Was there resistance inside the Lager?
Primo Levi maintained that resistance for the ordinary Haftling inside the concentration camp, was impossible. Romantic ideas about the unity of the oppressed were, in the extreme circumstances of Auschwitz, untenable, and each prisoner was alone in the daily and unequal struggle to simply exist .
The Nazi process of dehumanisation; systematic theft of personal belongings, the replacement of names with tattooed numbers, the loss of dignity and personality associated with the cropping of hair and replacement of personal clothing with ill fitting and ‘clownish’ uniforms combined with the trauma of the constant presence of sudden death and murder all combined for Levi to make the prisoner less than a man , “To Destroy a man is difficult almost as difficult as to create one: It has not been easy or quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.” Returning to the question of Resistance in the books Afterword, Levi acknowledges that some sporadic acts of resistance did take place inside the camps, but insisted that these were carried out only by ‘privileged’ groups amongst the camp population and that for the ordinary prisoner resistance was not an option as; “people in rags do not revolt” . For Levi, those who gained positions of privilege within the camp, as ‘notables’; Kapos, or other officials, were morally compromised; complicit in the oppression of the rest.
Levi gives a number of other reasons that would inhibit resistance; the constantly changing population of the camps, as selections and transfers prevented any established community to emerge, language barriers between different groups of prisoners, exemplary executions of anyone who showed defiance, combined with random and extreme violence kept the prisoners in a constant state of disorientation and terror. For Levi, the Jewish prisoners were especially unable to resist, worn down as they were by long periods of hunger and oppression in the ghettos before even arriving in the camps. Levi dislikes the image of docile Jews patiently lining up for the gas chamber, but maintained that, “no one rebelled” . Levi cited the Germans use of Soviet Prisoners of War as guinea pigs to test the gas chambers, if these “young, army trained, politically indoctrinated, (and) not encumbered by women and children” did not resist then how can anyone expect the frighten beaten and cowed Jews?
However despite Levi’s denial of the possibility of resistance there is a great deal of evidence from the testimonies of other survivors that resistance to the Nazi genocide did exist and went far beyond a few scattered outbreaks.
In accessing the evidence for resistance inside the Lager it is useful to actually define what is meant by resistance, and as such it is possible to discuss three, distinct but overlapping, levels of resistance and defiance.
First, there was the struggle to survive. In a regime of annihilation, ‘the common struggle for survival’ itself becomes an act of defiance. For many the impetuous was to survive to bear witness to what had been done to them. Similarly, in a system which stole every facet of human identity from its captives, the maintenance of personal pride , through washing or the observance of daily exercises, for example , or the reassertion of a level of individuality, of personality through alteration or re-tailoring of the camp uniform was a minor act of rebellion.
Another, if not the ultimate, form of individual defiance was the taking control of the moment of ones death. In the Lager where every other right and dignity had been stolen from them, to take ones own life in a matter of ones own choosing was for some prisoners a last final act of defiance.
The second level of defiance and resistance was collective. The Nazis enforced upon their prisoners their own warped and racialised form of social Darwinism, prisoners were categorised and ranked according to the Nazis racial typography, ‘Aryans’ above ‘non-Aryans’, criminals above ‘politicals’, with Jews at the bottom. By pitching each against all the Nazis sought to ensure that the prisoners would keep each other in line as they scrambled for the smallest crumbs of privilege over their fellow unfortunates. This was encouraged by appointing criminal prisoners as Kapos over Jews and punishing any act of common decency and compassion.
For Levi and many other survivors the first shock of arrival at the camps, the very alien and insane nature of the Lager convinced them that all human decency and links of comradeship had been shattered; “…(I)n the Lager things are different: Here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone.” Comradeship and solidarity reasserted themselves quickly; whether through political, regional or national ties different groups of prisoners sought to protect themselves and each other by bonding together. In terms of political organisation, the communists were most successful as they deliberately sought to gain positions of influence in order to lessen the worst effects of camp life upon their comrades. As communists organised amongst both gentiles and Jews, they were able to provide a network of mutual solidarity that cut across the Nazis’ racial categories, which provided the springboard for later resistance efforts . Zionist groupings and the Jewish socialist Bund were also able to give similar support, especially by providing common language (Yiddish and/or Hebrew) and values for prisoners from widely different nations. National ties were also important, especially for prisoners who were a part of large Jewish populations in their home countries and therefore within the camps. For example Rudolf Vrba got his job in Canada partially because of his ability with languages, and partially because he recognised a fellow prisoner as from his old town . Even those who fell outside of these social and political ties were not abandoned; Vrba tells of the thief in his blockhouse who was discovered stealing bread from a Musselman, a prisoner at the very bottom of the Auschwitz social scale. The other prisoners beat the thief to death; “It was rough justice, but it was fair, for to deprive a man of food was to murder” .
