The Jews Who Fought Back
Jewish partisans were among the deadliest resistance fighters in World War II Europe
According to one familiar narrative about the Holocaust, millions of Jews passively went to the Nazi death camps likes lambs to the slaughter, unable to fight back against oppression and genocide.
The problem is—that story isn’t true.
As the world commemorated in January the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation—and as thoughts turn toward the upcoming May anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany—another narrative is gaining ground.
The Jews who fought back.
More than 30,000 Jews joined armed resistance movements throughout occupied Europe during World War II. Not only did they face death from the Germans and their European allies, they often endured dangerous anti-Semitism within their own partisan groups, fought with scant support from the Allies and lived under the most atrocious conditions.
Yet despite these obstacles, Jewish partisans were among the most successful resistance fighters of the war. They destroyed infrastructure such as rail lines and power plants, harassed occupation forces and killed German soldiers whenever and wherever they could.
“Learning about the Jews who fought back shatters the stereotypes of passivity and victimization that sometimes colors views of the Holocaust,” Mitch Braff, Executive Director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, told War Is Boring.
The foundation’s Website is a treasure trove of oral histories, photographs, maps and other information that tells the story of those long-overlooked fighters against genocide and tyranny.
The 2009 movie Defiance popularized the story of the Bielski partisans who fought in German-occupied Poland. Yet the full scope of Jewish resistance remains little known outside of scholarly circles and the dwindling group of surviving partisans.
Braff said resistance often took many forms—imprisoned adults teaching fundamentals of the Jewish faith to children in concentration camps, Jews celebrating Jewish holidays despite persecution or just surviving everything the Nazis might do to a Jew.
Many Jews also made a more militant choice—to pick up a weapon and fight back.
Take the case of Harry Burger, born in Vienna in 1924. Once the Anschluss brought Austria into the Nazi sphere, Burger and his family fled to France.
However, fate was not his side. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, the Gestapo arrested Burger’s father and sent him to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, German occupation forces arrested Harry and his mother and moved them to a makeshift ghetto in Nice.
Burger’s one stroke of luck was Nice was under Italian control. The Italians did not abuse Jews and when he and his mother were moved once again they escaped.
He joined a resistance group, fought in the Italian Alps, destroyed power plants and aided the Allied cause.
And shot dead a captured Gestapo officer.
“He said, ‘You sons of bitches. We killed two million of you already and you are next,’” Burger recalls in an oral history video-recorded by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. “Now I got a little bit angry, that you don’t do that when you’re a prisoner and I finally said to him, ‘I tell you what. You pick yourself and you run away.’ And he did. He got up and ran away and I shot him in the head, and it was the greatest pleasure I could have.”
Partisan ranks included a significant number of women.
There was Eta Wrobel, who fought with a Polish resistance group. According to her oral history, she was “born a fighter” and endured hardships that included living with 80 other members of her unit in dugout shelters in the woods of Poland.
Wrobel refused to cook and clean—instead, she volunteered for patrols where she carried a weapon and set mines to destroy German vehicles. Once, she even dug a bullet out of her own leg with a knife.
“I had a knife that the doctor gave me, and he told me I should put, you know, 100-percent spiritus [alcohol] over it, and just look for it and take it out,” said Wrobel, who died in 2008. “And that’s what I did … It hurt, but what can you do?”
Simply obtaining weapons was a struggle. Some partisan groups received small arms and munitions from the British Special Operations Executive or the American Office of Strategic Services, but many stole guns or removed them from the dead bodies of their adversaries.
Anti-Semitism was rife in many partisan groups. There were instances where Jews kept their religion a secret because their fellow guerrillas might kill them as quickly as the Nazis would.
Still, many Jews joined even hostile groups—deciding that if they were going to die, they would die fighting. Others were motivated to take revenge against those who killed their family and friends.
Braff said his organization does its best to answer a lingering question—why didn’t more Jews violently oppose Nazi genocide?
He said the German approach to the Holocaust was “boiling the frog slowly”—in other words, the Nazis were patient and careful, slowly implementing the Final Solution as they carefully hid their real intentions. Secrecy and careful manipulation of information kept Jews from feeling threatened to the point that they would immediately fight back.
In one example, German authorities gave thousands of Jews post cards to fill out when they arrived at “work camps” to tell family members how they were treated well when they arrived. The Gestapo guards collected the post cards and mailed them—right before herding the Jews into gas chambers.
Some Jews even dismissed eyewitness testimony of people who had escaped the camps or Gestapo murder squads.
“The response was often, ‘How can we comprehend murdering an entire population?’” Braff said. “People would say, ‘This can’t be happening. It makes more sense that they will treat us as slave labor’ or ‘You’re young. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It was difficult for people to believe what was going on.”
No one knows how many of the Jewish partisans of World War II are still alive. They’re in their 80s and 90s—and their numbers shrink every day.
But their story lives on in succeeding generations, Braff said—and his organization works hard to tell the story of their resistance.
“Learning about the Holocaust is incomplete if we don’t learn about the Jews who fought back,” he said.