The central theme of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year is “Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust: Marking 80 Years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
Resistance encompasses a wide range of actions and, contrary to popular belief, does not necessarily involve taking up arms. Jewish resistance during the Holocaust could be a Shabbat Kiddush, staging a play in the ghetto, or even applying a little rouge to the cheeks—any action, simple or complex, that preserved the human spirit in the face of the Nazi German extermination plan that sought to destroy the Jewish people and its culture.
Eighty years later, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains a symbol. It was a popular insurrection: While the fighters of the Jewish Fighting Organization and the Jewish Military Union fought the Nazis in the streets of the ghetto, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto barricaded themselves in bunkers and fought for their lives for a whole long month. Many perished in the flames and smoke of the Nazi siege. News of the uprising spread quickly and reached the free world; it became a symbol of the battle of the few against the many, a symbol of the freedom and power of the human spirit.
During the Holocaust, there were other uprisings in the camps and ghettos, while thousands of Jewish partisans fought in the forests of Eastern Europe and were a significant force in the battle against the Germans, and they also saved thousands of Jews who fled to the forests. There were many other cases where Jews rescued other Jews, even though they themselves were being pursued.
Other forms of resistance during the Holocaust included documenting the terrible events in secret, forging papers, hiding Jews, operating an education system, maintaining cultural life with performances, art and underground libraries—all of which were acts of resistance that could not be taken for granted in the horrific reality of persecution and destruction.
These acts of resistance fueled a hope among the Jews, albeit desperate, that they would live to see the end of the war. Although the widespread resistance was not able to save the millions of Jews, its scale and diversity bequeathed a Jewish legacy for generations, symbolizing the power of the human spirit and humanity’s fundamental values.
As Elie Wiesel wrote, “The Jewish soul was a target of the enemy. He sought to corrupt it, even as he strove to destroy us physically. But despite his destructive force, despite his corrupting power, the Jewish soul remained beyond his reach.”
Dani Dayan is chairman of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.