Holocaust Talk Draws Large Crowd

Published in June 1997 issue of Beineinu, the Young Israel of Brookline newsletter.

It's usually not remembered that when the State of Israel established a day marking the Holocaust, it was called "yom HaShoah u-G'vurah," "Day of Destruction and Strength," noted Mr. Steven Katz, professor of Jewish Studies at Boston University, in his lecture on "Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust." The lecture was delivered to a full crowd of YI members and people from the larger community at the Holocaust Remembrance Day observance on May 4.

Katz spoke about a number of myths surrounding the topic of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, pointing out that the popular image, "that the Jews went like lambs to the slaughter is a canard" that attempts to mitigate the guilt of the Nazis and their collaborators. Instead, he argued, Jews fought to maintain life - and the dignity that gives human life its value - at every step. "We always think that resistance means acting...means taking an ax" and attacking in self-defense. However, a number of features made the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust different, and these variations from the popular notion of resistance are part of why we rarely hear about the phenomenon of Jewish resistance.

First and foremost, Katz noted, "Physical resistance comes about when people are aware that death is the only option." But the Nazi plan had developed slowly and insidiously, he claimed, with persecution of the Jewish population increasing in stages in Germany between 1933 and 1938. At the time, the Nazis had no general plan of extermination. German Jewry under the leadership of Leo Baeck and Martin Buber reacted to the anti-Semitism that developed as the Nazis firmed their hold on power, by a "spiritual and cultural resistance," and by leaving Europe. Some 162,000 had fled to the British-held Palestinian Mandate area by the time Britain refused further immigration. Ghettoization only began in 1939, with the invasion of Poland; the Nazi policy of extermination had not been formulated even by that date. The Jewish leadership could only base decisions on their understanding of the situation, so that until late in the war, when the Final Solution had been fully implemented and the Jewish leadership knew about it, they "were working under a misplaced paradigm." In history, the conquerors always enslaved the population; so to preserve Jewry until the Allies could defeat Germany, the leadership decided upon a policy in which Jewish areas became Arbeitsgettos. What they could not understand was that "for the first time in the history of the world, utilitarian calculations mattered not at all." Until it was clear that the Nazis meant to kill all Jews, regardless of their usefulness, cooperation was a better gamble than was physical resistance.

Katz described two reasons why physical resistance was nearly impossible. The conditions in the ghettos were unspeakable. In addition to the crowding, the disease, the severe cold of the winters, the constant noise and fear that left every night a sleepless night, the ghetto Jews were starving. The Nazi plan was supposed to provide 1200 calories per day per person (the UN estimates that an adult needs 3500 cal/day), but after misappropriation and mishandling by the wartime bureaucracy, only 300-400 cal/day actually reached people in the ghettos. Sick, sleepless, and starved, this was "not a population where resistance was simple."

On top of that, "Every act [of resistance] had to take into account reprisals." Katz gave as one example the incident occurring with a resistance group in Byelorussia in 1941. The leaders of the group had been caught and tortured by the Russian police. They escaped and hid in the ghetto, so the ghetto leaders were told that all the Jews in the ghetto would be killed if they didn't turn over the resisters. When the escaped resisters could not be located, some 1700 Jews of the ghetto were massacred. The cost of even small acts of resistance was horrifically high.

Common notions of resistance to the Nazis are based on the model of the French Underground - a resistance movement that would have been impossible without the active support of large segments of the population - and therefore do not recognize many of the types of resistance that did take place. Since the Nazis were not merely interested in physical murder, but in assuring themselves and the world that the Jews were Untermenschen - less than human - acts preserving the identity and essential dignity of the Jewish people took on great significance as acts of resistance. Singing Yiddish songs could cost you your life, so singing z'mirot was an act of resistance. So was study, and laying t'fillin (phylacteries>; in one ghetto, Katz reported, there were 600 illegal minyanim - so 6000 men, at least, were risking their lives daily to say mincha, the afternoon prayer, with the community. For people who were starving, refusing to eat trayf food or keeping Yom Kippur was an act of resistance that was nothing short of heroic.

