The Jewish armed resistance movement during the Holocaust (1939–1945) was an unprecedented phenomenon. The enslaved Jewish population, facing annihilation, had no effective means to fight off their aggressors. Thus the Jewish armed underground organizations in dozens of East European ghettos did not see armed resistance primarily as a way to save lives. Instead, they sought what they regarded as the most honorable death possible. Even if their armed struggle was only symbolic, the Nazi murder campaign demanded active response.
Wounded partisan being treated in a field hospital belonging to the Shish detachment of the Molotov partisan brigade, made up mostly of escaped Soviet prisoners of war, near Pinsk, ca. 1943. First from left, Fanya Lazebnik, a Jewish woman from Leningrad who served as a nurse and fighter with the brigade. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Jews formed armed resistance groups only after they realized there was no possible escape from the Nazis’ aim of total annihilation. This realization came no earlier than late 1941. One of the first groups was the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsie (United Partisan Organization; FPO) of the Vilna ghetto, established in January 1942. Members of this group, led by Abba Kovner, attempted to arouse Jews throughout Eastern Europe to undertake armed resistance. They were unable to generate an uprising within the Vilna ghetto, although a few hundred FPO fighters escaped to the Rudniki and Narocz forests, where they engaged in partisan warfare. In July 1944, they participated in the liberation of Vilna. The experience of the Anti-Fascist Organization founded in the Kovno ghetto in July 1942 was similar. Another resistance organization that produced partisan fighters was established in the Minsk ghetto in late 1941 and conducted a wide range of rescue activities. It succeeded in releasing thousands of unarmed ghetto residents, including children, into the forests, as well as supplying combatants for seven regional partisan units.
In contrast to these ghettos, which had formerly been under Soviet rule, resistance in Warsaw was aimed at staging an uprising in the ghetto itself. In March 1942, after information was received about mass killings at Ponar, near Vilna, and about the establishment of the Chełmno killing center, the Antifascist Bloc—a coalition of left-wing Zionist groups and Jewish Communists—was formed. The bloc tried unsuccessfully to acquire weapons, and it disbanded in May when its Communist leaders were arrested.
On 28 July 1942, six days after the beginning of mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka, three Zionist youth movements established Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization; ŻOB); Bundists and Communists joined later. The Revisionist Zionists set up their own organization, Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (Jewish Military Union; ŻZW). When the Nazis renewed deportations to Treblinka on 18 January 1943, these two organizations opened fire, even though they had few usable weapons. After three days, the Nazis unexpectedly ceased deportations. The Jewish underground took advantage of this respite to expedite preparations for the uprising, which began on 19 April 1943, when German forces sought to liquidate the ghetto entirely.
Poet and partisan Abba Kovner after the fall of Vilna to the Red Army, 1944. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Vitka Kempner Kovner)
The rebels in the Warsaw ghetto responded with aggressive force. Despite the vastly superior military capability of the German army, the battle lasted for weeks. This extended ghetto revolt echoed loudly across occupied Europe and emboldened Jewish resistance fighters. On 8 May, the commander of the rebel forces, Mordekhai Anielewicz, fell in battle. After his death, scores of rebels escaped from the ghetto, establishing a partisan unit that operated in the Wyszków forest.
Inspired by the Warsaw example, other Jewish fighting organizations arose in several ghettos across occupied Poland. These organizations usually united Zionists, Bundists, and Communists. In Białystok, an uprising erupted on 16 August 1943. Most of the rebels, including their leader, Mordekhai Tenenbaum-Tamaroff, fell in the ensuing battle, but some escaped the ghetto and continued the partisan struggle outside the town. In Częstochowa, a local fighting organization under the command of Mordekhai Zylberberg led an armed uprising on 25 June 1943. Here too most fighters, including the commander, were killed in battle, but a portion managed to leave the ghetto and join the partisans. In Będzin and Sosnowiec, armed uprisings took place on 1 August 1943, and in Tarnów on 1 September. In Brody in eastern Galicia, the Jewish Fighting Organization fought against German forces and Ukrainian collaborators on 17 May 1943. There too, many rebels managed to flee the ghetto and continue partisan fighting in the surrounding area. In Kraków, the Jewish Fighting Organization decided against staging an uprising inside the ghetto. Instead, it took the struggle into the “Aryan” part of the city. Members attacked German targets, most famously on 22 December 1942, when they raided Cyganeria, a nightclub frequented by German soldiers.
Uprisings also took place in a number of smaller ghettos and small towns. The best known occurred in Kleck (21 July 1942), Nieśwież (22 July 1942), Mir (9 August 1942), Lachwa (3 September 1942), Kremenets (9 September 1942), and Tuchin (23 September 1942). On 25 October 1941, Jews in Starodubsk Tatarsk in the Smolensk region of Russia opened fire on German troops. In the ensuing battles all the Jewish fighters died.
Partizaner geyen (Partisans on the Move), by Shmerke Kaczerginski (Bamberg, Ger.: Mifkadah ha-rashit fun der Histadrut partizanim-ḥayalim-ḥalutsim P.H.H. in Daytshland, 1948; 2nd ed.). (YIVO)
Often the killing centers became active battlefields, even though it was extraordinarily difficult to obtain weapons and almost impossible to conduct planning meetings. Still, uprisings by Jewish prisoners took place in Treblinka (2 August 1943), Sobibór (14 October 1943), and Auschwitz (7 October 1944). Revolts also occurred in 18 forced labor camps.
