Herbert Baum

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Volume 2. 2nd edition. Detroit: Gale, 2004.

Except for the messianic Bar Kochba uprising of a.d. 132-135, the idea of self-defense and resistance played a relatively small role in Jewish history during the almost 2,000 years that elapsed between the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the 20th century. These political and military catastrophes, which brought on the destruction of ancient Israel as a sovereign state, led to the dispersion of the majority of the Jewish population throughout the civilized world. Powerless and unwilling to accept the religion of the Christian majority, the best they could hope for was to be protected by a tolerant king or emperor. By the end of the Middle Ages, many of Europe’s Jews found themselves confined to ghettoes, a minority that was either tolerated by rulers who deemed their skills economically valuable for their states, or one that often found itself persecuted in bloody pogroms, singled out as a destructive alien presence in a Christian society.

With the French revolution of 1789 and the appearance of democratic institutions in Europe in the 19th century, ghetto walls were literally knocked down and full civil rights, particularly in Western Europe, were guaranteed to Jews and other minorities. In Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and other European constitutional states, Jews began to fully participate in the economic, political, and intellectual life of their nations. Many Jewish soldiers proudly served in their nations’ armed forces. Discrimination against Jews remained in some countries (in Germany only Jews who converted to Christianity stood a chance of becoming university professors or officers in the armed forces), but in the first years of the 20th century it appeared that a new age of enlightenment was at hand–an era in which all remaining religious and ethnic prejudices would soon vanish.

While most Jews in Western Europe were willing to be accepted by the imperfect but improving societies in which they lived, small but influential groups of intellectuals from assimilated Jewish backgrounds rebelled against both the religious traditions of their families and the dominant capitalistic ideals of their immediate environment. These intellectuals, whether in Berlin, Vienna, or Paris, were attracted to the powerful message of Karl Marx and other socialist thinkers, whose books envisioned a world free from age-old scourges of poverty, exploitation, and war. Marx, too, was born into an assimilated German-Jewish family, and for radical German-Jewish intellectuals–many of whom were indifferent to Judaism as a religion and regarded themselves as culturally German–acceptance of Marxist concepts of class struggle and secular redemption meant another milestone on the road to full acceptance into the modern world.

In Eastern Europe as well, Jewish intellectuals and many of the impoverished masses saw the road to a better future in terms of socialism. Large numbers of Jews in Poland and other Eastern European nations were also attracted to Zionism, which held that only by creating a Jewish Homeland in Palestine would the sufferings of their people finally end. Both Marxist and Zionist ideologies were militant ideologies that were essentially optimistic in tone, holding that a bright new future was close at hand. Both belief systems condemned what members of both movements saw as the passivity and political indifference of traditional Jewish attitudes, which they were convinced had been the inevitable result of a totally outmoded “ghetto mentality.”

The First World War led to mixed results for Europe’s Jews. Toward its conclusion, in 1917, the British Government pleased Zionists by declaring itself in favor of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. In Russia, two revolutions that same year cheered Jews and radical Marxists alike by first toppling the anti-Semitic tsarist regime and then creating the Bolshevik dictatorship led by Vladimir Lenin, a non-Jew, and Leon Trotsky, who was of assimilated Jewish background.

Meanwhile, in a briefly independent Ukraine, bloody pogroms led to the deaths of many thousands of Jews, while in newly independent Poland and defeated Hungary the Jewish minorities often suffered from harshly discriminatory legislation. In Germany, the humiliating WWI military defeat in November 1918 quickly unleashed a bitter spirit of recrimination and a search for the “subversive un-German” forces that had brought on a national catastrophe. Even though 12, 000 German-Jewish soldiers had died defending the Fatherland, anti-Semitic demagogues, including an obscure Austrian living in Munich named Adolf Hitler, found the perfect scapegoat for Germany’s woes in its Jewish minority. Hitler accused Jews of spreading the “poison” of Marxism and treasonously “stabbing Germany in the back” by engaging in profiteering and spreading defeatist and pacifistic ideas on the homefront.

In the late 1920s, the great majority of Germany’s Jewish population of about 500, 000 regarded themselves as solid, respected citizens of a nation that offered them the security in which they could carry on their careers and raise their children. Most thought of themselves as “German citizens of the Jewish faith” and were thoroughly assimilated to German culture and values. The May 1928 parliamentary election comforted Jews because the most rabid anti-Semites in Germany, Hitler’s Nazis, made a poor showing, receiving 810,000 votes, 2.6% of the total. But even in the late 1920s some of Germany’s Jews disagreed with the optimism of the assimilationist majority, whose political affiliations ranged from democratic socialism to moderate conservatism. A tiny minority of probably less than 15,000 activists regarded themselves as Zionists–but even among these only a handful of stalwart members felt equal to the hardships of emigrating to Palestine (in 1928 only 12 from Germany chose to go there).

