Steven T. Katz Lecture – Holocaust Memorial Museum

March 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

On Wednesday night I attended the 2012 J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Annual Lecture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. For those of you who have an opportunity, I would highly recommend attending a lecture at this museum. The ambiance is welcoming, respectful, reverent and informative. The speaker this year was Steven T. Katz, renowned and accomplished academic. The topic was this: Thinking About Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. Essentially, Katz addressed questions that have arisen in many minds over the years: Why didn’t the Jews run away? Why weren’t there more revolts and jailbreaks in the ghettos and camps? Why didn’t they resist?

I am not a historian, nor a genocide studies major, nor a Jew. But Katz’ lecture was applicable and appreciable even to those of us outside his fields of academia and religion. Particularly, his points remind us that we must be thoughtful in our judgments of others and of the past–attempting, as best we can, to be informed of the circumstances.

Katz’ began by mentioning the balance that must always be struck in speaking about the Holocaust; a balance of praising acts of bravery and triumph, whilst remembering the horror and honoring the deceased. His thesis seemed to be that we should neither be surprised nor disheartened by how little the Jews seemed to resist the Nazis during the Shoah;  rather, we should be impressed and impacted by the fact that any resistance happened at all. Among the barriers to resistance imposed upon the Jews were the following:

1. Surprise. In hindsight we know that the Holocaust was coming–but the Jews of the 1930s had no conception of such a thing as genocide; it was only in ’43 that Raphael Lemkin coined the term, mixing the Greek root for “tribe or race” (genos) with the Latin root for “murder or kill” (cide). No one could foresee what was happening. And those who predicted were not believed.

2. Solitude. Governments would not protect them, and many Jews had bad relations with their neighbors.

3. Community. Ghettos were not like college campuses. The people inside were not all independent. If threatened, they could not all run away. There they had multi-generational communities, so when they made calculations about what was possible to do in resistance, they had to think “What’s possible for my grandparents?” “Do I have to sacrifice them?”…”What about my wife, if I run away…What about my children? Do they get anything to eat at all.” The courageous thing to do was to stay and support their families.

For instance, one man who fled to the Partisans during the Shoah said after the war,

“Am I a hero in Israel? Or did I betray my mother?”

Said Katz, “That’s not a simple question and has no simple answer.”

4. Reprisals. The courageous thing for a Jew to do was not always to give into their anger and kill the German, but to withhold their anger in the hope that they could all go on for another day. “For example, we have in the literature many examples where young Jews left the Ghettos. And the next day the SS officer in charge of the ghetto would come and round up the families of the people who were missing and murder them all.” In one case, “Two Jews left the Ghetto. They were captured. They were brought back, put in jail. They broke out of the jail. The head of the SS came to see the head of the [ghetto] and said, “if they don’t show up, we will eliminate the ghetto.” The man thought it was [an] idle [threat] but he tried as hard as he could to find the two men. They couldn’t be found. Three days later, 1,540 Jews were killed. 1,540 Jews were killed.

5. Misunderstanding. Jews likened their situation to that of slaves and thought that if they could work for the Nazis they could buy time. “What master kills his slaves?” they thought.  And so they dedicated themselves to a workful life. “But they didn’t understand that the policy of work would not save them. First of all, most Jews were not put to work. 90% of the Jews who were brought to Auschwitz were killed immediately…And even those put to work…followed a policy of ‘murder through annihilation and through work.'” The point was to kill them.

6. Confusion. “The Nazis did everything they could to mislead, so that Jews, when they were making decisions, didn’t make decisions that were coherent.” One man in charge of a ghetto heard rumors that it would be liquidated. The man went up and up the ladder of German authority asking for confirmation, but he was repeatedly told that the rumors not true. The man returned to the ghetto and calmed the Jews. Three days later the ghetto was liquidated.

7. Jews had no access to arms.

8.  In most cases the Nazis moved very quickly and the Jews had no time to organize before being killed.

9. In many instances we have no record of resistance because physical resistece was met with immediate death or because no records were kept in attempts for secrecy.

10. The Jews were beaten, battered, exhausted, sick, malnourished, frightened.

So again, as Katz said, we should not be surprised that so little resistance occurred during the Holocaust, but rather that any resistance occurred at all.

Katz also pointed out, however, that resistance was not only physical. After the lecture, during Q and A, Katz defined resistance as “Anything that you could do that the Nazis did not want you to do.”1 This included the 600 prayer quorums that gathered in the Warsaw Ghetto–meaning 6,000 men who risked their lives everyday to pray. Or put another way (as found in one of the articles offered at the lecture):

“Covert resistance consisted of ‘small acts of humanness’, by which prisoners helped and supported each other, such as sharing food, giving gifts and holding one another up during the endless roll-calls and death marches, thereby forming bonds of friendship and communication that effectively defied the Nazis’ attempts to totally dehumanize their victims.” (Terrence Des Pres has pointed out in The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, quoted by Ellen S. Fine)

In all, I greatly appreciated Katz’ lecture. I found it a potent reminder to maturely manage judgement (be that condemnation or praise), and to remember that bravery and cowardice, wisdom and folly cannot often be seen with my finite eyes. The variables are innumerable and the circumstances often clouded. The abstract lessons taught in Thinking About Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust can be applied not only to the Holocaust but to many areas of our lives–and not only to group dynamics, but to individuals as well.

In summary, by Katz:

“Before we make judgements about what people should have done, we have to know a lot about the situation they were in. Whatever judgment you want to make, if you’re informed, that’s fine, but casual, cheap conversations about what was morally correct or incorrect, courageous or not courageous, need to be restrained.”

1 Katz mentioned that, were he in a classroom setting, he would like to debate this definition

* These notes are a personal summary and I do not affirm the absolute accuracy of quotes. Though I have a recording from which I have transcribed, I would still recommend your finding an official copy of the lecture to listen to or read firsthand.


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