Wooden legs, paper clips and ice fronts — resistance to the Third Reich

    The events of 70 years ago are a reminder of the many forms of resistance against the Nazis now lost to history for the sake of glorifying military might.
    SS troops guard members of the Jewish resistance captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
    SS troops guard members of the Jewish resistance captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

    Seventy years ago on April 19, 1943, two remarkable events occurred — the armed Jewish revolt in the Warsaw ghetto began, and the U.S.-U.K. Bermuda Conference on Jewish refugees from the Nazi regime opened. The former is a testament to people determined to do whatever they could to fight oppression. The latter goes down in history as a cruel and cowardly waste of time. Both, however, stand as a reminder of the diverse forms that resistance against the Nazis took, many of which have been lost to history for the sake of glorifying military might.

    Most people have heard of the Warsaw ghetto, the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. As word came about mass deportations to the death camps, violent resistance seemed like the only choice left. Around 750 young Jewish fighters, armed only with pistols and other light arms, attacked a heavily armed German force that was three times its size. This was not a fight to win but a fight to exercise some control over when and where the fighters would die. They held out nearly a month — longer than some entire countries did in the face of the German army.

    The Bermuda Conference is less well known, perhaps because it failed to address the problem of Jewish refugees almost completely. It did not raise U.S. immigration quotas or lift the ban on Jews seeking refuge in the British Mandate of Palestine. Without the means to escape, or access to sufficient weaponry, Jews and others across Europe had no choice but to fight with nonviolent resistance tactics. Though poorly coordinated and funded, and up against almost insurmountable odds, it is remarkable that there are some success stories of nonviolent action. These speak to the power of civil resistance and community resilience.

    Staying alive

    Many survivors of the Holocaust simply speak of their recognition that the ultimate victory in the face of the Third Reich’s determination to annihilate them would be to survive, or to enable others to do so.

    Early on, those who could left Germany and the successive countries it occupied. Later, within the camps and the ghettos, people worked to ameliorate day-to-day hardships by smuggling in medicines or food to prisoners; within the prisons and ghettos, mutual aid was all people could count on.

    Slowing down

    Several countries adopted de facto rules of engagement in an effort to stymie Nazi plans and limit the loss of life and exploitation of the country’s resources. The Danes used a “negotiation under protest” framework to appear to be cooperating with Nazi demands in an effort to limit outright confrontations and and destructive retaliation. In fact, a 17-year-old Dane who was outraged at the overly polite behavior of his fellow countrymen to the invaders wrote and distributed the “Danish 10 Commandments,” which became widely regarded as guidelines for how to engage with the occupation.

    1. You must not go to work in Germany and Norway.
    2. You shall do a bad job for the Germans.
    3. You shall work slowly for the Germans.
    4. You shall destroy important machines and tools.
    5. You shall destroy everything that may be of benefit to the Germans.
    6. You shall delay all transport.
    7. You shall boycott German and Italian films and papers.
    8. You must not shop at Nazis’ stores.
    9. You shall treat traitors for what they are worth.
    10. You shall protect anyone chased by the Germans.

    Join the Struggle for the freedom of Denmark!

    Such tactics — stealing or altering documents, tampering with machines, producing compromised weapons and destroying machines or property — were used in other countries as well.

    Norway attempted to maintain an “ice front” toward the Nazi military that included behavior like giving wrong street directions to soldiers, pretending not to speak German (though most Norwegians did at the time) and refusing to sit next to Nazis on buses (which bothered the Nazis so much that they made it illegal to stand if seats were available). These practices, while serving to unite the locals, angered the occupiers and made clear that they were not welcome.


    Strikes were leveraged effectively in Denmark over a number of issues — the killings of civilians, the presence of military guards in factories and curfews. At one point a general strike was called in Copenhagen to get rid of a curfew, and it was held through a military crackdown until the Nazis capitulated, recognizing that the cost to production was too high. The curfew ended.

    When Norwegian teachers were ordered to join the Nazi Party and teach Nazism (or else be sent to prison camps), 12,000 refused and signed a declaration against following the order. Immediately, 1,000 were arrested and sent to prison camps, while the strike continued at home. After six months, the Nazis realized that the cost to their war effort of having the teachers out of the classroom was far greater than that of not having more Nazi Party members, so the law was canceled and the teachers returned from the camps.

    There is a famous quotation from the frustrated Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling in charge of implementing this policy: “You teachers have destroyed everything for me!”