Another minority of German Jews found themselves attracted to the powerful secular faith centered in Moscow and joined the German Communist Party (KPD). Although the great majority of Germany’s Jewish population were urban middle-class professionals and unsympathetic to the ideals of a Communist revolution, some Jews (perhaps one-fifth of the total), who had been born in Poland or Russia, were not German citizens and made their livings as blue-collar wage earners, craftsmen, or peddlers. Some among this Jewish proletariat listened favorably to the KPD propaganda, which argued that neither bourgeois assimilation nor Zionism would end poverty and banish the intolerance of anti-Semitism, but that only a total economic, social, and cultural revolution, such as was being achieved in the Soviet Union, could create a world free of prejudice and discrimination. These beliefs were particularly attractive to Jewish intellectuals whose religious faith had crumbled but who still believed that all could be redeemed if only the next phase of history–the destruction of capitalism and the creation of a universal socialist society–was achieved. Indeed, one of the founders of the KPD, Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered in 1919, had been born into a Polish-Jewish family.

Hitler Heads the German Reich

German Jews were as shocked as most other Germans when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of the German Reich on January 30, 1933. Starting in March 1933, the rapid creation of a brutal dictatorship by Hitler and his National Socialist Party, as well as a Nazi-inspired boycott of Jewish businesses, created a mood of panic among many Jews, and about 53, 000 fled Germany in 1933. But when the anti-Jewish terror was moderated somewhat, a significant number (about 16, 000) returned from abroad. The organization that spoke for German Jews, the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, counseled patience and urged its members to continue to be loyal to German authorities. The majority of the German Jewish population heeded this call. Jews loyal to either Zionist, Social Democratic, or Communist beliefs had little choice but to view the terrors of Nazism as an opportunity to test their ideals. The Zionist organizations grew rapidly, concentrating on preparing Jews, particularly the young and those with financial assets, to emigrate as quickly as possible to Palestine. Most endangered in the new Nazi state were those German Jews who before Hitler’s seizure of power had been active in either the Social Democratic or Communist parties. More than any other group of German Jews in the early years of the Hitler dictatorship, these individuals suffered the most from Nazi repression.

Although the German Communists had made some efforts to prepare for the time when a Fascist dictatorship ruled Germany, when that moment actually came they were grievously unprepared. In March 1933, KPD leadership was decapitated when the leader of the party, Ernst Thälmann, was captured by the Nazis. Known to the rank-and-file as “Teddy, ” Thälmann would be killed at Buchenwald in 1944. While underground cells (units) started to operate almost immediately, their effectiveness varied from place to place, and by 1936 the Gestapo had been able to ferret out and destroy the great majority of such conspiratorial units. From the start of the Nazi dictatorship, Jews with socialist political beliefs were customarily treated with a brutality that far exceeded that meted out to their non-Jewish comrades. The first concentration camps, which included Dachau near Munich and Oranienburg near Berlin, were rapidly filled in the spring of 1933 by individuals whose political beliefs were anathema to the Nazis.

While Germany’s Jews prayed for their situation to improve, Jews and other anti-Nazis outside of Germany worked to help those still living in Germany, as well as to weaken and possibly hasten the collapse of the Nazi regime. Social Democratic, Communist, and other political foes of Hitler set up headquarters in Paris and Prague to train agents for missions in Germany and to lobby for governmental action against the Nazis. In the United States, an anti-Nazi boycott movement began in April 1933, with the goal of applying sufficient economic pressure to force the Nazis to stop persecuting Germany’s Jewish population, or perhaps even toppling the regime itself. When it became clear that Hitler would not respond to such measures, new and more dramatic methods of alerting the world to the Nazi menace appeared on the scene. On July 3, 1936, the Hungarian-born Czech Jewish journalist Stefan Lux (1888-1936) committed suicide on the crowded assembly floor of the League of Nations in Geneva. Besides his dramatic gesture, he left behind letters pleading with the world’s leaders to organize a system of collective security against the threat posed by Nazi Germany, which he described as a government composed “without exception of real criminals.”

