In most spiritual teachings, “resistance” is a “four-letter word” – something to be avoided at all times.
But is there ever a time when it is more healthy and life-giving to resist?
In March 1941 460,000 Jews were incarcerated in the 5.5 square kilometer area known as the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. Warsaw was a city of 1.3 million people living in an area of 87 square kilometers.The Ghetto confined 30% of the population to only 2.4% of the city’s total area.
By July 1942, sixteen months after the foundation of the Ghetto, through disease, starvation, violence, and mass deportation, the Jewish population had been reduced to 380,000. By January 1943 , the number of Ghetto residents had plummeted to 40,000. By May 16, 1943, not a single Jew was left in the Ghetto which had been razed to the ground.
Along with all other Jews in Warsaw, when the Ghetto was first established in November 1940, Emmanuel Ringelblum was trapped inside the Jewish area. Until his execution, along with his wife and their twelve-year-old son, Uri on 7 March 1944 in the ruins of Warsaw, Ringelblum kept an exhaustive record of Ghetto life. His Notes From The Warsaw Ghetto were published in 1958.
Sometime between July and December 1942 Ringleblum noted in his journal a shift in the attitude of the few surviving Jews. Ringelblum wrote,
Most of the populace is set on resistance. It seems to me that people will no longer go to the slaughter like lambs.
Emmanuel Ringelblum was not a religious man. But he was a highly educated Jewish scholar. He would certainly have known that the concept of going “to the slaughter like lambs” had its origins in the Jewish messianic prophecy of Isaiah where the messiah was portrayed as one who
was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
Between the years of 1940 and 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were certainly viciously “oppressed;” they were terribly “afflicted”, and violently “led to the slaughter.” Yet, for Isaiah, the messianic response to such horrifying circumstances seems to have been non-retaliation: “he did not open his mouth.”
By 1942, this was no longer adequate for Ringelblum or most of the surviving Ghetto Jews. Instead, Ringelblum suggested,
They want the enemy to pay dearly for their lives. They’ll fling themselves at Them with knives, staves, coal gas. They’ll permit no more blockades. They’ll not allow themselves to be seized in the street, for they know that work camp means death these days. And they want to die at home, not in a strange place….
The passive acceptance of fate, that seems to be pointed to by the sacred text of Jewish faith had been tried and failed.
We have seen the confirmation of the psychological law that the slave who is completely repressed cannot resist. The Jews appear to have recovered somewhat from the heavy blows they have received; they have shaken off the effects of their experiences to some extent, and they calculate now that going to the slaughter peaceably has not diminished the misfortune, but increased it.
The time had come, according to Ringelblum, for the Jews to rise up and inflict as much harm as possible upon upon their Nazi oppressors:
Whomever you talk to, you hear the same cry: The resettlement should never have been permitted. We should have run out into the street, have set fire to everything in sight, have torn down the walls, and escaped to the Other Side. The Germans would have taken their revenge. It would have cost tens of thousands of lives, but not 300,000. Now we are ashamed of ourselves, disgraced in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world, where our docility earned us nothing. This must not be repeated now. We must put up a resistance, defend ourselves against the enemy, man and child. (Ringleblum, 326)
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for this new attitude among the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto.
It is a mistake to think that “Holocaust” denotes only the terrible suffering of Nazi Concentration and Death Camps. The horrors inflicted upon the Jews in the various Ghettos into which they were herded in preparation for their slaughter and in every Nazi occupied city, are unimaginable.
What might have been the best response to the vicious Nazi machine? Are there times when resistance might be the most life-giving choice?
These are difficult and painful questions. I do not have an answer, but will try to explore this question a little further in a future post.