    Direct intervention and non-cooperation in Bulgaria helped to save their country’s 48,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, popular sentiment led to political action demanding that the collaborating government rescind the Nazis’ discriminatory laws, and leaders of the Orthodox Church refused to comply with the deportation orders, staging sit-ins in the king’s chambers and even threatening to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being transported. This pressure eventually encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to stand up to the Nazis and rescind the deportation orders, saving most of the country’s Jewish population.

    Sheltering, adoption, hiding

    Throughout the German-occupied territories, individuals and entire countries rallied to save Jews and other targeted populations by sheltering, adopting and transporting them to safety. Though a relatively small number of people by percentage of population were involved in aiding persecuted people, there are some very well-known examples of this work.

    Nearly all of the 7,000 Jews in Denmark survived because the organized resistance movement there smuggled the population almost overnight to Sweden in small boats when they learned of the Nazi plan to send them to the gas chambers. In the Netherlands, many — like the widely known Frank family — assumed that the war would not be a long one and went into hiding with the help of supportive non-Jews. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in southern France, were motivated by their religious convictions to help thousands of refugees escape Nazi persecution by hiding them in private homes as well as Catholic convents and monasteries.

    Education and communication

    The Nazis took over most of the media as they occupied each country, but in spite of the specter of brutal consequences, underground newspapers and radio broadcasts flourished. Opposition leaflets were first published in France as early as September 1940. The first and most famous such leaflets within Germany itself were produced in Munich by students calling themselves the White Rose Collective. Bold cries for active opposition to Hitler’s regime were framed with bold language — some still used today: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”

    Betrayed by a campus janitor, the group’s original members were arrested and executed before completing their sixth leaflet. But their acts of resistance lived on through Allied distribution of their manifesto in Scandinavia, the U.K. and even Germany, by air-drops.

    Underground schools, libraries and archives appeared in order to build resiliency and competency within communities. In the Warsaw ghetto, an archive was created by a resident historian; code-named “Oneg Shabbat” (Joy of the Sabbath), it was placed in containers dug into the ground and recovered from the rubble of the ghetto after the end of the war, fulfilling a desire to have the ghetto’s life and struggles documented for the future.

    Disobedience from within

    Many clandestine groups formed to resist the Third Reich from inside Germany. Many stories, including one in my family, speak to the importance of such groups. Late in the 1930s, my German grandfather — who worked for a pharmaceutical company as an international salesman, which allowed him to keep his passport even after other Jews were stripped of documentation — began smuggling documents. Though he believed that as an upstanding, non-practicing, assimilated Jew he would not be harmed by the Nazis, he did not support the new dictatorship and so carried documents for the resistance in his wooden leg across borders as he traveled for work. On his way home after one such journey, he stopped at a cafe and happened to see a newspaper headline announcing that one of his compatriots had been arrested by the SS and that they were looking for him; my grandfather never went home again.

    The Third Reich was particularly vulnerable to the protests of German citizens. When the Jewish spouses and fathers of gentile German women were arrested for deportation to concentration camps, these women maintained a nonviolent protest and vigil outside the Rosenstrasse Prison in Berlin. It was reported that 6,000 women participated in this action which, in one week, compelled the regime to release the 1,700 Jewish men being held. The protesters took advantage of the cultural image of women within Nazi culture as keepers of morality and producers of children — as well as the fact that Berlin was the city that had a strong foreign press presence. Brutal treatment of German women would have been difficult for the Nazis to stomach given their ideology, and it exposed them to harsher international criticism.

    Cultural activities and spiritual resistance

    Resistance also took the form of cultural activities, including simply creating art or practicing cultural traditions. In the ghettos and the camps, preserving Jewish culture was seen as a way of resisting the Nazi genocide — refusing to give up on one’s history and holding on to one’s spirit in the face of assault. Reports have been handed down of women in concentration camps performing sabbath rituals with improvised potato-skin candles and men observing holidays while imprisoned.

    Europeans living under occupation used traditional music and clothing as expressions of resistance and autonomy. Norwegians were forbidden from wearing any symbol of the state or royalty, so students began wearing paper clips to demonstrate their support for resistance, and that symbol spread. The seemingly simple wire could embody solidarity and unity as a thing that binds pieces of paper together. Students made bracelets and other items out of paper clips to wear as a demonstration of support for the resistance.

    History makes clear that the German army was well prepared to meet armed resistance but less able to cope with strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent action. Given even the few successful uses of nonviolent action mentioned above, I can’t help but wonder about what kind of resistance, and what effects would have been possible, if there had been more strategic planning and coordination in place.

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