Resistance against National Socialism

1933 — 1945


Activism & Resistance Discrimination & Inequity

During the period of National Socialist rule, numerous forms of resistance emerge both in Germany and the neighboring countries under occupation. Especially remarkable are the incidents of resistance in the ghettos and concentration camps erected by the Nazis.

Resistance to the National Socialist regime and its policies of extermination was multitudinous: acts of sabotage, escape, and anti-Nazi pamphleteering, carried out by political or religious groups such as the White Rose or the Jewish underground organization Chug Chaluzi (the Circle of Pioneers), took place alongside numerous attempts on Hitler’s life. People were also able to offer everyday resistance, for example by hiding those threatened with deportation from the authorities, supplying them with food or assisting them in their emigration.

However, even in the ghettos built by the Nazi regime, people resisted. Such incidents included the four-week-long Warsaw ghetto uprising, which took place in April 1943. When the first Jews were being prepared for deportation from the Warsaw ghetto to concentration camps in June 1942, the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa resistance organization was formed. It activities included informing the ghetto population about the reality of the extermination camps, hoarding weapons, and making preparations for an insurgency. On January 18, 1943, as people were again prepared for deportation, armed residents intervened in self defense, delaying the deportation by at least a few days. On April 19, 1943, as the Ghetto was being prepared for a total clearance, street battles broke out, signaled the beginning of a four-week-long insurgency. On May 16, 1943, the Nazis declared the Warsaw ghetto conquered, symbolically blowing up the Great Synagogue. Over 56,000 people had been killed by SS and police forces or deported to the extermination camps over the preceding weeks. This was followed by a five-day uprising in the Bialystok ghetto in August 1943, the survivors of which were deported to Treblinka, Majdanek, Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. The majority of them died in the camps.

People also resisted from within the concentration camps, risking punishment through physical violence, forced starvation, isolation or death. The forms of resistance that emerged were diverse and creative, ranging from minor to serious manipulation of manual labor tasks, or the organization of theater, lectures, and small concerts, in which secret messages to the prisoners were embedded, to conducting underground religious services, illicitly listening to radio, and building secret information networks. Furthermore, the already meagre rations were often shared amongst prisoners, while the sick were cared for and emotional support was offered. These actions strengthened solidarity among the prisoners and demonstrated to them that they were not alone and still in possession of a certain power to act.

Alongside these actions, insurrections also occurred within concentration camps, such as the mass-uprisings of August and October 1943 in Treblinka and Sobibór. On August 2, 1943, having seized weapons and set fire to several buildings, prisoners in the Treblinka extermination camp attempted an escape. Most of those who managed to flee were killed by the SS in the ensuing pursuit, or captured and returned to the camp to be executed along with the other resistance fighters. Only two months later, an uprising broke out in the Sobibór extermination camp. On October 14, a resistance cell was able to kill 12 members of the Nazi camp personnel, before helping around 300 prisoners escape. Most escapees were subsequently shot, either on the run or later in the camp. Shortly after these uprisings, both camps were closed and transformed into farmsteads.

In Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination camps, the resistance cell Kampfgruppe Auschwitz formed in 1943. Maintaining ties with Polish resistance groups on the outside, it smuggled medicines into the camp and was even able to help some prisoners escape. Its main objective however remained an armed uprising with support from resistance groups outside the camp. On October 27, 1944, group members attempted escape from the camp in order to coordinate the uprising from outside. They were captured and, with the exception of two who managed to take their own lives, hung on display in front of the other prisoners.

A few months before, in “Section B II e” of Auschwitz-Birkenau, an uprising among the Sinti and Roma prisoners took place. They resisted the plan, initiated by a liquidating order, to murder the 6,000 Sinti and Roma still in the camp (of an original 23,000 who had been sent there). On the evening of May 16, as the camp was sealed and preparations were made to send them to the gas chambers, the prisoners had already armed themselves with knives, spatulas and other objects, refusing to leave their barracks. The SS men were forced to withdraw, their mission unaccomplished. With the inevitable liquidation of “Section B II e”, which took place in the night of August 2-3, 1944, the surviving 2,900 prisoners defied their oppressors with all their strength and desperation, but ultimately in vain.