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The Characterization of Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust

There is a clear difficulty faced both by historians and by those more emotionally connected to the events of the Second World War in establishing a dialogue on the Holocaust that is at once even-handed and sensitive to the inherent emotional implications thereof. This is at the heart of the relative obscurity over specific aspects relating to the systematic extermination of all peoples deemed to be impurities in the midst of the Aryan race. In particular, the concept of Jewish resistance is one which typically is either lost, undermined or exaggerated in a highly charged reflective discourse.

This is the matter at the center of the article by Michael Marrus, which considers as its primary problem the regard in which Jewish resistance to Nazi genocide during the Holocaust is held by the historiographic exchange on the subject. The primary argument that Marrus appears to make throughout this work is that there is a need for an open and honest historical discussion on the presence—and sometimes the critical shortcomings—of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.

Marrus contends that there is a need to avoid the type of reflection which allows the contributions of these individuals to be disregarded or banished into the haze of forgotten fragments. But he equally argues that there is a propensity to over-indulge in glorification of those who were part of the resistance, in such a fashion as to overshadow the true nature of the pressures they faced and the contributions provided to the war effort.

“For the general resistance, polemical treatments in the postwar era tended to exaggerate the extent of resistance, made ambitious claims about the degree of support for partisan activity, and heightened its role in the liberation of the various countries occupied by the Germans. ” (84) As Marrus notes, especially in the extremely politically charged atmosphere that was the post-war global community, there was a proclivity on the part of all groups to immediately begin to craft their narrative of the previous years of turmoil.

This is to say that the imposition of the Nazis had inclined many groups to assemble into a more permanent postwar role, with nationalist and internal political interests surfacing variously in search of a stake in the recalibrating world. As Marrus characterized it, “newly established governments and regimes sought to anchor their authority in a myth of anti-nazi solidarity, drawing legitimacy in part from the heroic sacrifices of wartime struggle. ” (84)

Marrus notes that there is a tendency to consider that the implications of the Jewish resistance narrative to be inherently useful to the interest of the Zionist movement, which gained considerable momentum following the war. However, he makes the interesting distinction that, in fact, many in the Israeli liberation movement balked at the false representation of Jewish resistance. This would be based on the sense that an exaggeration of these efforts might subsume impressions of how deep the Jewish suffering was during this time.

This would, in fact, manifest as what Marrus refers to as an outright sense by those beginning to establish the postwar state of Israel that discourse on the Holocaust was altogether not constructive. Accordingly, “a strange silence settled over Jewish communities when it came to the subject of the nazi Holocaust. Survivors returning to western countries from death camps in Eastern Europe discovered, to their horror, that descriptions of their terrible experiences made other Jews uncomfortable, and were not deemed useful to the task of setting postwar agendas.

” (85) As a result, the instinct to perhaps glorify the ghetto uprisings such as that in Warsaw, which beset the Germans with far more difficulty and time-consumption than did the entire nation of Poland, would be overwhelmed by the desire of many Jews and Zionists either to remove themselves from the horrors of immediate history or to dissuade the instinct of viewing the Jews with pity. There was, even within the Jewish critical community though, a tendency on the other end of the spectrum to even respond with a somewhat aggressive characterization of the Jews as being uncommonly weak and susceptible to the Final Solution.

Such is to say that, from the perspective of many, there was this impression that the Jews had all but consented to their fate by failing to show any meaningful resistance. From the perspective of pointedly secularist Jewish enlightenment philosophers such as Hannah Arendt, the Jews had essentially mounted an admirable but ultimately meaningless organized and militant resistance. Accordingly, Arendt would denote that “resistance groups were ‘pitifully small. . . incredibly weak and essentially harmless in their assault on the nazi war machine.

But to the extent that she referred to Jewish resisters, she did so with utmost respect and admiration. ” (86) As opposed to the false glorification of Jewish efforts, Arendt’s comments far more accurately capture the tendency within many Jews to reflect critically and angrily over the failure of their immediate predecessors—and especially those made yielding by their reliance upon the ancient faith—to show any sort of meaningful defiance to the egregious fate which was to be theirs.

This is echoed by the words of Hilberg, which turn inward on the Jews, passing the blame on to the victims of Nazi extermination, even characterizing with particular ire those Jews who—as assembled leadership of the Jewish people during the time of the Holocaust—had in fact conspired for their own survival to assist the Nazis in their genocidal efforts. Hilberg would be devoted to the idea of “Jewish passivity,” which “springs from an acceptance of the picture of cringing Jews in German documentation>” (88).

This is an image which, while accurate, has been adopted with no small degree of psychological complexity by Jewish philosophers of the latter 20th century, who would view with a desire for distance the pathetic imagery of old Jews being cowed before uniformed Nazi soldiers. Such impressions are a primary cause for the article which Marrus writes, which instead stresses the need to more fully recognize and historically contextualize the resistance efforts of Jews.

Rather than to glorify or mythologize these efforts, we can reflect now—absent of political interest—on the fact that resistance was indeed a presence manifested in the smuggling of food and arms, in the determination to identify with religious or cultural commonalities even in the face of uncommon cruelties and even to align strategically with resistance groups outside of the deeply oppressed inhabitants of the ghettoes and concentration camps.

Indeed, Marrus points to such efforts as those which sought to persuade “Jews of Final Solution—telling the victims against all experience and logic, that the German-organized deportations were part of an organized campaign of systematic mass murder. ” (96) The fact that this resistance effort would be ultimately unsuccessful points to the true incapacity to Jewish defiance, which was its unwillingness to believe that the treatment visited upon the people could be possible.

As the Marrus account demonstrates, by the time many Jews realized the extent of Nazi depravity, it was too late to mount a meaningful resistance. This, however, is not sufficient cause, his article argues, to disregard the genuine and forthright resistance which had been pitched by so many Jews without the promise of recognition, success or even survival.

Works Cited:

Marrus, Michael. () Jewish Resistance of the Holocaust. Journal of Contemporary History.

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