In Nazi Germany, Hertha Reis, a 36-year-old Jewish woman, performed forced labor for a private company in Berlin during World War II. In 1941, she was evicted by a judge from the two sublet rooms where she lived with her son and mother – she was unprotected as a tenant because of an anti-Jewish law.
In plain daylight, in front of the courthouse in the heart of the Nazi capital, she protested in front of passersby.
“We lost everything. Because of this cursed government, we finally lost our home, too. This thug Hitler, this damned government, these damned people,” she said. “Just because we are Jews, we are discriminated against.”
Historians knew of clandestine acts of resistance, of course, and of armed group resistance, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. But in the dominant understanding of the Nazi period until now, the act of speaking out publicly as an individual against the persecution of Jews seemed unimaginable, especially for the Jews.
But in July 2008, I stumbled on the first trace of such public acts of resistance in the logbook of a Berlin police precinct, one of the few chronicles of its kind that had survived in the Berlin State Archive.
The entry, bearing the label “political incident,” was written by a police officer who had arrested a Jewish man protesting against the Nazi anti-Jewish policies. At the time of the discovery, I had studied the persecution of German Jews intensively for almost 20 years, but I had never heard of anything like this.
Intrigued, I started investigating. Subsequently, finding more and more similar stories of resistance in court records and survivor testimonies began to shatter my established scholarly beliefs.
Challenging traditional views of Jewish resistance
Historians, including myself, had long painted a picture of passivity of the persecuted. When discrimination in Nazi Germany gradually increased, the Jews slowly adapted, so went the argument. More generally, an assumption still exists today that defiance, especially individual protest, is rare in authoritarian regimes.
The astonishing evidence from the Berlin police files resonated deeply with me on a personal level. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. The communist regime persecuted even mild expressions of individual opposition as threats. This personal experience of living in a dictatorship until the age of 28 provided me with a distinct sensitivity that enabled me to recognize day-to-day forms of resistance.
Knowing from history that the treatment of the political opposition in Nazi Germany was so much more brutal, how much more serious must the Hitler regime have perceived any signs of resistance coming from their No. 1 racial enemy, the Jews?
Still, today the public and many scholars understand Jewish resistance during the Holocaust mostly in terms of rare armed group activities in the Nazi occupied East, for example ghetto uprisings or partisan attacks.
By including individual acts and, thus, broadening the traditional definition of Jewish resistance, over a dozen years of systematic research I was able to unearth many new sources – from police and court records of various German cities to video testimonies of survivors – that documented a much greater volume and variety of resistance acts than could ever have been imagined.
The astonishing results change the view of Jewish resistance during World War II dramatically. The story of Hertha Reis and many other potent tales of individual defiance and courage contradict the common misconception that Jews were led like sheep to slaughter during the Holocaust.
A 17-year-old challenges the Nazi regime
Searching the Hesse Main State archive in Wiesbaden, I found the story of Hans Oppenheimer. He left his four-story apartment house every night for weeks in 1940, breaking the curfew for Jews. Not a single light illuminated the street in front of him. The city of Frankfurt had ordered a brownout to protect it from Allied air raids.
A few blocks away from his home, Hans hid in a doorway. With the entire city, Hans waited anxiously for the bombs to fall.
Persecuted because he was Jewish, as a 17-year-old, Hans had already toiled as a forced laborer for a year and a half, most recently unloading stones and cement bags from river barges for 10 hours every day. He earned only pennies and felt constantly harassed.
Hans had never been to a movie or a play, because those were prohibited for Jews in Frankfurt. As a Jewish adolescent, he saw no future in Nazi Germany. Because the war prevented him from leaving, he had decided to do something.
Every night, he waited in the dark, anxious and excited. When the sirens started to blare, announcing that the Allied bombers were closing in, Hans set off fire alarms to divert the German firefighters from the actual bombing sites. In December 1940, after he had set off dozens of false alarms, the police finally manage to catch Hans red-handed.
The Frankfurt prosecutor indicted Hans Oppenheimer and put him on trial. Since the court could not prove treason, the now 18-year-old received only three years in prison for sabotaging the war effort.
Incarcerated and isolated, Hans suffered from severe depression and physical debilitation. When the prison officials did not respond to his repeated complaints, the young man attempted to take his own life twice. At the end of 1942, the Gestapo deported all Jewish prison inmates from Germany to Auschwitz. Hans Oppenheimer did not survive there for long, because of his weakened state. He died on Jan. 30, 1943, just days after he had turned 20 years old.
A new history of Jewish resistance
Forgotten until now, between 1933 and 1945 hundreds and hundreds of Jewish women and men performed individual acts of resistance in Nazi Germany proper. I present many of their stories in my new book, “Resisters. How Ordinary Jews Fought Persecution in Hitler’s Germany.”
They destroyed Nazi symbols, protested in public against the persecution, disobeyed Nazi laws and local restrictions and defended themselves from verbal insults as well as physical attacks.
Amazingly, Jews of all ages, educational backgrounds and professions resisted in many ways. Some did it repeatedly, others just once. The fact that so many Germans and Austrians individually resisted the Nazis and their policies obliterates the common misconception of the passivity of the persecuted Jews.
Instead, such widespread individual acts of resistance during World War II provide a new view of history: that Jews showed agency in fighting their persecution by the Nazis. And this, in turn, demonstrates that individual resistance is possible under even the worst genocidal circumstances.
Wolf Gruner does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.