Resistance – What’s that?

I Relativizing the Absolute

“Resistance” is among those terms that although seemingly clear-cut, are in reality difficult to define. What is resistance? Who defines what it is? What conditions have to be met so that who identifies or recognizes what to be resistance? And which and whose interests stand behind the label? One very recent example makes clear how resistance is defined divisively by groups with divergent interests: On the German left it was consistently taken as positive and considered to be a respected option for political action. However, already here the understanding of resistance varies according to political direction. The unions understood it to mean something completely different than–for example–the RAF. Cadre organizations permitted only organized actions by organized groups to be counted as resistance, while social revolutionaries saw the marginalized as entitled to a quasi-a priori right to resistance. The federal state, on the other hand, denied any connection between leftist radical actions and resistance, and instead defined them as criminal or terrorist. In contrast, actions and attitudes recognized in the West as being related to resistance were denounced in the GDR as rowdyism.

I´m not going to state authoritatively once and for all and for the whole world what resistance is. That would simply be impossible. What can be achieved is probably only the elimination of a delusion and the opening of eyes and ears to that which up to now has been ignored, excluded and devalued. The delusion that resistance is something good, and that the actions of the “bad guys” could not be characterized as resistance, is obsolete, although it has long been fostered. And what is good, what is evil? The widely accepted minimumconsensus implies: It is good to assist others. It is evil to harm others. However resistance often consists of killing others–aggressors, occupiers, dictators–and therefore harms them. Moreover: since the European Enlightenment at the very latest, what has been recognized as resistance is only that which is military and, in the most narrow sense, political. Everything else has been considered as possibly deserving of the label but, in any case, nonetheless of secondary rank. It is unnecessary to add that it´s principally the resistance-oriented behavior of women that has been and is meant by this.

Considered as good and socially valuable in the context of resistance are therefore actions that have the aim of taking the lives of or otherwise harming others–the enemies. Whereas actions that serve to save lives or make survival easier for others–children, the persecuted, those in hiding–are trivialized as purely individual behaviors. At the same time, actions that are calculated to save or improve the lives of, again, others–namely the enemies–are denounced as collaboration or treason. In short: resistance cannot even be defined on the basis of a moral minimum consensus.

Is it therefore necessary to come to the conclusion: Resistance eludes the moral criteria of good and evil? Is resistance always what who ever it may be declares as such? If a term is applied in such a diverging and contradictory manner as that of resistance, it becomes an empty shell that can be applied to virtually every action whether the most banal or the most criminal. The so-called Wehrwölfe (play on words: werewolves and Wehr=army wolves), SS-groups that fought behind the front against the allied troops marching into Germany, declared their murderous actions to be resistance. In certain circles they are still seen as such today. Those responsible for terror attacks against civilians, like that on the World Trade Center, on the commuter trains in Madrid, on the London underground, etc., maintain that these were acts of resistance. With this assertion, they meet with the approval of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Neo-Nazis, who find cause for pleasure in mistreating people they define as non-Aryan, call themselves the “national resistance” and meet with approval for their actions in segments of the population.

Can and must one accept this? Or should one put up resistance to these interpretations of resistance? I propose: One should consider that the term alone communicates nothing about its content. Insomuch as the term remains ambiguous and at the same time empty if nothing is said about who puts up resistance against whom, and with which motives and methods. At the same time it is always necessary to question who recognizes which actions as resistance and which not, and why.

One generally accepted criterion for resistance is that of organization. What is meant with this is preferably political or military organization, but potentially also social, ethnic or religious. Unstructured groups and individuals are as little defined as resistance in historical research as by political organizations and associations. The Cologne Edelweiss Pirates, for example, a loose association of proletarian and sub-proletarian youth who hid forced laborers and conducted skirmishes with the Gestapo, were only recognized in recent years– reluctantly–as a resistance group. And acts of resistance by women, who were neither recognized nor corresponded to the prevailing perceptions of morality, have simply been ignored until today. Moreover: Those who allude them become suspect of being frivolous, un-political or amoral and of making the resistance banal or even dirty.

The following are two examples that serve to represent so many others: During the Paris Commune, prostitutes supplied the insurgents with food. The male revolutionaries found this embarrassing or even insulting. They feared for their good reputation. The woman revolutionary, Louise Michel, in contrast, knew to respect the helpfulness of her female comrades in arms. Yet no one ever called it “resistance.“ In some French brothels prostitutes hid Jews and resistance fighters. The same women also served, as it was for all extents their job, the officers of the occupying German troops. The women risked their lives when they provided safe-houses for the persecuted, and those who were saved by them are still thankful today. Nonetheless, their practical solidarity was never and nowhere described as an act of resistance.

