…….a new exhibit in Skokie, Illinois shows the ways they fought back…..
Students from Plum Grove Junior High School tour the new Karkomi Holocaust exhibition Resistance gallery at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. The gallery discusses resistance in the ghettos and partisan guerrilla fighters in the forests. (Camille Fine / Chicago Tribune)
It remains one of the most pernicious myths of the Holocaust: that Jews did not resist.
If more than 6 million were killed by Nazis, the reasoning seems to go, they must have proceeded passively to their deaths.
Uncounted movies, TV programs and other popular media showing European Jews being rounded up en masse have entrenched the notion that the victims were
complicit in their fates.
An illuminating new exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in Skokie, argues powerfully to the contrary.
The Jewish Armed Resistance Galleries, which have a grand opening event on Oct. 29, chronicles multiple ways Jews fought back,
despite the hopelessness of their situations.
“There is an incorrect stereotype of Jews going like lambs to the slaughter, which is not true,” says Susan Abrams, the museum’s CEO.
“It is an often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust story.”
The new galleries (within the museum’s core Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition) spotlight primary documents, historical photos and extensive quotations from
Chicago-area resisters who lived to tell what happened.
To read the words of those who survived — and those who did not — and to behold images of where and how resistance emerged is to reconsider conventional
thinking on the Holocaust.
The exhibition has been divided into three theaters of resistance: the ghettos, the forests and the killing centers.
Leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization including Mordechai Anielewicz on display at the new Karkomi Holocaust exhibition Resistance gallery in
Skokie on Oct. 22, 2019. (Camille Fine / Chicago Tribune)
“It is impossible to put into words what we have been through,” wrote Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization
in the Warsaw Ghetto, on April 23, 1943.
This was his last letter to Yitzhak Zuckerman, written amid the most famous uprising against the Nazis.
The text holds a prominent place in the exhibit, a recorded voice reciting Anielewicz’s poignant words as they scroll by on a screen.
“One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams,” continues the letter.
“The Germans ran twice from the ghetto.
One of our companies held out for 40 minutes and another for more than 6 hours.
… It is impossible to describe the conditions under which the Jews of the ghetto are now living.
Only a few will be able to hold out.
The remainder will die sooner or later.
Their fate is decided.
In almost all of the hiding places in which thousands are concealing themselves it is not possible to light a candle for lack of air.”
Nevertheless, added Anielewicz, who died during the uprising, “The dream of my life has risen to become fact.
Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality.
Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts.
I have been witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”
The words of Chicago-area survivor and Warsaw Ghetto fighter Barbara Zyskind Steiner, who died in 2018 at age 92,
are prominent on another wall of the exhibition:
“Our young people were fighting from balconies, from roofs.
Because we promise ourselves that we will fight to the last.
… I want history to know about, that this little Warsaw ghetto fighted much longer than any country in Europe.”
Despite minimal arms and extreme deprivation, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stretched from April 19 to May 16, 1943, before succumbing to the Germans.
But this rebellion was just one of many.
Among the estimated 1,000 ghettos in occupied Europe, roughly 100 had underground movements, says museum education director Kelley Szany.
The last letter written by Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization, is projected on the wall in the new Karkomi Holocaust exhibition Resistance gallery on Oct. 22, 2019. (Camille Fine / Chicago Tribune)
Jews also resisted in the forests, 20,000-30,000 having “escaped ghettos and labor camps and joined the resistance,” according to a museum panel.
Among them was Lisa Derman, a former president of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois who died in 2002 at age 75.
“We came to the underground and we saw women walking around with arms and free,” Derman said, as quoted in an exhibition panel.
Among the precious ephemera on display are the writings of Irving Leavitt, who documented his experiences in the Bielski partisan camp, its population of 1,200
making it “the largest armed rescuer of Jews by Jews,” according to the museum.
