This series of blog posts highlights stories of Jewish responses to the Holocaust as it unfolded. These stories are some of those told in the Museum’s past exhibition Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust.
Exhibition text edited for online use by Noa Gutow-Ellis, Collections and Exhibitions Assistant and Treva Walsh, Collections Project Manager
Many of Europe’s Jewish communities came under Nazi occupation or domination by Nazi collaborators between 1939 and 1944. Conditions varied widely from place to place, although Jews in almost all occupied lands shared the basic experience of isolation, expropriation of property, and being forced to live in restricted areas, which became dangerously overcrowded and unhealthy. Jewish communities mobilized all their meager resources to provide the basics of civilized living in uncivilized conditions. Food and medicines were smuggled over brick and barbed wire walls, at the risk of smugglers’ lives.
Although the conditions of Nazi occupation were unprecedented, the fact of occupation was not. Jews at the time typically saw occupation as a difficult experience full of hardship, but not an unusual phenomenon during wartime. In many of the lands occupied by the Nazis—Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine in particular—Jews recalled a relatively benign German occupation during World War I, which they considered an improvement over life under the brutal Czarist regime it replaced. Only with hindsight can we today recognize Nazi occupation as the prelude to murder.
While Nazi occupation at first did not mean mass murder to the people experiencing it, the conditions of occupation nevertheless threatened Jewish religious and cultural identity, as well as the physical existence of families and communities. Nazi leaders carefully maintained the secrecy of their plans and implemented communications blackouts in the ghettos, which prevented Jews from effectively evaluating their situation. The implications of occupation were both unknown and much debated, increasing the uncertainty that shaped many responses.
There was a great variety of cultural, religious and educational responses to Nazi occupation. Previous experiences of persecution taught many Jews that, if they stood fast and maintained their identities, they would outlast oppression. Theater, libraries, music, and religious observance are examples of activities that helped maintain morale. In one year alone, 84,500 books were lent by the public Jewish library in the Vilna Ghetto, in spite of rampant hunger, exhaustion, and disease. Resisting the Nazi’s policy of secrecy, Jews kept personal and community records of the occupation. Some kept personal diaries. Others wrote clandestine newspapers on hidden typewriters or mimeograph machines and disseminated them from hand to hand to trustworthy friends.