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‘Deeper than the Abyss’: Resisting the Holocaust

Sam Sussman reviews Peter Hayes' new book, 'Why? Explaining the Holocaust'

The horrors of Treblinka are well known: that the camp was put out of use by the very Jews it was designed to murder is less often mentioned.

In the most vile conditions of starvation, disease, and grief, Jewish captives at Treblinka designed a defiant plan of escape over the spring and summer of 1943. On August 2 of that year, the captives snuck into Treblinka’s arsenal storehouse, retrieved handguns and gasoline, discretely doused much of the camp and then, at the anointed time, opened fire on Nazi guards while Treblinka was lit ablaze. Between 150 and 200 Jews escaped. One Jewish resistance fighter later wrote that, “A fortress of horrible Nazism was erased from the face of the earth.”

The story of Jewish resistance at Treblinka is rarely mentioned in Holocaust histories, and Why? Explaining the Holocaust, by Northwestern University’s Peter Hayes, is no exception. What is exceptional is Hayes’ determination to prove that Jewish resistance were futile. In a book otherwise rich with historical detail, Hayes’ adamance on this point illustrates how deeply rooted the myth of Jewish passivity remains seven decades after the Holocaust.

“No camp rebellion ever really succeeded,” Hayes argues. He explains how European Jews were divided by nationality, religion, class, and political beliefs: how the desperate self-interest of collaborators facilitated the enormous bureaucratic task of Nazi annihilation, and how Jews were deceived into believing they were not really destined for death. As Hayes describes the squalor and disease of the Warsaw ghetto, where Jews persisted on less than 200 calories per day, his thesis that Jews did not resist the Holocaust seems understandable. The only problem is that it’s not historically correct.

The Treblinka Revolt was not an isolated incident. The uprising was instigated by Jews deported from Warsaw, who smuggled knives, grenades, and uplifting stories of resistance into Treblinka. At Sobibor, Jewish captives armed with hatchets, knives, and guns overcame Nazi guards to free several hundred prisoners. The camp, which had killed nearly 600,000 Jews, was closed. At Auschwitz, Jewish captives used stolen explosives to destroy one of the camp’s four moratoriums. These and dozens more cases of resistance are recounted in They Fought Back, Yuri Suhl’s groundbreaking 1967 book.

By these efforts Hayes remains unimpressed. “The breakout at Treblinka enabled only fifty to seventy inmates to survive the war,” he writes, while “the camp uprising at Sobibor led to the deaths of only eleven or twelve SS men and the survival of only forty-seven inmates.” Hayes concludes that these uprisings “had very limited consequences.” Later he insists of Jews that: “Regardless of what they chose, they ultimately came to the same end.”

This is the old and battered narrative of the first generation of Holocaust scholars. In 1961, Raul Hilberg argued that “the reaction pattern of the Jews is characterized by almost complete lack of resistance.” In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote that Jewish resistance had been “pitifully small…incredibly weak and essentially harmless.” Hilberg’s archival sources came exclusively from the Third Reich— Arendt’s historical research relied on Hilberg’s.

It is one thing not to know about Jewish resistance, and quite another to discount it. Hayes’ untenable argument is purely statistical: Jewish resistance did not kill a significant enough number of Nazis or save a significant enough number of Jews. This is a jarring view of human dignity. That in conditions of material deprivation and cultural depravity Jews nonetheless organized resistance is far more consequential than the specific number of friends saved or enemies slayed. It feels deeply insufficient to obsess over the fruitless quantification of Jewish resistance. This is an economist’s version of history: it is no coincidence Hayes trained as one. To claim Jewish resistance insignificant is to argue that it does not matter if Sisyphus pushes his boulder to the hill’s top, or, indeed, whether he ever tried. That Jews resisted in circumstances designed to so totally destroy the human will is surely one of the most vital lessons of the Holocaust.

The tendency to see victims of mass atrocity crimes as helpless objects instead of defiant subjects is one of the deepest ironies of contemporary efforts at genocide prevention. As Frederic Megret has argued of the Responsibility to Protect, the doctrine that defines how states can intervene to stop ongoing mass atrocity crimes, “Among all the measures recommended to assist victims of atrocities, not one suggests… that ‘victims’ might have a role in averting atrocities.” As Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis and I recently argued, contemporary efforts at mass atrocity prevention could learn a great deal from the remarkable history of citizen resistance to such crimes.

While Hayes’ treatment of Jewish resistance is frustrating, there is much to admire in his book. Hayes’ descriptions of Jewish life in the ghettos and camps is itself reason to read his book. Hayes is at his most human when describing Jewish disbelief of mass slaughter. He quotes a Polish Jew who hears of a nearby massacre: “Is it possible to believe such a thing? To shoot women, innocent children in full daylight? It is probably not true…” The man concludes that, “Those Jews were killed because they were Soviet citizens, but we are citizens of the government; such a thing cannot happen here.”

It is this careful attention to psychological detail that is missing from Hayes’ treatment of Jewish resistance. Writing on behalf of a Jew who collaborated with Nazi crimes and later stood trial in the Soviet Union, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion asked that nobody judge those who had lived through the camps, for their tragedy “is deeper than the abyss.” It is the depth and darkness of the Holocaust’s abyss that makes Jewish resistance miraculous; not the number of Nazis killed or Jews saved. This resistance, under conditions designed to so completely destroy the human spirit, is a monumental testament to human creativity and will, and deserves a more central place in Holocaust studies and remembrance, and, indeed, in contemporary thinking on genocide prevention.

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