To the Editor:
In his review of Raul Hilberg’s book The Destruction of the European Jews [“Nazi Bureaucrats and Jewish Leaders,” April 1962], Professor H. R. Trevor-Roper leans heavily on Hilberg’s thesis that “for two thousand years . . . the Jews had been unlearning the habit of resistance. . . . For two thousand years they had believed that by yielding and compromise they would survive the spasmodic pogroms and expulsions which were their fate. Their habits, their institutions, their responses were conditioned by that belief.”
. . . In the two-thousand-year period of Diaspora history, Jews offered physical resistance (often armed) when attacked by Christians or Moslems, so many times that the notion of appeasement and docility as a typically Jewish response to non-Jews has no universal validity. But a historian must note that the attitudes of Jews in modern national states was quite radically different from that of Jews in medieval Europe.
Trevor-Roper is right when he says that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place after a revolution inside the Jewish community, when power passed from the Judenrat to the Jewish Fighter Organization. But this had been made possible by a revolution which had occurred more than a half-century before, when rationalism and Enlightenment in the guise of modern social and national movements radically transformed East European Jews, their outlook on political and civic equality, and the ways to attain and protect it. Jewish traditional values gave way before the concepts of the French Revolution—the dignity of man and the value of the individual. Jews became part of the modern world and began to apply its methods. So, with the outbreak of the Russian pogroms in 1881, the Jews in Odessa were among the first to form self-defense groups, drawing upon an even earlier tradition of self-defense that went back to 1648—49 when the Cossacks revolted against the Polish nobility and pogromized the Jews. Suppressed by the Czarist government, the self-defense groups had little success against the pogromists who outnumbered them. But by 1903, in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom, self-defense became general Jewish policy; self-defense groups were organized by the Jewish Labor Bund and the Poale Zion—mostly young working people who realized that the Jews could not count upon the Czarist government and its institutions to protect them. Self-defense units sprang up in Bialystok, Chudnow, Kertch, Odessa, and Zhitomir. During the Russian civil war and the pogroms in the Ukraine in 1919—1922, Jewish self-defense groups were active in many places.
By the second half of the 19th century, the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe were not, if they had been before, a socially homogeneous group with a single political outlook. Considerable socio-economic differentiation and a corresponding divergence in thinking and ideology had developed with the spread of industrialization, urbanization, and proletarianization of Jews. Jewish leaders speaking on behalf of one ideology could no longer expect the support of all Jews. Official Jewish leadership and its policy of appeasement toward the Russian Czarist government were criticized and opposed by the socialist and radical parties. The established order of conservative rabbis and philanthropists then began to lose a good deal of influence in the Jewish community.
Submission and execution of Nazi programs against their will were the policies used by the Judenräte. They generally consisted of former members of the kehilla, some of whom had been sought out and coopted by the Nazis. These kehilla representatives had a long tradition of obedience to and compliance with government authority and a respect for legality and legalism. Yet the Nazis had to remove or murder even many of these because they were interfering with the execution of Nazi plans. (In Lodz, all but five members of the first Judenrat were deported and later died; in Belchatow the Nazis changed the composition of the Judenrat five times, arrested its members, and accused them of fomenting rebellion against the German authorities; in Lwow, the first chairman of the Judenrat was shot for failing to provide the Germans with the number of Jewish workers they demanded; in Kovno the Judenrat and leaders of the Jewish police cooperated in sending Jewish young people out to join the partisans in the woods.) In some places the Judenräte or their individual members cooperated with the underground resistance groups (in Baranowicze, Pruzany, Nieswiez, Kovno, and Bialystok).
Large numbers of Jews in Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia, particularly the young people who were brought up in the Socialist (Bundist) and Socalist-Zionist youth organizations, did not go along with the policy of compliance and appeasement, but, under the most inhuman conditions, created underground organizations to resist the Nazis.
Trevor-Roper’s statement is not true that the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto was a “heroic exception.” Jewish uprisings against the Nazis took place in Bialystok on August 16, 1943, where the Nazis had to use regular army forces to suppress the resistance; in two death camps, Treblinka on August 2, 1943, and Sobibor, October 14, 1943, where some SS men were killed and hundreds of prisoners escaped, some of them to the partisans fighting in the woods.
Jewish resistance to the Nazis was more widespread than generally supposed, especially in eastern Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia, where the proximity of dense forests to conceal partisans made possible escape, rescue, and opposition.
Planned or spontaneous uprisings against the Nazis took place in more than twenty ghettos, before or during the deportations and mass killings; in some of these uprisings the Jews also set fire to the ghettos (Tuczyn, Glubokie, Lida, Nieswiez, Kleck, Lachwa, Braslaw, Kobryn, Mir). In some camps in White Russia (Swerzen Nowy, Koldyczewo, Baranowicze, Nowogrodek), organized uprisings enabled hundreds of prisoners to escape to the woods. Thousands and thousands of Jews took part in the partisan movement, organized in their own groups and as part of the general partisan movement, mostly Soviet. Jewish participation in the partisan movement was not individual or sporadic, but was closely related to the life and death of the ghettos. The effect of the Jewish partisans was felt by the Germans themselves; Hilberg himself cites German documents to this effect, and there are many more he could have cited.
In characterizing the Jewish response to the Nazis, we ought to compare the response of other peoples to Nazi persecution.
In the region of Zamosc (district of Lublin), between November 1941 and August 1943, the Nazis expelled 110,000 peasants, nearly one-third of the population. Families were separated; children suitable for “Germanization” were taken away from their parents; the old, the sick, and the remaining children under fourteen were deported to Auschwitz. Except for a few desperate individuals, there is no record of resistance. Nor did we hear of resistance by the half million Poles from the western part of Poland which was incorporated into Germany. They were “resettled” during the bitter winter of 1939—1940, in unheated freight cars, without food or water, to some uncertain future in the general government. Did the 14,000 Slovenes resist, when they were deported in the fall of 1941 to make room for German colonists? Did the tens of thousands of Gypsies resist? Or the Czechs of Lidice? There were no uprisings in the concentration camps where millions of all European nationalities languished—Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz; the only revolt was that of the Jewish Sonderkommando in Birkenau on October 7, 1944.
The differences between a military occupying power and a civilian population must be considered, regardless of the numbers involved. Civilians, Jews or non-Jews, were scarcely in a position to offer any significant resistance to one of the greatest war-machines in modern history.
The German application of collective responsibility was another factor in stifling the idea of resistance.
I have deliberately omitted discussing the objective possibilities of resistance among the Jews in the ghettos and camps: the scarcity or total absence of arms, the generally hostile attitude of the Christian milieu, their complete lack of contact with the outside world. But obviously these conditions had dieir effect in paralyzing resistance. One need only compare the possibilities for resistance that Jews in the ghettos had with those available to non-Jewish resistance movements in the occupied countries to see this question in its proper perspective.
Finally, the Jews in the ghettos, believing in a world of order, could not accept the idea that a state—even a Nazi State—would make the extermination of the Jews a political goal of the first magnitude, while the whole world stood by. That is one reason why they did not believe the dreadful truth until too late, when they stood at the threshold of the gas chambers or at the pits of mass graves. Perhaps, before death, the victims may have even thought it purposeless to resist in order to survive in a world so bestial; by not resisting they may have shown contempt for the world they were leaving, not docility or compliance.
As for collaboration by the Nazi-organized Judenräte, that was not particularly a Jewish phenomenon. Collaboration was widespread in all countries under German occupation. Were the Vichy police, the Polish police, the Quislings any different from the Judenräte? They, too, helped deliver thousands of their own people into the hands of the Gestapo. Actually, the comparison between the Jewish collaborationists and the non-Jewish ones underscores the significant difference: most non-Jews collaborated voluntarily while Jews were forced into collaboration.
Finally, I do not believe that one can interpret the lack of resistance, or its inadequacy, or its brevity as a specifically Jewish phenomenon, conditioned by 2,000 years of Jewish compliance and passivity. Jewish behavior was characteristic of the behavior of the civilian population in all occupied countries] it was the result of a deliberate policy carried out by the Nazis—and which they achieved with considerable success—to paralyze the will of the subjugated people to resist.
Yivo Institute for Jewish Research
New York City
To the Editor:
No one, it seems to me, can dispute the incontrovertible evidence that the work of destroying six million Jews “went on with the unavowed complicity of the whole [German] nation.” One must, however, challenge the central thesis propounded by Mr. Trevor-Roper in his review of Raul Hilberg’s book, The Destruction of the European Jews . . . that there have been two Jewries: the Jewry of Israel which heroically resists its enemies and the Jewry of the Dispersion, whose mentality is compliance and who therefore went like sheep to the slaughter, so that even the unparalleled resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto “was the exception which proves the rule. . . .”