I have researched the subject of women, and in particular Jewish women in the resistance for many years. And in the course of these years I have come to the conclusion: I have also been eaten up by the popular hierarchization of resistance. At the beginning I was also only interested in the participation of women in armed resistance. They were, in my perception, the younger sisters of the women revolutionaries that I revered and wanted to know as much about as possible. Apart of that he women of the resistance who were known at that time were all ascribed to the so-called “passive“ resistance. They had, according to this, hidden people, typed and distributed pamphlets, listened to the BBC or Radio Moscow, and passed the informations given by them on to others. I nonetheless had the feeling that there were also women who had transported not pamphlets but bombs, who had fought with weapons in their hands. It was their history that I wanted to tell. It was them to whom I wanted to express my respect. My research revealed that they did really exist. I wrote a first book about these women and went on with my research work.
One of my personal heroes was Sarah Goldberg, who was the radio operator of the Rote Kapelle in Belgium and had – after the suppression of this organisation - become affiliated with the Jewish partisans in Brussels. I was just then preparing an exhibition on the Jewish resistance in the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt and visited Sarah to get more information and, most of all photos and other objects. We had by then become friends and she was helping me to find further people to interview and material for the exhibition. And then she said: “You definitely have to interview Yvonne Jospa. And all of the other women who rescued children.“ I would rather not admit this here, but I hesitated. The exhibition was supposed to be about the “real resistance.” Fortunately, my esteem for Sarah Goldberg got the better of my ideological stubbornness. I therefore made, for the sake of Sarah, an interview with Yvonne Jospa, who had during the war been responsible for the rescue of Jewish children and youths under the aegis of the CDJ, the Jewish self-protection committee in Belgium.
As a result, an intensive learning process began that led to a fundamental change in my mindset. And thus I researched all variations of the resistance of Jewish women for my book, “Die Angst kam erst danach. Jüdische Frauen im Widerstand in Europa.” (“The Fear First Came Later. Jewish Women in the Resistance in Europe” ) I realized that the women who had organized and conducted the rescue of children and adolescents had probably provided the most important and, in any case, most effective form of resistance. I asked myself–and the women I was interviewing: How did you preserve your own humaneness in the midst of the inferno of the Shoa? From where did you find the courage to put up resistance in such a hopeless situation, and how did you deal with your fear? What did the women feel who killed people in armed attacks? The over 60 women who I interviewed for the book, answered all these questions with an unexpected openness and with deep reflection and lack of vanity. The fact that their participation in the resistance has been largely overlooked in the writing of history did not surprise them to any great extent. Only few of them had corrected the false picture by publicizing their memoirs. And some of the women who had participated in actions to save children even agreed implicitly with the historians, telling me: “But we did not put up any resistance. We only took care of the children, and that was just natural. We simply couldn’t allow them to be deported.“

They had themselves internalized the up to recently, and in part still binding, hierarchization of resistance into an “active”–which means military–and a “passive”–which includes everything else. This hierarchization is one of the most important reasons for the exclusion of women from the research and historiography of the resistance against German politics of occupation and extermination. This categorization so completely distanced from reality proves to be, in the investigation of the conditions, the processes and the content of the Jewish resistance, both unproductive as well as obstructive. As much more helpful and appropriate to the object/subject of research, I would therefore recommend replacing the paired terms "active" and "passive" with the terms armed, humanitarian, material, and political resistance; and disregarding any hierarchization of these so often interwoven aspects.

II Appreciation of the Concrete

Jewish women were involved in all formations and in all forms of the resistance. They were activists in urban brigades, the ghetto underground and in partisan units. They printed and distributed the illegal press; they forged papers; they transported weapons and themselves participated in armed actions. They organized underground movements and ghetto uprisings; they were political cadres and –rarely – also military commanders of armed groups. They found hiding places for Jewish children and youths, brought them to these hiding places, provided them with clothing, money, food, and with forged documents and encouragement over months and sometimes even years. They brought groups of children and youth to the Swiss border in order to smuggle them out of the country and they accompanied illegal transports of boys and girls over the Pyrenees to Spain and from there on to Palestine.

