Resisters: How Ordi­nary Jews Fought Per­se­cu­tion in Hitler’s Germany

By – August 28, 2023

Dur­ing the Holo­caust, did Ger­man and Aus­tri­an Jews go like sheep to slaugh­ter”? In Resisters: How Ordi­nary Jews Fought Per­se­cu­tion in Nazi Ger­many, Wolf Gruner, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and the found­ing direc­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Dorn­sife Cen­ter for Advanced Geno­cide Research, chal­lenges the com­mon­ly held view that Jews were pas­sive in the face of the Holo­caust. Gruner spent twelve years sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly research­ing Ger­man and Aus­tri­an police reports, court pro­ceed­ings, and prison records dat­ing from 1933. He also exam­ined 170 sur­vivor tes­ti­monies from the Shoah Foun­da­tion. In this new book, Gruner expands the tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tion of resis­tance — which describes armed group activ­i­ties — to include indi­vid­ual acts of oppo­si­tion. This broad­ened lens offers a more accu­rate and com­plex por­trait of the respons­es of ordi­nary Jew­ish men and women liv­ing under hor­rif­ic conditions.

Giv­en the oppres­sive­ness of the times and the sever­i­ty of the penal­ties, any act of resis­tance took courage, no mat­ter how small. Gruner iden­ti­fies five types of indi­vid­ual resis­tance and devotes a chap­ter to each cat­e­go­ry. For every type, he pro­vides an in-depth case study and addi­tion­al sto­ries to indi­cate pat­terns, demon­strat­ing that these are not iso­lat­ed instances.

The first cat­e­go­ry, Con­test­ing Nazi Pro­pa­gan­da,” refers to indi­vid­u­als who resist­ed by remov­ing or destroy­ing Nazi sym­bols, flags, posters, and/​or anti-Jew­ish signs. The sec­ond, Oral Protest,” sig­ni­fies any ver­bal crit­i­cism made in pub­lic or pri­vate spaces, which, if report­ed, could result in prison time. The third, Defy­ing Anti-Jew­ish Laws and Restric­tions,” might include activ­i­ties like stay­ing out after the 8:00 Jew­ish cur­few, going out with­out a yel­low star, and/​or fail­ing to turn in a radio — or it might involve a more com­plex action, such as sab­o­tag­ing forced labor, going into hid­ing, or escap­ing from a camp. 

Jews also engaged in Writ­ten Protest,” which includ­ed dis­trib­ut­ing anony­mous leaflets and post­cards, peti­tion­ing against spe­cif­ic Nazi acts, and cri­tiquing the regime in let­ters, pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and even sui­cide notes. Per­haps most macabre is the exam­ple of sev­en­ty-one-year-old Ben­no Neuburg­er, who was sen­tenced to death by guil­lo­tine for mail­ing anony­mous post­cards that were crit­i­cal of Hitler. The final cat­e­go­ry, Phys­i­cal Defense Against Ver­bal or Phys­i­cal Assaults,” was less com­mon, and pri­mar­i­ly the province of the young.

Gruner’s archives reveal that, in addi­tion to the hun­dreds of Jews who were arrest­ed month­ly for polit­i­cal offens­es,” ordi­nary Ger­man indi­vid­u­als protest­ed against the regime and the per­se­cu­tion of Jews. His research mod­el has far-reach­ing impli­ca­tions for mar­gin­al­ized groups and allies alike. It can help us bet­ter under­stand the actions of those who are fac­ing vio­lence, even geno­cide, under author­i­tar­i­an regimes today.

Lin­da Kan­tor-Swerd­low is a retired Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry Edu­ca­tion from Drew Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of Glob­al Activism in an Amer­i­can School: From Empa­thy to Action. She is cur­rent­ly free­lanc­ing and reviews books and theater.

Discussion Questions

The sto­ries Wolf Gruner presents in this com­pelling book have been hid­ing in plain sight for many years, although hints were sit­ting in col­lec­tions in Ger­many, Aus­tria, Israel, and the US. Gruner has tak­en these bits of evi­dence from Nazi-era police reports and court records and cor­rob­o­rat­ed them with record­ed sur­vivor tes­ti­monies. After assem­bling the frag­ments, he con­cludes that the Ger­man and Aus­tri­an Jews per­se­cut­ed by the Nazis were not sto­ic rule-fol­low­ers resigned to their unfor­tu­nate fate, as they have been inac­cu­rate­ly depict­ed for gen­er­a­tions. On the con­trary, some resist­ed open­ly, bold­ly, and brave­ly by protest­ing, defy­ing laws, and, at times, even defend­ing them­selves phys­i­cal­ly. The cas­es are numer­ous; and as Gruner devel­ops his argu­ment, the evi­dence seems incon­tro­vert­ible. In sto­ry after sto­ry, some Aus­tri­an and Ger­man Jews faced their tra­vails as defi­ant, proud indi­vid­u­als unwill­ing to sub­mit to Nazi persecution.

Deeply researched and sen­si­tive­ly argued, Resisters is an impor­tant book. In Gruner’s deft hands, read­ers gain a new per­spec­tive on Ger­man and Aus­tri­an Jews, and through that, on the pos­si­bil­i­ties for resist­ing under even the most oppres­sive of regimes.