Coming to a more complex understanding of heroism during the Holocaust

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Members of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye, active in the Vilna Ghetto. (peut-être un résistant ou un sympathisant)

By Saul Golubcow

Special to WJW


Our yearly commemoration of Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah places heavy emphasis on the Shoah, the slaughter of the Six Million, and less so on the Gevurah, heroism displayed by Jews facing the annihilating power of the Nazi genocide. Understandably so, as the crushing blows to the Jewish body and spirit engulf memory and command mourning.

But memory and reclamation also suggest that the Israeli Knesset was correct in 1951 when it passed a resolution establishing the 27th of Nissan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as a yearly Jewish memorial both to the Shoah victims and to their Gevurah. The Jewish story throughout history, even when steeped in horrific suffering, has never been just about loss and victimization.

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How were Jews heroic during the Shoah? Sure we point to the Warsaw Ghetto example, but a fuller and more complex appreciation of Gevurah, based on a painful and contextual understanding of what is meant by courage and heroism during the Shoah, encompasses more than this oft-noted example.

For many, such an assessment has been personal. As a child of Holocaust survivors, my own conclusions have progressed from youthful, immature simplicity and naiveté, to judgmental disappointment and finally to adult humility and perspective.


My friends and I, growing up in a South Jersey community of Holocaust survivors, experienced our parents’ nightmare screams, silences, afflictive memories, horrific stories of survival, pride in various instances of resistance and overprotectiveness, terrified that they might also lose us.

Perhaps confused, perhaps angry, perhaps in search of heroics to buttress our need for Jewish fortitude, we kids fought back, for our parents, for ourselves. With Sgt. York and Audie Murphy as our role models singlehandedly overrunning enemy machine gun nests, we played war games of Partisans versus Nazis. That no one wanted to play the Nazis was a problem. So was the lack of effort by the kids whose turn it was to do so. Naturally, the Partisans always won, and we played the “game” over and over pursuing this standard of heroism.

As adolescents, acculturated to an America of raw action, military prowess and bold, one-dimensional heroics, we judgmentally debated whether Jews in the Shoah insufficiently fought back, like “sheep going to the slaughter.” It could have been done, many of us blithely wanted to believe. After all, hadn’t Israel since 1948 been an example?

At times, we grudgingly gave credit for acting heroically. A high school friend, decent and smart but still seared in his second generation by Holocaust fire, asked “Were the Warsaw Ghetto fighters really heroic if by the time they rose up, they were desperate and had nothing to lose?” In his forgivable cynicism, he had re-victimized those for whom he grieved, and I, frozen with uncertainty, did not offer a defense.

During decades of growing up, I’ve become a parent and lost parents and other loved ones. And I’ve come to comprehend heroism more complexly. I came to realize that as much as Jewish heroism during the Shoah can be found in overt resistance, thousands of quiet, barely noticed, anguished acts of courage warrant heroic tribute. The opening and ending words of “The Partisans’ Song,” “Never say that you’re going the last way” and “Our marching steps ring out: ‘We are here,’” provide the insight, force and resonance behind these actions.

I tremble visualizing those moments when parents, steeling themselves, place their children on Kinder Transports knowing that they would not see them again.
I retreat feeling the recoil and yet the squelched emotions when parents, bracing themselves, choose their children’s possible safety and deliver them to non-Jewish orphanages.

I agonize picturing the parents, battling a sense of choked loss, who implore their children to attempt escape through the sewers of Vilna for a chance at life.

I silently shriek, “Get out! Leave! Try!” at the young men and women who, unflinchingly bonded by love and duty, refuse to leave their families and attempt escape, thus forsaking life.

I am heartbroken thinking of the families insisting on their dignity by carefully dressing for deportation as if they are not going the last way even though they know they are.

I strive with disbelief watching those doomed fighting against abandonment of belief as they sing “Ani Maamim,” I believe with complete faith, marching toward their death, yet envisaging Jewish life beyond them.

I view with astonishment the Shoah survivors somehow repudiating annihilation and rising out of death camps, darkened hiding places, forests of bare sustenance, years of silence, starvation and amassed grief. They are emaciated, distraught, tremulous, physically broken and psychologically scarred. Yet there, I see them, somehow drawing on an inexplicable resolve not to accede to defeat but rather to go on, to choose life, to sustain life, to create life for themselves and the next generation.

Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah is on April 8. Let us mourn for the Six Million, honor their lives and their heroism, and be thankful that we are able to be here.

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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