On January the 27th, 1945, the Soviet army liberated the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Wehrmacht unconditionally surrendered on May 7./8., 1945 – thus ending the reign of the national socialistic terror regime.
On this occasion, I’d like to shed light on the brave Jewish combatants who fought side by side with the allies against the Nazis. Over 1.5 million Jews enlisted in the military of various countries (from the US to the Soviet Union, as well as in Palestine which was under British Mandate at that time) or joined partisan groups.
I’ll also cover the resistance where we learn how multifaceted it was.
(Note: this blog entry is a translation from „Jüdische Kämpfer im Zweiten Weltkrieg“)
Extent of the Participation
Overall, 1,515,300 Jews participated in combat actions during the Second World War – from official armies to partisan groups and resistance. For details see the spreadsheet below:
More than half of the Jewish population was murdered in the genocide carried out by the Nazis (which begun with the attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939). Before the gas chambers existed, people were murdered by firing squads (known as the bullet holocaust, where 1.5 to 2 million fell victim to it).
The Massacre of Babyn Yar (the largest massacre on european soil during World War 2) took place on the 29. and 30. September 1941, 33,771 Jews were murdered.
„Soldiers of the Wehrmacht aided in surrounding and securing the area. The people who were rounded up had to hand over their baggage, were forced to undress down to the underwear and compelled to walk into the ravine. Once there, they were forced to lay on the ground face down and were murdered through a shot in the back of the neck. In intervals, the growing number of corpses were covered in sand and debris.“ (source: bpb)
The location was used as a killing site by the Nazis until the fall of 1943, an estimated 100,000 people – Jews and Non-Jews – were murdered at Babyn Yar.
In 1943/1944, when East Europe was freed from Nazi occupation and the native population joined the war effort, there were only small amounts of Jews left to enlist and serve with their non-Jewish comrades. Hence, during the last phase of the war, there were also less serving in the Polish army (see p. 22 and 33)1.
Introduction to three Combatants
The book where I’ve got the spreadsheet from also highlights individual Jewish men and women who fought in the war. Here, I want to introduce you to three of them.
Mordechai Frizis (1. January 1893 – 7. Dezember 1940)
Frizis was born in 1893 on the Greek island Euboea, Chalkis, as one of three children.
His parents wanted him to become a lawyer, however, he went against the wish of his parents and enlisted in the army. He also served in the First World War.
In 1940, he successfully fought off Italian invaders which led to the third Reich becoming involved and conquering Greece. This resulted in delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union for 6 weeks (some historians argue that this prevented the Wehrmacht from conquering Moscow before the onset of Winter, p. 54).
On the 5th December he attempted to prevent the Italians from an orderly retreat, but was killed during an air raid. In order to more easily control the situation on the battlefield, he always rode on a horse, but refused to get down which made him an easier target.
In Greece, he’s an honoured national hero and in his hometown a statue was built depicting him riding on his horse.
Lydia „Liliy“ Litvak (18. August 1921 – 1. August 1943)
Lydia Litvak was born in Moscow on the 18th August, 1921. When she was a teenager, she joined a flying club and completed her first solo flight at the age of 15.
She first appeared as a pilot in action in the Battle of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942 – February 2, 1943) where she made her first shoot-downs. Her comrades gave her the nickname „lily“ which prompted her to draw the plant on her plane. German pilots misinterpreted the drawing which led to her being given the name „White Rose of Stalingrad“.
In March 1943, Lydia was injured by several German aircrafts but succeeded in returning to her base. In May, when she was shot down over hostile territory, she managed to fight her way back to Soviet-controlled territory and climbed again into the cockpit despite injuries.
Eventually, on August 1st of the same year, she was attacked by 8 German aircrafts of the type Messerschmitt Bf1 in her Jakowlew J-1. An encounter she didn’t surive.