Other Jewish activists believed that killing the aggressor would send a more powerful message than would killing themselves. On February 4, 1936, a Croatian-born Jewish medical student named David Frankfurter (1909-82) shot and killed Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of Switzerland’s Nazi movement. After surrendering himself to the Swiss police, Frankfurter stated that his aim in killing Gustloff was to warn the world of the dangers of Nazi aggression and subversion. He was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. Helmut Hirsch was much less fortunate. A German-Jewish student of architecture who fled to Prague after the Nazis came to power, Hirsch vowed to prove that Jews had the courage to take up arms against Nazism. In Prague, Hirsch met Otto Strasser, a deadly foe of Hitler who believed Hirsch capable of carrying out a mission in the heart of Germany to kill the notorious anti-Semite Julius Streicher or possibly even Hitler. But the plot was poorly organized and Hirsch was arrested soon after crossing the frontier. Despite international protests, he was convicted by the Nazi People’s Court and beheaded at Berlin’s Plötzensee penitentiary on June 4, 1937.

Probably the most dramatic instance of world Jewish solidarity against Nazism and Fascism before World War II took place in Spain from 1936 to 1939, a time when Spain was torn apart by a bloody civil war. Supported by massive amounts of military aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the rebel General Francisco Franco came close to seizing control of Spain in the final months of 1936. But the heroic defense of the city of Madrid in November and December of that year succeeded in part because of the appearance of International Brigades of volunteers who risked–and in many instances lost–their lives fighting in defense of the threatened Spanish Republic. Among the leaders of the International Brigades were many Jews, including General Manfred Stern, who founded and commanded the XI Thälmann Brigade of volunteers from Germany and Austria. At least 6, 000 Jewish volunteers from over 50 countries fought in various units of the International Brigades; of these, about 500 came from German-speaking countries, most of which were by 1938 under Nazi rule.

Polish Jews Are Deported

A final and tragic act of Jewish defiance before the onset of World War II took place in 1938. In October, the Nazi regime began to deport to Poland large numbers of the almost 57, 000 Polish Jews living in the Reich. The situation was compounded by the fact that Poland, whose dictatorial government was also anti-Semitic, had recently decreed that Polish citizens living abroad who had not visited Poland for five consecutive years would be deprived of their citizenship. This act of blatant discrimination meant that many of those Jews deported from Germany would not be accepted by Polish authorities. As a result, over 5, 000 expelled Polish-Jewish refugees from Germany were forced in late October 1938 to live in horrible conditions in the village of Zbaszyn, in a no-man’s-land just over the Polish side of the frontier. When a young man named Herschel Grynszpan (1921-1943), who had fled Germany to Paris in 1936, learned that his parents had been deported to Zbaszyn, he vowed to make the Nazis pay for their cruelty and also to make a dramatic statement concerning Jewish rights. On November 7, 1938, Grynszpan went to the German Embassy in Paris with the intention of assassinating the ambassador; instead, he shot and killed a junior diplomat named Ernst vom Rath (ironically, vom Rath was known to be critical of Nazi policies). The diplomat’s death provided the Nazis with a pretext for the bloody pogrom known as Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”), which resulted in scores of Jewish deaths and immense destruction of property.

It was in this complex political and cultural environment that a small group of Berlin Jews defied the Nazi regime for almost a decade before the group was destroyed in 1942. Herbert Baum was the man largely responsible for their actions. He was born in 1912 into a poor Jewish family in the province of Posen (today Poznan in Poland), but a few years later the family moved to Berlin. There he joined Jewish youth organizations, including the German-Jewish Youth Community (DJJG) and the League of Jewish Youth (Ring). In both groups Baum quickly displayed strong qualities of leadership, but their vaguely idealistic bourgeois ideology soon seemed inadequate to him as the twin specters of Nazism and unemployment loomed on the German horizon. By 1931 he had become a member of the Communist Youth Organization and soon was regarded as a promising Communist activist. He met his wife Marianne in the Communist Youth movement and both were deeply convinced that only the creation of a Communist society would free Germany of the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. While most Berlin Jews quietly prayed for better times after Hitler came to power, Herbert Baum and his small circle of Communist activists openly defied the Nazis by building a complex, multitiered cell apparatus and distributing leaflets calling for an overthrow of the regime. As early as July 1934, Baum participated in a successful “action” that disseminated anti-Nazi propaganda to a Berlin populace that still included large numbers of passive anti-Nazis whose morale needed encouragement.

