Lesson
Duration:
One 50-minute class period

Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust

Where to Insert this Lesson

This lesson follows Lesson 19: The Holocaust: Bearing Witness in Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior. After this lesson, you will proceed on to Lesson 20: The Holocaust: The Range of Responses.

Essential Questions

What does learning about the choices people made to either resist or rescue during the rise of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Alternate Jewish Ed Unit Essential Question:

How is our Jewish identity tied in with the history of the Holocaust?

Guiding Questions

  • What are the different ways that Jews resisted the Nazis during the Holocaust?
  • If death was imminent for many Jews, why did they choose to resist the Nazis? Did their acts of resistance matter?
  • How can resistance be spiritual and not just physical?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will create working definitions for and discuss the concept of resistance, both physical and spiritual, during the Holocaust.
  • Students will analyze and discuss readings and Abba Kovner’s manifesto to consider the factors that influenced Jewish resistance.

Overview

In the previous lesson, students learned about the enormity of the crimes committed during the Nazi regime and were introduced to the ways in which Jews resisted the Nazis’ program of dehumanization and murder. This lesson invites a deeper exploration of Jewish resistance, both spiritual and physical, during the Holocaust. Students will learn about the different ways that the Jews resisted the Nazis, both within and outside of the camps, in an effort to preserve their lives, dignity, and culture, which the Nazis attempted to destroy. Students will start by defining the term resistance, and then they will review the different forms of resistance during the Holocaust: physical and spiritual. Students will explore this difference in the second activity using texts from the Oyneg Shabbos Archive that sought to preserve Jewish articles of faith, knowing that the Nazis were bent on destroying all remnants of Jewish culture along with the Jewish people. After analyzing and discussing five readings that explore resistance during the Holocaust, students will learn about Abba Kovner and the Vilna Ghetto Manifesto. They will analyze and respond to the famous words of the manifesto: “Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter.”

Context

Elie Wiesel, in his preface to the new translation of Night, writes: “[T]he evidence shows that in the early days of their accession to power, the Nazis in Germany set out to build a society in which there simply would be no rooms for Jews. Toward the end of their reign, their goal changed: they decided to leave behind a world in ruins in which Jews would seem never to have existed.” 1 Too often, students of the Holocaust are left with the impression that Jews were simply helpless victims, lacking the courage or means to fight back. It is common to hear people ask, “Why didn’t the Jews resist?” Elie Wiesel suggests reframing the question. He explains, "The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find the strength—spiritual and physical—to resist?" Scholars at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation remind us that thousands of Jews did, indeed, resist, and in the process many risked their lives to join partisan units.

Jewish partisans were women and men who fought in the armies of the Allies and the Soviet Union and in resistance brigades across eastern Europe. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation defines a partisan as “a member of an organized body of fighters who attack or harass an enemy, especially behind enemy lines; a guerilla.” There were approximately 30,000 Jews actively involved in partisan resistance groups in ten countries throughout Europe. Jewish partisans were often young women and men who escaped from ghettos and camps and fought predominantly in non-Jewish, but occasionally in all-Jewish, partisan groups.

The majority of Jews who escaped the camps and ghettos did so to survive, not to start or join resistance groups. Once they found safety in the forests or the mountains of southern Europe, some managed to join existing partisan groups, although deep-seated antisemitism prevented many of them from being accepted by other groups or forced them to conceal their identities while they fought. A small number of partisans formed all-Jewish groups, primarily to avoid this extreme antisemitism. Others escaped to unarmed “family camps,” a few of which acquired weapons for self-defense.

Fighting back meant different things to different partisans. Some set their primary goal as saving Jewish lives; some hoped to slow down the Nazi assault in preparation for an Allied attack; others fought in the name of honor, justice, and revenge. Without knowing about these acts of resistance, students of the Holocaust will not have a complete understanding of how Jews acted under German occupation and the many ways in which Jews actively resisted and fought back against Nazi atrocities.

For additional information about spiritual and physical resistance in the ghettos and camps, see the Context section of Lesson 19: The Holocaust: Bearing Witness from Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior.

Citations

  • 1 : Elie Wiesel, “Preface to the New Translation,” in Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), xiii.

