THE HOLOCAUST: WERE THEY SHEEP TO THE SLAUGHTER?
Oct 25, 2006
As an occasional tour guide to Eastern Europe, and as someone whose parents lived through and survived the war years – though most of my uncles and aunts did not – this is a question that I have confronted both professionally and personally.
In 1971, Yad Vashem organised a conference on ‘Jewish resistance in the Holocaust’, and acknowledged that while there were revolts in various ghettoes (Warsaw, Vilna) and death camps (Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz), physical resistance was limited. The conference addressed the issue of why that was so.
Firstly there was the fact that most Jews – as late as 1944 – were largely unaware of, and unable to believe in, the plans for their mass extinction. As Eli Wiesel writes: “Hitler was determined to strike at the last Jewish survivors of his empire. Washington knew it, and so did London. But we, in our little town [in Hungary] did not.”1
The Germans mounted the greatest deception of all time, to allay the fears of the Jews until the very last moment, talking of ressetlement, and (even in their own communiquיs) of the Final Solution but never of mass murder, gas chambers or death camps. At some camps people were given soap and a towel as they entered the gas chamber; at Maidanek, children were given candy.2 The deception was so successful that some people voluntarily joined the transports to be with their families.3
Secondly, the purpose of Jewish resistance during the war generally, although unquestionably noble, was not to live, butto die with honour. This is true of all the major uprisings staged by the Jews (especially Warsaw). A case in point is the famous revolt in Treblinka of August 1943. Of the 700 inmates, hardly 150-200 succeeded in escaping; the rest were killed during the fighting, and only 12 of those who escaped remained alive. The others were caught by the Germans.4
Therefore as long as the situation was not hopeless, most Jews did not fight. Additionally, armed resistance often created morally complex situations.
“In the Vilna Ghetto, the Gestapo Chief, Neugebauer, issued an order declaring that for every Jew who escaped to join the partisans, his family would be taken; if the family was not at hand, those who shared his room would be responsible; if the room tenants could not be found, everybody living in that courtyard would be shot. All the Jews going out to work were to be divided into groups of ten persons. If a group returned from work with anyone missing, the rest of his group would be shot; knowing quite well therefore that in this way they were putting in danger the existence of the whole ghetto and most of all the lives of their dear ones. They would be responsible for the spilt blood.” 5
Furthermore, many people, having lost their entire families, could not bring themselves to rise up and endure more pain, suffering and torture, given that it would end in their death anyway. In judging them, we need to ask ourselves, how much was it right to expect from ordinary men, women and children – similar to you or me – who were suddenly and brutally removed from their everyday existence and plunged into a world with no rules, where all that was familiar disappeared, and where values ceased to exist?
Finally and most importantly though, we have to define what we mean by resistance.
Who are actually the heroes in Judaism? Is it only those who carry weapons? What of the parent who deliberately remained behind to look after their children, when they could have escaped? Or the rabbi who stood at head of his flock and accompanied them to their final destination? What of those such as Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum, who wrote diaries and hid them; who risked their lives, to chronicle the fate of the doomed for posterity? Are they then cowards?
What about those who endangered their health for others?
Lena Donat, a pharmacist in the Auschwitz hospital, exchanged beds with her friend Judith when the latter contracted typhus. By hiding her in this manner, Lena saved Judith from the selection. Sleeping in her friend’s lice-infested bed, Lena knew that she would become ill within the disease’s two-week incubation period. During Lena’s subsequent bout with typhus, friends protected her. In this case, as in others, mutual assistance did not ensure survival for all. While Lena recovered, her childhood friend and fellow worker, Ola, caught the disease and died.”6
Overall, Marc Dworzecki, recognises at least 12 real forms of resistance including: The preserving of human identity, giving up chances to be saved, dying ‘Al Kiddush Hashem’, sacrifice for the good of the many, moral and religious steadfastness in day-to-day life, cultural resistance, publicizing the atrocities, escapes and physical resistance itself. 7
In fact perhaps the best description of heroism by the Jewish masses, to the Nazi horror, was captured by Shaul Esh: “It was fundamentally what might be called kiddush ha-hayyim, the sanctification of life. This expression is taken from the late Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, one of the Religious Zionist leaders in the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘This is a time for kiddush ha-hayyim, the sanctification of life, and not for kiddush Hashem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously the Jew’s enemy sought his soul and the Jew sacrificed his body in martyrdom [i.e. he made a point of preserving what the enemy wished to take from him]; now the oppressor demands the Jew’s body and the Jew is obliged therefore to defend it, to preserve his life.’ That kiddush ha-hayyim was the general feeling is borne out by all the evidence. It explains the enormous will to live that was emphasized at all times and in all places, in the midst of the basest degradation, a will best expressed by the Yiddish word that was on the lips of the majority of the survivors of the Holocaust – “iberleybn”, to survive, to remain alive. The Jews of Eastern Europe felt in fact that victory over the enemy lay in their continued existence, or in providing for the continued existence of others, for the enemy desired their extinction.8