After the Nazi intelligence services succeeded in destroying most Communist and Social Democratic underground cells in 1936 and 1937, the Baum group remained virtually isolated in Berlin, and was ordered by the Communist leadership abroad to maintain itself as an exclusively Jewish organization in order to safeguard both itself and other still-existing resistance cells from Nazi infiltration. But while most members of the group were sympathetic to Zionist ideals, Baum and the inner circle of the organization were orthodox Communists for whom the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were political wisdom incarnate. His iron devotion to the wisdom of the party’s leadership even made it possible for him to accept the correctness of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939–an event that prompted many Communists to quit the Party. Without denying his Jewish background, Baum believed that after the fall of Hitler Jews might still be able to live in a renewed German culture purged of Nazi racial hatred, and that as a German and a Communist temporarily transformed into a racial pariah he had a grave responsibility to help bring about this historical turnabout. It is significant that he never attempted to flee Germany or secure a visa in order to emigrate; although they doubtless had an idea of the fate that awaited them, the Baum group believed they had a duty to remain in Germany to hasten the pace of revolutionary change.

Baum’s Group Destroys Goebbels Exhibit

By 1940, Baum, who worked as an electrician at the Siemens Electrical Motor Plant, had like most Jewish males remaining in Germany become a slave laborer (the first decree authorizing certain types of Jewish forced labor was issued as early as December 20, 1938). But the hardship of slave labor was merely a prelude to what was to follow. In September 1941, German Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on their clothing in public. Then, on October 18, the final catastrophe began. A group of 1, 013 men, women, and children, the first of what would eventually be 180 Jewish transports, left Berlin for the East and death. In the midst of fear and confusion among Berlin’s Jews, Baum and his circle prided themselves on their realism, fully recognizing that their actions were essentially symbolic and could not by themselves topple a regime built on terror as well as propaganda. But symbols are powerful weapons, and there is little doubt that the partial destruction by arson of the Joseph Goebbels propaganda exhibit (“The Soviet Paradise”) in Berlin on May 18, 1942, was a significant psychological blow to the inner circles of the Nazi leadership. The German press was forbidden to publish any stories about the event, and so the German people were never informed that a small but well-organized resistance circle of Jewish Communists had destroyed a major Nazi propaganda show more than nine years after the Nazis came to power in Germany.

By this time, Germany’s Jewish population had been reduced by emigration, suicide, and deportation to death camps from over 500,000 in 1933 to slightly over 100, 000. Their mood was generally one of despair and resignation, not surprising given the fact that almost a decade of discrimination and persecution had inflicted a massive psychological toll. In the midst of this demoralization, in addition to the Baum group, there existed at least seven smaller illegal Jewish resistance organizations ready and willing to undertake acts of resistance. The growing confidence of Baum and his comrades on the eve of their exhibition attack could be seen in their ability to establish contacts with French, Belgian, and Dutch slave laborers at the Siemens plant where Baum and many of his group worked. The attack succeeded at least in part because Baum could count on the crucial support of Werner Steinbrink (1917-42) and Hildegard Jadamowitz (1916-42), two non-Jewish Communists who secured authentic documents, enabling them to pose as members of the Criminal Police (Kripo). A chemist, Steinbrink was able to secure incendiary materials for torching the Goebbels exhibit.

Goebbels, the regime’s brilliantly unscrupulous propaganda chief, had designed the exhibition to keep the German fighting spirit at a fever pitch by documenting the evils of “Jewish Bolshevism.” After major military defeats at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad in the closing months of the previous year, a new Nazi military offensive was under way on Soviet territory and the elaborate exhibition in Berlin’s Lustgarten was one way to keep the homefront ideologically primed to support a war-to-the-death on the eastern front. That part of the exhibition could be destroyed by a Jewish resistance unit in the capital of the Greater German Reich proved a severe propaganda defeat for Goebbels, for even though the destruction was not reported in press or radio, virtually the entire population knew about the incendiary act within a few days. But the powerful Nazi intelligence and police system was determined to destroy men and women who, though numerically weak in numbers and resources, had been bold and resourceful enough to achieve such a significant propaganda victory.

