Life & Culture

Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-45 book review: Deserves a special place on every Jewish bookshelf

Halik Kochanski's mammoth account of the response to the Shoah is an inventory of heroes


Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-45
By Halik Kochanski
Allen Lane, £35
Reviewed by Colin Shindler

A recent addition to the many books by resistance fighters that record the terrible events they were forced to live through in the war against Nazism, and the courage of their comrades who did not survive, this work by the historian, Halik Kochanski aims to, in her words, take “a clear, balanced and unified picture” of the resistance in every country in Nazi-occupied Europe.

There are two special chapters in this mammoth account. One records a Jewish response to the Shoah, the other a Christian reaction. Kochanski argues that the sheer brutality of the Nazi occupier towards Jews sensitised many a non-Jew to perform an act of resistance, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Jean Weidner, a Dutch-born businessman and Seventh Day Adventist in France, helped smuggle Jews into Switzerland – up to 25,000 Jews were turned away at the border by the Swiss. In Italy, Giovanni Palatucci, a police commissioner, destroyed official documents, provided false identity papers and smuggled Jews out of German-occupied Rome to the free south. He was arrested and died in Dachau. It is estimated that he saved the lives of 5,000 Jews.

The Norwegian resistance hid 930 of the 1,100 Jews in Oslo and took them to Sweden while the Armée Juive, a Zionist group, smuggled Jews into Spain on their journey to Palestine. Outside of the ghettos in Eastern Europe, family camps were established by the famous Bielski brothers deep in the Naliboki forest in Belarus.

The underground press in Belgium and Holland made valiant attempts to shake their populations out of fear and indifference towards helping Jews, but this did not impede the local police in France, Holland and Norway from rounding them up, prior to passage “to the East”. In Poland, the Nazis propagated a policy of collective responsibility such that entire families, whole villages and crowded apartment blocks would pay the ultimate price for harbouring a solitary Jew. In western Europe, this was less common – even so, Halik Kochanski records that, when 30 Jews were discovered in a Brussels school, the members of the Ovart family who hid them were all executed.

The Vichy regime instituted a scale of levels of persecution to distinguish between “foreign Jews” and native French Jews. Catholic bishops in Slovakia also made a distinction, but between “baptised Jews” and those who did not convert.

Jewish organisations such as the Comité de Défense des Juifs appeared in Belgium, challenging the more established groups whom they considered to be little more than fellow-travellers. The Comité hid 12,000 Jews, published an underground newspaper and forged identity papers. Robert Holzinger, who issued deportation notices on behalf of the official communal body, was assassinated in August 1942. Jewish groups also attacked communal offices in Marseille and Lyon to destroy official records, preventing them from being used by the Nazis. Kochanski significantly notes that Jewish units within the French resistance itself did not mount specific attacks to prevent deportation trains from leaving, but only acted within the general campaign.

Winston Churchill once remarked that this was “no war of chieftains and princes”, but one of “people and causes”. Halik Kochanski’s book of nearly 1,000 pages tells their story. It deserves a special place on every Jewish bookshelf.

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