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2011 Observance Holocaust Remembrance Day

Screening of the film "Daring to Resist"
25 January 2011

Remarks by Ms. Bonnie Gurewitsch, Archivist/Curator, Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, NYC

One of the questions teachers of Holocaust Studies hear frequently is – “Why didn’t they fight back?” The answer is that there was an enormous amount of fighting back – but we have to understand just what it meant to fight against the Nazis during the Holocaust. What options were available to an unarmed civilian population against the most heavily armed, technologically advanced armies in Europe, who had the tactical advantage of the aggressor, and the cooperation, if not collaboration, of most of the occupied countries?

One common theme in the film that we just saw is the young age of the resisters. They were teenagers, 16 – 19 years old, old enough to accept the unprecedented information that Nazi occupation and policies would result in the murder of Jews, but young enough to take life-threatening risks to resist them. We also see how the situation was interpreted differently by the girls and by their parents, and how family relationships and responsibilities influenced decision-making.

In Western Europe, where organized civilian resistance organizations would cooperate with Jews, we see Barbara Rodbell and other Jewish teenagers working with the Dutch Resistance to hide Jews, to resist the Nazi news blackout by listening to clandestine Allied radio broadcasts and informing the civilian population of accurate news, and to provide Jews with false documents. Seeking out accurate information and disseminating it was one form of resistance; hiding and protecting Jews from deportations was another.

 In Eastern Europe Jews had fewer options. In addition to the Nazi enemy, Jews often had to face local enemies, anti-Semites who fought the Jews as well as the Nazis. In Poland and in Hungary Jews who resisted were largely on their own, except for Jews with special skills that were needed by the local resistance groups, such as the medical skills that the Russian partisans attributed to Faye Schulman.

Another important difference between eastern and western Europe is their geography. In the Netherlands there were no dense forests in which to hide and take cover, like in eastern Poland, no swamps to serve as a physical buffer zone between partisan fighters and the enemy. In urbanized western Europe resisters had to use false documents and assumed identities, usually with the assistance of sympathetic or unsuspecting non-Jews.

Another geographic factor, which Shulamith Lack used, was location. Hungary was close enough to neutral territory for the Zionist youth groups to smuggle small groups of young people border across borders to Romania or Yugoslavia. Several such “underground railway” routes smuggled Jews to ports on the Black Sea, where fortunate refugees could board ships for Palestine. The Zionists called this effort “tiyul,” the Hebrew word for hike, or excursion, an ironic comment on this very dangerous effort, which successfully rescued some six to nine thousand Jews from Nazi occupied territory.

Jewish women resisters faced particular challenges simply because they were women. In a wartime situation women were often viewed as legitimate spoils of war. Jewish women posing as non-Jews sometimes had to defend themselves against unwanted advances. On the other hand, since the Nazis and their collaborators did not expect Jewish women to be resisters, they often assumed their innocence and ignored them, which offered an advantage. In the forest, however, women in most non-Jewish partisan groups were tolerated only as consorts for the men. They usually had no weapons and didn’t fight. Faye, who quickly acquired medical skills, was needed, and therefore accepted as an equal, even participating in raids and missions.

In Daring to Resist we see Jewish women who participated in resistance in a variety of ways – finding hiding places for Jews and disseminating information for the Dutch Resistance, hiding Jews and providing them with false identities in Hungary, leading them in escape to Romania, fighting the Nazis with a gun and medical skills in Belorussia, as well as documenting the Holocaust and resistance for posterity, resisting with a camera.

So instead of the very simple question which students might ask us, this film raises a more profound question –considering the circumstances, how is it that there was so much and such varied Jewish resistance?