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How much Armed Jewish Resistance was there to the Holocaust?

By Spencer Worley



The term Jewish Resistance was importantly explored by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer in his book, The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness. He described it as “any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters”[1]. This essay will be looking at the scale and amount of armed Jewish resistance, and also explore why Jewish resistance happened and what generally happened to resistors.


The people who chose to resist in concentration camps came from all the occupied nations of Europe. The Jews imprisoned in the camps, whether they were Polish, Russian or German, would have a part in resisting the Nazi control.  The camps where major armed uprisings took place were Treblinka, Sobibór and also a major revolt at Auschwitz. At the Auschwitz camp, for example, there were a total of 667 escapees over four years; although a third of them were recaptured,[2] it nevertheless showed a concise effort for the populace to try and escape the oppression they were experiencing. The Sonderkommando, who had an unprecedented amount of responsibility and lee-way in the camps, enacted one of the largest breakouts of the camps on 3rd November 1942. During a search with their accompanying SS guards, the Sonderkommando rushed the SS and took control of a watchtower at the Birkenau extermination complex. Altogether, an estimated 13,000 inmates escaped, although their freedom was short lived; only 96 survived to see the liberation of the camp.[3] For Jewish inmates in the camps, escapes and revolts were much harder to achieve due to the severe harshness of their conditions and tightness of security in their areas of the camps. Although in some of the camp areas for Russian prisoners of war, Jewish prisoners had managed to become leaders in the resistance movements. One such resistance movement was centred in the Hammerstein camp; it was lead by a Jew named M. I. Khazanovich. This group was able to overpower their guards and escape to a nearby town where they held out against German army attacks until Soviet liberators make contact with them. It is the belief of Ainsztein that “the revolts in the camps were almost exclusively the work of Soviet prisoners of war and Jews”[4]. This shows that although the Jews may not have been the main group resisting in the camps, they were inextricably involved with the leadership, and planning and implementation of revolts in camps such as Treblinka.


Though small in number, due to their circumstances of impoverishment and repression, revolts solely instigated and put into action by Jewish prisoners did happen. The main example of this is the rising is in the ghetto in Warsaw. The Warsaw Ghetto can be seen as a “people’s uprising”[5]; the Warsaw uprising was not two professional armies fight a pitched battle, but thousands of people revolting against the oppression of the SS and the Nazis. Created on 2nd October 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto had a population capacity of 500,000 people although this figure was often exceeded. The Ghetto was centred in and around the poorest slum district of Warsaw, whose pre-war population density had been 7 people per room - which rose to thirteen per room while the ghetto was in operation. Many thousands more slept on the streets and in warehouses. Along with this, the food ration handed out to inmates was woefully inadequate; a Jewish chronicler estimated that 30 per cent of the population was starving to death; one extreme case due to the lack of food caused several people to resort to cannibalism.[6]


Although the inmates of the Warsaw Ghetto witnessed some of the most horrific conditions of the war, they were unprepared when eight Jews were executed for roaming outside the ghetto looking for food. Emanuel Ringelblum recorded “The death sentences carried out on eight Jews, including six women, have shocked the entire city of Warsaw.”[7] Around about the same time, November 1941, news started to reach the Warsaw Ghetto of the Nazi annihilation methods from the neighbouring ghetto in Vilna – following the Vilna Declaration of 1st January 1942. The declaration moved the population of the Vilna Ghetto to establish resistance movements.[8] The stories told by the escapees from Vilno spread rumours of the Nazis plans to “liquidate” the population of the Warsaw Ghetto. The “Great Liquidation” would entail the mass transportation of Jews to nearby exterminations camps. The Warsaw uprising took the form of armed resistance in response to the “Great Liquidation” and forced resettlement. After only a few hours of fighting the Jewish resistance fighters had driven the few German and Polish guards out of the ghetto. The German officer, Sammern-Frankenegg, in command of the army units inside the Ghetto reported to his commander; “Everything is lost in the ghetto, we are no longer in ghetto, we can no longer get inside the ghetto, we have a number of killed and wounded.”[9] The success of the initial revolt gave the resistance a much needed boost to morale. Upon hearing of the German guard’s failure to hold on to the ghetto, SS Brigadefuerhrer (Major General) Jurgen Stroop returned to the Ghetto with a force of about 5000 men, supported by artillery and bombers. Again the German military was forced to retreat for the night. Spurred on by the successes of the main resistance group, smaller less well organised resistance groups rose up all over the ghetto. The Warsaw uprising continued well into May 1943, by the end of the German army operation a total some 55,179 Jews were captured and sent to Auschwitz.[10] The successes of the Warsaw uprising gave Jews imprisoned in other camps and ghettos the incentive to rise up against their Nazi captors. 


