Lecturer: Elly Dlin

Lecture 6: Why Were WE KILLED?

Why the Jews?  Is it always the Jews?  Does it always have to be the Jews? And what else could WE, should WE have done during the Holocaust?  These are some of the central issues from the perspective of WE as VICTIMS.  Not individuals victims - the Nazis had little interest in particular people, only that the person was classified as a Jew.  Indeed they expended considerable effort on the "who is a Jew" question, how many Jews in one's family tree make one "a full Jew" or "a mischlinge" or mixed blood and were the Karaites Jews or not?  All in order to seek out every Jew to kill them.

The question of why were WE KILLED may be subtitled: "the dilemmas of the condemned".  In this lecture I will raise some of the central issues related to the responses of the Jews.


The simple answer is inconsistent, but German Jews did not want to leave Germany and yet most did go.  Overall, there was no where to go and yet they did emigrate somewhere.  Even after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, German Jews considered Germany to be their home and felt firmly rooted to the culture and body politic of their country.  If anything, they regarded Nazism as the aberration whose presence would be temporary.

Panic and flight was not in the nature of German Jews.  Still, the shock and terror of the Nazi onslaught on their position and person was sufficiently serious that 63,000 Jews left during the first year of the Third Reich (over 11% of the 566,000 Jews by race in the country).  Nearly 1/3 of them returned to Nazi Germany: not because they had changed their minds regarding the dangers of Adolf Hitler but because insufficient preparation had left them facing humiliation, deprivation and even starvation.

Over the next 5 years, emigration rates stabilized at about 5% per year and there was the growing hope of a semblance of stability.  The pressures to leave were insidious but until November 1938 not dramatic enough to clear them all out.  The Kristall Night pogroms broke all illusions and 49,000 Jews left Germany in 1938, 68,000 more in 1939.  Overall about 2/3 of Germany's Jews managed to get out and by the outbreak of the War, most of the remaining were poor and unwanted.  Yet even more of them would have emigrated had it been possible for them to gain a precious entrance visa.

The fate of the passengers on the S.S. St. Louis is illustrative. The 930 Jews on board held landing certificates for Cuba.  Some had spent their last funds to buy passage.  Unknown to the passengers, the Cuban government decided to cancel their landing certificates so when the St. Louis reached Havana port the Jews were not allowed to land.  The sympathetic captain sailed his ship in circles off the coast of Florida in order to stir up sympathy but the American response was to scramble Coast Guard cutters to keep the ship in international waters.  This despite the fact that 700 of the passengers held US immigration numbers that would have allowed them to emigrate there within 3 years.  Unable to remain afloat indefinitely, the ship was forced to return its Jews to Europe in the summer of 1939. 

Many who had done everything that could be expected of them to escape the Nazi terror found themselves in countries overrun by the armies of the Third Reich.  Many were murdered in the Holocaust. Austrian Jews emigrated at even a faster pace.  Nearly 70% left between March 1938 (Anschluss) and September 1939 (War).  But the bulk of the victims of the Holocaust were NOT the Jews of Central Europe.  Millions of Jews who lived in Poland and Eastern Europe wanted to get out, but NOT because of the dictator who sat in Berlin.  They wanted to escape from antisemitism and from the tough conditions around them.  But emigration for Eastern European Jews was even more difficult, especially after the Western countries adopted restrictive emigration policies in the 1920s.  Soon after the War began emigration from Eastern Europe was largely impossible, trapping the millions of  Jews.
And what did the Jews of Eastern Europe expect from the German invasion? Some, hearing of discrimination and oppression feared pogroms.  But "pogrom" is a Russian word.  The Nazis did not have a monopoly on antisemitism. True, they invented the most horrible and lethal antisemitic policies known to man, the Death Camps, but these began much later, in December 1941.  In the early years of the War Polish Jewry suffered restrictions, ghettoes, terror and murders but nothing they had not survived in the past.  And besides, didn't good things come from the West and the bad from the East? And hadn't Polish Jews survived the last German invasion and the last World War - true, not without a dear price paid in blood and souls, but had WE not survived...always?

Some Jews run, but the only escape route that opens briefly leads to Bolshevik Russia and deportations to Siberia.  And is that necessarily preferable to the Nazi occupation?  Can you be sure?  Some Jews hide in the forests, but for how long?  And what do you do when winter arrives?  Other Jews hope for the best and greet the Nazi invaders at the city limits with the traditional blessing of bread and salt.


The Judenrats or Jewish Councils illustrate the dilemma of being condemned to choose in a choiceless situation when each alternative is dangerous and undesirable yet abdication of responsibility is even worse.  The Judenrat has been called a "dual institution" caught between German demands and Jewish interests.  Could the Judenrat follow German order without hurting Jews?  Yet could it disobey German orders without hurting even more of them? Was it a German instrument to manipulate and fool the Jews, eventually facilitating if not outright supporting their murder?  Or was it basically a Jewish body in the tradition of Jewish leadership that strove to represent and to protect Jews during a difficult time?  Answers are not simple and evaluations are painful and unclear.

