Ruby Rohrlich (ed). Resisting the Holocaust. Berg. Oxford, New York, 1999
Ruby Rohrlich is Professor Emerita at the City University of New York and a research professor in the anthropology department of the George Washington University. She has put her considerable experience of anthropological scholarship into introducing, collating and editing an extraordinarily valuable anthology dealing with Jewish resistance - and in particular - Jewish women's resistance within the Holocaust.
To set out these themes immediately invokes a major query as response: surely, the conventional wisdom has it that, apart from the Warsaw ghetto rising, there was no overt resistance; surely the Jews - for reasons whether religious or sociological for which they cannot be blamed, were passive victims?
Rohrlich opens the argument with a discussion on the meaning of resistance. Basically, it is to thwart the will of the oppressor, and to survive when he wishes to destroy you.
There are many ways of addressing this, and all are fraught with dire consequences.
"There is resistance which means fighting, inflicting as many casualties as you can... knowing that in the end you will most likely not come out of it... the idea is to make this sacrifice of one's life mean something" (p. 1); for another form of resistance she quotes Holocaust survivor Alexander Kimmel who saw that passive resistance among the Jews flourished in many forms: when the Germans tried to starve the Jews to death they responded with massive smuggling... when they learned that deportation meant torture and death, they jumped from moving trains... they printed underground newspapers; resistance could include gathering for religious services, recording events for posterity. organising educational classes, since all such activities denied the Nazi wish to destroy Jewish culture completely.
Rohrlich points to material showing that both active and passive resistance was carried out on a major scale throughout the years of the death camps.
It is the part of women in such resistance that adds to the surprise: Jewish women parachutists, from British controlled Palestine, who were among those who parachuted down into Nazi occupied countries, have given us the memory of Hannah Senesz. It is proper to recall her women comrades, Haviva Reik and Sara (Surika) Braverman. Hannah and Haviva perished at the hands of the Nazis, Sara survived. After the war, history did none of them justice. Judith Tydor Baumel contributes a paper entitled "The Parachutists Mission from a Gender Perspective" which describes their mission and subsequent attitudes to them. Baumel points out that the two last-named women are scarcely known today and that while Senesz is a national hero, portrayed as an "Israeli Joan of Arc", actual material concerning her personal life is obscured. The image is of "a child-virgin (who) became a symbol of national valor" (p. 104); the story of the actual woman, of her life events and relationships has not been allowed to shatter the myth.
Margaret Collins Weitz documents the part women, including Jewish women, played in the French Resistance, particularly in the work of rescuing Jews. "Until recently" she writes "women have been largely absent from the memory of he French resistance" (179), emphasis focussing mainly on military actions undertaken by men. However, just as dangerous in terms of Nazi response were the major networks of women organising aid, shelter, hospitality and rescue, in addition to overt anti-Nazi activities of all kinds. Jewish and Christian women worked together: for example, Catholic student Violette Morin joined a resistance group because she found the dismissal of her teachers who were Jews intolerable; Sabina Zlatin a Jewish nurse, worked with a group of clergy who were attempting to better the conditions of Jewish detainees in French camps and managed to rescue numbers of Jewish children.
Another form of resistance came from Yvette Bernard Farnoux, a Jewish woman whose family came from Alsace: she discouraged unwelcome attentions from German soldiers by telling them she was syphilitic; she became part of the underground movement and organised help for detainees in camps. Eventually arrested she underwent vicious questioning and was deported to Auschwitz and then Ravensbruck. Luckily she was one of the survivors.
Weitz chronicles the lives and activities of several more Jewish and non-Jewish women in the resistance as part of the untold story of the many courageous French women who attempted to thwart the Nazis Jewish annihilation programme.
Ami Nerberger has given her attention to the formation of family groups in concentration camps; the term 'family' denoted a group of three or more women who tried to stay together and helped their members survive by pooling resources and energies. She comments that several historians are currently now looking at this phenomenon; it is now realised that such groups played an important role in survival and in postwar recovery (p. 134).
Another example of women's resistance is seen in the actions of some non-Jewish German women. Nathan Stoltfus write that many such women, married to Jews, refused to divorce them as required by the Nazi state. They organised public demonstrations of dissent, which led to the release from imprisonment of intermarried Jewish men. Stoltfus conjectures the reason for this was that the Goebbels wished it to appear that in Nazi Germany dissent did not exist. Several thousand men were thus saved by their non-Jewish German wives.
There is much more in the book: I have only taken a few example of many, where groups or individuals alone put themselves in horrific danger in determined resistance to what they perceived as intolerable oppression, either on their own behalf or in the service of others.
Ruby Rohrlich has given done an immense service to this and oncoming generations: her immaculate scholarship and her wide spectrum of interest has gathered together an archive of extraordinary value. In particular, the reclaiming of women's resistance is all-important as a valuable historical act. This is a book, which only too sadly, is as germane to the events of the end of the twentieth century as it is to the history of its middle decades.
© Asphodel P. Long (Feminist Theology 22, September 1999)