During World War II, Jewish resistance fighters launched attacks, created underground networks, led rescue missions and documented their experiences at great personal risk. But though historians have ample evidence of such acts of defiance, the idea that Europe’s Jews didn’t fight back against the Nazis persists. Now, a new exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London seeks to honor these individuals’ largely unheralded contributions.
“Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust” draws on documents, artifacts and survivor testimonies, many of which were gathered by library researchers during the 1950s. The show tells the stories of Jewish partisans in the Soviet Union, organized resistance in concentration camps and ghettos, and individual instances of bravery, among other topics.
“Sometimes the view that people have is that the Jews didn’t really resist, and people have commented on ‘why wasn’t there more resistance?’” senior curator Barbara Warnock tells the Guardian’s Caroline Davies. “But in these incredibly extreme circumstances there are just so many examples of resistance, even in the most desperate situations.”
One of the individuals featured in the exhibition is Tosia Altman, a young woman who used fake “Aryanized” papers to smuggle herself into Poland’s ghettos. As a member of the social Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair, Altman invaded ghettos, organized resistance groups, spread information and moved weapons, reports Michelle Desmet for Dutch newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. At just 24 years old, she participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but was captured and died of her injuries shortly thereafter.
“Her story is quite amazing,” says Warnock to the Guardian. “And she was typical of a lot of the resisters in camps and ghettos. She was quite young, and managed to obtain papers indicating she was just Polish rather than Jewish Polish, allowing her to move around occupied Poland.”
In concentration camps, some prisoners undermined Nazi efforts to eradicate their culture by continuing religious practices and education. As Warnock explains in a video published by the library, diaries served as one of the most explicit ways in which individuals could “keep a sense of their humanity” and document Jewish experiences.
Philipp Manes, a German Jew incarcerated in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, kept extensive diaries throughout his life. Now preserved in the library’s collection, Manes’ writings provide documentation of cultural life in the ghetto prior to his deportation to Auschwitz in October 1944. The library also owns a trove of poems, letters and drawings made by Manes’ fellow prisoners.
Other forms of resistance highlighted in the exhibition were more overt. Filip Müller, for instance, smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Auschwitz-Birkenau while working as a member of the Sonderkommando, or units of Jewish prisoners assigned to the gas chambers and crematoria. Berlin resident Herbert Baum, meanwhile, started the anti-Nazi, pro-communism Baum Group in the 1930s. When he was forced to work at a factory in 1940, Baum recruited other young forced laborers, expanding the group’s membership to around 100 people.
In May 1942, the Baum Group led an arson attack against the Soviet Paradise, an anti-communist, anti-Semitic exhibition that attempted to justify the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Many involved in the bombing—including Baum himself—were arrested and executed. Some of those who managed to escape later offered personal accounts of their experiences to the Wiener Library.
“Whether we’re talking about a quiet act of bravery or a bold act of rebellion, these stories really leap off the page,” says the library’s director, Toby Simpson, in the video, “and the reason for that often is that they were gathered either during the time of the Holocaust or in the years that immediately followed. The Wiener Library’s head of research, Eva Reichmann, gathered over a thousand testimonies in the 1950s, and many of those stories are featured in this exhibition for the first time.”
“Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust” is on view at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London from August 6 to November 30.