Jews responded to the ghetto restrictions with a variety of resistance efforts. Ghetto residents frequently engaged in so-called illegal activities, such as smuggling food, medicine, weapons or intelligence across the ghetto walls, often without the knowledge or approval of the Jewish councils. Spiritual resistance took place through cultural activities which asserted people’s humanity and individuality.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The most well-known attempt by Jews to resist the Nazi regime took place in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943 and lasted for almost a month.
This was organised by the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa – ŻOB (Jewish Fighting Organisation), and headed by 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz with the aim of encouraging Jewish inhabitants to resist being rounded up into trains which would take them to the concentration camps.
In January 1943 shots had been fired by the ŻOB during one such deportation using the small number of arms that had been smuggled into the Ghetto. After a few days of the attack, Nazi troops retreated. This success inspired further revolt.
On 19 April 1943 the Nazis entered the Warsaw Ghetto to carry out its liquidation, anticipating success within a few days. Around 750 ŻOB resistance fighters fought the well-armed and trained soldiers. The revolt lasted for just over a month until they were finally defeated on 16 May. More than 56,000 Jews were taken from the Warsaw Ghetto during the liquidation with 7,000 being shot upon capture and the remaining 49,000 deported to concentration camps.
There were also violent revolts in Vilna, Bialystok, Czestochowa, and several smaller ghettos.
A few people and organisations rescued victims of the Nazi regime. Some non-Jewish rescuers have been recognised by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for their actions during the Holocaust. Those regarded as rescuers may have hidden someone for a few hours, overnight, or for two or three years. Some may have saved one life, others saved thousands. Whatever the scale each deed was as significant as each other. Both the Talmud and the Koran remind us: ‘whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the world entire.’
During the Nazi period everyone had to make moral choices. Some people became perpetrators, others were bystanders. A small and brave minority chose to help the persecuted – these are the rescuers and helpers. This was an extraordinary selfless choice. It meant risking not only their own lives but the lives of their own family and children. Many paid with their lives. None succeeded in halting the Holocaust, but many people were enabled to survive as a result of their efforts. Each chose to defy the power of the Nazis and their collaborators – mostly single-handedly. That choice made a huge difference to many individual lives. They showed the power of the individual and provided hope in otherwise hopeless circumstances by demonstrating the importance of moral courage in action.
During the Nazi period the vast majority of people were not perpetrators, but bystanders. Fear was a major contributing factor to the success of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, and the persecution of Roma and Sinti, disabled, gay and black people.
But there were courageous people who stood out from time to time. They were found in every Nazi-occupied country and from all walks of life. What is clear is that most of these people were very ordinary people, making individual choices of conscience. Their actions demonstrated that true heroes are often just ordinary people acting on their convictions. Many were surprised that what they had done was deemed to be exceptional.
The Nazis were brutal in their reprisals against anyone caught trying to assist. Bystanders therefore had good reason to be concerned for their personal safety. This in turn makes the actions of those who did resist the more remarkable. Their actions were selfless, but no less calculated. They knew the potential risk, but took the risk anyway.
Death marches and liberation
As Allied troops made progress across Nazi-occupied Europe, they began to uncover concentration and extermination camps. The camp of Majdanek in Poland was the first to be liberated, in summer 1944. Nazi forces burnt the crematoria and the mass graves in attempts to hide the crimes that had been committed - the Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were dismantled by the Nazis from 1943, and Auschwitz was evacuated in late 1944. The remaining prisoners were forced to walk into the interior of Germany. Already suffering from starvation and ill-treatment, and poorly clothed against elements, many thousands died on the enforced ‘death marches’.
Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945. They found several thousand emaciated survivors, and the smouldering remains of the gas chambers and crematoria – the Nazi attempt to destroy evidence of their crimes against humanity. In the following months, the Soviets liberated Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, followed by Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen. British Troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. Liberator Iolo Lewis recalled the sight that met the liberators:
I was absolutely horrified to find out what had happened where I stood and the inhumanity of man against man. I have never been the same since, mentally. How could people do this sort of thing to other people?... The people were not lively. They were treated like animals. They had lost reason. When the medics came in they tried to save a lot of people.
It is estimated there were over 60,000 prisoners in Belsen by April 1945. Approximately 35,000 prisoners died of typhus, malnutrition and starvation in the first few months of 1945.
We cannot begin to imagine the scenes which confronted the liberators. Disease such as typhoid were rife, and an ever present danger to the malnourished survivors. Many camps had to be burnt to the ground in order to ensure the containment of diseases. The liberation of the camps exposed the full extent of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ to the rest of the world.