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Moral and Spiritual Resistance

In the initial years of Nazi rule individual Jews and Jewish representatives protested against defamation and discrimination. Later, as the Jews were deported and incarcerated in the ghettos of Poland, they were determined to maintain their humanity and personal integrity in the face of the concerted Nazi attempts to dehumanise and degrade them and to affirm their shared ethical, religious and cultural values. They set up underground religious schools and prayer groups and also libraries with books they had hidden from the Nazis. A secret religious library in Czestochowa, Poland, served over 1,000 readers.

Gathering documentary evidence about the crimes committed by the Nazis was also a focus of resistance. Groups in many ghettos established secret archives and wrote, collected and stored reports, letters and diaries detailing what was happening to them. One of the most famous chronicles was the Oneg Shabbat, found in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto after the war. A similar archive was kept in the Bialystok Ghetto.

Jewish children such as Anne Frank and Moshe Flinker were murdered by the Nazis but their personal diaries survived the war. The immediacy and poignancy of their observations have ensured that these diaries continue to be read and pondered by millions of people throughout the world.

The Jews’ most basic form of resistance was to refuse to do what the Nazis wanted them to do, which was simply to die. The instinct for physical survival was strong, as well as being a religious imperative; the smuggling of food and countless other minor subterfuges evidenced the determination of the Jewish people to remain alive. In all the ghettos, neighbourhood mutual-aid societies and house committees were set up to procure and share what little food there was, and most people resisted the impulse to think only of themselves. In many small but important ways most Jews in the ghettos maintained their moral dignity until the end.

Even in the extermination camps, there were defiant actions such as sharing meagre rations with others who were even more desperate, covering up for a sick person at rollcall and doing “work” duties in his or her place. The traditional closeness of Jewish family ties played an important part in this form of resistance.

Religious observance was a potent form of defiance. Jews participated in clandestine prayer services inside barracks while others stood watch outside. Some Jews in the camps even continued to observe the Holy Day of Atonement with its traditional fast, even though this meant further depriving their already-starved bodies of the miniscule daily food rations. 

Rescue: the Righteous among the Nations

A small number of non-Jewish Europeans had the compassion and the courage to assist Jews, often risking their own lives, and to stand against the tide of indifference and hostility. Israel’s Holocaust memorial (Yad Vashem) has recognised over 22,000 such people from 44 countries. This is how Yad Vashem describes those who have been so honoured:

“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.

“The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. The Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire families as well.”

The most usual category of righteousness consisted of hiding Jews at the rescuer’s home or property. Yad Vashem describes conditions in the rural areas of Eastern Europe:

“Bunkers were built under houses, cowsheds or barns… In addition to the threat of death that hung over the Jews’ heads, physical conditions in such dark, cold, airless and crowded places were very hard to bear the rescuers, whose life was also terrorised, would undertake to provide food - not an easy feat for poor families in wartime — and take care of their wards’ other needs.”

Other forms of righteousness included the provision of false papers and false identities, smuggling and assisting Jews to escape, and the rescue of children, desperately left by their parents with the rescuers.

Among the Gentiles honoured at Yad Vashem are Pastor Andre Trocme and Daniel Trocme. Pastor Trocme was the religious leader of the Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, which hid and saved 5,000 Jews. Teacher Daniel Trocme was deported with his students in a Gestapo raid and they were all killed at Majdanek.

The entire Bulgarian nation was distinguished by the refusal of King Boris to deport any Bulgarian Jews, following the widespread public protests by its political leaders and individual Christian clergy. The result was that none of the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews was killed in the Holocaust.

In Italy, Nazi Germany’s principal ally, Judaism was originally a recognised religion under Mussolini’s Fascist government, and Jews found safe refuge in Italy and in Italian-occupied territory.

However in 1943, after Italy broke away from the alliance with Germany and surrendered to the Allies, German forces invaded and occupied northern Italy. Jews were rounded up in Rome and other major cities, and about 8,000 were deported to Auschwitz. Many were hidden, some by Church institutions, or escaped southward to Allied-occupied areas, and more than 40,000 Jews survived, about 80 per cent of the Jewish population.

Individual members of the clergy, Catholic and Protestant, and the anti-Nazi resistance sheltered Jews or hid the children of Jews who were about to be deported, particularly in Italy, France, Holland and Belgium. This was at great personal risk to themselves.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Bunker
A Jewish man emerges from his hiding place below the
floor of a bunker prepared for the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives
and Records Administration, College Park, MD

In Denmark, orders arrived from Berlin for the deportation of the Danish Jews to Auschwitz. The information was leaked and ordinary citizens all over the country offered refuge in churches, attics, hospitals, country homes and residences. On the night of the raid, Germans found only 284 Jews out of almost 8,000 in the population. The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark by sea to neutral Sweden, in fishing boats, rowboats and kayaks.

In occupied Greece, the Nazis received no local help in the round-up and deportation of Jews. On 23 March 1943, Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou and 27 other leading figures in Greece risked their lives by signing a letter to the Greek Prime Minister protesting at, and calling for an end to, anti-Jewish measures. Nevertheless 46,091 Jews were deported from Salonika to Auschwitz. Throughout Greece, about 63,500 people in all, more than 80 per cent of the Jewish population, were transported to the extermination camps.

Even though the Belgian church clandestinely opposed the Nazis, and the Belgian resistance and Christian families co-operated in hiding Jews, 40,000 of Belgium’s 65,000 Jews perished. In the Netherlands many Dutch people tried to save Jewish people. Yet 100,000 Jews out of a total of 140,000 perished.8 Germany’s Finnish allies refused to give up their 2,000 Jews to the Nazis.

In 1942 a Polish resistance fighter and former diplomat, Jan Karski, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. With great bravery he escaped and reported what he had observed to the top Allied officials in London. Then, on 28 July 1943, he had a personal meeting at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he described the Nazi extermination program. The Allies made no plans to act on the information.

Government officials who tried to rescue Jews included Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, who issued thousands of certificates of protection to Jews in Budapest, and then found many of them refuge in safe houses under Swedish protection; Carl Lutz, the Consul General in the Swiss legation, who placed nearly 50,000 Jews in Budapest under Swiss protection by issuing them certificates of emigration to Palestine; the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who disobeyed his own government to save hundreds of Polish Jews by providing them transit visas to Japan, so that they could escape through Soviet territory; US Vice Consul to France, Harry Bingham who, in defiance of his superiors in the US State Department, granted over 2,500 visas to Jewish and other refugees, including the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and the family of the writer Thomas Mann; and Turkish Consul-General Selahattin Ulkumen, who saved 42 of the Jews of Rhodes Island as they were Turkish nationals.

Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet army when it captured Budapest in 1944 and is reported to have died tragically in a Soviet prison camp. Sugihara and Bingham were each forced out of the diplomatic service.

Some of the “Righteous Among the Nations” migrated to Australia after the war. They have included Adrianius (Harry) Vanas, Lydia and Johannes Huygens, Maria Prow, Fred Lipke and Irena Szumska-Ingram. Sadly, as heroic as their actions were, they had only limited success in saving Jewish lives.