Resistance in the Ghettos and Camps – when the ghettos were first created, underground activities focused on organizing aid and civil resistance. Because of the terrible overcrowding, the main problem was to secure food and housing and organize health services and childcare.
It was prewar associations that were primarily involved in these activities, such as the Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia (Healthcare Association), Centralne Towarzystwo Opieki nad Sierotami (Central Society for the Care of Orphans) and ORT. They operated openly, under the aegis of the Jewish Social Self-Help (Yiddish, Yidisher Sotsyaler Alaynhilf), a department of the national Main Welfare Council, established with the German consent. They organized the distribution of food, "people's kitchens" providing free soup, orphanages, assistance for homeless deportees, and medical care. Modest financial assistance and food came from foreign charities (International Red Cross, American Red Cross, Commission for Polish Relief, Joint), though the Germans confiscated a portion of this aid. Private donations, primarily from the wealthier residents of the ghettos, were more significant. In the smaller ghettos, the poorest residents were cared for almost exclusively by the Jewish councils (Judenrat), with infrequent support from Jewish Social Self-Help or Joint.
Most Jewish political parties renewed their activities underground. They organized self-help programs and civil resistance networks, mainly through "house committees" comprised of the residents of one or more buildings. The house committees were of great significance for communication, and they distributed the underground press. They also monitored residents' needs and the occupiers' activities. They also hid people who were in danger of arrest or being sent to do forced labor, and maintained contact with other ghettos in various cities.
An equally important form of civil resistance was secret schooling, cultural and religious life-all banned by the German authorities. In large ghettos, theaters and cabarets existed where-despite the threat of informants-Germans were mocked and there were appeals to the audiences to be unified and help each other. There were also concerts and symphony orchestras. In Warsaw, plays were staged in Polish, despite bans.
Scientists and scholars persisted in their research, and historical and sociological studies were written. Doctors sought ways of controlling epidemics, and studies were done on what was known as the "Hunger Disease". A secret archive was founded under the aegis of the Warsaw Judenrat, at the initiative of E. Ringelblum. The archive's task was to document everyday life in the ghetto, and the resistance and persecution of the Jewish people.
When the liquidation action began (Holocaust), the conditions changed for both legal and secret activities. The Germans deported most activists to death camps. Youth organizations then took the initiative-their aim was armed resistance. These groups made contact with the Polish underground and began forming military structures, gathering arms and training future fighters. They began building a system of bunkers and hideouts within the ghetto itself, which were used later to protect the civilian population. (Over ten thousand people hid in these places until the end of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.) Their shared aim led to the unification of the underground political parties.
In Wilno, on the basis of an agreement between the various parties, the Faraynigte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO; Yiddish, United Partisan Organization) was founded in January 1942. Its members included representatives of Ha-shomer Ha-tsair, Ha-noar Ha-tsiyoni, Betar, Bund and the communists.
The leader of FPO was I. Wittenberg (1907-43). Emissaries were sent to Warsaw and Bialystok, but at first they were not successful in establishing any form of cooperation with the resistance in those cities. Wittenberg turned himself over to the Gestapo in order to save the lives of some hostages, and died after having been tortured.
After the first wave of large-scale deportations in Warsaw, three Zionist youth organizations--Ha-shomer Ha-tsair, Dror and Ha-noar Ha-ivri "Akiba", founded the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa [ZOB]) on July 28, 1942. It planned to organize self-defense if deportations were to begin again. Street fighting occurred for the first time on January 18, 1943, when the Germans entered the ghetto with the intention of deporting 8,000 people. Only Dror and Ha-shomer Ha-tsair participated in this action, during which several hundred people died. After four days of fighting, the Germans withdrew from the ghetto, but deported 5,000 people that had been rounded up, which set ZOB's preparations back several months.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising, which broke out on April 19, 1943, was the first instance of armed resistance in occupied Europe. The fighters, warned by the Polish underground about a planned deportation action, did not let themselves be taken by surprise. German detachments entered the ghetto and were attacked with machine gun fire, pistols, grenades and Molotov cocktails.