Between 1942 and 1944, some 100 Jewish partisan units were active in Belorussia, western Ukraine, and eastern Poland. Some acted independently; others eventually joined forces with local Soviet partisans or the Polish left. Certain characteristics distinguished Jewish partisans from their gentile counterparts. All of the former had fled ghettos or camps, and many had been members of an underground organization. Unlike other partisans, who could blend into the local population and be assisted by their fellow countrymen, Jewish partisans could not be helped by the local Jewish population, since the overwhelming majority had by then been annihilated by the Nazis. Jewish partisans thus often found themselves battling not only Germans but also a hostile local population. Also, Jewish partisans were additionally involved in rescue activities.
Several family camps were established in Jewish partisan bases; these offered a safe haven for thousands of ghetto refugees, including the elderly and children. The most famous of these was the unit commanded by the Bielski brothers—Tuvia, Zusia, and Asael. The Bielski family camp in the Naliboki forest near Nowogródek was home to 1,200 Jews who survived until the area was liberated. It was the largest rescue operation accompanying armed resistance activity. In the Parczew forest, east of Lublin, a Jewish partisan unit commanded by Yeḥi’el Grynszpan maintained a family camp where 400 Jews found refuge. On 25 July 1944, after two years of battle, Grynszpan’s partisans entered Lublin together with soldiers from the Polish and Red armies. The inhabitants of his family camp also survived. The Jewish partisan unit commanded by Avraham (Adolf) Braun, which fought for two years in the Janów forest south of Lublin, met a different fate: this unit and its adjoining family camp were destroyed in mid-June 1944, a mere two weeks before the area was liberated. Such was the lot of most of the Jewish partisan units and of their adjoining family camps.
Among the Jewish partisan units established by those who fled from ghettos and camps, the best known was Abba Kovner’s, which consisted of former members of the Vilna and Kovno undergrounds. Two units, one under the command of Yeḥezkel Atlas, the other under Hirsh Kaplinsky, fought in the Lipiczansk forest near Słonim and had outstanding successes. Atlas fell in battle on 5 December 1942, becoming a legend among his fellow fighters. Mosheh Gildenman was another famous Jewish partisan. He led a large unit in Volhynia, which fought with the Soviet partisan military division of General Aleksandr Saburov.
One of the most dramatic partisan operations of World War II was carried out by a relatively small Jewish unit under Yehudah Amsterdam, which operated independently in the Dolcza forest near Kraków. On 26 November 1944, with the Red Army encamped a few kilometers away, the partisans attacked German forward positions, breached the enemy lines, and entered the area under Soviet command.
March commemorating the sixth anniversary of the uprising in the Białystok ghetto, Białystok, 1949. (YIVO)
Perhaps 20,000–30,000 Jews fought in various Soviet partisan units. Many were soldiers who had escaped from prisoner camps. About 1,000 Jews, including veterans of the Jewish Fighting Organization under the command of Yitsḥak Zuckerman, participated in the Polish Warsaw uprising that erupted on 1 August 1944. Other Jewish units that participated in the uprising included the International Jewish Brigade, composed mainly of inmates from the Gęsia camp who had joined the rebels after they liberated themselves on 5 August 1944, and a platoon under the command of Shmuel Koenigswein. Among the many Jews who distinguished themselves in the uprising was Edwin Rozlubirski, who later attained the rank of general in the Polish Army.
Roughly 2,500 Jews participated in the Slovak uprising on 28 August 1944; some 500 lost their lives. Taking part was a Jewish regiment whose fighters were formerly inmates of the Novaki forced labor camp. To assist the rebels, four paratroopers from the Land of Israel, including Ḥavivah Reik, parachuted into Slovakia.
More than 4,000 Jews took part in partisan warfare in Yugoslavia; 1,318 fell in battle. On 8 September 1943, the recently liberated inmates of the Raab forced labor camp came together to form a Jewish artisans brigade under the command of David Kabilio. It later joined the Yugoslav partisan movement. Eleven Jews who distinguished themselves in partisan warfare were named as Yugoslav national heroes.
Hannah Fryshdorf, a participant in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, amid the ruins of the ghetto, ca. 1945. Fryshdorf, a member of Tsukunft, the youth movement of the Bund, immigrated to the United States and eventually became the assistant director of the YIVO Institute. (YIVO)
In the end, armed resistance was an option available to relatively few Jews, mainly to the young who were physically fit. By the time mass deportations came and Jews found themselves with their backs to the walls, months and years of living under the harsh ghetto regime had reduced the numbers capable of fighting to a minimum. Other obstacles to armed resistance presented themselves as well: Jews lacked a core of potential leaders with a military command background. Arms were scarce and could be obtained only with great difficulty. Non-Jewish underground groups were often hard-pressed for arms themselves and were thus unwilling to divert their own limited supplies to Jewish efforts.
Even in the ghettos themselves, armed resistance movements were often unpopular because they seemed to put the lives of other ghetto inhabitants at risk. Most Jews preferred strategies aimed at saving lives, however impossible they might be, to taking arms in hand, which promised only a hero’s death and hastened the end. Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that armed resistance was a minority phenomenon among Jews. Actually, it is remarkable that its dimensions were as widespread as they were.
Yitzhak Arad, Toldot ha-sho’ah: Berit ha-Mo‘atsot veha-shetaḥim ha-mesupaḥim, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 2004); Shalom Cholawski, Meri ve-loḥamah partizanit: Yehude Byelorusyah be-milḥemet ha-‘olam ha-sheniyah (Jerusalem, 2001); Shmuel Krakowski, The War of the Doomed: Jewish Armed Resistance in Poland, 1942–1944, trans. Orah Blaustein (New York, 1984).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler