Although one of the main reactions to Hitler’s election was dismay, Jews did stand up for themselves. Jewish identity was reinforced within the communities and Jewish WWI veterans actively fought Nazi propaganda. Notorious German Jewish figures exposed the Nazis to the world, including Franz Bernheim who petitioned the League of Nations to call out NSDAP anti-Jewish legislation. The petition was accepted. Anti-Nazi newsletters and cartoons were put out, and when Jews were barred from public sports groups, they formed their own. Organizations provided aid to German Jews or engaged in rescue operations, with over 15,000 Jewish children being rescued. German Jewry established strong leaderships, which were able to negotiate their rights and possibly mitigate the restrictions. Those leaders were determined, as Rabbi Leo Baeck stated: “The Nazis could take our property, but not our spirit.” Jewish communities continued practicing Judaism. But Jewish action directly against the establishment was significantly hindered by their lack of power and influence; most Jews were middle-class and Jews formed less than 0.75 percent of the German population.
During the war, German Jews joined underground resistance movements, most of them left-wing Zionist, such as Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim, and Werkleute, among others. German Jews sabotaged Nazi operations, distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, and provided intelligence for the Allies. Most significantly, the Baum Group, led by Herbert Baum, bombed a Nazi anti-Soviet exhibit. The bombing led to mass arrests and executions, which sparked a debate among the Jews in Germany: taking action would surely result in mass murder, whereas being non-confrontational might maximize the chances of survival.
CAMPS & GHETTOS
Jews organised over 100 ghetto and concentration camp uprisings during the Holocaust. The uprisings varied in scale; some were large and well-organised, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, while others were smaller and even spontaneous. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish revolt during the Holocaust, lasting nearly a month. The only surviving commander of the uprising, Marek Edelman, knew the uprising was a suicide mission. He stated: “[the inspiration to fight was] not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths.”
In addition to full-scale revolts, many of the ghetto liquidations were met with armed struggle.
Jews revolted in the death camps, too. For example, on October of 1944, prisoners assigned to one of the crematoriums rebelled after realising that they were about to be killed. For months prior, Jewish women imprisoned in the camp smuggled tiny amounts of gunpowder, passing it along, at massive risk, to the prisoners that worked at the crematoria. Their goal was to blow up the gas chambers; however, the Nazis crushed the revolt, killing 450 prisoners. Another example is that of Treblinka death camp: on August of 1943, 1000 prisoners revolted, seizing arms and setting camp buildings on fire. They attempted to rush to the main gate, and some were even able to escape, though the Nazis later found — and executed — about half of them. The Nazis then executed every single prisoner that was left behind.
Some 100,000 Jews fought in the Polish army until Poland’s defeat in September of 1939. They formed around 10% of the Polish army. Around 30,000 Jews — many of them just teenagers — joined partisan groups in Eastern Europe, generally after having escaped from work camps and ghettos. In Poland, there were about 30 different Jewish partisan groups. In Belarus, the Bielski Brigade, led by Tuvia Bielski, established a makeshift camp in the forest, eventually building a school, hospital, and nursery. Unlike other partisan groups, which focused on killing Nazis, the Bielski Brigade would raid ghettos and help Jews escape, saving the lives of 1200 Jews. In Lithuania, Jewish partisans killed some 3000 German soldiers. In Ukraine, 5.2% of all partisans were Jewish. Soviet partisans also helped some 6000-8000 Jews escape from the Minsk Ghetto, the fourth largest ghetto in Europe.
Some Jews joined non-Jewish partisan groups, but they often had to hide their Jewishness from the other partisans, as they were antisemitic too.
Jewish partisans most often operated within the forest, engaging in guerilla warfare and sabotage against the Nazis and their collaborators.
Jews were a central part of the resistance in France. The "Armée Juive" (Jewish Army) was founded in January 1942 in Toulouse, and the group funneled 500 Jews into Spain (a neutral country). "Solidarité,” a Jewish communist unit, carried out attacks against German occupiers in Paris. French Jewish partisans issued forged certificates, provided psychological assistance to hidden children, assisted detainees in camps and smuggled them away, sent convoys of Jewish refugees to Switzerland and Spain. There were many other Jewish resistance movements; additionally, 3 of the 6 founders of the newspaper Liberation were Jews.
