As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”
Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).
Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”
As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.
“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”
She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution.
To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance. A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”
Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”
Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history. This was their act of resistance.”
Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.” Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”
Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive. Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.
To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt. One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.