Map showing battles during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 1943

Dr Barbara Warnock, Senior Curator and Head of Education, shares an exclusive insight into our forthcoming exhibition Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust

At the point that The Wiener Holocaust Library closed to the public and staff started working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, preparations were underway for our forthcoming exhibition on Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust, intended for launch in mid-May. The themes of the exhibition had been determined and I had started to identify some of the items from our archival collections that could be included in the display, but the majority of the work of researching, writing and structuring the exhibition remained to be done.

Once we took the decision to close the Library, I gathered the books I needed and scanned some of the documents and photographs I wanted to show in the exhibition in order to be able to continue my work from home. Fortunately, one important set of relevant documents – eye-witness accounts of anti-Nazi resistance – is scanned and available remotely to staff.  

Despite the drawbacks of working from home – not being able to quickly consult a book in our library, retrieve extra items from the archive or run ideas past colleagues as I work – the exhibition is now nearing completion. The help of Dr Christine Schmidt in reviewing the exhibition content, our exhibition designer Kate Pettit in creating an effective look and layout and Martina Ravagnan in organising translations of documents, has been invaluable. A few remaining details will be finished off on the return of some staff to the Library this month, and we really hope to be able to open the exhibition to the public before too long.

As I have worked on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to learn more about the stories of Jewish resistance that lie behind the Library’s collections on this subject, and, ahead of the opening of the exhibition, I share some of these with you below, along with some of the curatorial decisions that underpin the themes and structure of the exhibition.

The structure of the exhibition

Jewish Lithuanian partisans group ‘The Avengers’ on their return to Vilna at the time of the liberation of  the city by the Red Army, July 1944.

The exhibition opens in June 1941, at the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union and Soviet held territories, and looks first at the responses of Jewish partisan groups based in forests to the orchestrated mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators in places such as Lithuania and Belarus.  

The exhibition then examines Jewish resistance to the Holocaust across various sites in  Nazi-occupied Europe including ghettos and camps, as well as considering urban resistance by armed groups and rescue networks in cities such as Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Brussels.  

Filip Müller’s testimony about Sonderkommando resistance in Auschwitz, 1957, given to The Wiener Holocaust Library as part of the Library’s project to collect eye-witness testimonies to the Holocaust.

This focus on the sites of resistance was chosen because geographical, topographical and political circumstances shaped and constrained the options available to Jews. The rapid progression of the Holocaust in Ukraine limited options for Jews there; the forests of Belarus  provided the possibilities for concealment for resisters; the porous boundaries of the Minsk  ghetto shaped resistance there; ghetto leadership shaped the nature of resistance in Lodz; the isolation of Sobibor camp had an impact on resistance there. In cities, Jews used the environment to hide under false identities or conceal themselves physically: sewers might even be used for this, as in Odessa and Lviv.  

‘Spiritual’ resistance

In various places, the exhibition considers what can be termed spiritual resistance to the Holocaust. It explores how, in the most adverse of circumstances, through the maintenance  of covert religious practices, the creation of illicit personal or historical records and attempts  to survive in hiding, Jews sought to subvert the Nazis’ policies of annihilation. 

The exhibition features a display of some of the extensive journals maintained by Philipp Manes in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Manes’ journals include records of the cultural activities that he organised in the ghetto, and contributions including writings and drawings from other Jews incarcerated there.  

The exhibition explores stories of Jews in hiding and it features a copy of the first edition of Anne Frank’s diaries. It also examines some of the resistance networks that organised hiding places, rescue missions and the production of false papers for Jews to conceal their  identities.

Part of a testimony given by Ida Sterno to The Wiener Holocaust Library in 1957. 
Ida Sterno worked for the Comité des Défense des Juifs (CDJ) in Belgium arranging the rescues of Jewish children. Her tasks included finding and inspecting hiding places and maintaining contact with parents. In her account, she describes an audacious rescue by armed partisans of Jewish girls sheltering in a convent whose cover had been blown.

The theme of ‘Jewish’ resistance 

The exhibition focuses specifically on Jewish resistance, partly because of the extent of the persecution directed against Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. The history of The Wiener Holocaust Library as an institution that documented the persecution of the Jews of Germany by  the Nazis and the genocide of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust means that we have rich collections of material on this subject. Another reason for exploring this theme is that the extent of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust and the range of different forms that this took is not always understood. 

The exhibition takes a capacious view of what ‘Jewish’ resistance constituted. Some Jews  participated in non-Jewish resistance groups, such as Soviet partisan groups or resistance  networks in France and Belgium, and may have been primarily motivated by their ideological or national opposition to fascism or German invasion. Others, such as the Oyneg Shabbes group in the Warsaw Ghetto who worked to gather evidence of Jewish life in the ghetto, were motivated by a desire to leave behind evidence and a historical record, as well as by Jewish traditions of bearing witness.  

The exhibition looks at both resistance motivated by Jewish faith or identity as well as other examples of resistance by Jews, and includes resistance by those identified by the Nazis as Jews who had not previously considered themselves to be Jewish. One document in the  Library’s collections and featured in the show discusses the work of the Mischlingsliga in Vienna, a group comprising those of partly Jewish origin, targeted by Nazis, and the resistance activities, including sabotage missions, that they undertook.  

The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Eyewitness Accounts Collection 

The exhibition draws upon the Library’s collection of eyewitness accounts to the Holocaust, gathered together by Library staff in the 1950s as part of a major research project. The collection includes a number of very important accounts of resistance groups and networks in central and western Europe and eyewitness accounts relating to resistance in Auschwitz.  

The first page of an account given to The Wiener Holocaust Library about the activities of the Baum Group, date unknown. 
The members of the Baum resistance group were mainly Jewish. Based in Berlin, the group were motivated partly by commitment to communism and  
partly by opposition to Nazi persecution of Jews. In 1942, they launched arson attacks on a Nazi anti Soviet and anti-Semitic exhibition, The Soviet Paradise. The Library has two important testimonies on the activities of the Baum group in its collections.
Part of the testimony of Mr Weichselbaum, c.1955, given to The Wiener Holocaust Library as part of its project to gather eyewitness testimonies to the Holocaust.
This extensive testimony gives an account of Weichselbaum’s life and resistance activities in France, including his service as a leader of the French partisan group the Maquis. Weichselbaum, a Jew from Frankfurt living in France, engaged in various resistance  activities, including organising the rescue of Jews. 

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Holocaust Library holds many books and documents relating to Jewish resistance during the Nazi period, some of which are listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Jewish resistance, Holocaust, Occupation, Resistance to occupation and Rescue.