Sunday, February 9, 2014

Revolt or Rescue? Jewish Dilemmas from the Holocaust

Dr. David Silberklang
"From Warsaw, desperate letters arrived from those still alive. They advised us not to follow their lead; to save ourselves so that at least a small remnant of the movement would survive. Zivia and Antek said that it was a pity for all the blood that had been shed. A telegram arrived from Tabenkin: 'Pursue all paths to rescue.' However, we did not agree. We did not wish to live at the price of the death of our comrades in Warsaw; we did not wish to cower in the shadow of their glory."
From Chajka Klinger’s, “The [Movement] Branch in Będzin,” in Avihu Ronen, “The Cable That Vanished,” Yad Vashem Studies, 41:2 (2013)
Why did Jews attempt revolt in some places and circumstances, yet pursue different avenues in others? What were the goals of attempts at revolts? Were they the same in each place?
Marking the 70th anniversary of various Jewish uprisings during the Holocaust this past year, among them the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April-May 1943) and the revolts in Treblinka (2 August 1943) and Sobibór (14 October 1943), has highlighted these basic questions. Jews grappled with insoluble dilemmas during the Holocaust, both in trying to grasp the Nazis’ intentions and in thinking of what to do in response. Naturally, people faced with a death threat try to save their lives. But at what point did Jews recognize that they faced certain death? And if a rescue attempt was to be considered, whom should they try to rescue? Communal rescue, or even family rescue, was impossible in almost all cases, and individual rescue seemed equally impossible. Attempting to rescue oneself often meant abandoning loved ones, friends and the community, whereas attempting to organize a communal revolt seemed to be a symbolic, suicidal act for the community. These were the kinds of human dilemmas that exercised the late Prof. Israel Gutman and to the understanding of which he contributed so much.

Many of the revolt attempts in Eastern Europe had interconnections. The armed undergrounds in Warsaw, Bialystok and Będzin maintained contact with each other, and among the rebels in Treblinka were Jews from the first two cities, while the German staff at Sobibór was concerned that the Jews working there would hear about the revolts in Treblinka and in the various ghettos and then attempt the same in Sobibór.
The new issue of Yad Vashem Studies (41:2) addresses questions of facing death and of rescue and revolt regarding Będzin, Sobibór and Warsaw. Avihu Ronen presents a fascinating story hidden from the public eye for decades – the dispute regarding revolt and rescue between socialist Zionist leaders in Eretz Israel and socialist Zionist youth movement and underground leaders in the Będzin ghetto in Poland. Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, leaders in Eretz Israel cabled the underground leaders in Będzin, urging them to save themselves and abandon the idea of revolt. But as Chajka Klinger, the Hashomer Hatzair leader in Będzin who received the telegram, wrote in her diary, the underground rejected trying to save themselves in abandonment of the community and of their ideals. The telegram sheds light both on the sometimes radically different perspectives of people in the midst of the murder vs. people outside, as well as on the development of Holocaust remembrance in Israel.
In order to unravel some of the mystery of Sobibór's story and the memory of its victims, Yoram Haimi and Wojciech Mazurek have undertaken a new approach to Holocaust research – archaeological excavations. They have successfully determined the actual layout of most of the camp – the camouflaged path along which the victims were driven to the gas chambers, the mass burial pits, and more – as well as numerous artifacts, including pendants and children’s name tags of Dutch Jewish children who arrived in the camp with their parents in summer 1943, that help us better understand the life and death of the Jews who arrived there. Some of those Dutch Jews participated in the uprising in October.
Through these articles, as well Antony Polonsky’s review on an important new book by Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum on the true role of the Betar-led ŻZW armed underground in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, historical truth has been retrieved from an obscured past, and in the process a new light is shed on the heartrending, utter impossibility for Jews to rescue large numbers of people in Poland during the Holocaust, and on the insurmountable difficulties facing efforts at revolt.

Yad Vashem Studies 41:2 (2013) has just been published.  For more information, contact:; this article originally appeared in Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine vol. 72, now online:

The author is Senior Historian, International Institute for Holocaust Research, and Editor-in-Chief of Yad Vashem Studies.