On May 22, 1942, Herbert and Marianne Baum were arrested, as were most of the leading members of his group. Herbert Baum was tortured and taken to the Siemens plant to identify fellow workers who had joined in the arson plot, but he refused to reveal anything. On June 11, his frustrated Nazicaptors murdered him (the Gestapo simply informed the trial prosecution staff that Baum had “committed suicide”). The trial of the Baum group’s leaders resulted in a verdict that was a foregone conclusion–death by decapitation. The sentence was carried out on August 18 at Plötzensee penitentiary in Berlin. Executed were Marianne Baum, Joachim Franke, Hildegard Jadamowitz, Heinz Joachim, Sala Kochmann, Hans-Georg Mannaberg, Gerhard Meyer, Werner Steinbrink, and Irene Walther. Franke, Jadamowitz, Mannaberg, and Steinbrink were all non-Jewish German Communists who had cooperated with the Baum group, and whose actions were deemed equally treasonous by a Nazi court. Sala Kochmann tried to kill herself during interrogation because of the intense torture used to make her reveal information, but was only able to fracture her spine. She was carried both to the trial and to her execution on a stretcher.

The fate of other Baum group members was decided in two other trials. The first of these resulted in indictments on October 21, with sentences rendered on December 10,1942. All but three of the defendants were sentenced to death. Executed on March 4,1943 were, among others, Marianne Joachim and Siegbert Rotholz. Of the three who escaped death sentences, all of whom were women, Lotte Rotholz received a sentence of eight years’ imprisonment but did not survive the war, having been sent to Auschwitz extermination camp. Edith Fraenkel and Hella Hirsch received sentences of five and three years respectively, but they too were killed at Auschwitz in 1944. The final trial of Baum group members took place in June 1943. By then the battle of Stalingrad had taken place, and with the Third Reich fighting for its very existence the regime, and its Nazified system of justice, decided it no longer needed to show a merciful face. All of the defendants were found guilty and condemned to death, with sentences carried out on September 7, 1943; Martin Kochmann was among those executed. Of the 31 members of the group (not counting Herbert Baum) who died during the war, 22 were executed by decapitation, while nine died in death camps.

Only five members of the Baum group, Ellen Compart, Alfred Eisenstadter, Charlotte and Richard Holzer, and Rita Resnik-Meyer (Zocher), survived the war. Their oral testimony, as well as the Nazi court documentation, provides a picture of extraordinary courage in the midst of terror and demoralization. There were other, smaller, and less effective Jewish resistance groups in Nazi Germany, who also shared the daily dangers of carrying out conspiratorial work. Because most of these groups pledged allegiance to various forms of Marxian socialism, which was already a harshly punishable offense for the German “Aryan” population, the risks they took were made all the greater. It has been estimated that about 2,000 Jewish men and women were either members of exclusively Jewish resistance groups or worked with non-Jews in various clandestine political activities in Nazi Germany during the years 1933 through 1945. This number–given that the German-Jewish community in these years had a disproportionately high number of older people and was led by an elite that hoped to adapt itself to the Nazi dictatorship through compromise and emigration–strongly suggests that a younger generation had appeared on the scene that would live, and die, not passively but resiliently in the face of adversity, courageously defying and resisting oppression.

The courage exhibited in Berlin by the Baum group would be repeated by other Jewish individuals or organizations many times during World War II in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. The Nazi conquest of Poland in September 1939 added a huge Jewish population of almost 2 million people to an expanded German Reich, while the conquest of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the spring of 1940 placed almost 600, 000 more Jews under German control. While Polish Jews were often brutally treated from the very start of the occupation, Jewish communities both in Poland and in the German-occupied nations of Western Europe generally believed that their best hope for surviving was to accept the new situation as best they could, work hard at their daily tasks, and let their group interests be represented by German-approved Jewish Councils (Judenräte). The most radical elements within the Jewish community, the Communists, remained politically quiescent from September 1939 through June 1941 because during this period the party line was dictated by the Soviet Union’s desire not to antagonize its new “friend, ” Nazi Germany. Consequently, during this period there was little evidence of organized resistance to Nazi rule from within Europe’s Jewish communities.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941, radically changed the situation of Europe’s Jews. This was an ideological war between two totalitarian states, and for the Nazis any restraints that had inhibited their desire for a “final solution of the Jewish question” were now swept away. Throughout the summer and fall of 1941, special mobile SS murder squads (Einsatzgruppen) on the eastern front killed 1,400,000 Jews. By December 1941, the killing process had become “industrialized” when the first death camp using gas vans went into operation in Chelmno in western Poland near the city of Lodz. Throughout 1942, more death camps were set up in Poland: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The infamous extermination camp of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) near the Polish city of Cracow, which began in 1940 as a concentration camp for Poles, after June 1941 received large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war. Auschwitz was actually a system of camps: Auschwitz I contained prisoners and administrative offices; Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was the death camp and included four gas chambers, while Auschwitz III (Monowitz) was a huge industrial slave labor camp where synthetic rubber was produced at the I.G. Farben Buna factory complex.