At the time of her death, she had the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was with 12 shoot-downs the most successful female fighter ace in World War II. Finally, in 1990, she received post-mortem the title „Hero of the Soviet Union“ from Michail Gorbatchov after her mortal remains were found (source: „A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II„,
Tuvia Bielski (8. May 1906 – 12. June 1987)
Born in the year 1906. Bielski lived in the Soviet-occupied part of Poland in 1939.
His partisan activities began with the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. With his brothers Zussia, Assael and Aharon he fled to the forests of Naliboki which is – nowadays – located in West-Belarus.
Along with other Jews he formed a small battle group which grew to the size of over 1,200 participants. However, not only armed Jews joined this group, but also hundreds of unarmed. In the camp they set up in the forest, they soon established schools, workshops, Synagogues and else. Overall, they managed to safe 1,200 Jews – considering the persecution apparatus of the Nazis that’s a large amount.
After the war he emigrated to Israel, in 1957 he moved with his brothers Zussia and Aharon to the United States. 30 years later, Bielski died.
His story was made into a film and released under the title „Defiance“ in 2008, Daniel Craig was involved in the production (who most people probably know from the James Bond series).
Resistance is Multifaceted
Lastly, we shall take a more detailed look at the resistance during the Nazi reign. In an article of the German history magazine ZeitGeschichte (Jewish Life in Germany – Between Assertiveness and Persecution2), it is said that passivity has been ascribed to the Jewish population (among them Hannah Arendt when she wrote about the Adolf Eichmann process and the historian Raul Hilberg in his book „The Destruction of the European Jews“).
That this wasn’t the case – as the part before has shown as well – can be seen by the various reactions and actions. Here listed:
- Individual and institutional protests: wrote petitions and position papers where they advocated for improvements of their situation
- Assertiveness: refused to follow orders and active participation in resistance groups
- Self-determination: went into hiding, fled, and – in the worst case – took their own lives (to avoid being killed by the Nazis, for instance)
- Preventing worse: An attempt to mitigate the anti-Jewish policies; the „Reichsvereinigung der Juden“ (= National Assocation of the Jews) helped in emigration efforts, cared for those left behind (e.g. seniors), delayed deportations and tried to mitigate hardships
- Survival: A well-known group is the Chug Chaluzi (Group of Pioneers), a Zionistic movement which viewed the underground as an important part of resistance (since the Nazis planned the annihilation of the Jewish population, each life saved was considered to be an act of resistance), or how Nathan Schwalb – leader of the headquarters in Geneva – formulated it: „With each life that we save, we fight against Hitler.“
Moreover, everyone should be made aware that – back then – most people didn’t know how far the National Socialists would go. Additionally, there was the dilemma of collective punishment people faced. Through the action of one, many more could be targeted (e.g. attack on the propaganda exhibition „Sowjetparadies“ in 1942, 154 Berlin Jews were executed along with 96 Jewish prisoners of the KZ Sachsenhausen. 250 more were either murdered in Sachsenhausen or deported to Auschwitz).
As I did in the original entry, I’ll end it here with the (translated) quote of the article:
„Such a differentiated depiction of Jewish reactions means one thing above all: we have to overcome the one-sided victim narrative. This also has consequences for our culture of remembrance: if one perceives the Jewish people only as victims, they retrospectively take away their individuality and dignity and adopts the view of the perpetrators.“
1 An Allen Fronten – Jüdische Soldaten im Zweiten Weltkrieg
ISBN: 978-3-942271-80-6, Publisher: Hentrich & Hentrich
2 Jüdisches Leben in Deutschland – Zwischen Selbstbehauptung und Verfolgung
Artikel: „Mit jedem Leben bekämpfen wir Hitler“ (p. 104-108)
Memorial and Museum: Auschwitz-Birkenau
Image: Identification symbol of the Jewish Brigade
Mass Shooting at Babyn Yar
Vor 80 Jahren: Massaker von Babyn Jar
Image: Memorial of Frizis
A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II
Image: Lydia Litvak
Image: Tuvia Bielski
Movie Poster: Defiance