1. What is the meaning of the word Holocaust?
The Holocaust is the systematic, state-sponsored murder of six million Jews
and millions of other people by the Germans and their collaborators during World
The word "Holocaust" is derived from the Greek word holokauston,
a translation of the Hebrew word "Olah," meaning a burnt sacrifice
offered whole onto the Lord. It was the name given to what Winston Churchill
once called "a crime without a name" because in the ultimate
manifestation of the Nazi killing program the death camps -- Jews were
murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were consumed whole crematoria and
The Germans called the murder of the Jews euphemistically but all too
accurately "The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." Defining the
Jews as a problem invited a solution and annihilation of men, women and children
is all too final. Immediately after the war, the survivors called the murders,
the churban, a word that evokes the destruction of the First and Second
Temples in Jerusalem in the years 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively. In
contemporary Hebrew, the term used is Shoah, also meaning destruction, such as
in a natural destruction but increasingly restricted solely to the events of
World War II.
2. What were the obstacles that made Jews hesitant to resist?
Jewish resistance fighters had the odds against them. Unlike classical
guerrillas, who lose themselves by blending in with the local population, Jews
were not mobile or unrecognizable. Confined to ghettos, they were captives who
were vulnerable to retaliation. Because of widespread antisemitism in Eastern
Europe, the Jewish resistance could not rely on popular support. Jews did not
easily blend in with the local population. Finally, it was difficult and
dangerous to obtain arms. They had to be purchased and then smuggled into the
ghetto pistol by pistol, rifle by rifle. Material assistance was not available
either from the Allies or the underground armies in Poland. Most importantly,
the Nazi doctrine of collective responsibility where hundreds or even entire
communities could be killed in retaliation for an act of resistance restrained
ghetto residence from actively resisting until they clearly understood that all
were going to die because they feared that their actions would put their family
and friends, or even the entire ghetto at risk.
3. Were there other instances of resistance in the Holocaust?
Jews fought the Nazis in the forest of Eastern Europe and the ghettos of
Poland. They fought in resistance movements in the West, with Tito in
Yugoslavia, and side by side with Soviet partisans. Even in the death camps of
Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor, Jews resisted with force. Crematoria were blown
up and escapes were organized.
4. Is armed resistance the only form of resistance?
At first, armed resistance was not how Jews responded to Nazi oppression.
They were more practiced in the art of spiritual resistance. Jews initially
attempted to thwart Nazi intentions by non-violent means, stopping short of
direct confrontation in which Jews would inevitably be overpowered. Later it
became clear that death could not be evaded by cooperation, negotiation or
Courage and valor in the face of death took many forms in the ghettos of
Europe. Janusz Korczak went to the death camp of Treblinka with his orphaned
children. He knew he was facing certain death. Still, he stayed with the orphans
to the end. Mothers and fathers stayed with their children. Resistance fighters
tended to be young and single. They did not have to care for their parents or
provide for their children.
5. When did armed resistance break out?
Armed resistance was almost always an act of desperation that burst forth
when all hope was lost. When Jews fully understood what the Nazis intended, any
hope of survival was abandoned. At that point, the fighters were impelled by the
desire to uphold Jewish honor and to avenge Jewish death.
Jews in the ghettos took up arms in 1942 and 1943 when liquidation was
imminent. In many ghettos in Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia and the Ukraine
organizations were formed for the purpose of waging armed struggle. There was
little hope of survival, even less of victory. Resistance was its own reward.
There were various patterns of ghetto revolts. In most ghettos, the
underground was led by young people who had been trained in Zionist or Communist
youth movements. The leaders and fighters were most often young because they
were not bound by responsibilities for older paents or young children. They
could think primarily about themselves and history.
6. Why did some Jewish leaders such as Adam Czerniakow oppose resistance?
The underground was at odds with those Judenrat leaders who believed
that the ghetto would survive because of its economic utility. They did not
accept the doctrine, practiced by Mordecai Rumkowski in Lodz and by many other
Judenrat [Jewish Council] leaders, of salvation through work. Many Jewish
leaders felt that acquiescence to German orders, even at the cost of the lives
of a minority of residence would be sufficient to keep the larger ghetto
population alive at least for a time. But not all Jewish leaders opposed
resistance. The young leaders of underground movements worked in tandem with
those Judenrat leaders who fully understood the implication of Nazi
policy. In most ghettos the choice was stark: deportation or armed revolt.