Within the framework of the armed resistance the work of liaison work and scouting was the domain of the women. An important reason for this division of responsibilities lay in the fact that women were able to move more freely and inconspicuously. They were less often checked than men and they even succeeded in actively using gender-specific patterns of behavior against the adversary. Thus female couriers for the resistance occasionally got German officers to tuck their suitcases full of weapons in the luggage rack of the train or to carry them through a round-up at a train station. Other women used their pregnancy or motherhood as camouflage, tied pistols around their stomachs and transported illegal printed materials in baby carriages. The liaison women arranged illegal quarters, food and clothing for the members of the groups. They maintained contact between the commanders and the groups and between individual group members. They scouted targets to be attacked and observed potential attack victims. They procured weapons and explosives and transported them to the location of the attack. Without them the armed groups would not have been able to carry out their actions.

Like the liaison work, also the actions to save children were above all the responsibility of the women. It was mostly very young women and often social workers, nursery school teachers, members of the Jewish Scouts or a Zionist youth movement. They took on, without any relevant experience, work that was both full of responsibility as well as dangerous, and which cost some of them their lives. They brought children and youth out of the country or hid them in cloisters, boarding schools, holiday colonies, sanatoriums, and with private individuals. They compiled coded lists so that they would be able to find the children again after the liberation. As far as this was possible under the circumstances given, they took care, not only of the children´s safety and their physical needs but also of their psychological wellbeing. They transported letters back and forth between children and their parents; they thought up stories when letters from the parents no longer came because they had been deported. And they knew that they, despite all of their efforts, could not take away the child’s loneliness, solitude, fears and doubts. Some of these women not only risked their lives but also knowingly sacrificed it for their charges. Marianne Cohn, for example, was imprisoned along with children she had brought to the French-Swiss border only a few weeks prior to the liberation. The resistance offered to liberate her from the prison. She refused although she had been horribly tortured. She did not want to risk the lives of the children. She assumed, probably correctly, that they would be killed in revenge for her flight. And she hoped that the Allies would liberate the location before the children could be deported. This actually did happen although she herself was raped and beaten to death prior to their arrival.

The way into the resistance resulted, for the majority of the women (and also men), from membership in a social or political group. Those who were not already organized or at least active on the periphery of an organization only gained access with difficulty to resistance groups, which had to seal themselves off in order to protect themselves from infiltration and detection. But: Not all members of a political or social organization became affiliated with the resistance. Why some did so and others did not is difficult to reconstruct today. The memories of the women, as far as the question of their motives is concerned, are influenced by the emotions and experiences of the decades that lie between their youth and the present. Former communists, for example, who turned away from the Party after the war and towards their Jewish roots, have the tendency to see their motives in retrospect as specifically Jewish. Others, who remained loyal Party members, insist that they fought exclusively as communists and not as Jews. Many women however say that for them both factors were mixed together with each other. Ida Rubinstein, for example, who fought as a Jewish-communist partisan in Toulouse, said: "I entered the resistance on purely political grounds. But because I am a Jew I had a double motivation."

The women who worked for social or educational institutions came, as a result of their work, into a situation in which the social work and/or childcare was transformed into resistance. Also the young women who were active in the Zionist youth or the Jewish Scouts in Western Europe, grew into their resistance work almost naturally without making, at least at the beginning, a conscious decision. Denise Lévy, for example, one of the leaders of the Jewish Scouts, was informed one day that a round-up of her foreign charges was imminent, so she had to find hiding places for them. Those hidden could not in turn exist in the long run without forged papers, so she therefore began to produce forged documents. In this way, one thing led to the other. When asked about her motives, Denise Lévy said: "We could not allow the children to be detained. Being detained meant being deported. We didn’t know at the time exactly what happened to those deported, but simply being deported was enough. We unconditionally wanted to prevent that."

If one asks female Zionist activists who fought in Poland about their motives, most of them answer that they did not want to end up in the gas chamber, that they wanted to resist, to avenge those who had been murdered. All of these reasons however only became important to them after the first large liquidation actions, only when they realized, that the Germans would actually annihilate the whole Jewish people. Before that lay the period of the German invasion, the ghettoization and the liquidation of the first ghettos. The foundations for the building of an underground movement were laid during this time. The young women who later fought in the ghetto uprisings and with the partisans, had already then decided to work illegally. The reasons why they did so are no longer clear to them today or simply no longer important. For them there is a calculation of time before and after: The hell in which they lived and acted after the beginning of the “final solution” overlay almost everything that had been before.

