Over and over again, the question has been raised why the Jews did not resist. Why did they allow themselves to be led to the slaughter? How could several thousand Jews permit themselves to be shot, one by one, with no more than thirty or forty rifles aimed at them?
There are several explanations that may provide at least a partial answer to the questions. First, the Nazis were ingenious in their deployment of elaborate deceptions at every step of the way. Jews were led to believe they were being transported to work sites and received detailed instructions on what to bring with them on the trains. And when they arrived, music would be blaring to “welcome” them inside the camp.
Some also argue that the Jewish religion encourages passivity and abhors violence. Therefore, for most of the Jews, violent rebellion wasn't an option. Many pious Jews were taught to accept God's will, which accounts for Jews praying while at the foot of the killing pits or in the gas chambers.
It wasn't difficult for the Jews to accept these deceptions. After all, there was nothing in the history of the world to prepare them for what awaited. It was possible to believe that they were being taken to labor camps, that the Germans needed them for free labor, but what civilized person was willing to entertain the notion that the Nazis had constructed gas chambers where shower heads spewed deadly gas that would kill innocent men, women, and children, all destined to death for the simple reason of being Jewish? It is human nature to believe what we want to believe, and the Jews were no exception to this rule.
Uprisings in the Ghettos
Nonetheless, Jewish resistance did exist. The largest Jewish rebellion is known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began in late April of 1943 and lasted until early May. The uprising was led by the Jewish resistance organization known as the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization) or ZOB.
When German forces had entered the ghetto to gather Jews for deportation to Treblinka, the ZOB ambushed the Germans with Molotov cocktails and hand grenades, which they had smuggled into the ghetto. Despite little in the way of weapons, the Jews resisted an overwhelming and massive military response from the embarrassed Germans. They held out for twenty-seven days (longer than the entire Polish nation resisted in 1939) and didn't give in; all of the fighters were eventually captured and executed. In the end, it was impossible for an isolated ghetto to fight the German forces. Other revolts took place in the ghettos of Vilna and Bialystok.
Were there acts of resistance in the death camps?
At Sobibor and Treblinka, prisoners attacked their guards with stolen weapons. Most were killed, but several dozen escaped. At Auschwitz, a number of the inmates blew up one of the crematoriums—all were subdued and shot.
Some Jews managed to escape from the ghettos or avoid the roundups in the towns and cities. Frequently, these Jews joined the resistance organizations of the countries in which they lived or formed their own groups of Jewish resistance fighters—in some areas, Jews were excluded from national resistance groups.
Other Acts of Resistance
Although there were few opportunities for violent resistance, many Jews chose spiritual forms of resistance. In the face of hopelessness, the Jews did not give in to hate and despair. They carried themselves with all the dignity they could muster, trying to ignore the subhuman conditions they were in and looking out for each other. Many Jews did not forsake their religion—on the contrary, they continued to pray and observe Jewish traditions and holidays under the most despairing of circumstances. In fact, many Jews chose to abstain from food and water during Yom Kippur, despite the danger of starvation, to demonstrate their continued commitment to their beliefs. That, too, was a form of resistance, a resistance to become subhuman and to the loss of their culture.
By not giving up hope, these Jews confirmed life and did so under the most horrific and damning conditions ever faced by a people at any time in the history of humankind. This was their ultimate act of resistance.