During the Holocaust, did German and Austrian Jews go like “sheep to slaughter”? In Resisters: How Ordinary Jews Fought Persecution in Nazi Germany, Wolf Gruner, a professor of history and the founding director of the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, challenges the commonly held view that Jews were passive in the face of the Holocaust. Gruner spent twelve years systematically researching German and Austrian police reports, court proceedings, and prison records dating from 1933. He also examined 170 survivor testimonies from the Shoah Foundation. In this new book, Gruner expands the traditional definition of resistance — which describes armed group activities — to include individual acts of opposition. This broadened lens offers a more accurate and complex portrait of the responses of ordinary Jewish men and women living under horrific conditions.
Given the oppressiveness of the times and the severity of the penalties, any act of resistance took courage, no matter how small. Gruner identifies five types of individual resistance and devotes a chapter to each category. For every type, he provides an in-depth case study and additional stories to indicate patterns, demonstrating that these are not isolated instances.
The first category, “Contesting Nazi Propaganda,” refers to individuals who resisted by removing or destroying Nazi symbols, flags, posters, and/or anti-Jewish signs. The second, “Oral Protest,” signifies any verbal criticism made in public or private spaces, which, if reported, could result in prison time. The third, “Defying Anti-Jewish Laws and Restrictions,” might include activities like staying out after the 8:00 Jewish curfew, going out without a yellow star, and/or failing to turn in a radio — or it might involve a more complex action, such as sabotaging forced labor, going into hiding, or escaping from a camp.
Jews also engaged in “Written Protest,” which included distributing anonymous leaflets and postcards, petitioning against specific Nazi acts, and critiquing the regime in letters, private communication, and even suicide notes. Perhaps most macabre is the example of seventy-one-year-old Benno Neuburger, who was sentenced to death by guillotine for mailing anonymous postcards that were critical of Hitler. The final category, “Physical Defense Against Verbal or Physical Assaults,” was less common, and primarily the province of the young.
Gruner’s archives reveal that, in addition to the hundreds of Jews who were arrested monthly for “political offenses,” ordinary German individuals protested against the regime and the persecution of Jews. His research model has far-reaching implications for marginalized groups and allies alike. It can help us better understand the actions of those who are facing violence, even genocide, under authoritarian regimes today.
Linda Kantor-Swerdlow is a retired Associate Professor of History Education from Drew University and the author of Global Activism in an American School: From Empathy to Action. She is currently freelancing and reviews books and theater.