Holocaust Memorial Day 2021: A Reflection Upon Resistance

Laura Parkinson

There are many accounts of Jewish resistance, and so it is vital to challenge the myth, 'Jews didn't really resist'.
Tosia Altman: Ha-Shomer ha-Zai’r leadership, courier, and organiser of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Captured by the Gestapo and tortured to death, aged 25. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.
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Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

During the Holocaust, Jewish partisan groups and resistance organisations launched attacks, created underground networks, led rescue missions and sabotage operations, and documented their experiences at grave risk. This is no secret – historians have debated the categorisation and so-called ‘effectiveness’ of Jewish resistance for the past six decades. Irrespective of ample evidence of both organised and individual acts of resistance, the notion that European Jewry did not fight back persists. When thinking of the term ‘resistance,’ it is not unusual to associate it with some grand defeat of the oppressor by the oppressed. Albeit when we think about resistance during the Holocaust, its apparent effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – should never be the kingpin of its commemoration. Given the unfathomable violence and degradation that European Jewry and other targeted groups were subject to, it is incredible that there are so many examples of resistance despite the most desperate situations. With this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 calling for us to acknowledge the light in the darkness, it is essential to tackle the view that “the Jews didn’t really resist” as the Wiener Library’s senior curator Barbara Warnock told the Guardian‘s Caroline Davies.

To address the narrative that “Jews didn’t really resist,” we must acknowledge that stories of resistance have come to reflect a masculine face of armed ghetto and partisan fighters. The fact that women were the backbone of widely celebrated attempts to defeat the Nazis such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lacks recognition. The Kashariyot (couriers) were a group of young women between the ages of 15-25 who disguised themselves as Aryan allowing them to travel between Jewish communities and ghettos across occupied Poland, delivering news and aid, and smuggling messages, documents, money and weapons to incarcerated Jews. The Kashariyot’s activities were documented by Emanuel Ringelblum – the distinguished historian who organised the underground Oneg Shabbat Archives in the Warsaw Ghetto. These archives attest to “the martyrology of the Jews in Poland”; whom were not to be seen as victims of the Nazis. There, Ringelblum praised those young women who “boldly” travelled through the cities and towns of Poland, all the while being in “mortal danger every day.” He immortalised their fearlessness and heroism in a diary entry on May 19, 1942:

“These heroic girls… are a theme that calls for the pen of a great writer… Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them…[T]hese girls are indefatigable.”

Although Ringelblum predicted that the Kashariot would be exalted as leading figures of the resistance by future historians, remarkably, they have received relatively little attention. Though remarkable, it is unsurprising. There is a persistent tendency to view resisters as ‘fighters,’ but the young women of the Kashariyot took the same risks and suffered similar violent consequences if caught.

Kashariyot couriers were also leaders of underground networks and political opposition groups; they were leaders of Zionist youth movements including Dror and Ha-Shomer ha-Zaír, and political parties including the Jewish-Socialist Bund and Communist Party. When it became clear that ghettos were being liquidated, the Kashariyot directed their activities to acquiring arms, explosives and ammunition, and finding ways to smuggle them into the ghettos to support organised uprisings. They also smuggled money, messages and ammunition to Jewish partisans hiding in forests across Eastern Europe. Not least, their focus quickly turned to resisting by protecting the future of European Jewry: they aided the escape of children and adults by procuring identity cards and seeking accommodation for hiding.

This brief overview highlights how it is unsuitable to impose modern views of who a hero is, and what a hero does, when commemorating Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. The women of the Kashariyot were by no means ‘conventional’ in their fight. Their efforts were strategic and clandestine because the nature of their internment called for covert modes to resist the Nazis. So, the Kashariyot were engaged in fighting the Germans, just not by today’s conventional means. To continue to shed light upon those who embodied the light in the darkness, the memorialisation of Jewish resistance must reject the imposition of post-hoc standards of heroism in the context of a ‘fight’ or physical struggle which only serve to diminish the heroic recognition they deserve.

Laura Parkinson is a recent First Class (Hons) BA History graduate from Queen Mary University of London and aspiring Master’s candidate. Her research previously concentrated on Nazi-looted art, provenance and restitution; she now focusses on women’s artwork, self-preservation and agency during the Holocaust. She has recently reviewed Keith Lowe’s Prisoners of History in Issue 3 of Aspects of History.