Overall, we can characterize the tasks of the Judenrat as being 3-fold: 1) routine responsibilities that continued from pre-war times (such as education, kashrut, rites of passage, social welfare) and which strengthened the traditional aspects of Judenrats; 2)  new roles it is forced to fill as a result of the vacuum of municipal services in the ghettos (such as sanitation, health, mail service, police, etc.) that strengthen their helping role but thrust the leadership into roles of making life-determining choices, and 3) new tasks imposed by the Nazis that initially are benign and understandable ones such as a providing census lists, supplying "volunteer" laborers, transferring taxes and other payments that only later deteriorate into selecting some people to receive life-promising benefits such as work permits, scarce medicines, choice job placements and finally exemptions (temporary) on deportation lists to the East.

Take "the dilemma of Jewish self-help" that Emanuel Ringelblum articulates in his diary entry for May 26, 1942 (what medical personal know as "triage"): "Relief work doesn't solve the problem...people have to die anyway.  It lengthens suffering but cannot save them...It remains a proven fact that the people fed in the soup-kitchens will all die if they eat nothing but the soup supplied and the dry rationed bread.  The question thus arises whether it would not serve the purpose better to reserve the available money for selected individuals, for those who are socially productive, for the intellectual elite, etc.  But...the question arises why should one pronounce judgment on artisans, laborers and other useful persons, who were productive people back in their small towns, and only the ghetto and the war have turned them into non-people, into scrap, into human dregs, candidates for mass graves.  There is left a tragic dilemma: What shall one do? Shall one [hand out the food] with little spoons to everybody, and then no one will live, or in generous handfuls to just a few...?"  (DOCUMENTS ON THE
HOLOCAUST, p. 232).

And the dilemmas get harder.  On September 4, 1942 the head of the Judenrat in Lodz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski addressed the people of the ghetto: "I cannot give you comfort today.  Nor did I come to calm you today...I have come like a robber, to take from you what is dearest to your heart.  I tried everything I knew to get the bitter sentence canceled.  When it could not be canceled, I tried to lessen the sentence...(Y)esterday...(I tried) to save at least one year - children from nine to ten.  But they would not yield.  I succeeded in one thing - to save the children over ten.  Let that be our consolation in our great sorrow...

Give me these sick people (with tuberculosis), and perhaps it will be possible to save the healthy in their place...(A)t a time of such decrees one must weigh up and measure who should be saved, who can be saved and who may be saved.  Common sense requires us to know that those must be saved who can be saved and who have a chance of being saved and not those (for) whom there is no chance to save in any case..." (DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, pp. 283-4).

Jacob Gens in Vilna sent Jewish policeman to round up Jews in neighbouring Oszmiana (Jewish population of 4,000).  Jews selected 406 Jews and knowingly handed them over to the Nazis to be murdered.  Yet he did it to save 1,094 other Jews since the Nazis had wanted 1,500 victims and Gens succeeded in getting the others past the Nazi shooters and in to the relative safety of the Vilna ghetto.  Did the Jewish leader Gens help murder 406 or did he rescue 1,094, or both?  Or were all of the !,500 condemned by the Nazis to die anyway and nothing Gens could do would affect their eventual fate?

Some accuse the Jews of contributing to their own destruction.  "(T)his role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story...In the matter of cooperation, there was no distinction between the highly assimilated Jewish communities of Central and Western Europe and the Yiddish-speaking masses of the East." (Arendt, pp. 117-8).  Raul Hilberg uses the phrase "anticipatory compliance" to suggest that the Judenrat obeyed Nazi orders even before they were given and that conscious or not, it became a lethal tool in the hands of the killers.  Therefore Judenrats are all guilty as accessories to murder.

Not so, argues Yehuda Bauer and others.  Those who look only at results are blind to the actual complex situation.  The results are that millions of Jews are killed - where there are Judenrats and before they are ever formed (no Judenrat is involved in the shooting of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar outside of Kiev over a 2 day period in September 1941); when Judenrats comply and when were part of the Jewish armed resistance (Minsk).  Jews died regardless; the results were always the same because the Nazis held exclusive control.  If we can accuse Judenrats of having helped cause the deaths of Jews, then we are implying that they had the power to have saved Jewish lives had they acted differently.  Not so, say the historians who have carefully studies the behaviours of different Judenrats.

