By David Kopel
MSNBC.com, December 10, 2004. More by Kopel on Hanukkah.
Tonight is the fourth night of Armed Jews Week, or as it is more popularly known, Hanukkah. Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration of the Jewish revolution against Syria in the second century B.C. The Syrian government (a remnant of Alexander the Great’s empire) attempted to wipe out the Jewish religion by forcing the Jews to conform to Greek culture. Some of them refused, and a tiny militia, led by Judah the Maccabee (“the hammer”) began a guerilla war.
The Jewish militia grew in force, and repeatedly destroyed much larger Syrian armies which were sent to smash the revolution. Syria’s King Antiochus decided that the Jewish people were so much trouble that he would just get rid of them entirely—slaughtering as many as necessary, and selling all the rest into slavery. But his wicked plans failed, and after years of war, the Jews won their independence.
During the years of Syrian tyranny, Syrian officers enjoyed the droit du seigneur—the authority to deflower virgin Jewish brides on their wedding nights, before they could join their husbands. So some stories which Jewish families retell at Hanukkah, such as the Book of Judith, extol brave Jewish women who went to the tent of enemy officers who were expecting sex—but who instead met their deaths as the hands of lone Jewish women.
During centuries of oppression in Christian and Moslem lands, many Jews adopted attitudes of passivity and helplessness. Those attitudes began to change in the late nineteenth century, with the growth of the Zionist movement.
Zionists believed that Jews had become disconnected from the physical world. That the Jews had no homeland was the most extreme manifestation of the disconnection, but the disconnect could be seen on many levels. Often pale and weak, Jewish boys were easy targets for bullies. Usually passive and timid, Jewish communities were easy targets for mobs. The root cause of Jewish physical weakness and of disrespect by gentiles was the Jewish lack of self-respect.
The Zionists set out to restore a Jewish homeland, and they recognized that such a project would require a widespread change in Jewish consciousness.
So in counties such as Russia and Israel (which was ruled as colony by the Ottoman Empire and then by the British), Zionists organized Jewish self-defense groups. Many of the young Jewish men and women who would lead the resistance to Hitler were members of these Zionist self-defense youth groups in the 1930s in Eastern Europe.
Although there is a widespread myth that Jews in the Holocaust were passive, they were actually more active than any other conquered people. In 1942-43, Jews constituted half of all the partisans in Poland. Overall, about thirty thousand Jewish partisans fought in Eastern Europe. There were armed revolts in over forty different ghettos, mostly in Eastern Poland.
In other parts of Europe, Jews likewise joined the resistance at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Unlike in Eastern Europe, though, Jews were generally able to participate as individuals in the national resistance, rather than having to fight in separate units.
For example, in France, Jews amounted to than one percent of French population, but comprised about 15-20 percent of the French Resistance.
In Greece too, Jews were disproportionately involved in the resistance. In Thessaly, a Jewish partisan unit in the mountains was led by the septuagenarian Rabbi Moshe Pesah, who carried his own rifle. The Athenian Jew Jacques Costis led the team which demolished the Gorgopotamos Bridge, thereby breaking the link between the mainland and Peloponnesian Peninsula, and interfering with the delivery of supplies to Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
One of the great centers of resistance was Vilna, Lithuania, which before the Nazi conquest had been an outstanding center of Jewish learning, compared by some to Jerusalem.
Plans for resistance began in January 1942. The Jews’ only weapons were smuggled in from nearby German arms factories where the Jews performed slave labor. Hopeful of liberation by the Russian army, many of the Vilna Jews did not support the partisans. Partisan resistance postponed by three weeks the German plans to transport all the inhabitants of the Vilna ghetto to death camps, but the deportation of 40,000 Jews was accomplished by the end of September 1943.
A young poet named Abba Kovner led the resistance movement known as the Avengers in the woods around Vilna. His lieutenants, and bedmates, were teenage girls, Vitka Kempner and Ruzka Korczak.
The Avengers were the first partisans in Nazi Europe to blow up a German train.
Towards the end of the war, the Avengers shepherded huge numbers of Jews to Palestine, in violation of the British blockade.
Before the war, Ruzka had belonged to left-wing Zionist youth group called “The Young Guard” (HaShomer HaTza’ir) which trained Jews in self-defense, and taught the older boys how to shoot. Abba was not religious, but he was a fervent Zionist, loving to read the Bible stories of Jewish warriors, and aiming to emulate the Jewish Bible heroes.
In the Vilna Ghetto, it was Abba Kovner who first saw that the tightening of the Nazi oppression was not just a temporary imposition by a local German official; it was a step towards the total destruction of the Jews. The only way out, he argued, was “Revolt and armed defense. This is the only way which promises any dignity for our people.”
Other Jews countered that revolt was hopeless because the Germans were so strong, and that collective reprisals by the Germans would just lead to more Jewish deaths. Ruzka Korczak retorted that the stories of Jewish heroism could not remain only “a part of our ancient history. They must be part of our real life as well.” The next generation of Jews must have something to admire. “How good will they be if their entire history is one of slaughter and extermination? We cannot allow that. It must also have heroic struggles, self-defense, war, even death with honor.”
Vilna was typical, in that the young people were usually the ones who wanted to fight, and the elders usually counseled against causing trouble. Most of the partisan leaders and fighters were young.
Niuta Teitelbaum was a beautiful 24-year-old Jewish Polish woman who looked like she was sixteen. Known as “Little Wanda with the Braids,” she was an expert smuggler of people and weapons, and instructed women’s partisan cells. Her units blew up trains, artillery emplacements, and other German targets.
Once, wearing traditional Polish clothing and a kerchief on her hair, she talked her way past a series of Gestapo guards, whispering that she was going to see the SS commander on “private business.” Alone with the commander in his office, she drew a revolver, shot him dead, and calmly left the building.
Because generation after generation after generation of Jewish families told their children the heroic Hanukkah stories of Judah the Maccabee and Judith, the spirit of freedom and resistance lived in modern heroes such as Abba Kovner and Niuta Teitelbaum.
At the annual Passover Seder, Jewish families say:
In every generation, each person must look upon himself or herself as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus says, “You shall tell your children on that day: it is because of what the Eternal One did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” For it was not our fathers and mothers alone whom the Holy One redeemed. We too were redeemed along with them.
The point has a broader application than just for Jews at Passover. Hanukkah teaches that God’s redemption of the Jewish people is a continuing act of history—and so does Jewish armed resistance during the Holocaust. The resistance proved to the world that Jews were active fighters, and not mere passive victims. That resistance (most famously, in the Warsaw Ghetto) was an indispensable step towards the rebirth of the modern state of Israel.
The Books of Maccabees and the Book of Judith are part of the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Orthodox Bibles; the stories of resistance to the Nazis are part of the heritage of freedom-loving people everywhere. So as Jewish families light Menorah candles during the eight days of Hanukkah, may people of good will, of all faiths, use the time as an occasion to teach their children about the inspiring Jewish and Gentile men and women who, even in the darkest times, have kept alive the sacred light of freedom.