Like Sheep: Why Didn't You Fight?
A survivor's gives his personal answer to this often-asked question.
by Sam Halpern
After the war, many people, especially American Jews, including some members of my own family, asked me why we never fought back. Why, for instance, when the learned, kind Dr. Bloch was being shot, didn't we start a rebellion and try to save him? Why did millions of Jews in Europe go passively to the camps and then to their deaths?
This logical question deserves an answer. When I was first brought to Kamionka, there were Russian prisoners of war whom the German army had captured a few months earlier. To make room for the transport of Jews, some of the Russians were sent to other camps and others were killed. Killing POWs was against the Geneva Convention, but the Germans were beyond abiding by any rules of civilized conduct. They had become utterly savage.
With my own eyes I saw the execution of POWs. Having been raised so close to the Russian border, I understood Russian and listened carefully to what the Russian POWs were saying as they were being selected for death. One man, about forty-five years old, was considered too old for a labor camp and so the Germans decided to shoot him. He stood tall and looked straight into the eyes of the German soldiers: "I have three sons in the Red Army. They are on their way. Remember, you will pay for this." And then the Germans shot him.
There was nothing the Russian could do in the face of many armed German soldiers. Polish soldiers, whose army had been swiftly defeated at the start of the war, faced the same situation. I saw four or five German soldiers control a thousand Polish POWs. Later on in Kamionka, a small number of Germans did whatever they wanted with Russian soldiers, men who had been trained to fight battles. High-ranking officers were reduced to powerless, ordinary men when confronted with the lowliest German soldier and a gun.
When the tide turned and the Germans began losing the war, I beheld the same sight in reverse: hundreds of mighty German soldiers, who only weeks before took life or saved it as their mood dictated, were now herded about passively by a few Russian soldiers with weapons.
These soldiers had all been trained to fight, to use firearms, to survive under the harshest conditions. If they could not resist imprisonment, how were we Jews – a civilian population, with little or no firearm experience and no weapons, a tribe of merchants, artisans, scholars, women and children, all weak from starvation and exhaustion – able to rebel against a well-equipped army? If you are under the gun, there is little you can do.
Certainly, there were a few, wonderful exceptions. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the first of its kind among a civilian population in Poland, is the most famous. Even in Warsaw, however, organizing to fight did not take place when there had been half a million Jews in the ghetto. Only when almost the entire ghetto had been liquidated and death was at hand did a few thousand remaining residents – right-wingers, leftists, Bundists, religionists, atheists, Jews of every political and religious stripe – band together, under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, to fight since they knew their days were numbered. They realized they would not be able to beat the German army. But if they were going to die, they would at least take some Germans with them.
Those of us in Kamionka who were young and still strong would have been more than willing to fight in an organized fashion if we thought we had the slightest chance of making a difference. For months after learning of the German defeat at Stalingrad, we waited for partisans who were rumored to be in the vicinity. It would have been a great honor, a tremendous opportunity, to join them, to fight to save the lives of innocent Jews and non-Jews under German occupation. We had heard that the partisans liberated a camp not far from ours. Many Jews had joined their ranks immediately. In the end, though, the partisans did not come near Kamionka until the camp had already been liquidated.
One night in April 1943, Ladovsky, Rebel's Jewish chauffer, came into my barracks and woke me up. He had just returned from Warsaw with Rebel where they had gone to purchase supplies. In Warsaw Lasovsky had heard about, and actually seen, the uprising during its second day.
"Jews," he told me, "are killing Germans! I saw it with my own eyes, German blood being spilled!"
"Thank G-d I lived to see the day," I said to him and jumped off my bunk.
The two of us began to sing and dance, crying and laughing, beside ourselves with joy. After two days of successful fighting, Mordechai Anielewicz said that killing German soldiers proved that they, too, were vulnerable, that the Germans were not invincible. Like Jews, they could bleed, and this resistance saved Jewish honor. Of course, within a few weeks the Germans had overrun the ghetto, killing almost everyone inside, and shipped the survivors to the death camps. But the thought of Jews defending themselves thrilled us beyond description. Even though we knew there were Jewish soldiers fighting in the Allied armed forces, we had become accustomed to feeling helpless under German occupation.