Because the Nazis took great pains to hide their systematic process of exterminating all Jews under their control, many Jews even in occupied Europe refused to believe that such plans were being carried out. Many continued their belief that Jews were being “resettled” in the German-occupied territories of occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, and that even Hitler would, or could, not carry out such horrendous deeds in the middle of a war when, at the very least, Jewish slave labor would prove valuable for the Nazi war effort. The various Judenräte continued to cooperate with the German authorities, hoping that somehow things would improve and that, while clearly many individual Jews would suffer terribly and perish, the Jewish people would survive the war and live to see the day when the Allies defeated Hitler. But by early 1942, a small but growing minority of Jews in both Eastern and Western Europe began to detect ominous signs of a new Nazi policy regarding the Jews, one of total annihilation. Though the Nazi leadership had hoped to keep their operations secret, as a few individuals escaped from death camps in 1942 young Jewish activists began calling for active resistance to the Nazis.

In occupied Polish and Soviet territory, young Zionists as well as Communists and other Jewish political factions began in December 1941 to draw up plans for armed resistance. In Vilna on January 1, 1942, Abba Kovner (1918-88) proclaimed a manifesto that called on the Jews of Lithuania to resist the Nazis and, if need be, die with pride while offering armed resistance. This was the first time that the killing of Jews by Einsatzgruppen was analyzed in terms of an overall master plan for the destruction of the Jewish people. Although the numbers of volunteers remained small, and virtually no weapons were on hand, on January 21, 1942, a Jewish combat unit called the United Partisan Organization was founded in Vilna. This organization remained intact and survived the end of the Vilna ghetto in the summer of 1943, fighting alongside Soviet partisans as a distinct Jewish combat unit under Kovner’s command. In the Lithuanian city of Kovno (Kaunas), Jews formed resistance cells soon after the Nazis occupied the city in June 1941, but not until 1943 were Communists and Zionists able to unite to form a General Jewish Fighting Organization, which enabled 350 Jews to escape the ghetto in order to join partisan units in nearby forests and villages.

In occupied Poland, two rebellions in the Bialystok ghetto in February and August 1943 made clear that while the virtually unarmed Jews stood no chance of winning, at least here they would no longer permit the Germans to ship them to death camps without a final, bitter armed struggle. Without weapons, Jewish resistance groups almost invariably found their situation in the ghetto to be a militarily hopeless one. Only by working together with Soviet partisan units, which were often relatively well armed, did they stand a chance of effectively fighting the Germans. This was certainly true in the career of Yeheskel Atlas (1913-42), a Polish-Jewish resistance leader who had trained to be a physician. After the destruction of the Derechin ghetto in July 1942, Atlas organized a Jewish partisan unit of 120 which was subordinated to a Soviet partisan battalion. By August, Atlas’s unit had attacked Derechin and killed 44 German policemen, and soon went on to launch another attack in which more than 30 Germans died. Also able to destroy a strategic bridge and blow up a train, the Atlas group played an important role in a partisan attack in October that killed 127 Germans, captured 75, and seized significant amounts of weaponry. Atlas died in action on December 5, 1942, much mourned by his fellow partisans.

From 1942 to 1944, 27 Jewish partisan units came into existence. One of the most important was commanded by Yehiel Grynszpan and consisted largely of individuals who had escaped deportation to the Sobibor death camp in 1942. Operating out of the Parczew forest near Lublin, this unit received weapons from the Polish underground as well as supplies from Soviet airdrops and grew in size from 50 to 120 while carrying on raids against German police stations and communications lines. In Yugoslavia, which had the most important partisan movement of all Nazi-occupied nations, Jewish partisans played a significant role even though Jews were a tiny minority in the country and most had been killed by the Nazis by the end of 1942. Marshal Tito, leader of the partisans, had many close Jewish friends and advisors, including his prewar comrade and jailmate Mosa Pijade. A total of 1, 318 Yugoslavian-Jewish partisans died in battle and ten of them received the nation’s highest award, the National Hero decoration. In the Slovak national uprising of 1944, Jewish partisan participation was also significant; the 1, 566 Jewish partisans represented about ten percent of the total number of partisans fighting the Germans in Slovakia.

