the world what had been done to them and what their heroes were doing.
    A model of the Treblinka No. 2 death camp

     

    This model of the Treblinka death camp No. 2 was hand made by the Jew who was forced by the Nazis to help build the actual camp. He was such a good carpenter that he was kept alive as the maintenance man at the camp, so he saw thousands of his fellow Jews being gassed. Then their bodies were burned. He took part in a revolt and escaped, and immediately drew from memory a plan of the camp. Later he came to the Ghetto fighters' museum and asked to build this model. Photos of it were used as testimony in the trial of Adolf Eichman. It took my breath away to be near this model and think about the unthinkable that happened there.

  5. They prayed in hiding, and even on the way to death they sang Hebrew prayers.
     
  6. Youth movement was very strong among the Jews. It was the young adults who were being trained in agriculture because that’s what the U.S., Australia and Palestine wanted – people who knew how to farm. So even if a guy wanted to be a lawyer, he learned farming.
     
  7. Armed revolts were organized by these youth in several ghettos and later in three of the six death camps. In the Warsaw ghetto, they smuggled in guns from sympathetic Poles outside. This revolt lasted from January to May 1943. After the war, they found Czech, U.S., English, German and Polish rifles and pistols in the ruins. After the first attack on the Nazi soldiers, the fighters hid in the ghetto attics. They had opened the walls between all the houses so they could travel over several streets through the attics of attached houses. Of course, the Nazis brought in more and more troops and finally blew up the whole ghetto, but a few Jewish fighters escaped through the sewer pipes.
     
  8. They married and had babies in the ghettos even though that was forbidden. They wanted life to go on despite the death from disease and violence all around.
     
  9. They wrote and printed (with secret mimeograph machines) newspapers with whatever news they heard about what Nazis were doing to Jews in other areas, like eastern Poland. These they smuggled out by carriers like Havka Raban, who looked like a Pole.
     
  10. They did everything they could to stay alive. Many survivors came to Israel. Here they fought again to build a country of their own and have children and grandchildren. Several survivors said that was their greatest form of resistance.