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"Correct me if I’m wrong… but how many Jews actually knew for a fact that they were being sent to extermination camps? I’m sure many Jews would have fought back if they knew there was a 100% chance that they and their family would have been killed. But while shooting a Nazi and then being gunned down might have been a better way to die than the fate that many of them actually suffered, they weren’t to know that and a kamikaze attempt to ’take some of the Nazis with them’ would have led to certain death. In that situation, even if I knew I was heading to a concentration camp, I would hang onto life as much as possible, hoping for a reprieve or some miracle to happen.
I wouldn’t sentence my family (and who knows how many others in reprisals) to death when there was a chance however small that they would survive. "Also you have to take into account how the news would have been taken. I’m sure Nazi propagandists would have loved to see Aryan German officers gunned down by the Jews because it would have justified their actions and their call for stronger action to be taken. The whole Reichstag debacle was designed to justify the Nazis’s actions against the Jews as the polluters of Aryanism, it would have been playing into Hitler’s hands to have the Jews take up arms against the Germans when the average German was totally unaware of the atrocities being committed."
I am not any kind of expert on the Holocaust, unfortunately. There is, however, a lot of documentation that the Jews and the non-Jews in Germany did know about the concentration camps … and the fact that most people who went to the camps never came back. (See the book by Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness (Holmes & Meier, 1981)).
One source for my information is Richard Lawrence Miller’s book, Nazi Justiz: Law of the Holocaust (Praeger, 1995), at p. 129. Miller documents how the property of Jews -- practically all of it -- would be confiscated by the government and then sold off to non-Jews. The non-Jews knew that the Jews were being sent away forever … and the non-Jews eagerly profited from it. Miller wrote: "Fifty years later historians debated whether Aryans knew what happened to Jews who left their property behind. A more relevant question is whether the Aryans cared."
The concentration of Jews into certain neighborhoods, and then into camps, was fairly well known. Also well known were the laws and policies by which non-Jewish businesses were prohibited from selling goods… even necessities … to Jews. (Miller, p. 162).
The concentration camps -- initially set up for political enemies of the Reich -- were first established in 1933 and became well known. Thousands of Germans (Jews and non-Jews) left Germany in very short order after Hitler’s rise to power. These Germans could read the proverbial writing on the wall.
The problem, I believe, was not that the Jews didn’t know what was happening -- it was more that they did not want to believe it or act on it -- and then when it was staring them in the face, they mostly still tried to avoid the option of armed defense.
For example, in Vilnius, (according to the documentary film, The Partisans of Vilna, available from www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm/), the Jewish leaders knew that the Nazis were shipping people off to death camps. So the leaders tried to negotiate smaller numbers of people, stretched out over time, under the guise of "cooperation." On its face this idea sounds like a tricky bit of nonviolent resistance -- but it saved few or no lives at all. The Nazis got to kill thousands of Jews without having to spend much in resources against defenders.
Turning to the question of whether armed defense would have done any good, I know there are historians out there who have examined this question in detail. My knowledge and insight is based on my general understanding.
First, we know that the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, when they finally turned to armed resistance, succeeded in holding off the Nazi war machine for nearly a month. These were civilians running an urban guerilla resistance -- using a relatively small number of guns and ammo smuggled in or taken from killed Nazis. In this case, the Warsaw Ghetto defenders damaged the Nazi effort -- and if that had been multiplied over the countryside, it would have meant more damage to the Nazis, and possibly a change in Nazi policy. (See Jon Guttman’s article, "Genocide Delayed", in March 2000 issue of World War II magazine, available on line at: http://www.thehistorynet.com/WorldWarII.
Second, Stephen Halbrook has written a book recently showing that the Nazis did not invade Switzerland in large measure because the Swiss citizens were all armed with military weapons, were trained, and enjoyed a hilly terrain that would benefit the defenders. In this case, the threat of armed resistance deterred the Nazis. (Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, Sarpedon Publishers, 2000).
Yes, it is true -- the Nazi propagandists would have enjoyed using the photos of Jewish armed resistance to justify persecution. At first, that is -- but if the resistance continued, then the government would have a public relations problem. That’s precisely what most people miss -- the destruction of the Jews and others in the death camps took place behind closed doors, in as much secrecy as the Nazis could enforce. Imagine if the Nazis’ killing procedures and death counts were published in their news media -- the Nazis would have suffered a PR disaster that would likely have ended their program.
If there were a resistance comprised of men, women and children fighting against Nazi storm troopers -- and it were publicized -- then the public knowledge of the Nazi program would have increased. And I think it is fair to say that with more public awareness, the Nazi program would have been shrunk, not expanded.
I think it is fair to suggest that shooting at Nazis would have brought reprisals. The question we have to ask is whether it is better to submit quietly to the Nazi death machine, or to try to damage it, even if you die in the process. This is an ages-old question -- a judgment call always easier to make after the fact.
The Founders of the United States, during the American Revolution of 1776, chose in large numbers to fight against the world’s most powerful military, the British Army and Navy. The American colonists did not win the victory cleanly -- they lost thousands of lives, and many suffered because of British reprisals -- but the colonists did prevail. They prevailed by force of arms, not by hoping to avoid further bloodshed by surrendering.
The slaves in San Domingo (now Haiti and Santo Domingo) rose up against the slave masters, took control of the island, and then successfully fought off Napoleon’s powerful military -- ultimately winning total independence from France and abolishing slavery. The slaves won this victory by force of arms, not by waiting their time and hoping the French slave masters would not kill them. (William Loren Katz, Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance. Ethrac Publications, 1990)
There is no doubt that many Jews, like many people of all kinds, would choose to hope for life under unbearable conditions, instead of choosing to fight by force of arms. But I have to ask: how many parents would stand for Sophie’s Choice -- how many would choose to allow one child to be killed, relying on the killer’s promise to spare the other child? How many parents would choose to allow their families to be taken to death camps, rather than fight?
There are some on both sides of the coin. To argue that it would be pointless for the Jews to have guns during the Nazi regime, however, is to argue that no Jewish parents would choose to fight -- that all Jewish parents would pack up for Auschwitz rather than take a chance to stop the killing machine.
Many of us cannot accept that argument.
Editor, The Bill of Rights Sentinel