About a month ago I wrote here on the blog about the White Rose student essay contest, sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. As I've done several times in the past, I served this year as one of the preliminary judges.
The contest this year was focused on the issue of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and in their essays students were asked to include and remark on this comment by Holocaust historian, Lucy Dawidowicz: “The wonder is not that there was so little resistance, but that, in the end, there was so much.”
Over the years, as you might well imagine, there has been plenty of discussion and debate about how much the Jews whom the Nazi regime was trying to murder resisted the Holocaust. The Dawidowicz quote represents one view of that, and resistance certainly took many forms other than armed revolt, which rarely happened.
But hers is not the only view, and I've been thinking about the different opinions about Jewish resistance as I've been reading the powerful account of the Holocaust by the late University of Vermont scholar Raul Hilberg, who grew up a Jew in Vienna as the Nazi regime came to power.
At least in tone, Hilberg's conclusion about the extent and effectiveness of Jewish resistance differs from that of Dawidowicz, and I thought it would be worth sharing his view with you given that in the previous post about Jewish resistance I shared something of at least the tone of the Dawidowicz quote.
Here is some of what Hilberg writes in his three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in the early 1960s, later revised in the mid-1980s and revised a final time in the early 2000s:
"The Jews attempted to tame the Germans as one would attempt to tame a wild beast. They avoided 'provocations' and complied instantly with decrees and orders. They hoped that somehow the German drive would spend itself. This hope was founded in a 2,000-year-old experience. (Tammeus note: For an account of those centuries of anti-Jewish persecution in Christian history, see my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.) In exile the Jews had always been a minority, always in danger, but they had learned that they could avert or survive destruction by placating and appeasing their enemies. Even in ancient Persia an appeal by Queen Esther was more effective than the mobilization of an army. Armed resistance in the face of overwhelming force could end only in disaster.
"Thus over a period of centuries the Jews had learned that in order to survive they had to refrain from resistance. Time and again they were attacked. They endured the Crusades, the Cossack uprisings, and the czarist persecution. There were many casualties in these times of stress, but always the Jewish community emerged once again like a rock from a receding tidal wave. The Jews had never really been annihilated. After surveying the damage, the survivors always proclaimed in affirmation of their strategy the triumphant slogan, 'The Jewish people lives (Am Israel Chai).' This experience was so ingrained in the Jewish consciousness as to achieve the force of law. The Jewish people could not be annihilated.
"Only in 1942, 1943, and 1944 did the Jewish leadership realize that, unlike the pogroms of past centuries, the modern machinelike destruction process would engulf European Jewry. But the realization came too late. A 2,000-year-old lesson could not be unlearned; the Jews could not make the switch. They were helpless."
Perhaps the debate about how much the Jews resisted the Holocaust will go on forever, and no doubt any satisfactory answer must be nuanced.
But the question for all of us now is how we might react in future crises knowing that an allegedly civilized nation in Western Europe once really did try to murder an entire people. One hopes that resistance would emerge more quickly and with greater force than it did in World War II, when this murderous plot was so huge as to be unthinkable and, thus, unbelievable -- until, as Hilberg writes, it was too late.
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WHERE RELIGIOUS LIBERTY IS ANATHEMA
One of the inevitable drawbacks to living in a country in which there is essentially no religious freedom is that censorship is not far behind. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, where the practice of only Islam is allowed, a newspaper editor has resigned because his paper published an opinion piece criticizing Salafism, a form of Islam from which is derived Wahhabism, the kind of puritanical Islam favored by the House of Saud, which runs the kingdom. Some day, I hope, Saudi Arabia's leadership will recognize that Islam is strong enough to stand on its own and take criticism without needing to be babied by officialdom there. As things stand now, Islam there looks weak and in need of such protection.