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CULTURE The Meaning of Jewish Resistance

meisBy Daniel Reichel

What is the meaning of Resistance? Are we to consider part of Resistance as just the people that actively fought against the Nazis and the fascists during Second World War? Or is surviving, fighting for one’s own life, also a kind of Resistance? Is it possible to use the term “Jewish” connected to the concept of Resistance? These were just a few of the questions that came out during last week’s international conference on “The Jewish Resistance in Europe,” organized in Ferrara by the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (MEIS), together with the Ferrara Contemporary History Institute and the Memorial de la Shoah de Paris.

The event, as the members of the scientific committee – Anna Quarzi, Laura Fontana and Alberto Cavaglion – explained, was “intended to highlight the many faces of the reaction of the Jews to the Nazi and fascist regimes.” The Resistance in France, Germany and Poland were some of the topics covered in the first part of the conference, which afterwards focused on the situation in Italy and in Ferrara.

Why wasn’t the rescue of Jews a main goal for the French Resistance? The issue was addressed by Renee Poznanski of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. “There were two reasons,” said Poznanski. He explained that the first was linked to the fear of reactivating the old demon represented by the “Jewish problem”, present in the collective imagination. The second reason was closely related to the importance that the French Resistance had taken since its origin and the priorities that had been given, namely the political opposition to the Vichy regime and the liberation of France. Saving the lives of those who were in danger was not among those priorities.

Another question was the starting point of the analysis of Beate Kosmala of the Memorial to the German Resistance against Nazism in Berlin. “One wonders if it was possible for Jews to implement any form of resistance after 1933, taking into account the atmosphere of violence created by the Nazi regime. In this context, then, what meaning can we attribute to the word resistance?” Today it is possible to affirm, said Kosmala, that the greatest manifestation of collective Jewish resistance was represented by thousands of Jews fighting against the Nazi plan of deportation. They sought refuge in secrecy, hiding in mass or often taking their own lives.

“In Poland, all forms of resistance were important. However the organization of armed groups seemed, at least in some cases, a priority, said Edyta Gawron. “Jews constituted military units in dozens of ghettos in occupied Poland, including the Jewish Fighting Organization (Jewish Combat Organization, ŻOB)”. These units put in place regular opposition activities and also organized extraordinary revolts like that of the Warsaw Ghetto (1943). In the same year Jews of the Vilna ghetto, Bialystok, Czestochowa, and other locations rose up against the Nazis. In Krakow Jewish fighters focused on actions outside the ghetto. In addition, thousands of young Polish Jews fled from the ghettos by seeking shelter in the woods and then joined partisan groups or formed separate military units.”