Once reliable, substantiated evidence about the murder of the Jews began to emerge and after the deportations from the ghettos had taken place, the undergrounds began launching armed rebellions in the ghettos and camps. In addition, they organized escapes and smuggled Jews from the ghettos to the forests in order to fight in the partisan units, as well as other rescue and hiding efforts. The largest and longest lasting of these rebellions took place in the Warsaw ghetto.
After liberation, many of the survivors quickly enlisted in the Allied forces that continued to fight against Nazi Germany.
Approximately 1.5 million Jews fought in World War II in the Allied armies, in the partisan units, in the underground movements and in the ghettos. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fell in battle.
Jewish Armed Resistance and Rebellions
The ghettos buzzed with rumours about the murder of Jews. Most inhabitants, however, found the vague information difficult to absorb, especially in view of the unprecedented nature of the events described. However, resistance groups obtained reliable information about the murders by means of couriers and liaisons outside the ghettos. As the information accumulated, they finally realized that a terrifying campaign of systematic murder, previously unheard of in human history, was being perpetrated. However, they only grasped this awareness after the execution of the deportations from the ghettos, and then they began to prepare for armed resistance.
The war of self-defence was carried out on three levels: armed uprisings in ghettos and camps; escape and smuggling of Jews from towns and ghettos to the forests for partisan warfare; and hiding by individuals in various hiding places, collective rescue efforts, and rescue of children.
Jews were active in the Belgian and French resistance and played a considerable role in the Slovakian uprising that broke out in the summer of 1944. Most Jews who fled to the mountains of Yugoslavia joined Tito’s partisan army. Tens of thousands of Jews reached the forests of Belarus and the Ukraine; they helped to establish partisan companies and fought admirably in special Jewish units or in mixed battalions. In Belarus and the Ukraine, family camps were established in the heart of dense forests; the fugitive non-combatant Jews who lived there were fed and protected by Jewish fighters.
Rebellions also took place in the death camps. In August 1943, the uprising in Treblinka broke out. Three groups of prisoners who had been put to work burning bodies and sorting the many victims’ belongings killed some of the camp commanders and guards, took over the armoury, and set the gas chambers and the camp barracks ablaze. In Sobibor, prisoners rose up and several managed to escape. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, a group of prisoners blew up one of the crematoria.
Jewish Soldiers in the Allied Armies
Approximately 1.5 million Jews fought in the regular Allied armies. In many cases the percentage of Jews fighting was greater than the percentage of Jews in the population.
About 500,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the Red Army during World War II. Some 120,000 were killed in combat and in the line of duty; the Germans murdered 80,000 as prisoners of war. More than 160,000, at all levels of command, earned citations, with over 150 designated “Heroes of the Soviet Union”— the highest honour awarded to soldiers in the Red Army.
Approximately 550,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the US Armed Forces during World War II. They served on all fronts in Europe and in the Pacific. Some 10,000 were killed in combat, and more than 36,000 received citations. Many Jewish soldiers took part in liberating the camps.
Approximately 100,000 Jews fought in the Polish army against the German invasion. They made up 10% of the Polish army, commensurate with the percentage of Jews within the general population. Approximately 30,000 Jews fell in battle, were taken captive by the Germans, or declared missing during the battles defending Poland, 11,000 in the defence of Warsaw. Thousands of Jews later served in various Polish armies fighting against the Germans in the Allied Forces.
About 30,000 Jews served in the British army in 1939-1946, some in special units of Jews from Palestine, such as the Jewish Brigade.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
On July 22, 1942, on the eve of the Ninth of Av in the Jewish calendar, the Germans began the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto. By the time they ended on September 21, Yom Kippur, some 260,000 inhabitants of the ghetto had been deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
The deportations were carried out at the Umschlagplatz – a train station and adjacent square situated on the edge of the ghetto. Those deported were packed into sealed, locked freight cars with little water and poor ventilation.
