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This article is reprinted with permission from
A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People
published by Schocken Books.
The definition of Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the Holocaust still evokes bitter polemics. Generally, resistance is understood to mean a form of armed struggle, organized by a clandestine movement created for that purpose. However, in the case of a dispersed nation threatened by an industry seeking its total extermination, such a military conception is inadequate.
A Belorussian resistance group.
Jewish existence in the diaspora excluded by definition the basic condition for armed resistance: belonging to a group united by feelings of social and ethnic cohesion. A collective consciousness of this kind was practically nonexistent among western Jews, and it had only elementary manifestations in eastern Europe. Therefore, the active participation of Jews in military resistance to the Nazi regime was contingent on the nature of their relations with the local non‑Jewish population and on the attitude of that population to the Nazi occupation.
The predominantly middle‑class Jews of Germany, who were expectedly individualistic as well, represent the reasons which prevented collective Jewish action in the face of Nazi terror. It was only when they were transported to the east, and confined together in ghettos and camps, that persecution transformed them into a homogeneous group.
Researchers therefore stress other forms of resistance: the zealous preservation of Jewish culture in the ghettos, Jewish contributions to the war effort of the Allies (the Palestinian Jewish brigade in the British army, or those who broke out of the ghettos to join the partisans, thus participating in the general, not specifically Jewish, history of anti‑Nazi resistance), and suicide—the ultimate form of refusal.
Yet even this broader definition of resistance does not really take into account the specific circumstances of the persecution of the Jews. The crucial difference between the Jews and all other nations, with the single exception of the Gypsies, was the Nazis’ determination to wipe them off the face of the earth. Had the Nazis simply tried to coerce them into one form of behavior or another, the Jews would have found ways to defy them. But there was no tradition of actively resisting total annihilation. Even the medieval form of Jewish resistance to forced conversion, i.e. killing oneself for the “sanctification of God,” was inapplicable. In this unprecedented and extreme case of genocide, only by fleeing could theJews really hope to thwart the enemy’s policy. Resisting simply meant saving one’s life, surviving.
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