Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Jewish Agency: Not Lambs to Slaughter, but Resisters

In almost a decade of teaching about the Holocaust in a variety of contexts, there is one comment and one question that always seem to be put forth. The one comment is always stated in a brave voice, "I would never have let the Nazis do that to me. I'd fight them." Along those same lines is the question, "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" It is clear that Jews fell victim to Nazi hatred, but it also needs to become clearer that they weren't simply led to slaughter without some resistance.  During the Holocaust, Jews created their own acts of resistance, both violent and non-violent.

The actions of partisans and residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were excellent examples of Jewish violent
"A Hanged Jewish Partisan". Photograph. United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Holocaust Encyclopedia.
20 June 2014. Web. 11 August 2014.
resistance to their almost guaranteed murder. The photograph (right) depicts a hanged Jewish partisan with a sign, translated, stating, "We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers." While the execution of this Jewish partisan is viewed as a loss to the resistance movement, the sign around his neck is one of defiance.  Both the people in the photograph's foreground and the soldiers in the back, as well as others, were witness this bold claim. The photograph makes clear that the partisans were determined to fight against Nazi aggression to preserve their own lives using violent force.

"Bandits Escape to Avoid Capture." Photograph. Yad Vashem.
Resistance in the Ghettos. 2014. Web. 11 August 2014.
In the same way that Jewish partisans used violence to fight the Third Reich, so did the Jews who were forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite being poorly supplied and organized, Jews resisted the Nazis' final effort to transport them to Treblinka. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a failure, but this does not undermine the fact that Jews violently resisted being sent to their deaths. The resistance to die on Nazi terms is captured in the photograph (left). Looking closely at the image, which was taken by a German soldier during the uprising, there is a man jumping from the burning building, right near the second story window. Rather than surrender to the more powerful Nazi forces, some of the resistance fighters chose to take their own lives. While it may appear cowardly to commit suicide, choosing to decide the time and situation of one's death in the face of organized persecution was an example of violently resisting the timeline set out by Hitler's totalitarian regime. Regardless of the fact that both the partisan and the ghetto fighter were victims of the Holocaust, they are also resisters. They are men who had agency and took action to fight against their oppressors.

Grunbaum, Michael or Marietta. "Celebrating Hanukkah".
Painting. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Holocaust Encyclopedia. 20 June 2014. Web. 11 August 2014.
In contrast to the violent actions that some Jewish groups employed, others chose to resist Nazi persecution in non-violent ways. One way that Jews resisted was to celebrate their religious holidays. The painting on the left is a child's depiction of Hanukkah, and the photograph below shows Jews baking matzahs for Passover despite being in hiding. The use of bright colours in the painting demonstrates the hopefulness the child holds that one day he or she will be free from Theresienstadt. Additionally, in the middle ground of the painting, there are many people sitting together enjoying each other's company, illustrating the optimism of family and friends surviving. In the foreground, there is a menorah, which functions as a source of light, and thus, is symbolic of hope that one day the Jews will  be free.

"Baking of Matzahs in Hiding." Photograph. Yad Vashem
"During the War." 2014. Web. 11 August 2014.
In addition to the optimism of the Hanukkah painting, Jews in hiding maintained their holiday traditions despite their dismal circumstances. Upon first looking at this photograph, the woman on the right stands out. She is looking directly at the photographer with a shy smile. Although her freedom was limited, she resisted the Nazi plan to demoralize the Jewish population. Despite the challenging circumstances, she maintains her connection to her religious and cultural traditions. The matzahs in the photograph operate an a symbol of overcoming suffering, as Passover commemorates the Jewish people's freedom from slavery. Baking the Matzahs was a symbolic way for the hiding Jews to express their hope that, like their ancestors, they will one day be free. Both this photograph and the Hanukkah painting demonstrate Jewish non-violent resistance to Nazi persecution. The act of creating art and baking matzahs allowed Jews to have control over their lives and maintain a sense of hope that they would survive.

In essence, it is much too simple to look at Jews as solely victims of the Holocaust and ignore the violent and non-violent acts of resistance they took to fight for freedom and keep their spirits buoyed.

Dissecting the Essay:

1. What do you notice about the title?
2. What is the thesis of the photo essay?
3. What are the sub-topics of the essay? How is the essay organized?
4. What textual elements are used to support the thesis of the essay?
5. What do you notice about the images?

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