When the deportations began, the Nazis promised that people who voluntarily reported for “transfer” would receive three kilograms of bread and one kilogram of jam. After a few days the volunteers stopped coming, and the Nazis switched to siege tactics: city blocks would be closed off and the Jewish Police would remove the buildings’ residents to the streets. The Germans would carry out a selection while Polish or Ukrainian policemen would search in the abandoned homes for Jews in hiding. Many Jews who hid in the buildings or tried to escape the selection on the street were murdered on the spot. Most of the Jews who underwent the selection were chosen for deportation and sent to the Umschlagplatz.
After the deportations to Treblinka between 55,000 to 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw ghetto and they were concentrated in a few building blocs. The area of the ghetto was thus severely reduced.
A sense of bitter disillusionment and abandonment settled upon those who remained in the ghetto, the majority of whom were teenagers. Many blamed themselves for not resisting and for allowing their families to be deported. It was clear to them that they would share the same fate. Thus, they resumed the attempts at establishing a fighting underground organization.
The first attempts to establish an armed resistance organization within the ghetto took place even before the deportations. The “anti-Fascist bloc” was established between March-April 1942, based on a communist cell in the ghetto. However, the Gestapo discovered its leader in May 1942, who was arrested and murdered.
Representatives of three Zionist youth movements (“Hashomer Hatzair,” “Dror,” and “Akiva”) established the first cell of the new organization. Members of the “Poalei Tzion” party joined them in October. Thus the “Jewish Fighting Organization” (ZOB) was established. Within a short period of time other youth movements joined the organization as well as non-Zionist parties – the “Bund” and the Communists. The commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization was Mordechai Anielewicz of “Hashomer Hatzair”, who was 23 years old. The Revisionist Zionist youth movement “Beitar” established its own fighting organization, the “Jewish Military Union” (ZZW).
On January 18, 1943, the Germans launched another Aktion. The underground leadership, believing it to be the onset of the final deportation, ordered its forces to respond with arms. Upon discovering the resistance, the Germans decided to halt the Aktion. This incident marked a turning point for most of the ghetto population, which from then on prepared for mass resistance and for hiding in underground bunkers in the cellars of homes.
The final Aktion began on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover. The fighting groups and ghetto inhabitants barricaded themselves in bunkers and hideouts, their demonstrations of resistance taking the Germans by surprise. The ZOB scattered its positions throughout the ghetto; the ZZW did most of its fighting at Muranowska Square, impeding the Germans’ attempts to penetrate their defences. In response, the Germans began to systematically burn down the buildings, turning the ghetto into a firetrap. The Jews fought valiantly for a month until the Germans took over the focal points of resistance. It was the first popular uprising in a city in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising became an example for Jews in other ghettos and camps. The uprisings that followed, however, were smaller in scope because of their isolation, a shortage of arms and hostile surroundings.
The Human Spirit in the Shadow of Death
During the war, European Jewry was faced with a constant struggle for its very survival. Yet even under such terrible conditions there were those whose acted in ways that went beyond the necessities of human existence: they risked their lives – deliberately and intentionally – for high causes, including educating their children, maintaining religious values and traditions and sustaining centuries-old cultural activities. Unfortunately, not all those who succeeded survived the hell that was the Holocaust, but their deeds themselves bear witness to power of the human spirit.
One phenomenon that testifies to an impressive level of spiritual survival is the effort made by Jews to document their lives in the ghettos and the camps. Artists and intellectuals, children and ordinary people, wrote and drew in order to document the fear and crisis that pervaded Jewish society. These activities were not only helpful in allowing many to rise above the humiliations and injuries they suffered, but also sometimes alerted the free world to the reality of their lives. Even in the camps themselves, one finds evidence of activity through which the prisoners could – if only in their imagination – transcend the barriers of their status and of the surrounding camp environment. While only a few took part in these activities, their importance lies not in their quantity but in the strength of spirit needed for their realization within the reality of persecution and humiliation.
Despite the predatory reality endured by the Jews of Eastern and Western Europe, many people mobilized to assist those weaker than themselves, establishing mutual aid and welfare organizations. In the camps, helping others often became a matter of life and death, accompanied by difficult moral dilemmas. By helping another person – whether with food, clothing or work – the individual potentially jeopardized his own ability to survive. However, many Jews placed themselves in grave danger in order to save the lives of others.