Did the Jews fight back in the Holocaust?

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Yes, there were a number of Jewish resistance groups in Europe - and there was the Wasaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. (Please see related question for details).


They were unarmed civilians who had for many years been harrassed and closely monitored by the apparatus of the German state, so there was no way they could have organized themselves to fight back. In those instances where they were armed and organized, such as in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, they fought back heroically.

One really needs to ask: Resist or fight back at what stage? In the early stages the Jews knew of course that they were being persecuted - monstrously persecuted - but did not know they were going to be subject to mass murder. By the time they knew they were going to be killed, it was generally rather late to resist. However, as the links show, even at an earlier stage, resistance was beset with all kinds of problems.

The predominant image is of lambs going meekly to the slaughter. This image is (or was) widespread among Jews as well as non-Jews. In Western Europe and much of Central Europe (such as France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria) the Jews were too scattered to offer much resistance. However, in Eastern Europe (for example, parts of Poland and Belarus) many of the Jews lived in identifiable communities and were better placed to resist. The best known example of resistance is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943. Early research tended to stress lack of resistance, but since the 1980s there has been a growing emphasis on Jewish resistance to the Nazis.
Bear in mind that:
  1. The Jews transported to extermination camps had often been in cattle trucks for 2-5 days and were weak, hungry and thirsty on arrival. Moreover, long before being loaded on to trains they hadn't had enough to eat. They had been subject to endless petty restrictions since 1939-40, such as not being allowed to shop before 3.30pm, by which time shelves in many shops were often half empty, as the war created all kinds of shortages. They were forbidden to own radios or buy newspapers, too, and they were subject to curfews. Their warm clothing had been seized. In many places they were banned from city centres and from theatres, cinemas and most cafes and restaurants.
  2. Many of the Jews sent to the camps had spent the previous 2-4 years or so in ghettos, with insufficient food and no medication and in appalling conditions.
  3. Usually, Jews living in Western and Central Europe were rather scattered. Even in the traditional, well established 'Jewish quarters' of many European cities the majority of the population often wasn't Jewish. In other words, the Jews were rather isolated and didn't have the cohesion that is generally necessary for resistance.
  4. Most Jewish communities in Europe had a long tradition of not trying to meet force with force: they knew, from generations of experience, that it never succeeded and usually ended in disaster. This time they did not know that disaster was inevitable, whether they resisted or not.
  5. Suggestions, such as those made by Paul Johnson in his History of the Jews, that there were long-standing Jewish cultural obstacles to armed resistance are very difficult to evaluate.

However, in some parts of Eastern Europe the Jews DID fight the Nazis, for example in Belarus. However, the best known example is that of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Obviously, inhabitants of the ghetto were physically weak and not well placed to take on the SS but they went down fighting. There were also uprisings in the Bialystock and Vilnius ghettos. There were also the uprisings and mass breakouts at Sobibor in October 1943 and at Treblinka ...

At first there was no reason for most Jews to think they would have to fight. Even as late as 1943, many got off the train at Treblinka and Sobibor thinking they were on their way to "resettlement in the east". There is no point in doing battle if you can trick your enemy into letting you kill them, and that is what the Nazis did.

The Jews had two choices. Either they did what the Nazis told them to do...or die. The Nazis forced them into the cattle cars. If they had fought back, they would have been shot. The Nazis forced them into the ghettos. If they had fought back, they would get shot and killed. Lastly, the Nazis forced them into the concentration camps.

 Some further points

Traditionally, many European Jews had been rather pro-German. They shared the general view of Germany as a highly civilized country ... There is some evidence that a number of Jews had great difficulty understanding what was really happening to them until it was far too late to do anything. Obviously, by the time they were in those cattle-trucks it was much too late.

Some Jews did resist, but it didn't help them much. For example, in some places in eastern Poland they refused to board the cattle trucks. The result was usually a delay of perhaps 2-3 hours to the planned departure of the train. One really needs to bear in mind how unevenly matched the Jews and the Nazis were.

There was no armed Jewish resistance in Western Europe but some Jews were active in various resistance movements in occupied countries. In Eastern Europe there was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and there were uprisings and mass break-outs in Treblinka and Sobibor. There was also a group of Jewish resistance fighters in Lithuania and also in Belarus. There were, of course, also some individual acts of resistance and defiance.

See also the links, which illustrate the enormous problems associated with non-cooperation, let alone active resistance.
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