The heaviest fighting took place in the area of Nalewki and Zamenhof Streets, held by ZOB fighters, on the grounds of the brush-makers' shop, where the Bundists were fighting, and Muranów square, defended by the Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy (Jewish Military Union. After several days of fighting, the Jewish resistance weakened; for the most part, the fighting was done by small, isolated groups, resisting in buildings and bunkers. On May 8, the Germans surrounded the bunker that housed the ZOB headquarters at 18 Mila Street. The members of the uprising's leadership who were there, including M. Anielewicz, committed suicide. Scattered fighting continued until May 16, when the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue Templum on Tłomackie Street, which was supposed to symbolize their successful crushing of the uprising.
About 1,000 ill-equipped and untrained young people took part in the fighting. Over 2,000 soldiers of the Wehrmacht and SS participated, commanded by J. Stroop, equipped with tanks and artillery, supported by formations comprised of Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians. The Home Army detachment was supposed to support the insurgents, according to the original plan, proved unable to make it through the wall. Attempts by the People's Guard (Gwardia Ludowa, GL) detachment to enter the ghetto also failed. Several Polish fighters who managed to enter the ghetto also took part in the uprising.
Influenced by FPO emissaries from Wilno, underground activists in the Białystok ghetto managed to unite its political organizations. In the summer of 1942, "Block A" was founded (Ha-shomer Ha-tsir, and some Bundists and communists). In November 1942, M. Tenenbaum helped unite Dror, Ha-noar Ha-tsiyoni, Betaru and some of Ha-shomer Ha-tsair, creating "Block B". An attempt to cooperate with the Home Army was a fiasco.
In December 1942, a Jewish partisan group called "Judyta" ("Judith") began operating in the forests near Bialystok. In February 1943, during a deportation action, Block A made an attempt at defense; Block B refrained from participating.
This first armed confrontation in the Białystok ghetto brought large losses and did not hinder the deportation: two thousand people died, and 10,000 were sent to Treblinka.
In July 1943, the resistance movement united as one organization, led by M. Tenenbaum. His deputy was D. Moszkowicz (Polish Workers' Party).
On the night of August 15-16, 1943, a second large-scale deportation began. SS detachments, assisted by Ukrainian formations, surrounded the ghetto. All Jews were ordered to assemble on Jarowicka Street; from there, they were allegedly going to be transported to labor camps. Though the underground's leadership called for a boycott of the German orders, their appeals were ineffective.
About 300 people began fighting in an attempt to break through the German forces surrounding the ghetto, so that the civilian population could escape to the forest. Several days of skirmishes were unsuccessful. Most of those fighting were killed. Tenenbaum and Moszkowicz committed suicide. The Germans successfully carried out the liquidation action there.
Resistance developed in other ghettos as well. In Krakow, in mid-1942, a coalition was formed known as He-khaluts Ha-lokhem [Hebrew, "Fighting Pioneer", Polish name: Organizacja Bojowa Mlodziezy Chalucowej, "Khaluts Youth Combat Organization"]. It was headed by H. Bauminger (from Ha-shomer Ha-tsair), A. Liebeskind, S. Draenger, G. Draenger (representing Ha-noar Ha-ivri "Akiba") and A. Lejbowicz (from Dror).
He-khaluts was a small group of about 100 people, which limited their scope for action. It also organized actions outside the ghetto walls, primarily in hit and run attacks. In one such action, a German pilot and gendarme were shot. The "Todt" organization's garages were burned, along with its trucks. The Jewish fighters, together with a People's Guard detachment, took part in an action to detach the rails on the routes Krakow-Bochnia and Krakow-Katowice that led to Auschwitz.