Notes to Teachers

  1. Provide Context for “Oyneg Shabbos”

    The reading in the second activity, Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, centers around the establishment of an archive called “Oyneg Shabbos.” The name itself is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew term Oneg Shabbat (עונג שבת), which means “The Joy of the Sabbath” and is derived from the biblical passage “and call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). In Jewish tradition, the term refers to the joy in which one is commanded to celebrate Shabbat through food, wine, and company. Provide students with this information before the modified jigsaw in Activity 2, and ask them why they think this archive was called Oyneg Shabbos.

  2. Assigning Readings for the Jigsaw Activity

    The five readings in the second activity’s modified jigsaw are different lengths, so you might take this into consideration when creating groups and distributing the readings. The reading Vitka Kempner’s Biography is the shortest, with 565 words, but you can ask students with this reading to also apply the See, Think, Wonder strategy for the corresponding image of Kempner and the partisans. The reading A Statement of Faith is the longest, with 1,354 words, so consider assigning it to students who read at a faster rate.

  3. Additional Information about Resistance during the Holocaust

    For additional information about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, see the lesson Understanding Resistance. For more information on Jewish partisans, see the lessons Jewish Partisans in Occupied Poland and Jewish Partisans in the Resistance, as well as the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation's website. Time allowing, consider showing Helen K.’s Testimony of Resistance at Auschwitz (02:20) so your students can hear the moving testimony of a survivor who helped to orchestrate the destruction of a crematorium in Birkenau.

  4. Defining Resistance

    Lesson 19: The Holocaust: Bearing Witness reviews the difference between spiritual and physical resistance. If you did not teach that lesson, you can use a concept map to define resistance, both spiritual and physical, with the class before the first activity.

Materials

Activities

  1. Review Resistance
    • Start by having pairs of students discuss the following questions for a quick review of what they learned in the last lesson about resistance during the Holocaust:
      • What did it mean to resist the Nazis? What kinds of resistance were those targeted by the Nazis able to carry out?
      • What is the difference between physical and spiritual resistance?
    • Ask for a few students to share their ideas with the class.
  2. Analyze Types of Resistance during the Holocaust
    • Use a modified application of the Jigsaw strategy to have students analyze and discuss a set of readings that explore physical and spiritual resistance during the Holocaust. Divide the class into groups of five. Give every group the following five readings, and explain that each student in the group is responsible for one of the readings.
    • Explain that each student will read their assigned reading and prepare answers to the following questions that they will share with the other members of their group:
      • Who is the reading primarily about?
      • What was the context of the resistance in the reading?
      • Was the resistance in the reading spiritual or physical?
      • What was the danger involved?
      • What did the individual or group resisting hope to gain?
    • Instruct students to go around in a circle and have each member of the group summarize their reading, using the questions they answered as a guide.
    • Finally, in their journals or a class discussion, have students reflect on which stories most resonated with them and why.
  3. Discuss Abba Kovner’s Famous Words
    • Provide the class with a brief background on Abba Kovner. Tell them he organized the Vilna Ghetto uprising, survived the war, and eventually made Aliyah to Israel with his wife, Vitka Kempner, a fellow partisan fighter. Today, he is considered to have been one of the greatest poets of modern Israel; he received the Israel Prize in 1970, and there are numerous streets named after him in Israel.
    • Read aloud “The Ghetto Manifesto” from The Vilna Ghetto Manifesto and ask students to discuss the following questions in pairs. They should record their responses in their journals or notebooks.
      • What does Abba Kovner mean by “sheep to the slaughter”?
      • Why do you think this phrase resonated within the Jewish community?
      • Why do some people find this phrase to be problematic today?
  4. Reflect on Resistance during the Holocaust
    • Have students reflect on the following questions in their journals.
      • If death was imminent for many Jews, why did they choose to resist the Nazis?
      • Did their acts of resistance matter?
    • Time allowing, ask students to share one idea in an activity based on the Wraparound strategy.

Assessment

Ask students to write a paragraph in response to the following quotation from scholar Michael Berenbaum, who wrote that for those who resisted in the Warsaw ghetto, “‘Death was a given.”2

  • With such terrible odds against them, why did so many Jews participate in the Warsaw ghetto uprising?
  • Did their resistance matter? If so, to whom and why? If not, why not?

Citations

  • 2 : Michael Berenbaum, “Some Clarifications on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” in Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust, ed. Eric J. Sterling (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 22–23.

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