Permit me to point out that both of these generalizations . . . are untrue and are based on selected evidence, on half-truths, and on a simplification of a very complex phenomenon, which has no analogy in world history. One is baffled when a scholar of Trevor-Roper’s caliber accepts as dogma the unsubstantiated thesis that the Jews offered no resistance on the testimony of the criminal Nazis and (lehavdil) . . . of some Sabras. Is Israeli youth better qualified to testify on past and present Jewish history than the historians Simon Dubnow, Philip Friedman, Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum, and many survivors of the catastrophe?
Let me cite some significant evidence that was overlooked by Mr. Trevor-Roper. Jews did rise up, during the nineteen hundred years of dispersion, many times, against their oppressors. Under the Emperor Trajan, there took place a Jewish uprising in the Diaspora that lasted for two years—from 115 to 117 A.D. (See Simon Dubnow, Weltges-chichte des Jüdischen Volkes, Vol. 3, pp. 30, 50): similarly in Alexandria, in Babylonia, in Arabia (in 628 A.D.), in Germany (during the first Crusade), in Spain (Valencia 1391), in Poland (at the time of Chmelnitzky and later in 1768), against Gontha—Jews fought heroically with weapons in their hands. (See Dubnow, Vol. 5, pp. 120, 175, and 261; and Vol. 7, pp. 34, 102, and 164.)
In the 19th century, in Czarist Russia, the Jews established after the massacres of 1881—1882, a Self-Defense Organization, which produced many fighters. Jewish participation in the underground revolutionary movement in Czarist Russia was widely recognized as a significant contribution to the cause of freedom. Can all of these manifestations of Jewish heroism in the Diaspora be designated as docility?
In regard to the latest period—1939—1945—one must consider the special situation of the Jews in the ghettos and the un-surmountable handicaps which prevented mass revolts. There was no favorable strategic base, since the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe were herded by the Nazis into hermetically sealed ghettos, where their every move could be controlled and which they were prohibited to leave on pain of death. Weapons and explosives had to be smuggled into the ghettos, slipped in through heavily guarded ghetto gates, brought in through sewers, and by other ingenious devices. Many of the Jewish underground fighting groups tried, at a later period, to escape from the ghettos into the woods and mountains, but, in many cases, they were caught and executed. The Jewish underground was also faced with a serious moral issue: were they justified in leaving the ghetto population to face the enemy alone, or did they have to stay on and take the lead in the fight when the crucial moment arrived. An additional disadvantage was that the Gentile population in Eastern Europe did not identify itself with the Jewish resistance movement and had often a hostile attitude to it. The amount of weapons available to the Jewish underground often came too late or in ridiculously small quantities. In Bialystok and Vilna the Jewish requests for weapons were refused outright.
But, in spite of all these and many more obstacles, there were armed uprisings and various individual and collective acts of armed resistance: Warsaw was not the exception that proves the rule, but rather the symbol of Jewish rebellion. Before and after the Warsaw uprising, there were revolts in Czestochowa, Bialystok, Bedzin, Vilna, Cracow, in Treblinka, in Sobibor, Slonim, Nieswiez, Kleck, Nowogrodek, Mir, Minsk Mazowiecki, and many more. (See Philip Friedman, Jewish Resistance to Nazism in European Resistance Movements, 1939—1945; Y. Zuckerman, Sefer Milhamot Haghettoat; Joseph Tenenbaum, Underground: The Story of a People.)
It is possibly annoying to historians that they cannot fit the Jewish historical experience into a general pattern, but it behooves a scholar of Trevor-Roper’s subtlety of mind to remember his own wise utterance . . . : error in the intellectual world has a fertilizing effect in that it obliges scholars to search for new and more precise answers to difficult questions.
Saul L. Goodman
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Professor Trevor-Roper . . . is trying to perpetuate a myth which is both dangerous and untrue. Dr. Hilberg puts forward an unsupported hypothesis as one reason for the feeble resistance of Jews to Nazi extermination, namely, the supposedly “traditional [Jewish] reactions, the appeal and the tendency to flight” because the Jews in the Diaspora have “unlearned the art of revolt” since the time of Bar Kochba. . . .
It is regrettable that Professor Trevor-Roper should be influenced by myths spread by some propagandists for Zionist funds (that only in Israel can Jews fight) and accusations against Jewish leadership furthered by Communists for their own political reasons. The truth of the matter is that Jews fought against the Germans much more than in Warsaw and have fought in self-defense on many occasions throughout the centuries, and that other groups which were decimated and destroyed by the Nazis (and by Stalin) put up no more resistance than did the Jews.