Another form of collective defiance was the self sacrifice of those who gave their lives rather than abandon others, such as the Dutch nurses who were offered the chance to return to Holland but instead chose to remain with their patients, mentally and physically handicapped children, and so perished with them in the gas chambers . There were also those who abandoned positions of power and safety within the camps so that they might assist those who were suffering around them, for example the non-Jewish Kapo Franz, who when in charge of the S.S. stores sacrificed his position and put his life in jeopardy in order to provide some food for some starving Jewish women .
The third level of resistance was actual physical resistance to the Lager regime, this ranged from acts of sabotage and ‘go-slows’, only working as little as to avoid a beating, to full scale insurrections and mass breakouts.
Opportunities for acts of resistance within the camp were limited. “For the Jews, resistance almost always ended in death.” But there were uprisings in Treblinka, where the prisoners set fire to the camp and killed the chief of the S.S. as well as 15 other guards; in Sorbibor, where, led by a Soviet prisoner of war, Alexander Pechersky, Jewish prisoners killed 11 guards before some 300 prisoners were able to escape, in Birkenau, where the Sonderkommando working the crematoria rose up destroying crematorium IV by setting fire to its roof, and blowing up crematorium III with explosives which had been smuggled in by Jewish women prisoners working at the Union explosives factory, whilst prisoners at crematorium II attempted a mass break out. It was one of these fighters that Levi witnessed being executed .
There were individual acts of resistance as well, such the Dancer Horowitz, one of a number of Polish Jewish women who were being led to the gas chamber, ordered to undress she smashed a Nazi in the face with her shoe, took his pistol and shot him and another guard, the other women then started to beat the guards, scalping one and tearing the nose off another, who were forced to flee for reinforcements. The women were gunned down at the very entrance to the gas chamber.
Levi maintained that resistance was confined to the most privileged of the prisoners, the prominents, yet as approximately 90% of those sent to Auschwitz never entered the camps, but were sent directly to the gas chambers, everyone who had not initially selected could be said to be ‘privileged’ to one degree or other.
The major problem for those attempting to resist the mass murder was that resistance within the camp was far too late. The place to resist Auschwitz had to before the deportations, thus the emphasis for resistors was to escape and warn Jewish communities of what was happening, so that they could frustrate the Nazis attempts to deport them. Levi claimed that of the 600 official escape attempts from Auschwitz many were prisoners randomly shot by guards wishing to claim the bounty for foiling escape attempts, however, as some 300 or so escapes succeeded then a great number of real escape attempts must have succeeded.
The greatest asset the Nazis had in their plans to exterminate Europe’s Jews was incomprehension at the true enormity of their criminal intention. Even when confronted with clear evidence of what was happening, Hungary’s Jewish leaders preferred to believe the assurances of the ‘cultured’ S.S. officers, rather than the reports of eyewitnesses.
Revolts did take place in a number of Jewish Ghettos, but here again the Jewish fighters were isolated, cut off from a beaten and cowed general population and could only provide for the people of the Ghettos the right “to die as human beings”
Much has been made of the alleged anti Semitism of the non Jewish Polish resistance, and its failure to support the uprising, however one of the participants of the Ghetto uprising in Warsaw, Marek Edelman pointed out that in 1943 the Polish Home Army had only just been organised and had virtually no weapons for its own members let alone any for the fighters inside the Ghetto.
Whilst Poland and the Baltic states did have a history of anti Semitism it is worth noting that after the war the Israeli govt. honoured more Poles as ‘Righteous Gentiles’- non Jews who had risked their lives to save Jews- than any other country.
The most effective acts of resistance were those in communities where the Nazis had been unable to separate and demonise Jews from the mass of the population. In Denmark the resistance were able to organise the evacuation of 8,000 Jews to safety in neutral Sweden to prevent their deportation . In Bulgaria, German pressure to deport its Jewish population, led to mass protests; farmers threatened to lie down on the railway lines, and appeals called for people to “Take your stand in front of your Jewish neighbours homes and don’t let them be led away by force! Hide their children and do not hand them over to executioners!” Even the German born king intervened and Bulgarian opposition ensured that Bulgaria was the only country in Europe whose Jewish population actually increased during World War II.
Most of the obstacles to resistance that Levi identified were real and made effective resistance far harder, However despite all the obstacles placed in their way the Jews did find ways to fight back against the attempts of the Nazis to eradicate them from History . Where they could not defy the Nazis by surviving, then they sought to defy them by refusing to die as animals, but instead as Human beings.