Even in cases of physical resistance, the heroism often lay, not only in the deed itself, but in what followed: When Rosa Robota was able to make contact with some of the slave laborers, she and a group of girls working with her at the Krupp munitions plant at Auschwitz arranged to smuggle out dynamite to the resistance organization in the camp. Some of the girls were caught and hanged. But the smuggling went on. Then, on October 7, 1944, everyone at Auschwitz heard and saw something unbelievable. One of the crematoria, in which the bodies of so many of their mothers, fathers, and young had been burned, was blown to pieces. In an investigation that led to the arrest of Rosa, the SS used all their sadistic methods of torture on her. She betrayed no one. Her last words scribbled on a piece of paper just before she was hanged in front of the assembled inmates at Auschwitz were “Hazak V’Amatz”—Be Strong and Brave.”9
There were also tremendous acts of spiritual resistance, even under the most trying of circumstances. Viewing the conflict in eschatological terms, as a battle between good and evil, some Jews were able to stay focused on the ultimate aim in life; indeed to view life as having profound purpose even in the hell of a concentration camp. This often took great fortitude: During Passover of 1945, in a German work camp, Rabbi Samson Stockhamer incredibly refused to eat bread for the eight-day festival with the intention that at least one Jew of the 2,500 interned there should properly observe the dictates of the holiday. 10
Would anyone refer to any of these individuals as sheep? Would any of us be capable of exhibiting such courage?
Before pronouncing judgement therefore, we have to be aware of the world within which this tortured people existed and of the limited choices that were available to them. It must be understood, that in 1939 it was still inconceivable that man could be so inhuman. Back then, they were still able to believe that there were depths to which a human being would not, indeed could not descend. Unfortunately the 20th century has cured us of those illusions.
As one of the survivors explained:“…the great majority followed the path that appeared most reasonable and that seemed to offer the best chance according tohistorical and personal experience. A machine of total extermination was outside of all human experience. There are, of course, other reasons and these are only now becoming better known: the Nazi skill at camouflage and deception; the tremendous military power before which even great nations skilled in war crumbled; and the apathy of neighbours, close at hand or far away.”11
So that in response to the question, the answer would be: Yes the Jews in the Holocaust were sheep… not to the slaughter, but to the altar, on which they joined 100,000’s of Jews throughout our history, who were killed for one crime only – that of being born a Jew. After 60 years it is time to set the record straight and recognise the 6 million dead for what they were – martyrs.
I will close with a not un-typical Holocaust story, of a family from a small town in Slovakia, near Kosice. The husband Heinrich (Chaim) owned a lumber mill on the outskirts of the city. In 1941 he endangered his life by agreeing to become one of the stop-off points for Jewish teenagers being smuggled out of Poland, hiding the frightened children in the crawl space under the timber. Unfortunately in 1942, he was betrayed by one of his non-Jewish workers and killed. His wife fled, leaving everything behind, and found temporary refuge in Hungary, only returning to her hometown in 1943. A few months later however, she retraced her journey to Hungary, leaving a letter with a gentile friend, with instructions that if she didn’t come back after the war, the letter should be posted to those of her children that had emigrated to America.
Sadly, she was never heard from again and the letter was duly sent. It reached America and told of her decision to leave the relative safety of her hometown, because another of her children had just given birth to a child in Hungary, and needed her help. She felt it was her duty to be with her daughter, despite the dangers of the journey. This letter was the last the family ever had from their mother.
Having read this account, the question is how would you describe this couple? After all they were both killed and they killed no Germans in return. My own assessment is probablybiased; but then it would be, considering that it requires me to judge the actions of my own paternal grandparents12. But you who are unbiased, you can be the judge. What would you say? Were they sheep who went to the slaughter, or were they and the other 6 million victims, real Jewish heroes? You tell me.
1 Elie Wiesel:Tout les fleuves vont a la mer (1994)
2 Attorney General’s Opening Address, Eichmann trial
(Chapter IX p. 2)
3 Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz
4 Yitzchak Arad: Jewish armed resistance in Eastern Europe.
(IDF Officers publication –1972)
5 Isiah Trunk: Conference on manifestation of Jewish
resistance (Yad Vashem –1971) pp202-277
6 Alexander Donat, Holocaust Kingdom, p. 308
7 Marc Dworzecki: The day to day stand of the Jews
8 Shaul Esh: The dignity of the destroyed (AJC –1962)
9 They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in
Nazi Europe (New York -1967), pp. 219-225.
10 Eliav, Ani Ma’am Vol I (pp. 220-221)
11 The catastrophe of European Jewry (Yad Vashem 1976)
12 Chaim & Baila Hershkowitz hy’’d
This article was originally published in 60 Days for 60 Years.