Meanwhile, Jewish prisoners were active in resistance organizations in concentration camps and even in death camps. In 1943 a resistance movement that included Jews was created at the Buchenwald concentration camp; called the International Underground Committee, it concentrated on sabotaging armaments produced at the camp. At the Treblinka death camp at least 50 prisoners spent more than six months organizing a rebellion which broke out on August 2, 1943. Though the original plan to seize the camp had to be abandoned, during the uprising virtually the entire camp went up in flames and the Nazis plowed over the ruins. Of the 700 prisoners who tried to escape, about 70 lived to see the day of liberation. Another uprising, at the Sobibor death camp on October 14,1943, resulted in the deaths of ten SS guards and the escape of several dozen prisoners, some of whom were able to join Jewish partisan units in the area. A final death-camp rebellion took place on October 6 and 7, 1944, at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) when a special crematorium detachment of prisoners used explosives provided by female Jewish prisoners working at a nearby factory to kill several SS men and destroy one of the crematoria. In this instance all of the rebels fell in battle or were later executed.

Jews Fight Back in the Warsaw Ghetto

The most dramatic instance of Jewish resistance to the Nazis during World War II took place during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. As soon as Warsaw, Poland, was conquered in late September 1939, harsh measures were taken against the city’s Jews, but since the Polish population was also treated in a brutal fashion by their German conquerors few Jews could imagine their ultimate fate. By October 1940, all of Warsaw’s Jews had been herded into a ghetto, in which an average room contained 13 people. With no jobs for over 60% of the working-age population, and a daily food allocation per capita of only 184 calories, it was clear that the Nazi plan for the ghetto’s population was one of death through starvation and disease. In October 1941 the German authorities decreed that leaving the ghetto without permission was an offense punishable by death. By summer 1942, inhumane conditions in the ghetto had led to the deaths of more than 100, 000 of its inhabitants. Deciding that the time had come to start liquidating the ghetto, the Germans deported about 300, 000 of its residents from July 22 until September 13, 1942. The great majority of those seized were taken to Treblinka, where they were killed.

Soon after the deportations began, on July 28 a Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) was founded by several of the Zionist youth movements active in the ghetto. At first it was weak, virtually without weapons, and unable to establish contacts with the Polish underground, the Home Army. Able to do little to prevent the deportation of friends and relatives, it felt abandoned by the non-Jewish Polish resistance movement outside the ghetto walls. By October, however, the morale of ZOB members was boosted when more factions joined the organization, as well as by the small amounts of weapons from the Home Army that had been smuggled into the ghetto. Training for future German assaults on the ghetto now took place under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewicz (1919-43), and when the Germans resumed their policy of deportations on January 18, 1943, they were met by a small but determined Jewish resistance group. One ZOB unit broke into a column of Jews being marched to the assembly point from which they would be shipped out of the ghetto, and at an agreed-upon signal they confronted the German guards in a face-to-face battle. Although many of the ZOB were killed, the Jews scattered in all directions, and within days a change of mood had taken hold of the ghetto. Encouraged by four days of fierce street fighting-the first in occupied Poland-most Jews now felt emboldened to refuse to show up for “resettlement, ” hiding instead in newly built bunkers and other improvised hiding places. Frustrated in their efforts, the German authorities halted for the time being their efforts to deport Jews from the ghetto.

The temporary German retreat from the Warsaw ghetto in January 1943 buoyed Jewish spirits despite the continuing material privations. Civilians who had previously been skeptical or fearful of the idea of armed resistance now embraced it as their only hope for salvation. On April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover and the day before Hitler’s 54th birthday, about 2, 100 German soldiers and policemen entered the ghetto. They found its center deserted, for the entire population now accepted the resistance strategy of their underground fighters, a force of about 750 poorly armed young men and women. The resistance members were all young (only a few were over 30), had neither military training nor battle experience, and were armed with little more than pistols (they had only one machine gun). On the first day of their ghetto operation, the Nazis were forced to withdraw after having lost a tank and an armored vehicle to Molotov cocktails. The German commander, SS-Major General Jürgen Stroop, chosen by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler for his experience in antipartisan warfare, replaced a predecessor deemed inadequate for the task of pacifying an important urban ghetto.