“While fighting, Leavitt kept a diary in Yiddish in former school notebooks,” reads an exhibition panel about Leavitt, who died in 2003 at age 92.
Leavitt’s eyewitness account and service in the partisan unit were both forms of resistance to mass murder.”
Remarkably, rebellion occurred even in the death camps in which starving Jews had been brutalized by armed Nazi guards.
“Three of the six killing centers had revolts,” says Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions, referring to Sobibor,
Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This is the most startling area of the exhibition, its brightly lit panels taking viewers inside the violence in these desperate places.
“Where the revolts in the killing centers happened is a very different style (of presentation), because we wanted to make people stop and pause
at these last spots,” says Weininger.
Indeed you are compelled to stop as you encounter the stark, black-and-white imagery of these hellish camps set alongside the words of those
who were there during the rebellions.
“I began to believe that we would really win,” wrote Treblinka revolt survivor Yankel Wiernik in a memoir published by the Jewish underground
and quoted on a panel.
“Every German and Ukrainian whom we met on our way out was killed … the road to freedom lay wide open before us. …
Each one of us grabbed all the arms he could. …. Within a matter of minutes, fires were raging all around.
We had done our duty well.”
Even in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1 million Jews and 125,000 non-Jews were murdered, there was resistance.
On Oct. 7, 1944, “members of the Sonderkommando, prisoners forced to empty the gas chambers and dispose of the victims’ bodies, rose in revolt,”
notes a museum panel.
“Crematoria III and IV were burned, Crematorium II exploded, and a fire damaged Crematorium I.”
Four young women who had smuggled the explosives that made this destruction possible were hanged on Jan. 6, 1945.
Some of the Sonderkommando prisoners wrote what happened and hid the documents, hoping they would be found after the war.
“Dear finder, search everywhere,” wrote Zalman Gradowski on Sept. 6, 1944.
“Tons of documents are buried … which will throw light on everything that was happening here.
… We, the Sonderkommando workers, have expressly strewn them all over the terrain so that the world should find material traces of the millions of murdered
people. … I am writing these words in a moment of the greatest danger and excitement.”
Students from Plum Grove Junior High School tour the new Karkomi Holocaust exhibition Resistance gallery at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie on Oct. 22, 2019.
The gallery discusses resistance in the ghettos and partisan guerrilla fighters in the forests. (Camille Fine / Chicago Tribune)
Which points to another form of Jewish resistance: writing.
So amid all this information, why does the myth of Jewish acquiescence persist?
“I think the misconception exists largely because of the scale,” says education director Szany.
“When you try to wrap your mind around 6 million, and the enormity of it, it’s difficult to think that anybody fought and resisted.”
That assumption goes back a very long way.
“After the war, especially in Palestine, then in Israel, the question was, ‘Why didn’t you resist?’” Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor and Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Elie Wiesel once told me.
“It began during the Eichmann trial.
Why didn’t you resist?
When you had the mightiest army in the world surrounding the ghetto.
What could you do?
What could you do?
“There was resistance in the Warsaw ghetto and in other ghettos.
But real organized resistance could have been done – if they had helped us.
But nobody came to help us.”
And wasn’t simply trying to live a form of resistance?
“I could go further,” Wiesel said.
“Trying to believe is a form of resistance.
Trying to pray and believe in God.”
The Jewish Armed Resistance Galleries opening event will run from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 29 and will feature two speakers: Mitch Braff, founder and executive director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, and Rachel L. Einwohner, professor of sociology at Purdue University (the galleries are funded by Harvey L. Miller and Jack Miller “in loving memory of their parents, Ida and Ben Miller, and their brother Arnold Miller,” according to a museum panel). Also, a Kristallnacht commemoration will run from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 7 and will feature the Black Oak Ensemble performing music from its “Silenced Voices” recording on a program also featuring cantorial selections by Hazzan Benjamin A. Tisser. At the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie; 847-967-4800 or www.ilholoc austmuseumorg .