Home      MEDITATION 2013

by Rabbi Norman Patz

At the 67th Memorial Service Conducted

by the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews
March 10, 2013 / Adar 28, 5773


One of the most fiercely debated topics in Holocaust remembrance and studies is that of Jewish resistance. Did our people go "like sheep to the slaughter"? Did they resist nobly and bravely? Or were they no better or worse than any other group?

The first step in addressing the question is to acknowledge that we must not blame the victims. Responsibility for the murder of our people rests primarily on the murderers and then, secondarily, on the bystanders. Not on the victims.

I believe that a direct answer to the question of resistance is YES. There was a lot of resistance by Jews despite all the handicaps and obstacles like dislocation and disorientation, hunger, separation of families, the disappearance of all of the able bodied men. There was a lot of resistance by Jews despite the fact that there were no historical precedents Europe's Jews could follow - nothing like this had ever happened before. How could they possibly have imagined the mass murder that awaited them. There was resistance despite the fact that German Jews thought of themselves as loyal citizens, honored and decorated veterans of the First World War. There was resistance despite the use of deception and collective punishment policies by the Nazis, despite the lack of communication, despite the hostility of non-Jewish neighbors. All of these factors worked to discourage Jewish resistance, and yet there was resistance.

Resistance ranged from spiritual to military guerilla tactics, from writing diaries and painting true pictures of what was happening to the hundreds of partisan attacks on Nazi installations and more than a dozen revolts even in the death camps!

At Terezin, Petr Ginz was among the young people whose poems and drawings demonstrated resistance of the spirit, as did the secret drawings of the adult artists, and the plays and concerts and lectures that kept hope alive for the prisoners.

In Slovakia, different circumstances elicited resistance in the form of rescues which are little known today despite the efforts of our late member, Martin Zapletal, who as President of the Holocaust Survivors of Slovakia, worked tirelessly to tell the stories of Jewish rescue attempts in Slovakia - the most ambitious and daring in Central Europe in all of the war years. So today let us praise and honor the memory of two Slovak Jewish heroes, Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel.

Gisi Fleischmann organized escape routes for Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s, from Austria after the Anschluss, from the Protektorat after the Nazi occupation in 1939, and even for Polish Jews who lived near the Czech and Slovak borders.

In 1942, Rabbi Weissmandel and Gisi organized the underground Pracovna Skupina, the Working Group, which sought to delay the deportation of Slovak Jews by using bribes to get them to work in labor camps located in Slovakia. Their efforts stopped the deportations for two whole years. Encouraged by their apparent success in having thus so far saved 20,000 Slovak Jews, Rabbi Weissmandel and Gisi Fleischmann developed the "Europa Plan" to stop deportations throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, to end the mass murders in the camps, to aid survivors, and, most importantly, to get the children out of Europe- an effort they called the "Children's Rescue Plan." The plans failed, whether because the Nazis never intended to cooperate or because the promised $1-2 million bribe money never materialized or perhaps a combination of both. We will never know.

The 1196 Jewish children who arrived in Terezin from the Bialystok Ghetto in the summer of 1943 were to be the first of many thousands more Weissmandel and Fleischmann hoped would be sent from there to Switzerland. Instead, the children were sent to their death in Auschwitz.(See Fragments of Memory, by Hana Greenfield, pp. 75-80).

Yet the "Auschwitz Report" distributed by the Working Group in 1944 was instrumental in forcing Hungary's regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy to stop the transports (12,000 people a day), thereby creating an opportunity for Raoul Wallenberg to go to Budapest and save thousands from destruction.

Gisi Fleischmann was sent to her death at Auschwitz in October 1944. Rabbi Weissmandel survived, immigrated to the u.s. and led a yeshiva in Mt. Kisco, NY until his death in 1957.

Their efforts saved thousands of lives. We need to know their stories and the other stories of Jewish resistance, because knowing stories like these turns the Holocaust from an abstract horror and incomprehensible statistic into the true stories of real individuals whose large and small actions of courage and bravery and decency should give us courage. Knowing their stories should enable us to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to our world today, and to be alert to future perils.

Judith Miller wrote about how best to remember. She said "before the Holocaust was a national and international catastrophe it was a family tragedy, an individual loss. History books and education are important. But abstraction is memory's most ardent enemy. It kills because it encourages distance and often indifference. We must remind ourselves that the Holocaust was not six million. It was one, plus one, plus one.... Only in understanding that civilized people must defend the one, by one, by one can the Holocaust, the incomprehensible, be given meaning." (One by One by One, Judith Miller, 1990, -. 287). One by one, by one. That is how we remember today; our family tragedy, our people's tragedy, one by one by one.