By Ariana Roshanzaer
The Holocaust is a time in history that evokes feelings of horror at the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and the persecution that Jews suffered at their hands. Sponsored by the UC San Diego Library and Jewish Studies program, the presentation “Defiance and Protest: Forgotten Acts of Individual Jewish Resistance in Nazi Germany” looked at the Jews who defied the Nazi regime, dispelling the idea that Jews were passive to the actions of those in power. Professor Wolf Gruner–Shapell-Guerin Chair of Jewish Studies at USC–presented his research, which supports the statement that German Jews were not afraid to fight back and were hardly as inactive as they have previously been made out to be.
Before he began his teaching career at USC, Professor Gruner was conducting research in historical archives in his home country of Germany. He came upon the records of a young Jewish woman who–during the Third Reich–spoke up against the government in front of the Berlin courthouse. Intrigued, he decided to further investigate the resistance set forth by German Jews. It was a difficult task to take on since existing research on the topic was in short supply. Rather, many historians subscribed to the idea that German Jews did not resist the terrors of the Third Reich. Proper evaluation of individual Jewish defiance had long been omitted from the Holocaust narrative as historians had both a flawed conceptual approach, as well as a lack of telling sources.
To reimagine the conceptual approach, Professor Gruner redefined resistance in the context of World War Two to mean “any individual or group action in opposition to known laws, actions, or intentions of the Nazis and their helpers.” Not only did he compile forgotten acts of individual defiance or protest, but he also investigated what Jews were primarily reacting to–law or violence.
To aid his investigation, Gruner relied primarily on police and court records, including German administrative reports by the Schutzstaffel (also known as the SS), the Gestapo, and records from special courts established by Hitler after 1933 to persecute political opponents. Interestingly, he found a variety of cases where Jews who had been complaining and protesting in public against the Nazis were arrested and convicted in these special courts. Jews wrote petitions against dismissals from their jobs and loss of business, vocalized criticism of the regime, and actively fought against Nazi propaganda. Another example regarded the forced addition of “Israel” to the last names of Jews applying for a name change, which was meant to enable easier identification of Jews. However, Gruner found many files in which Jews didn’t fill out the proper papers as a form of protest.
More forms of protest included defying anti-Jewish measures by going to public pools, cinemas, and libraries. Others opted for legal action and went to the courts to try to get their rights protected through lawsuits. Another law, the Treachery Act of 1934 (also known as the “laws against treacherous attacks on the state and party”), was implemented mainly to restrict free speech, particularly regarding the Social Democrats and Communists, but was greatly utilized to justify the jailing of protesting Jews.
The professor found compelling evidence through the USC Shoah Foundation’s video archives that detailed the stories of brave Jews. The first one told the story of Ingrid Frank. A German newspaper by the name of Stürmer had run a story about her great uncle, saying that he had the body of Jewish virgins in his basement. Her Uncle Fritz–dressed in his World War I uniform– then went to the newspaper, telling them he wanted to speak to an editor. He walked up to the desk and beat the guy for publishing that story about his father. When questioning the editor whether he knew the man he had published the article about, he said that he did not, to which Uncle Fritz replied, “Meet his son!” Another story was about Diane Jacobs, who at sixteen years old was in a re-training camp for Jewish youth. They learned a variety of different skills on a farm in preparation for immigration. This was yet another tactic for the Nazis to expel Jews from Germany. German soldiers would align themselves into two rows and make the Jewish youth walk between them, hitting them as they walked by.. When a soldier took Diane’s hand and began to cut into her with a rusty knife, she fought and kicked him in response, managing to take the knife and stab the soldier.
The evening concluded with a profound statement by Professor Gruner about resistance. By defining resistance as any individual or group action, there are countless acts of defiance and protest to be seen. Looking at the evidence he presented, it is safe to say that many Jews employed changing strategies in response to Nazi persecution. They fought against Nazi propaganda and violence, local restrictions, and segregationist laws. By adhering to a sole narrative of victimhood, people erase the accomplishments and strength of those who were brave enough to defy a regime that wanted to erase them from existence. By bringing these stories to light, it serves as inspiration to draw strength from even the most horrific of experiences.
Image by UCSD Library