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.”
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.