As unspeakably horrific as it was, the Holocaust still fascinates researchers and readers alike. In some ways this is a good thing, as this fascination keeps the story of the Holocaust alive, thereby helping to serve the important mandate to “never forget”.
Perhaps unwittingly, though, by focusing on Jews’ vast suffering, much of the material devoted to the Holocaust tends to cast them as passive victims. This focus naturally lends itself to questions about resistance: why didn’t the Jews resist? Why did they go, as the story goes, “like sheep to the slaughter”?
Sociologist Nechama Tec is well aware of these questions, as they confront her every time she presents her work on the Holocaust. Here, she seeks to dispel the myth of Jewish passivity once and for all by demonstrating that Jews did indeed resist their Nazi oppressors.
That this myth persists must be especially maddening to Tec, who has written a number of important works detailing such acts of resistance. Notably, she is the author of Defiance (2008), a book about Jewish partisans that was made into a major motion picture starring Daniel Craig.
With her latest work, she offers yet again to the book-reading public a well-documented presentation of Jewish resistance. Rather than focusing on a particular place, however, this treatise is much broader, illustrating the resistance in all its many forms. The range of acts is considerable. Beyond well-known instances such as the famed Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, she shows that Jews also performed numerous acts intended as resistance – a concept Tec defines as “a set of activities motivated by the desire to thwart, limit, undermine, or end the exercise of oppression over the oppressed”. Included in this category are things such as smuggling food into the ghettos rather than opting to starve at the hands of the Nazis; preserving documents to tell the story of European Jews for future generations; smuggling oneself into a ghetto in order to be able to provide eyewitness accounts of the atrocities therein; and delivering fatal morphine shots to hospital patients so that they need not die at the hands of Nazi soldiers. She devotes an entire chapter to the activities of couriers, both Jewish and Gentile, who aided resistance fighters by transporting documents, arms and money. Readers may be interested to learn that these roles were almost exclusively played by women (as Jewish men would be too easily identified in strip-searches), who performed some of the most dangerous yet important acts of resistance.
Refreshingly non-jargony and full of (understandably) powerful and tragic illustrations, Resistance draws on documented sources as well as Tec’s own interviews with survivors. The individuals described include men and women, religious and assimilated, military and civilian, from all economic classes. No reader can help but be fascinated by their stories. In all honesty, though, I don’t believe that a historian or other academic whose work focuses on the Holocaust is likely to find new insights here. (That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to learn about the Holocaust, mind you. Researchers are constantly finding new sources that provide further details about the workings of this system of atrocity.) However, Holocaust scholars are not really Tec’s primary audience, as they already know that Jews resisted. She is clear that she writes this book for a general audience in order to demonstrate that Jews did indeed resist. Undoubtedly, she has achieved her goal. Let’s hope that people get the message this time.
Resistance: Jews and Christians Who Defied the Nazi Terror
By Nechama Tec
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £16.99
Published 22 August 2013