There is enough historical evidence to show that Jews fought their adversaries in Asia, Europe (Crusades 1096), France (1146), Frankfort (1241), Spain (1320), etc., at the time of the Cossack uprising in southern Poland (1648—49), Posen (1688), and many others. At the time of the Russian pogroms (1881—1906) and later at the end of World War I when insecurity prevailed in many places in Eastern Europe, Jewish self-defense groups were defending Jewish houses and streets, and casualties were heavy in these encounters. And during the Nazi rule in Europe Jews revolted not only in Warsaw but also in Bialystok (there the head of the Judenrat, Barash, cooperated with the resistance). In Cracow a resistance group organized diversionist activities. In Tarnow, Bedzin, Czestochowa, and other places active resistance was offered when the ghettos were liquidated. Resistance was also met in the camps. In Treblinka a transport of Jews who refused to be led to the gas chambers fought the Germans with sticks. In August 1943 a rebellion broke out in Treblinka in the course of which a part of the camp was burned and a number of inmates escaped. In October of the same year there was a revolt in Sobibor. In 1943—44, revolts and acts of resistance occurred in a number of other camps—Lwow-Janowski, Chelmno, Poniatow, Traw-niki, Auschwitz.
There were many cases of individual assaults on Germans as acts of defiance. . . . Jews also formed partisan groups of their own, mostly in Eastern Poland, or participated in the general partisan groups even though their situation was more precarious (mistrust of the non-Jewish partisans and greater danger of being recognized). And, according to Sartre, in France, for instance, “it was they [the Jews] who formed the principal cadres [of the Resistance] before the Communists went into action” [COMMENTARY, May 1948]. It is also untrue that the “Judenräte were the Jewish leaders.” They were mostly “leaders” imposed upon the Jews by the Nazis.
Revolt, resistance, and self-defense must be viewed in terms of both the possibilities and hopes they afford. Jews were at a disadvantage on all counts; in most cases they could not rely on their neighbors, and they lacked arms. Their resistance was rather an act of despair than one motivated by hope.
The totalitarian machine developed techniques which obliterated all human hope and strength to resist. The non-Jewish pro-Soviet partisan groups in Eastern Europe were small and without much influence until commanders were sent in from Soviet Russia to give them meaning and direction. In the same Eastern European death camps in which Jews were exterminated, tens of thousands of non-Jews were also put to death (in Auschwitz itself there were many Poles, among them today’s Prime Minister of Poland, Josef Cyrankiewicz) and nobody revolted. Hundreds of thousands of Russians were murdered by the Nazis (so-called “commissars” and leaders), and hundreds of thousands—or millions?—of Russian war prisoners were starved or worked to death and shot by the Nazis in camps, some of them in the occupied British Channel Islands.
And in the East, in Soviet Russia, millions of peasants, intellectuals, and other groups were shot or starved to death in Siberia. During the war and after, hundreds of thousands of “unreliables” including such national groups as the Kalmyks, considerable numbers of Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, etc., were deported and mostly exterminated. Very little revolt occurred in Russia, though the ratio of prisoners to guards was roughly the same as that in Auschwitz and other German camps.
It may well be that Messrs. Hilberg and Trevor-Roper had no access to the source material relating these facts which is written in Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and . . . in Russian (although some official German documents tell of “Jewish bandits” and “Jewish gangs”), but this does not make their hypothesis or assertions any truer. The latter cannot withstand the test of comparison with the source material.
Bernard D. Weinryb
To the Editor:
I wish to add two footnotes to Professor Trevor-Roper’s brilliant but somewhat strange analysis of Jewish behavior under Nazi terror. . . .
To the very last minute neither Jews nor non-Jews imagined the full scope of Nazi terror and the horror of Nazi intent. Unarmed Jews did not offer any resistance; nor did the unarmed non-Jews, among whom there were many Communists and hard men of action, in the Nazi camps.
The unique survival of Jewry and of Judaism was not due to the Götterdämmerung heroism of fighters like Bar Kochba or the Zealots, but to Jokhanan ben Zakkai and the Diaspora. The second Jewish State perished as did the first. Those who did not wage a hopeless struggle against tremendous odds saved Jewry and Judaism. The Diaspora achieved in many movements and figures—in learned rabbis and Hasidic saints, in Maimonides and Spinoza, in Marx and Freud—creative moments equal to those of other peoples.