When the deportations of Jews began in Belgium, Jewish partisans destroyed Jewish community records. As such, they were able to hide some 4000 Jewish children and 10,000 Jewish adults. Many resistance groups focused on providing food and other necessities to these hidden Jews. Jewish partisans murdered Robert Holzinger, an Austrian Jew who was head of the deportation program and collaborated with the Nazis.
In the Netherlands, the communist party started a strike to protest the treatment of the Jews in February of 1941; about 1000 Jews participated and 500 were murdered. The Jewish boxer Benny Bluhm taught Jews how to fight back to resist attacks. Many Jews used violent resistance tactics against the Germans, including bombings and one gas attack.
In 1931, following the 1929 unrest, the British administration attempted to pass a first version of the White Paper— to no avail, as the move was effectively blocked by Jewish leaders, who threatened to take the matter to international courts for violating the terms of the Mandate. Eight years later, the British successfully passed the paper and drastically limited Jewish immigration, something that proved devastating. In 1941, David Ben Gurion called upon the British to accept 3 million Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, in vain. Still, efforts were made by Jewish groups to smuggle those refugees into Palestine clandestinely, and thousands of Jews were able to bypass the White Paper. Organized armed attacks against British targets significantly increased, including against police stations, telephone poles, etc. In a rare display of unity, all major Jewish resistance groups (Lehi, Haganah, Irgun) merged and formed the Tnuat Hameri Haivri movement, also known as Jewish Resistance Movement. They notoriously stormed the Atlit immigrant detention camp and freed the 208 Jewish detainees. In 153 places, railway lines were sabotaged, a British police boat was sunk. At the end of 1940, the Lehi planted a bomb at the immigration office in Haifa, in protest against British policy.
On the day of Hitler’s election in 1933, Recha Freier established the Youth Aliyah. It operated under the pretense that it was a “work study” program, but it was simply a way to bring German Jewish children to Palestine. Some 14,000 Jewish kids were saved this way.
The Jewish community in Palestine also sent 37 parachutists, including Hannah Szenes, to aid Jews in Eastern Europe. Seven of the parachutists were caught and executed.
In Algeria, a group of young Jews, led by José Aboulker, established a Jewish resistance group, operating under the pretense that it was a “sports club.” The group was called the Géo Gras Group, named after a non-Jewish coach that they hired. The said coach was unaware of the group’s true purpose.
Initially the group focused on minor tasks, such as protecting Jews from physical attacks, passing out anti-Vichy fliers, and purchasing weapons. In 1942, when the US prepared to land in the shores of Algeria and Morocco, the American military got in touch with some anti-Vichy members of the French military. These anti-Vichy officers put the Géo Gras Group in touch with the Americans. Together, they performed an operation that changed the course of WWII.
Géo Gras stormed the main police headquarters in Algiers, dressed in police uniform and carrying fake warrants. It only took them 15 minutes to take over the building. For the next 18 hours, they spread fake information over the radio, confusing the Vichy forces and allowing the Americans to land on the shores of North Africa without spilling a single drop of blood. This paved the way for the American occupation of Southern Europe and Italy, which created a double front and allowed the Allies to win the war.
In 1942, the YMCA and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee drew up a plan to rescue French Jews, but it was blocked by the Vichy regime. Whilst there wasn’t a consensus in the American Jewish population on how to react to Nazi persecution, there was cooperation: funds were raised for the Jews of Europe and the United Jewish Appeal gathered over $124 million during the war. Even before the war, American Jews swung into action, notably by petitioning the US government to disavow the Nazi regime. Tens of thousands of people signed those petitions, but the government refused to take action.
Just a few months after Hitler was sworn in as Germany’s chancellor, the American Jewish Congress held a mass rally in Manhattan. On March 27, 1933, over 50,000 people demonstrated in Madison Square. In the US, some individuals called for a boycott of German goods, including the Jewish War Veterans represented by J. George Friedman, as well as former Jewish Congressman William Cohen. Major Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, American League for Defense of Jewish Rights, B’Nai B’rith, the Jewish Labor Committee and Jewish War Veterans, joined together in a call for an unconditional and unilateral boycott of German goods. That boycott was enforced by many civilians, even worrying the German authorities as German imports to the US decreased sharply. Some 550,000 American Jews joined the US military to fight the Nazis, and many others served as spies for the Allies, such as the famous baseball player Moe Berg.
In 1944, the World Jewish Congress and the War Refugee Board petitioned the US War Department to bomb Auschwitz, but the government declined.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.