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resistance

The question of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust was one of the earliest concerns of postwar research for both Holocaust scholars and survivor communities, among other interested people. Already during the Holocaust, a myth had taken root that Jews had insufficiently resisted their tormentors, and had mostly been passive in the face of genocide. In January 1942, Abba Kovner, a member of the Vilna Jewish underground, issued a call to all Jews everywhere not to "be led like sheep to the slaughter." Kovner suspected that the Nazi policy was not random antisemitic violence, and that it was targeting all Jews everywhere. He believed that unless the Jews resisted, they would be annihilated.1

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In his iconic call, Kovner presumed not only that Jews were not resisting their executors, but also that the only proper response to the German assault was armed resistance. This conception of Jewish resistance was very narrow, and was based on an erroneous premise: that there was a homogenous Jewish society that could ostensibly "decide" whether or not to raise arms against the Germans and their collaborators. In reality, the dehumanizing Nazi anti-Jewish policies in Germany and German-dominated areas in Europe had, over the years, not only raised, in many Jews’ perceptions, the previously unimaginable possibility of physical extermination, but, equally catastrophically, stripped most Jews of their wealth and possessions, affected their physical well-being and health, and sown corrosive atomization, isolation, alienation, and despair among the Jews, across Jewish institutions, and all over Jewish societies, with devastating psychological and social consequences.2 The question of armed resistance thus overlooks the relatively long historical processes—which began in 1933 in Germany and in 1939 in Poland—that had by 1942 rendered any organized armed resistance on the part of the Jews extremely unlikely, if not structurally impossible. For this reason, and as a result of more in-depth studies of available sources, many Holocaust scholars have recently recalibrated their historical questions about Jewish resistance.3 Jewish resistance, understood more broadly, took many forms in many different situations, and ranged from individual evasion to escape, hiding, adherence to Jewish customs or maintaining a semblance of “normal” life, documenting genocide and Nazi war crimes, to organized armed insurrection.

These items focus on the specific example of armed resistance. Rather than a self-evident phenomenon, however, the sources featured here speak to the multiple facets of contemporary writing about resistance.

For Kovner's January 1942 proclamation, see Jürgen Matthäus, Jewish Responses to Persecution, Volume 3, 1941-1942 (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2013). For Kovner's testimony at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, see the page in the Postwar Holocaust testimony collection.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that also before the Nazi rise to power European Jews did not constitute a homogenous group. Their circumstances, possibilities, identities, and social institutions varied from nation to nation, and many who were treated as Jews by the Nazis did not even consider themselves such.

See, for example, Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).