Either one led inevitably to death. In many small ghettos where armed revolt
erupted, among them Starodubsk, Tatarsk, Kletsk, Mir, Lachava, Kremenets and
Lutsk, few survived. In Czestochowa, Bedzin, Sosnowiec and Tarnow, Jews rebelled
only on the eve of the final deportations. In some areas geography provided a
third option. Surrounded by dense forests of thousands of square miles, some
ghetto residents in the German-occupied Soviet Union could escape to the forests
and hide there for the duration of the war. One notable case the Bielski
brothers formed a family camp composed not only of fighting forces but of
young children and older people who survived the war in hiding and by resisting.
7. Is there any truth to the accusation that Jews went like sheep to the
In the fall and winter of 1941-42 the Germans killed millions of Soviet
Prisoners of War, military men who offered no resistance. Jews were no less
prone than other segments of the population that Germany controlled to offer
resistance and indeed the forces in Warsaw put up a fierce struggle and held out
for weeks against overwhelming odds. The Germans decided to set fire to the
ghetto building by building rather than risking door-to-door combat. The phrase
"do not go like sheep to the slaughter" was first years by resistance
leader Abba Kovner who sought to shake the Jews out of their complacency in
Vilna (contemporary Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1942. It was a poetic, polemical call
to arms, not an actual description of Jewish behavior.
8. I hear that some groups say the Holocaust never happened. How do we know
The Holocaust is one of the most documented moments in human history. The
Germans left massive documentation, which has been supplemented by films and
photographs, even aerial surveillance of the death camps. Survivors have written
memoirs and documented their experience. One project, the Survivors of the Shoah
Visual History Foundation established by Director Steven Spielberg has taken
more than 50,000 interviews in 32 languages in 57 countries of the survivors.
The Germans never denied their crime and court cases on five continents
beginning with the Nuremberg Trials convened by the Allies shortly after the end
of World War II have established a judicial record of the crime. A recent court
case in England established that it was accurate to call one of the leading
Holocaust deniers "a racist and antisemite who deliberately falsified the
historical record." In short, the evidence of what happened is massive and
9. Can you give me a basic timetable of the Holocaust.
Adolf Hitler came to power in January of 1933. From 1933-38 Germans laws were
changed to systematically persecute and segregate the Jews. Jews in Germany were
defined on the basis of the religion of their grandparents not on the identity
they affirmed or the religion they practiced. Their property was confiscated,
they were subject to apartheid-like regulations and encouraged if not forced to
leave the country. In November 1938 their synagogues were set on fire, and 7,000
Jewish stores were looted in Germany, 30,000 men were arrested. As the Third
Reich expanded in 1938 into Austria and Czechoslovakia and in 1939 into Poland
and in 1940-41 throughout most of Europe, the persecution of Jews immediately
followed. But actual killing of Jews did not begin until 1941.
In 1940 Jews in Poland were confined to ghettos. In 1941 Mobile Killing Units
started to murder the Jews of the occupied Soviet-Union one by one, community
after community. Mobile killers were sent to stationary victims.
And in 1942 six killing centers in German-occupied Poland were opened
Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Chelmno and
gassing replaced shooting as the preferred means of killed when trains
transported the ghetto inhabitants to stationary killing centers. By mid 1943
almost all the ghettos of Poland were emptied of their Jews by then had been
murdered. Some killing centers were then closed as their task was complete.
10. What did we know in the United States about the Holocaust and what did we
do about it.
In retrospect it seems that the United States had early and accurate
information regarding the murder of the Jews but such information was often
dismissed as propaganda and full attention was given to the war effort.
Until 1944, there was no American commitment to rescue Jews and the general
policy was that we would win the war and then worry about the refugees after
the war, never quite understanding that by then it would be too late.
American policy was described by a Treasury Department memo as Acquiescence
to the murder of the Jews and the State Department was accused of
"surreptitiously attempt [ing] to stop obtaining of information
concerning the murder of the Jewish population of Europe and trying "to
cover up they guilt by concealment and misrepresentation and the giving of
false and misleading explanations for their failures to act and their
attempts to prevent action. In short, the verdict of history is harsh. As
one high ranking American official of the time said: "We did too
little, too late."
copyright Michael Berenbaum 2001 All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission