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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Jewish Resistance against the Nazisby Patrick Henry
- The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism by Barbara Epstein
- Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec
- The Holocaust in the Soviet Union by Yitzhak Arad
- Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust – Moral Uses of Violence and WIll by James M. Glass
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.