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
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 Muran�w 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 T�omackie 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 Bia�ystok 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
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 Bia�ystok 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'
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
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 caf� "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
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
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)
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. Kapli�ski. 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.