Jews commemorate the European Holocaust on April 8 each year, a commemoration that has come to be known as YomHaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Two years ago on this occasion, a student in one of my classes, during a discussion of Nazism, said he simply could not understand why the Jews hadn’t resisted the efforts of the Germans to exterminate them.
This assertion is, of course, quite common and not limited to undergraduates. The noted historian Raul Hilberg, for example, wrote, "The reaction pattern of the Jews is characterized by almost complete lack of resistance. Measured in German casualties, Jewish armed opposition shrinks into insignificance." Hannah Arendt took this criticism of the timidity of the European Jews a step further when she said that the Nazis depended upon the cooperation of the Judenrate and the Jewish police and so forth to administer the final solution. "To a Jew," said Arendt, "This role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story."
As I began to answer the student’s question–an answer that became the topic of my forthcoming book, "How the Jews Defeated Hitler"--I was not thinking about Hilberg or Arendt. Instead, I was recalling my own family’s history. One night toward the end of 1941, my mother’s Polish stot was entered by the Germans and their Ukranian auxiliaries who began rounding up Jews, beating and shooting many of them on the spot and collecting the others for what was euphemistically known as resettlement. Some Jews ran while others hid but few resisted. My mother hid in an empty barrel and, through sheer blind luck, no one looked into that particular refuge. She survived, but may have been the only survivor of that particular might’s Aktion. She saw her own mother taken away and never saw her again. Should she and the others have resisted? How? How exactly could a scattering of unarmed civilians resist troops armed with automatic weapons who would have been only too happy to kill them, then and there?
My father, on the other hand, resisted strenuously, but the context was quite different. After escaping from a German labor camp in 1940, he fled east, and managed to reach the Soviet army. He was promptly conscripted and trained to serve in an artillery regiment. When large numbers of Katyushas–the famous Soviet rocket artillery--began to be deployed in 1942 and 1943, he was assigned to fire salvos of rockets at the Germans. These Soviet rockets, developed as it happens by Jewish engineers, were very effective against German infantry. In response to Hilberg’s comment regarding the insignificance of armed Jewish resistance, one might say that salvos of hundreds of deadly rockets developed by Jews and fired by a Jew, represented an exceedingly robust form of armed Jewish resistance. Even Arendt would have had no reason to feel ashamed. The Germans feared the Katyushas so they would have been compelled to agree if they had known who was shooting at them.
The moral of the story, which became the topic of my new book, is that rather than look for armed resistance among unarmed civilians and express scorn at Jews for failing to do what could not be done, we should look for resistance where it was possible to resist. If we pursue this path, we come to a very different conclusion about the Jews and their efforts during the war. The fact of the matter is that the Jews resisted very vigorously and quite effectively through four vehicles. The first was the Soviet army. Jews constituted a significant percentage of the fighting strength of the Soviet army, including both its combat and political officers and, on a per capita basis, won more medals and decorations than members of any other ethnic group in the USSR. More important, Jewish engineers supervised the evacuation and reconstruction of Soviet military industry in 1941 and designed and built many of the weapons upon which the Soviet army depended during the war. These included the T-34 medium tank, generally seen as the best tank of the war, the La-5 fighter plane, the Katyusha rocket launcher and others. These weapons allowed the Soviets to survive the disasters of 1941 and, in four years, to drive the Wehrmacht back to Berlin.
Second, the Jews resisted through their influence in the United States. During the 1930's, most Americans were isolationist, anti-British or pro-German. These included significant numbers of German Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans and Scandinavian Americans. America’s white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, though, was pro-British while the Jews were anti-German. With the encouragement of the Roosevelt administration and British intelligence, the Jews and WASPS forged an alliance that worked to bring about shifts in American public opinion, to discredit isolationist groups and to give Roosevelt the political backing he sought for rearmament, the introduction of universal military training, and critical lend-lease aid to Britain and the USSR.
During the war, itself, Jewish soldiers fought in every branch of the U.S. military. On the home front, Jews played a major role in maintaining popular morale, selling bonds and organizing the economics of the war effort. At the same time, Jewish scientists worked to build the atom bomb, a weapon that became America’s ace-in-the -hole and eventually ended the war. Hitler had declared that the war would be a war of extermination (Vernichtung). He presumably had the Jews and other Untermenschen in mind, but had the Germans fought on a few months longer or had the Jewish scientists of the Manhattan project completed their work just a few months sooner, the war might, indeed, have brought Vernichtung--for the Germans.
Third, Jews in the Soviet Union, America and Great Britain were very important in the realm of intelligence and espionage. The Soviet Union’s major–and very effective–spy rings, including the “Red Orchestra” were led by Jews who, in some instances, had been schooled in the arts of espionage by Soviet intelligence services before the war. In the U.S., Jews were among the leading figures in the realm of cryptanalysis. In fact, the term cryptanalysis was coined by America’s foremost cryptanalyst, William Friedman. Friedman’s heavily Jewish group at the U.S. Army’s Signals Intelligence Service (predecessor of today’s NSA), pioneered modern code breaking and designed the U.S. military’s SIGABA cipher machine whose encryptions were never broken during the machine’s period of service which ended in the 1950s. Jews were also involved in the British cryptanalysis effort. In Britain, however, Jews were more important in the area of covert operations. In particular, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited a sizeable group of foreign-born Jews whose linguistic and cultural skills would help them operate in the German-occupied countries of Europe. These individuals became important actors in British covert operations in Europe.
Finally, Jews played important roles in several of the major European anti-Nazi resistance movements. When Americans think of resistance to the Nazis, they tend to think of the French and, perhaps, the Norwegians and Danes. The Norwegians helped the British SOE destroy the German heavy water plant at Vemork and both the Norwegians and Danes heroically smuggled large fractions of their small Jewish communities to safety in Sweden. Generally, though, these two movements posed little threat to the Germans. The French, for their part, with the exception of the Jews and the Communist party, resisted more valiantly in their post-war literature than during the war, itself. In both Western and Eastern Europe, however, Jews helped to lead resistance groups whose acts of sabotage and attacks on the always-fragile German supply lines to the East, did hinder the Germans and help the Allies. This includes the Polish, Greek and Yugoslav resistance movements and the most important of the World War II resistance movements, the partisans of the Soviet Union.
In these four ways, the Jews not only resisted but played a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. So in answer to my student’s question, and mindful of my parents’ experiences, I would say the following: Could the Allies have won without the help of the Jews? Perhaps. Did they win without the help of the Jews? No.