Keeping up hope, and dignity, and staying alive, was an act of resistance. Even with the knowledge of the camps ahead, there were no mass suicides. A rabbi from Bialestock told his people "Our destination is Treblinka...be strong enough to show the world that even though we are in chains were are not conquered." Still, physical resistance did occur, and with increasing frequency, as the Jewish leadership came to understand that all possible hope of surviving was gone, and that it was time to rise and resist in the name of Jewish dignity. Katz commented, "The Warsaw Ghetto [uprising]...is just the tip of a very large iceberg," and listed a number of other ghetto uprisings and bombings. He read statistics detailing Jewish participation in Jew-only and in gentile resistance groups. And he defended the Judenreder (Jews put in power over other Jews) against the blanket accusation of collaboration. There were abuses of power, yes, but the "process of cooperation with the Nazis was inescapable...not collaboration, but cooperation." He cited "pages and pages of documentation" showing that many of the Judenreder refused to cooperate, at the cost of the lives of their families and of themselves.

Finally, Katz spoke of resistance in the death camps themselves-resistance in the face of the crematoria, after years, possibly, in the ghettos, and weeks on crowded trains. "To resist in that circumstance is awesome, overwhelming." He told of uprisings at Sobibor in 1943 and at Treblinka in 1944, both acts causing camp closures. Russian and Polish prisoners of war - often physically-fit and well-fed soldiers - did not rise up, in contrast; some five million Russian POWs were kept in concentration camps with no documented instances of uprisings, and nearly all five million died. Thus, Katz concluded, "The astonishing fact is not that there was so little Jewish resistance, but that there was so much."

After the keynote lecture, YI member Mr. Michael Klein spoke of his own experiences during the Holocaust. His own life was saved by the Zondercommandos (Jewish men assigned to search the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers for valuables) who blew up gas chambers at Auschwitz. He described his memory of one of the "personal acts of resistance" he saw at Auschwitz in 1944. "Why do I go back to Yom Kippur? Because it is engraved in my mind..." Though it was a work day, everyone in the Auschwitz camp decided to fast. The Nazis, at Kol Nidre, had the returning work unit stand and watch them hang a man, a friend of Klein's. Later, after the Jews were herded into the barracks, Rabbi Moshe Spitzer, a cantor from Debrecen, began the Kol Nidre prayers from memory and began them. The camp commanders somehow discovered this was occurring, and began to beat all present. All but Rabbi Spitzer ran and hid. Klein had not known what had happened after that, until recently reading the testimony from the 1952 trial of the camp commanders. According to the testimony, Rabbi Spitzer had continued standing and davening the Kol Nidre prayers until he was beaten - without physical resistance, still praying - to death. Klein asked, "Where was there a greater spiritual resistance than Rabbi Moshe Spitzer's?"

YI member Ms. Miriam Gedweiser read the final words of Yossl Rockover, a forty-year-old Hasid who after the death of his wife and children fought until his death in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the note, found in a bottle, he expressed his total resistance to the Nazis but challenged G-d to break His silence and help His children. Rockover's poetic final words also communicate his faith. As the sun is setting, he writes, "The sun knows how little sorry I am of never seeing it again...I have served G-d with fervor...my emunah (faith) has not changed a bit...When it is instinct that rules the world...the pure ones are the first sacrifices." He denied that the Jewish people deserved this; any such notion is "self-desecrating." Instead, he saw a divine plan in the situation, and took pride in being a Jew-in being a fighter: both of man and of G-d. "Where are the limits of Your patience?...the test is so bitter, You have to forgive those who have turned their back on You."

To end the observance, Reverend Loketch read the prayer KEl Malei Rachamim, voice cracking with emotion. Teary-eyed, the crowd left with little conversation. One older woman, however, commented almost offhandedly to her husband, "It's too bad there are so few young people here today."