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Honoring Jewish Courage


Anthropologist Martin Cohen is making a documentary film about a strangely neglected area of Holocaust studies--Jewish resistance.

As the West Hills man points out, most Americans know little or nothing about the extent to which Jews defied the Nazis, even though Jews resisted in one form or another in every ghetto and even in the death camps.

Indeed, when most people think of resistance to Nazi oppression, they think not of Jews, but of the so-called Righteous Gentiles--non-Jews such as Oskar Schindler who saved Jewish lives at great personal risk.

Cohen has nothing but admiration for the Oskar Schindlers, but he doesn't understand why thousands of courageous Jews aren't remembered as well.

"It's my wish that we put the same effort into honoring our own heroes as we rightfully do in honoring Righteous Gentiles," Cohen says.

The people he wants to celebrate are heroes such as Alexander Pechersky, a Jewish lieutenant in the Red Army who was captured by the Germans and sent to Sobibor, a death camp in eastern Poland. There, a German guard made a bet with him. If Pechersky could split a tree stump in five minutes, he would get a pack of cigarettes. If he failed, he'd get 25 lashes.

Pechersky succeeded, but refused the cigarettes. Later, the guard brought him another prize--half a roll, with margarine. Pechersky turned that down, too, much to the guard's displeasure.

Three weeks after Pechersky arrived at Sobibor, he secretly joined forces with inmate Leon Feldhendler, a rabbi's son. Together, they led the mass escape of more than 300 inmates, a stunning act of courage and defiance.

Despite this history of resistance, Cohen says, the images of the Holocaust that most people carry in their heads are the familiar ones of helpless victims or Jewish dead. Most have never seen photos taken at the time of armed Jews fighting as partisans or members of the Red Army.

Filmmaker Eileen Finkelstein, who is working on the project with Cohen, says she too was struck by the dearth of material on Jewish resistance. Films seem to have been made about virtually every aspect of the Holocaust except Jewish defiance.

"There are all these amazing stories about Jews who fought back and nobody knows about it, including Jews," says Finkelstein, an Echo Park resident and an editor on such unscripted shows as MTV's "The Real World" and "Making the Band," on ABC.

Like other aging Holocaust survivors, those who resisted are a dying breed. Cohen has been able to locate and interview about a dozen--others he found had already begun to slide into dementia. Four of the five he interviewed in depth are women, including one awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for saving partisans from the Germans.

"It would be nice if some of these people could be recognized for their heroism before they die," he says.

There are many reasons for the widespread image of the European Jew as passive victim, Cohen says. Zionists made use of that image in arguing for the necessity of a Jewish state. But it was also an image many Jews had long had of themselves. Religious Jews especially often saw themselves as "the merciful children of the merciful," he says, quoting from a Yiddish-language source.

"It was the way they distinguished themselves from what they saw as their more violent Gentile neighbors," Cohen says.

One of the women he interviewed recalled saying to her rabbi, "Well, you know, there were Jews who killed Germans during the war." Her rabbi's response: "God forbid."


Cohen thinks the failure to acknowledge Jewish resistance also reflects a narrow definition of defiance. The Nazis were unimaginably vicious, and, Cohen points out, they controlled Europe from the Arctic Circle to North Africa. Given such an enemy, resistance should be defined in the broadest sense, not narrowly, he argues. You didn't have to escape from Sobibor or blow up German trains to defy the Nazis.

"If you had some way of keeping up morale in the ghetto, if you had a printing press and were disseminating information, you were doing as much as the Resistance was doing in France, and that's called resistance," Cohen says. "Armed resistance was just the tip of the iceberg."

As to the fabled French Resistance, Cohen points out that Jewish resistance was much more widespread, though largely unheralded, and that Jews played a disproportionate role in what French resistance there was. He says 15% to 20% of the French underground was Jewish, even though Jews made up only 1% of the French population.

After the war, Cohen says, many of the Jews who resisted were silent for the same reasons as other Holocaust survivors--out of a sense of guilt and shame, however undeserved. Several of his informants told him they discovered, when they arrived in the United States, that people, including fellow Jews, simply didn't want to hear about their tragic experiences in Europe.

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