Many of the former Jewish liaison women I interviewed emphasized that for the success of their work, a combination of quick-wittedness and instinct was decisive. Sarah Goldberg for instance remembered one situation, in which "in the midst of panic” she did the right thing, although afterwards it remained incomprehensible even to her how she had come up with the idea to act in such a way: While she was conducting an assignment for her group of Jewish partisans in Brussels, she noticed that a known informer was coming towards her from the other end of the street: "Ahead of me were two Belgian policemen. I said to the two of them: 'Please keep going,’ and I pressed myself between them. They wanted to know what was going on and I said: 'Please simply keep moving’–as if I had been arrested by them. But they still wanted to know what was happening, so I said: 'Listen, I am a Jew and there in front of us is an informer.’ The two of them then put me in between them and went with me in that way past the man. When the danger was past, one of them said he was going to take his lunch and the other said, 'Mademoiselle, if you need anything please come to me, I work in the commissariat of Foret.’"

This story does not only make clear that segments of the Belgian police sympathized with the resistance, or were at least against the anti-Jewish politics of the Germans. It also shows that a disciplined, experienced and canny illegal like Sarah Goldberg “functioned” in this case without having to deliberate. Where this ability came from is something she cannot explain. She and other women who have similar memories of reacting spontaneously and instinctively above all in seemingly hopeless situations, however guess that this was possibly a way of behaving that occurred more often with women than with men. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that conduct like that described by Sarah Goldberg would probably not have functioned for a man: The policemen would very likely have reacted negatively or aggressively to a similar request from a man. The intuitive behavior of the women presumably often corresponded to an unconscious protective instinct in the man involved or to his desire to impress the pretty young woman.

The meanwhile legendary cockiness of some of the very young woman who gained their first experience with illegal activities in the resistance is less astounding than the instinctual reactions of experienced communist militants such as Sarah Goldberg and Yvonne Jospa, who also remembers “crazy” incidents that she cannot logically explain: She learned one day that there was an opportunity to house a larger group of Jewish children in a holiday colony. To do so she had to take charge of the group at a specific time point at one of the train stations in Brussels, the Gare du Luxemburg. When she received this message it was already too late to arrive there on time. Yvonne Jospa nonetheless got on the streetcar. She went forward to the driver and said: "Monsieur, I must be at the Gare du Luxemburg at such and such time." The driver accelerated and did not halt at any of the upcoming stops, so that she arrived–punctually–at the train station. "I don’t know why I acted in such a way and I don’t know why he reacted as he did," said Yvonne Jospa, "we both probably followed an instinct. He knew immediately that I was not a normal passenger who was simply in a hurry. And I knew apparently subconsciously that I could appeal to him. However, why this was so I cannot say."

What is interesting about these experiences is less the fact that the women had control over what they called “instinct,” for lack of another explanation, than the fact that they allowed themselves to yield to this instinct. Such “illogical” and “emotional” behavior was at odds with the necessity, which they themselves also recognized, of revolutionary discipline and self-control. The fact that they allowed themselves to listen to their emotions, "instincts," "intuition," corresponds to their departure from the rules of conspiracy also in other ways. They met with friends ands comrades although this was strictly forbidden; they took care of and visited their parents in hiding, although this also often contradicted the security rules; rarely but nonetheless occasionally they went secretly to the cinema; they even allowed, when it seemed right to them, orders from the leadership that they were supposed to communicate, "to fall by the wayside." They practiced what "Nicole" called the "illegality in the illegality." I guess that it was exactly this occasional and situation-related “lack of discipline” that gave them an inner freedom in a situation without freedom, that the occasional break with inflexible principles, even when they also shared them, enabled them, in the face of mass murder, to put up resistance against an in extremis inhuman adversary without themselves becoming inhuman.

The "Morality of Resistance” consisted for many female and male activists of not completely sacrificing their humanitarian principles for the sake of efficiency, "of not becoming like the enemy." Chaika Grossman tells of a heated discussion within the "Mejdalach," the purely female Jewish underground group in Bialystok. At issue in this debate was whether they should, with the help of the partisans, undertake a bomb attack in a residential area in which almost exclusively members of the German security apparatus lived with their families. They finally rejected this action because those who would be killed would be not only men from the Gestapo and SS but also their wives and children.

The somewhat older and politically or pedagogically more experienced female and male Jewish resistance fighters were also aware of the danger that the younger people in this war might be bestialized and lose their ideals. For the most part there were only few opportunities during the war to purposefully work against this. Rachel Cheigham reports that her brigade, the Armée Juive in Nice, which conducted assassinations of informers, held regular meeting with its members in order to steady the very young women and men morally: "They were still so young and they had to kill. It is not easy to kill someone. And it does not leave one unscathed. We did not want them to become criminals."