For several days after April 19, bitter house-to-house fighting took place in the ghetto, frustrating the Germans because their Jewish foes usually managed to escape off the roofs of buildings and then retreat to the relative safety of their prepared bunkers. In a report of April 23 to Himmler, Stroop noted that some of the bunkers had been constructed in a “most artful” fashion and tried to explain the slow progress of his operation as a result of “the cunning ways in which the Jews and bandits behave.” Changing his strategy, Stroop then ordered that the ghetto be systematically burned down building by building. This approach turned the Nazi sweep of the ghetto into a bunker war in which the Jews were forced to retreat into their deep shelters. Despite heat and lack of air, food, and water, most of the Jewish resisters survived until forced to surrender because of gas bombs. A major Nazi victory took place on May 8 when ZOB headquarters on 18 Mila Street was captured. It was here that the uprising’s commander, Mordecai Anielewicz, and a large number of his staff were killed in action. On April 23 Anielewicz had written his own epitaph in a letter to a ZOB officer serving outside the ghetto:

Peace be with you, my dear friend; perhaps we shall still meet again. The main thing is that my life’s dream has been realized: I have lived to see Jewish defense in the ghetto in all its greatness and glory.

The Jews of Warsaw fought and died alone, since all attempts by the Polish underground to assist them failed, and the several air raids by the Soviet Air Force on the ghetto area were of little military significance. On May 16, 1943, Stroop reported to Himmler that the fighting had ended and that “the Jewish quarter of Warsaw no longer exists.” In the same report, it was noted that 56, 065 Jews had been captured or “definitely destroyed, ” while admitting to only 16 dead and 85 wounded on the German side. To symbolize the Nazi victory, Stroop ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue (which was situated outside the ghetto, now largely a pile of rubble). Even after May 16 hundreds of Jews remained in what was left of their bunkers, and they would emerge at night in search of food and water. While the Germans would continue to patrol the area and capture Jews, miraculously some survived until the summer of 1944, when they participated in another Warsaw tragedy, the great Polish Warsaw uprising of August-October 1944.

The Impact of the Uprising

Despite its failure, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April-May 1943 made a significant impact on both Jews and non-Jews. As the first example of an urban uprising in Nazi-occupied Europe, Warsaw’s Jews showed how a general rebellion could hold out for weeks if the fighters had the support of a populace willing to provide places of refuge as well as moral encouragement. Objectively viewed, the uprising was of minor military significance, tying down relatively few German men and supplies, and it was doomed from the start given that the German force’s firepower exceeded that of the ghetto fighters by a ratio of at least 100 to 1. But in moral and psychological terms the martyrdom of young Jewish men and women fighting to the death against the Nazis marked a turning point in modern Jewish history, announcing to the world that a revival of the ancient Hebrew tradition of armed struggle was at hand.

Jews in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe were deeply moved when they heard about the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. In France, many Jews joined the general Resistance Movement (15 percent of French Resistance membership was Jewish, even though only about 1% of France’s population were Jews). A number of distinctly Jewish resistance movements appeared in France, including one calling itself the Jewish Army, which was particularly active in the southern part of the country. In Belgium, a strong Jewish resistance movement carried out many missions, including a spectacular attack in April 1943 on a train carrying Jews to Auschwitz, a successful action that enabled several hundred Jews to escape.

In free countries, Jews served as members of regular armed forces units, but in British-controlled Palestine as early as 1940 the occupying authorities permitted the formation of separate Jewish ground crews for the Royal Air Force and similar auxiliary forces. About 3, 000 Jewish volunteers served in the British forces in Greece in 1941; of these, about 100 were killed in action while about 1, 700 became German prisoners of war. In 1942 a Palestine Regiment was authorized, but since it included Arab as well as Jewish volunteers it proved unpopular. Not until the final stages of World War II, in September 1944, did the British create a Jewish Brigade Group, which was the only Jewish military formation in World War II to fight under the Zionist flag as its official standard. Five thousand served in this unit, which saw action on the Italian front in April 1945, sustaining about 250 casualties.

An elite group of Jewish military volunteers were those Palestinians who became parachutists and in 1944 were dropped into German-controlled territories as part of Allied intelligence and spearhead plans. From about 250 volunteers, 110 finished their training and of these 37 were dropped into enemy territory in Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. Twelve of the parachutists were captured by the Nazis, and seven of these were executed. Several of the executed parachutists were women, including Hungarian-born Hannah Senesh (Szenes) and Slovak-born Haviva Reik. The full story of Jewish resistance to tyranny in World War II is a complex one, and much remains to be researched and written. Facing overwhelming odds, the members of the Jewish resistance movements in World War II could often do little more than somehow find inspiration from the words of the song of the Vilna partisans, “Oh, never say that you have reached the very end.”