Resisters; How Ordinary Jews Fought Persecution in Hitler’s Germany, Wolf Gruner, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2023, h.b., 212 pp, reviewed by Leslie Jones
In a letter to Arnold Zweig, dated December 15, 1935, the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky concluded, “Judaism is defeated, as much defeated as it deserves”. Judaism, according to Tucholsky, “just does not fight”. This notion of Jewish passivity, of the Nazis leading the Jews like “sheep to the slaughter”, was subsequently endorsed by other commentators. Historian Raul Hilberg, in The Destruction of the European Jews (1963), bemoaned their “almost complete lack of resistance”. Saul Friedländer agreed, upping the ante by suggesting that the Final Solution was facilitated by “the willingness of the victims to follow orders”. More recently, in KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015), Nikolaus Wachsmann averred that “defiance is rare in totalitarian regimes”.
Wolf Gruner, Professor of History at the University of California, once subscribed to this conception of “the passivity of the persecuted”. But in 1998, Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer pointedly asked him, “where are the victims in your narrative?”, setting in motion an eventual change of perspective. Professor Gruner came to realise that, hitherto, studies of Jewish resistance had concentrated on organised, armed resistance at the group level, generally ignoring a multiplicity of individual acts of resistance. Yet concerning the latter, police reports, Gestapo files, prison cases, judgements from the Special Courts in numerous German cities contained a wealth of evidence hidden in plain sight. Survivor testimonies in the form of video interviews held at the Visual History Archive, University of California, and perpetrator files in the Yad Vashem archive and US Holocaust Memorial Museum archives have enhanced this picture.
The author’s thesis is neatly elaborated by a series of biographical studies which identify the different historic forms taken by “the forgotten resistance of German and Austrian Jews”. Daisy Gronowski is the subject of chapter five, entitled ‘Acting in physical self-defense’. Born in Königsberg, East Prussia in 1921, her father Bruno was a merchant and manufacturer and the proud possessor of the Iron Cross. In the mid-1930’s, Daisy practised martial arts under the auspices of Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist group. In 1938, she enrolled in a Jewish agricultural camp in Urfeld, to prepare for eventual emigration to Israel or Latin America. During Kristallnacht (the November pogrom) the camp was attacked by anti-Semites. Daisy recalls that she stabbed and head-butted the gang leader, thereby refuting the Nazi libel of the “weak Jew’.
Those who protested in writing against the Nazi regime risked torture, incarceration in a concentration camp, prosecution under the Treacherous Attacks Law of 1934 and/or arraignment for treason before the People’s Court in Berlin. Witness the fate of members of the White Rose group. Ditto that of Benno Neuberger, the subject of chapter four. Born in Munich in 1871, his father Max was a real estate broker. After Kristallnacht, Benno Neuberger was incarcerated in Dachau concentration camp. The persecution of Jews instigated by the mayor of Munich Dr Karl Fiehler and Hitler’s eliminationist rhetoric incensed Neuberger. The proverbial last straw was the 1941 decree requiring all Jews over six to wear the “yellow star”. During 1941 and 1942, he mailed anonymous postcards replete with abusive comments about Hitler, such as “The eternal mass murderer”. Arrested by the Gestapo in March 1942, he was sentenced to death by the People’s Court and duly guillotined. His family were required to foot the bill for his execution.
In The German-Jewish Soldiers of the First World War in History and Memory, Tim Grady identifies two contrasting narratives. “All Jews are shirkers” was a recurrent Nazi motif. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had accused the Jews of avoiding front line service. But there was also a ‘national conservative’ take on the role of the Jews in the war. According to President Hindenburg, anyone “good enough to fight and to die for Germany” deserved to be commemorated on war memorials. In July 1934 he insisted that a new war medal should be issued to all veterans, regardless of race or religion. But after Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, all German-Jewish war veterans were dismissed from public service and excluded from German citizenship (see History Today, June 2013, review by Leslie Jones of The German-Jewish Soldiers…).