Bauer argues that the crucial indicator is NOT results, but intentions (Bauer, pp. 155-67).  Did the Judenrat strive to help Jews or did they sell out community interests to save their own skins?  With this as his question, Aharon Weiss studied 146 Judenrats in Poland.  He found that 100 (68.5%) deserve a positive evaluation for having resigned, refused cooperation on any level or were removed, even murdered.  25 more (17%) get a mixed evaluation and 21 (14%) are judged negatively (Weiss, p. 356).  His study shows that the glass is decidedly much more than half-full.


Probably no question related to the Holocaust has generated as much heat as that of resistance.  In later lectures we will consider the wider social contexts of each of the competing interpretations, but here we will restrict our concerns to some basic clarifications.

Firstly, if resistance is understood as actions intended to oppose, fight off, withstand and work against the Nazis that every Jew is resisting all of the time.  The Nazis wanted the Jews to disappear, so unless they did, it was resistance.  And except for a few suicides, the Jews stubbornly remained and steadfastly tried to survive.  If passive resistance is refusing to comply through non-violent actions, then there was nothing passive about Jewish resistance.  They could not often refuse to comply and everything in their relationship was violent.

The distinction that needs to be made is between a resistance whose goal it is to help Jews survive and one whose goal is to kill Nazis.  The 2 types of resistance are mutual exclusive since given the unequal balance of power during the War, attacking Nazis is a death threat to Jews.  In the initial period, before the start of the Final Solution in June 1941, before it was possible to have any glimpse of the murderous Nazi intentions, only the first type of resistance was acted upon.  Helping Jews to survive was NOT without a price.  Jews who only ate the Nazi ration would die of starvation.

Compliance meant suicide, and few took that path.  But smuggling food and black marketing were illegal and Jews could in illegal activities could be executed.  Compliance meant death and resistance threatened their lives, but life was only possible through resistance.  So Jews resisted.

They also resisted in a myriad of other ways that were intended to help Jews survive.  Taking pot-shots at Nazis was not one of them since it could only result in the absolute opposite.  Physical attacks against Germans invited massive collective punishments.  So long as Jews were convinced that they could or might survive, the second type of resistance made no sense.  It was a collective suicide that most probably would drag others in, against their wills.

The first recorded discussion of someone glimpsing the reality of the Final Solution was in Vilna on December 31, 1941 (Ruschka Korczak, pp. 261-74). Abba Kovner admits that he cannot prove it, but he senses that the threat of death is universal, for all Jews and therefore the sole response must be attack and kill Germans before all of the Jews are killed.  Some follow him and others who call Jews to arms.  Most cannot or do not accept that they are all going to die and so the armed resistance is in most cases supported only by a minority, usually young people, physically strong, unattached to spouses, elderly parents or young children, and ideologically committed (frequently Zionist activists or revolutionaries leftists).

Warsaw is a popular uprising not because the Jews there were different, but because of the Nazis.  The Nazis made mistakes in Warsaw that they learned not to repeat elsewhere, specifically the January action which discredited the traditional leadership in the ghetto, seemed to prove the rightness of the path of resisters and fostered the illusion that the Nazis can be chased out of the ghetto.  Most of those who supported the fighters in the Warsaw Uprising hoped that by some miracle they would survive whereas most of the fighters themselves believed that the only end to the fight would be the deaths of all of the Jews.

Those who hoped for rescue through armed resistance took the fight into the forests and swamps and tried to find sympathetic partisan allies.  Those who saw armed resistance as a struggle "for 3 lines in the history books" (Adolf Liebeskind quoted in Gilbert, pp. 505-6) or to inspire future generations with examples of selfless heroism while at the same time making the Germans and their accomplices pay for their crimes (Izhak Katznelson, quoted in Gilbert, pp. 524-5 ) fought the Nazis with weapons.  For if the Jews were all dead anyway, armed resistance was nothing more than shifting the initiative to Jewish hands and taking control over the place and circumstances of their own deaths.  This is certainly the spirit and feeling behind the uprisings in the Death Camps - in Sobibor and in Treblinka and in Auschwitz.


WE shouldn't loose sight of the main issue here.  Why were WE KILLED? Because they wanted to kill us and they had the power to do it and because the ones who could stop them (and who eventually did) allowed them to kill 6 million of US over the course of years.  That is not an explanation, it is a description.  In the next lecture I will attempt some sort of synthesis relating to the question: "Can the Holocaust be Explained?"


Arent, Hannah, EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM: A REPORT ON THE BANALITY OF EVIL, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Bauer, Yehudah, A HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST, New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman and Abraham Margaliot, eds.,        Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981.

Gilbert, Martin, THE HOLOCAUST, London: William Collins, 1986.

Korczak, Ruschka, "Flames in Ashes," in THE MASSACRE OF EUROPEAN JEWRY, World   Hashomer Hatzair, 1963.

Weiss, Aharon, "Jewish Leadership in Occupied Poland," in YAD VASHEM STUDIES, v. 12,         Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1977.




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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0