The best-known action of the Krakow organization was throwing grenades into the German café "Cyganeria" on December 22, 1942, killing more than a dozen people. After that attack, many members were arrested and killed; most of the rest died during the final liquidation of the ghetto in March 1943.
In August 1943, the Germans began the liquidation of the ghetto in Bedzin. The underground organization, despite being small and badly armed, resisted for three days, holed up in three bunkers. In Czestochowa, three hundred people took part in the resistance, which from the summer of 1942 on was in communication with ZOB in Warsaw. In January 1943, they began fighting during another wave of deportations. Over 80% of those fighting died; the rest hid in the nearby forests.
In the smaller towns, escaping to the forest during the liquidation of the ghettos was as a rule Jews' only chance of survival. Attempts at armed resistance were seen only in a few towns, for example in Krzemieniec, Nieswiez and Tarnow, but these were swiftly crushed by the Germans.
If unable to find refuge in Polish homes, the Jews who managed to escape usually formed family camps in the forest. These were established beginning in the spring of 1942, primarily in eastern Galicia and in the Lublin district, more rarely in central Poland. Women with small children and older people found refuge there. Some of the camps grew to several hundred or even more than a thousand people. They were in contact with the Jewish partisans.
Within the Generalgouvernement, the largest family camp was in the Parczew forests, protected by J. Grynszpan's fifty-member partisan detachment. After that detachment was broken up in the spring of 1943, most of those who had been hiding there died.
In the eastern territories, in the Naliboki Forest, family camps were aided by a group of partisans led by T. Bielski that numbered approximately 1,200 people, and also by S. Zorin's detachment, which had about 800 members. Beginning in the spring of 1943, they were under the protection of Soviet partisan detachments.
In exchange for this protection and food, the Jews provided services, such as repairing weapons, sewing clothes and making shoes. The precise number of people who survived in family camps is not known. Of the several hundred thousand Jews who managed to escape to the forests in the Generalgouvernement, just 2,000 survived in partisan detachments and about 3,000 survived hiding independently.
According to estimates, about 25 to 30 Jewish partisan detachments, having from 20 to 50 people each, were fighting in the Lublin and Kielce districts and in the forests around Radom. Some of the most courageous partisan leaders were Grynszpan, A. Amsterdam, S. Gruber and S. Jegier. Some of these groups joined People's Guard (later People's Army) detachments.
Although the Home Army accepted Jews reluctantly, several hundred did fight in its ranks. Many more Jews fought in partisan groups in the eastern territories. Large groups of Jews, up to several hundred people, joined the Soviet partisans, whose leadership was generally not anti-Semitic. In the area of Belarus, from 12,000 to 15,000 Jews fought in both Jewish and Soviet detachments.
Some prominent partisan leaders in that area were Bielski, J. Atlas and H. Kapliński. In Volhynia, there were Jewish armed groups (M. Gildenman was one of their leaders), with a total of approximately 2,000 soldiers. In Lithuanian areas, the number of partisans was smaller, numbering approximately 850 people.
There was resistance even in the death camps, with armed revolts taking place in Treblinka and Sobibor. The revolt in Treblinka had been prepared several months before. Its starting date (August 28, 1943) was determined by preparations that were underway to liquidate the camp. Having made extra keys to the weapons storage in advance, those involved in the revolt succeeded in killing several guards and setting fire to barracks, which allowed prisoners to escape and hide in the nearby forests. The group of escapees was decimated as a result of the chase, manhunt, denunciations, cold and disease that followed. Of the 200 people who managed to escape, only 70 managed to survive the war.
In Sobibor, a revolt broke out on October 14, 1943. Three hundred people escaped after the killing of eleven SS-men and several Ukrainian guards. Only about fifty of the escapees survived.
In October 1944, members of the Jewish Sonderkommano at Auschwitz destroyed one of the gas chambers. All who had participated in this action were killed. During the camp's entire existence, a total of 667 people managed to escape, of which only a few were Jews.