The landscape of Holocaust remembrance is punctuated by anniversaries, but few dates are as resonant as April 19, which marked the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Its enduring symbolism is attested to by the fact that it is the national Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland, the country from which more than half of the victims of the Shoah came. This year, the 70th anniversary, represents one of the last landmark commemorations in which survivors and witnesses will be able to participate.
In Warsaw, memorial events will continue until May 16, the date commonly accepted as the end of the revolt. This in itself shows why the uprising occupies such a central place in both Jewish and Polish narratives of the Holocaust: a group of poorly armed, inexperienced guerrilla fighters resisted German forces for almost a month in what was the first major civilian revolt in occupied Europe. It is thus hardly surprising that it has become the supreme symbol of Jewish resistance.
Despite this, Jewish resistance is often marginalised in accounts of the Shoah. Even some of those who have celebrated the uprising have used it to reproach other European Jews for alleged passivity. During the war itself, many critics - Jewish and non-Jewish - claimed that the victims had allowed themselves, in an oft-used phrase, to be "led like sheep to the slaughter". But such arguments simply do not stand up to serious scrutiny.
It should first be acknowledged just how difficult resistance was - for all communities living under Nazi rule but especially for Jews. Not only were they confronted by an opponent with overwhelming force; the starvation and exhaustion that characterised life in the ghettos limited the ability to resist. Moreover, Jews did not know Nazi intentions in advance. As the historian Yehuda Bauer explains, "the decision to murder [the Jews] was not taken until… 1941. If the Germans did not know, the Jews cannot be expected to have known either." The main aim of most European Jews was therefore to hold out until the expected and longed for Nazi defeat. It is understandable that many people believed active resistance would make the situation worse by provoking reprisals. Even after the killings began, it proved hard to properly absorb their implications. Emmanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian in the Warsaw ghetto, put it thus: "It was difficult for normal, thinking people to accept the idea that on this globe it was possible for a government calling itself European to murder millions of innocent people."
Nonetheless, as the Shoah developed, armed Jewish resistance increasingly emerged. Indeed, today is only the first of a number of 70th anniversaries of ghetto uprisings this year. Once the mass deportations of 1942 had taken place, there was little room left for doubt as to Nazi intentions. Moreover, those left behind tended to be younger, and perhaps both physically and psychologically better able to resist. By then, many were bereft of family ties, which not only fuelled a desire to fight back but also largely removed the fear of collective reprisals.
Resistance occurred even in the extermination camps, with significant uprisings in three of the five major killing centres, including Treblinka (August 2 1943) and Sobibór (October 14 1943). Almost all who were sent to these camps were murdered immediately but a small number were selected to work, either disposing of bodies or sorting property stolen from the victims, always themselves under the threat of death. As transports dwindled in summer 1943, the inmates developed plans to kill their guards as the prelude to mass breakouts. Although these plans did not entirely work as hoped, around 400 of the 1,500 or so inmates were able to escape and elude the initial pursuit. Up to 100 survived to the end of the war. The revolt of the Sonderkommando (prisoners condemned to work in the gas chambers) in Auschwitz-Birkenau of 1944 did not - indeed, could not, given the isolation of the rebels from the rest of the camp - produce similar results. Nonetheless it stands as a remarkable gesture of defiance.
Despite the many rebellions in ghettos and camps, sustained fighting inside such confined spaces was only really possible in Warsaw because of its greater size and the networks of tunnels and bunkers. So armed resistance tended to take different forms. The most common strategy was to try to escape from the ghettos to form partisan units, mainly in the heavily forested areas of eastern Poland - the most famous example being the Bielski brothers, as detailed in the film, Defiance. Their case highlights how little Jewish resistance has permeated mainstream understanding of the Shoah: consider how unusual Defiance was among Holocaust-based films in its depiction of Jews.
The Bielskis also illustrate that resistance went beyond fighting. Prolonged armed resistance could only ever be an option for a minority, depending as it did on suitable geography and on an ability to survive harsh winters and scorching summers, frequent lack of food and weapons, and, not infrequently, hostility from the locals. But resistance could take many forms, not least the rescue of fellow Jews, as we have been reminded this week by the honouring of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld as a British Hero of the Holocaust. These awards - originally instigated by the Holocaust Educational Trust - have been issued by the government to British citizens who saved Jews during the Holocaust. In the context of rescue, we note that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not the only major anniversary to be remembered on April 19. On the same day, in Belgium, a young Jewish student called Youra Livschitz and two non-Jewish friends, armed only with a pistol, a pair of wire cutters and a lamp concealed to look like a signal, succeeded in stopping a train bound for Auschwitz. They facilitated the release of 231 Jews, 115 of whom escaped; the youngest was an 11-year-old boy. This was only the most spectacular example of Jews rescuing other Jews from certain death, a phenomenon which has barely entered popular consciousness, but which ranged from the Bielskis sheltering 1,000 people in the forests to nursery workers in Amsterdam smuggling out infants earmarked for deportation.
Resistance could also take the form of recording Nazi crimes, the best example of which was the Oneg Shabbat archive organised in Warsaw. A dedicated band of activists aimed to record all aspects of ghetto life by collecting diaries, statistical reports, drawings and even mundane artefacts like chocolate wrappers or tram tickets. Buried in 1942-43, most of the archives were discovered after the war, at least partially fulfilling the last testament of David Graber, a 19-year-old who helped to bury the first cache in August 1942: "May the treasure fall in good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened and was played out in the 20th century." Even in Auschwitz, members of the Sonderkommando buried notebooks recording their experiences.
Today's ceremonies in Warsaw will also see the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which should also prompt us to consider more subtle forms of resistance. Its mission will be to engage visitors in the history and culture of what was the world's largest Jewish community before its almost complete destruction, reminding us that the Holocaust was an attempt to destroy both human beings and an entire civilisation. Attempts to preserve and foster Jewish culture, from clandestine schools to the continuation of religious observance, can thus be seen as manifestations of what historians have termed "spiritual resistance". These examples may be some distance from the desperate combat in underground basements that characterised Warsaw in spring, 1943, yet they can still be seen as statements of independence and dignity.
Of course, one should be careful not to exaggerate. As Bauer reminds us, we should not assume that the majority of Europe's Jews were fighting or writing diaries. The Holocaust brought untold misery and destruction, and it was only human that many succumbed to despair, and that ties of communal and even familial solidarity were often frayed. "It is wrong", he writes, "to demand… that these tortured individuals and communities should have behaved as mythical heroes." Rather, "the fact that so many of them did is a matter of wonderment."
April 19 2013 ought to encourage us to consider not how little resistance was offered by Jews during the Shoah but how much. Amid the speeches and laying of flowers in the Ghetto Heroes' Square in Warsaw, we will be reminded of the myriad ways in which ordinary human beings, confronted with the most extraordinary of circumstances, sought to assert basic values of dignity and solidarity. No one could have demanded more.
Martin Winstone is an education officer at the Holocaust Educational Trust and author of 'The Holocaust Sites of Europe' and the forthcoming 'The Dark Heart of Hitler's Europe' (I. B. Tauris)