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . During the 1905 revolution in Russia and during the Russian Civil War after 1918, the Jewish Self-Defense (Samooborona)—resistance to the perpetrators of pogroms—was very active in the Ukraine, White Russia, and Bessarabia. Illegal Jewish political groups, some of them of radical bent, participated in many revolutionary activities in Russia, Poland, Rumania, etc., fighting against oppressive powers and risking their lives. It is sufficient to read the literature of this period to realize how wrong it is to put the Jewish masses among the “meek lambs,” which indeed they were not.
I do not deny the indisputable and gruesome fact of lack of Jewish resistance to Nazi extermination, but I would submit that in discussing resistance one must take into consideration the specific conditions created by a totalitarian society. The Nazis did not succeed in imposing a full totalitarianization on the French-Jewish resistance in France. The situation was, however, quite different in the ghettos and extermination camps, and millions of Jews perished there without the slightest chance of survival. By the way, the same situation existed in the case of tens of thousands of Russian prisoners of war in Nazi camps who were exterminated without any resistance. The Russians did not have behind them the “history of Diaspora” and the Jewish experiences of the last 2,000 years to which Trevor-Roper refers. I do not suggest this as a complete explanation of the phenomenon, but I do think that instead of easy generalizations on the philosophy of Jewish history, and in order to understand the problem, it is necessary to consider the impact of a totalitarian framework on all facets of human life.
When in the late 1920′s Stalin collectivized Russian peasantry, millions of peasants were walking like cattle on the roads of Russia, hundreds of thousands of besprizorny (children without families) spread over the villages and the cities of Russia, but there was no revolt in Russia. May I add that the same total submission existed in Stalin’s labor camps where millions of people were slaving for years. (The Vorkuta revolt, reported by reliable observers, occurred in 1954, during the period of uncertainty following Stalin’s death.) When Stalin decided to kill off thousands of his erstwhile co-workers, including the great and revered leaders of his own party, there was no resistance, there was no revolt in Russia. We do know of revolts in pre-totalitarian Soviet Russia, including Kronstadt, as we know of revolts in 1956 in not yet completely totalitarianized Poland and Hungary.
I know, of course, that during the collectivization peasants here and there killed Soviet Commissars, but so did the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews of the Bialystok Ghetto, Jewish partisans in France, Poland, Russia, etc. (. . . See Guide to Jewish History under Nazi Impact by Jacob Robinson and Philip Friedman.)
May I add that the thesis about the two Jewries, that of the “compromising” Diaspora and that of “militant” Israel, and all references to heroic Zealots of old Judea deserve a deeper treatment than a passing reference. The point is that the same Jews of the Diaspora who did not resist in extermination camps went to Cyprus and then to Israel and became the great fighters for Israel’s independence. Also, I think that to understand this phenomenon the effects of a different social framework should be investigated.
New York City
To the Editor:
H. R. Trevor-Roper accepts Raul Hilberg’s thesis that a Jewish bureaucracy was in fact “an integral part of the machinery of destruction” and that in Germany as in other countries the Jews themselves collaborated in their own destruction. Their leaders became or were trapped into becoming a “tool” for the destruction of their people.
To one who served on the Executive Board of the Reichsvertretung it will appear that the terms applied to the Jewish leadership in Germany do not offer an accurate description of the “frontline leaders,” as Leo Baeck called them, of the men and women all of whom stayed on voluntarily, all of whom were deported and most of whom met their death. Nor could a fair and adequate verdict be expected in a book which omits from the chapter dealing with the antecedents the years from 1934 to 1938 and addresses itself almost entirely to the Reichsvereinigung and to the period of mass annihilation.
To the Reichsvertretung less than a page is given and to its work one sentence. Its attempts aimed at an orderly exodus find no place in Hilberg’s work. Of Otto Hirsch and his fellow workers no more than their names are mentioned and of the statements of Leo Baeck only those that put him in an unfavorable light.
The reviewer, however, is so taken with Hilberg’s findings and evaluations that he builds on them an entire theory of Jewish history: Bar Kochba, the battle of Warsaw, and present-day Israel versus the Diaspora mentality. It is a kind of “Canaanite” theory. The Jews could have decided to follow it many centuries ago and then there would be today neither a Diaspora nor Israel.
The Leo Baeck Institute
New York City