Although the types of resistance used by Jewish prisoners of the Holocaust varied greatly; they can be placed in two categories; armed, the use of violence, and unarmed, the use of smuggling and escape. Perhaps the best example of armed resistance is the Warsaw uprising, but less well known armed partisan groups include the Bielski Partisans. This group operated in the Nalibocka Forest area in Belorussia near to the Russian Polish border. The most striking difference between the Bielski partisans and any other partisan group is the fact that the Bielski partisans were comprised almost entirely of Jews who had evaded capture or execution at the hands of the invading Germans. The Bielski partisans worked to “save all Jews regardless of who they were”[11]; this policy of trying to save all – as opposed to “lambs to the slaughter” - prevailed until the end of the war. The Bielski partisans were not content with going to their deaths quietly; they assumed the dual role of rescuers and rebels, living in the forests numbering over 1200. The German army in the area stepped up their anti partisan raids in an effort to try and extinguish all partisan groups. Although German anti partisan units were not their only concern; there was also pressure from Russian partisan groups who had a general distrust of the Jewish Bielski partisans “Relying on an old Tradition, instead of blaming the enemy, the partisans blamed the Jews for the problems created by these [anti partisan] attacks”[12]. The pressure from both sides was great and the leaders of the Bielski were not interested in “military glory”; but wanted to stay alive and keep their people alive. Pressure came from the Russians who would have expected the Bielski partisans to fight against their common enemy, the Germans. Any refusal would have been detrimental to the partisans because it would have meant that their “allies” would blame them for cowardice. The few attacks that did take place against the Germans, only took the form of sabotage that is blowing up trains and bridges; this continued till 1943.  The success of the Bielski partisans can be measured in the amount of time they managed to keep themselves from being captured by the Germans or in fighting with the Russian partisan groups and the number of escaped Jews they helped into hiding. Concise figures about the number Jewish prisoners rescued by the Bielski partisans are hard to come by, though estimates have put the figures at between 1,000–1,200 and the fact that so many people were hiding in a forest in a Nazi occupied territory till the end of the war is testament to their successes.


The number of resistance movements that occurred during the Holocaust is testament to the Jewish people’s resolve in the face of such extreme violence and fervour toward their destruction. The success rate of resistance however does not reflect the size of resistance movements; only a few such movements had any notable successes, and even fewer still lasted the whole duration of the war. The only resistance movement that lasted the length of the war was that of the Bielski partisans (1941-45) in Belorussia. Success could also be attributed to the first few days the Warsaw rising where the German army was beaten back after failed attempts to take back the ghetto. Far more numerous were failed resistance movements; these include attempts made at Auschwitz – Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibór. It is possible to see a connection between the numbers of guards and the level of resistance; in the concentration and extermination camps, often only small groups or individuals attempted to resist or escape, whereas resistance in the ghettos was more violent and greater in scale and where there were no guards the level of resistance was vast, like that of the Bielski partisans. If and when resistors were caught, the reprisals and collective punishments would often be far more cruel and violent that their captivity, such as the example given of the eight Jews caught outside the Warsaw ghetto trying to find some food; they were executed. The figures from sites where mass escapes and resistances took place are more accessible. They would be written down in official documentation: the escape of 13,000 Russian prisoners of war, led by Jews. In this example only 96 survived in the camp till it was liberated. Another example of this is the after action report of the Warsaw uprising filed by SS General Stroop; it gives detailed numbers about the number of soldiers and inmates involved, the numbers of people killed and the amount of machinery and support that the operation needed. The report also gives details on how Jewish resistor would attack and try to conceal their method of attack on their person.


In conclusion there was much resistance to the Holocaust from the Jewish people. The types of resistance varied greatly; from smuggling and survival to outright violence, in an almost fighting fire with fire scenario. There is much debate as to whether Jewish resistance happened or not on a large scale; Bauer provides much evidence to the existence of resistance “the Jews made an effort, unorganized and unplanned, to continue civilized life in conditions imposed by a force”.[13] Although sometimes the resistance movement failed, the fact that the Jews as a people attempted to resist shows that they were not prepared to be wiped from existence.





Ainsztein, Reuben, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, (Paul Elek, London,         1974)

Bauer, Yehuda, Rethinking the Holocaust, (Yale University press, USA, 2002)

Hermann, Langbein, Against all Hope (Constable, London, 1994)

Hochstadt, Steve, ed., Sources of the Holocaust, (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004)

Porat, Dina, “The Vilna Proclamation of January 1, 1942, in Historical Perspective”, in Yad           Vashem Studies XXV, (Daf Noy Press, Jerusalem, 1996)

Tec, Nechama, Defiance, (Oxford University press, Oxford, 1993)

Werner, Harold, Fighting Back, (Columbia University press, New York, 1992)

http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/toc.html   HEART, Holocaust Research Project


[1] Bauer, , Rethinking the Holocaust, p.119.

[2] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.685.

[3] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.687.

[4] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.715.

[5] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.551.

[6] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.554.

[7] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.564.

[8] Porat in Yad Vashem Studies XXV, p.99.

[9] Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi Occupied Eastern Europe, p.626.

[10] Hocstadt, ed. SS report on revolt in Warsaw Ghetto, 13 May 1943, Sources of the Holocaust, p.208.

[11] Tec, Defiance, p.49.

[12] Tec, Defiance, p.108.

[13] Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, p.165.



Copyright: 2009 Spencer Worley & H.E.A.R.T


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