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December 13, 2004

Jews DID resist the Nazis

Although there is a widespread myth that Jews in the Holocaust were passive, they were actually more active than any other conquered people. In 1942-43, Jews constituted half of all the partisans in Poland. Overall, about thirty thousand Jewish partisans fought in Eastern Europe. There were armed revolts in over forty different ghettos, mostly in Eastern Poland.

In other parts of Europe, Jews likewise joined the resistance at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Unlike in Eastern Europe, though, Jews were generally able to participate as individuals in the national resistance, rather than having to fight in separate units. For example, in France, Jews amounted to than one percent of French population, but comprised about 15-20 percent of the French Resistance.

In Greece too, Jews were disproportionately involved in the resistance. In Thessaly, a Jewish partisan unit in the mountains was led by the septuagenarian Rabbi Moshe Pesah, who carried his own rifle. The Athenian Jew Jacques Costis led the team which demolished the Gorgopotamos Bridge, thereby breaking the link between the mainland and Peloponnesian Peninsula, and interfering with the delivery of supplies to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

One of the great centers of resistance was Vilna, Lithuania, which before the Nazi conquest had been an outstanding center of Jewish learning, compared by some to Jerusalem. Plans for resistance began in January 1942. The Jews’ only weapons were smuggled in from nearby German arms factories where the Jews performed slave labor. Hopeful of liberation by the Russian army, many of the Vilna Jews did not support the partisans. Partisan resistance postponed by three weeks the German plans to transport all the inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto to death camps, but the deportation of 40,000 Jews was accomplished by the end of September 1943.

A young poet named Abba Kovner led the resistance movement known as the Avengers in the woods around Vilna. His lieutenants, and bedmates, were teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak. The Avengers were the first partisans in Nazi Europe to blow up a German train. Towards the end of the war, the Avengers shepherded huge numbers of Jews to Palestine, in violation of the British blockade.

Before the war, Ruzka had belonged to left-wing Zionist youth group called “The Young Guard” (HaShomer HaTza’ir) which trained Jews in self-defense, and taught the older boys how to shoot. Abba was not religious, but he was a fervent Zionist, loving to read the Bible stories of Jewish warriors, and aiming to emulate the Jewish Bible heroes.

In the Vilna Ghetto, it was Abba Kovner who first saw that the tightening of the Nazi oppression was not just a temporary imposition by a local German official; it was a step towards the total destruction of the Jews. The only way out, he argued, was “Revolt and armed defense. This is the only way which promises any dignity for our people.” Other Jews countered that revolt was hopeless because the Germans were so strong, and that collective reprisals by the Germans would just lead to more Jewish deaths. Ruzka Korczak retorted that the stories of Jewish heroism could not remain only “a part of our ancient history. They must be part of our real life as well.” The next generation of Jews must have something to admire. “How good will they be if their entire history is one of slaughter and extermination? We cannot allow that. It must also have heroic struggles, self-defense, war, even death with honor.”

Vilna was typical, in that the young people were usually the ones who wanted to fight, and the elders usually counseled against causing trouble. Most of the partisan leaders and fighters were young. Niuta Teitelbaum was a beautiful 24-year-old Jewish Polish woman who looked like she was sixteen. Known as “Little Wanda with the Braids,” she was an expert smuggler of people and weapons, and instructed women’s partisan cells. Her units blew up trains, artillery emplacements, and other German targets.

Once, wearing traditional Polish clothing and a kerchief on her hair, she talked her way past a series of Gestapo guards, whispering that she was going to see the SS commander on “private business.” Alone with the commander in his office, she drew a revolver, shot him dead, and calmly left the building.

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