Think of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the world’s most notorious killing ground, and most people will picture emaciated Jews destined for the gas chambers.
Few will recall that on Oct. 7, 1944, inmates smuggled gunpowder into the camp and destroyed one of its crematoria, consuming three Nazi officers in the fires they had intended for Jews.
The death camp at Treblinka is notorious for having killed between 700,000 and 1 million Jews. But the story of a 1943 revolt by some 600 inmates has barely been told.
During the crucial years of genocide, 1941-45, such stories were rare. Most Jewish victims were too weak, too dispirited and, in many cases, filled with denial about their incomprehensible fate to resist.
But they happened regularly enough to paint a picture of a fierce, fighting spirit in the face of unspeakable horror and insurmountable odds that has largely gone unnoticed. From the camps and ghettos to the forests of White Russia and even in the heart of Berlin, Jews organized to strike back against their oppressors.
"In practically every ghetto and every camp there were acts of resistance," says George Torodash, who is writing a biography of Joseph Greenblatt, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, the best-known act of Holocaust rebellion.
A state parole officer from Queens with a passionate interest in Jewish resistance, Torodash has collected numerous volumes and articles on the subject.
"There were about 10 million Jews in Europe," he says. "Half of them were women, who at that time had no training or background in fighting. About one-third of [the remainder] were of fighting age. Take away from that those who were sick or crippled. In most armies, only one out of three are ready for combat."
That leaves some 500,000 potential Jewish "soldiers" scattered across Europe and the Soviet Union says Torodash, most with no military training or equipment, with no central command or means of communication. "Under those circumstances, it’s amazing that there was any resistance at all," he says.
But resist they did. The 1967 book "They Fought Back," by Yuri Suhl, lists numerous little-known cases in which partisans, deportees or prisoners, using captured weapons, sticks and stones or even their bare hands struck back against their tormentors.
They include uprisings in the ghettoes of Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystok and the villages of Lachwa and Tuczyn and revolts and escapes at the Treblinka and Sobibor camps in Poland. In August 1943, some 150-200 Jews escaped Treblinka, and some 400 from Sobibor in October, 1943. (Few of the escapees survived the war, however.)
The book also tells of an active Jewish underground in Berlin led by Herbert Baum between 1937 and 1942, which conducted political resistance, sabotage and the rescue of Jews. Its greatest feat was destroying an anti-Soviet propaganda exhibit by Joseph Goebbels. Twenty-seven members were ultimately captured and executed.
Another book, "Fighting Back," a 1992 memoir by Harold Werner, details the rescue of Jews from the Wlodawa ghetto and numerous partisan raids on the Germans.
Perhaps the largest Jewish partisan group was led by brothers Tuvia, Alexander and Assael Bielsky in Belorussia, who waged war against the Nazis and their collaborators and rescued some 1,200 Jews. Their exploits are recounted in "Defiance: The Bielsky Partisans," a 1994 account by Nechama Tec.
A recent spate of movies about the Holocaust (including the Oscar-winners "Schindler’s List" and "Life is Beautiful," and previous films such as "Triumph of the Spirit" and "Europa, Europa") have centered on Jews being rescued by gentiles, persevering in the camps or eluding capture. The stories of rescuers such as German industrialist Oskar Schindler and diplomats Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Chiune Sugihara of Japan are well known.
But there has not been a major feature film about Jews taking their destiny into their own hands, and such accounts seem destined to remain footnotes. Even the unlikely story of Jewish partisan fighter Hannah Senesh, who escaped from Europe to Palestine and later returned to help liberate Jews, has not been widely told outside of Jewish lore and a biography, "Blessed Is The Match," by Marie Sirkin.
"The media have either overlooked or chosen not to tell the story of Jewish resistance," says Professor William Shulman, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Queensborough Community College. "They resisted in a variety of ways, not only in terms of armed resistance but spiritual resistance and passive resistance. But probably in the eyes of those who make these [films], it is far more dramatic a story to tell about non-Jews than Jews."
Greenblatt, the Warsaw Ghetto fighter, now 83 and living in Anaheim, Calif., says he often finds that people who are otherwise knowledgeable about the Holocaust know little about Jewish resistance. A member of the Anti-Defamation Leagueís speakers bureau, he frequently recalls his tale of the uprising to students.
"When I speak to the kids in high school, their eyes open in amazement when they learn that Jews fought back," says Greenblatt.
Although the Warsaw uprising is legendary (several books have been written, and the story was a component of the 1978 NBC miniseries "Holocaust") the tenacity with which it was fought may not be fully known. The miniseries, one of the first popular-culture treatments of the Nazi genocide, showed a handful of fighters who eventually surrendered. Greenblatt insists the resistance was widespread and far-reaching, involving numerous factions: none of whom surrendered.
"There were no white flags," says Greenblatt, a retired travel agent and American organizer for Israel’s Likud party. "The only flags were the red and white Polish flag and the flag of Zion," which later became Israel’s flag.
Greenblatt’s faction, the Jewish Military Organization, had more than 100 members, 18 of whom fled the ghetto after the conflict, and only two of whom remain alive, himself included.
Aside from the Holocaust miniseries, there was also a 1987 CBS TV movie about the revolt and escape at Sobibor, and there have been several documentaries about resistance. The subject is also covered extensively in exhibits at the Holocaust museums in New York, Washington and Jerusalem.
But some are convinced that only a major film about Jewish resistance will put the subject into the cultural mainstream, the way Steven Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List" made Righteous Gentiles a household term.
Descendants of the Bielsky brothers have been hard at work pitching a film about their partisan parents. "This story definitely should be told," says Tzvi Bielsky, son of Alexander Zusa Bielsky, who died several years ago in New York. "Schindler was a Nazi, but these were three farm boys who knew how to fire shotguns and had one pair of shoes between them."
The rights to Nechama Tec’s 1994 book, "Defiance: The Bielsky Partisans," have recently been sold to an independent producer, while Tzvi Bielsky is making his own pitches to Hollywood.
Torodash believes the dearth of knowledge of Jewish resistance stems from a Nazi attempt to conceal such acts. "The stories of Jews passively walking to their deaths in the camps were mostly gleaned from German sources," he says. "They didn’t want to report resistance to their superiors. It wasn’t until much later that many of the survivors and historians began to do more research on the other side of the picture, the fantastic Jewish fight."
A roundup of new books on the Holocaust, page 32.