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Holocaust remembrance week: How armed Jews saved lives

Since 1978, the United States Congress designated an annual eight-day “Days of Remembrance” for the Holocaust.  This year, that period is April 27 to May 4. The particular eight-day period in any given year begins on the Sunday before the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar. That date is Yom HaShoah, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” as first designated by the Israeli Knesset in 1953.

In Colorado for the last 33 years, the Anti-Defamation League and the governor have teamed up for the annual “Governor’s Holocaust Remembrance Program,” which was held last night in Denver. The Denver event featured strong speeches by George Washington University law professor and international jurist Thomas Breugenthaler (a Holocaust survivor) and by Gov. John Hickenlooper. For me, the most moving part was when all of the Holocaust survivors in the audience were asked to stand, and then their children and extended families. They were the living embodiment of the line that is used in some Passover Seders: “Thus have we been delivered not once but many times. No Pharaoh has lived to see the end of the Jewish people, but we have lived to see the end of many Pharaohs!”

One thing that increased the number of Jewish survivors during the Final Solution was armed Jewish resistance, as I detailed in my article Armed Resistance to the Holocaust.  (19 Journal on Firearms & Public Policy 144 (2007).) (This annual journal is published by the Second Amendment Foundation; its 23 volumes are available on the web, as well as via HeinOnline. I was editor in chief of the Journal in 1994-2011.)

The best-known Jewish armed resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There were also revolts in other Eastern European ghettos, usually lasting a few days, rather than the months-long battle in Warsaw. The Sobibor extermination camp was permanently shut (thus saving an enormous number of lives) because of a prisoner revolt led by Soviet POWs who captured guns from the guards. The Treblinka extermination camp was also at least temporarily disabled because of an armed revolt. Only a small percentage of Jewish fighters survived any of these revolts, but by killing Nazis and depleting Nazi resources, the fighters saved lives elsewhere. All of them died with honor. The Warsaw revolt in particular was crucial in changing Western minds so that Jews were not seen merely as passive victims, but as part of the Allied fighting forces, and thus entitled to a share in the post-war settlement. There is a direct line from the Warsaw Uprising to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The highest survival rates for Jewish fighters were among the partisan bands in the woods and swamps of eastern Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. Sometimes these partisans were led by young men who escaped when the Jews were first being cordoned into walled ghettos, and before the Nazis had confiscated all arms. The first partisans in Europe to blow up a Nazi train were The Avengers, operating in the woods near Vilna, Lithuania. Their leaders were a young poet named Abba Kovner and two teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak.

The largest Jewish partisan unit was led by the three Bielski brothers. The group grew to 149 armed combatants, and provided refuge to a thousand more Jews who were too old, too young, or too frail to fight. The Bielski partisans carried out dozens of missions, destroying locomotives and bridges, and killing hundreds of the enemy. Elsewhere in Europe, such as France and Greece, Jews were integrated into the general partisan units, and participated in large numbers. For example, in France the Jews were only about 1 percent of the population, but constituted 15-20 percent of the partisans.

Especially in Eastern Europe, Jewish armed resistance was impeded was the lack of arms. There was little gun culture among the Jews, except in some Zionist self-defense training groups in which some young people (such as Abba Kovner) had participated. The pre-Nazi governments were often hostile to civilian gun ownership in general. After Nazi conquest, many Jews and others foolishly complied with Nazi orders to surrender all arms. If pre-war Eastern Europe Jews had been as well armed as American civilians during the the 1940s (about one gun per three persons), then Jewish resistance to the Holocaust very likely would have saved even more lives.

In the 20th and 21st centuries–including in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, the USSR, Sudan, and Nazi-occupied Europe–genocide has been preceded by assiduous efforts to first disarm the intended victims. The heroic story of armed Jewish resistance to the Holocaust helps explain why genocidaires are realistic when they worry so much about armed victims. At Holocaust remembrance ceremonies, speakers often contrast the world’s sincere pledge of “Never Again” with the fact of how much genocide has taken place since 1945. Remembering the inspiring history of the Jewish resistance to Holocaust can remind the world of one successful approach to reducing the number of victims of genocide.