Guns and The Holocaust
10/26/2011 - 19:56

Jewish Week online columnist  Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz has drawn extensive feedback from commenters on this week’s edition of “Street Torah,”  in which he deals with the highly controversial issue of gun control.

People who have guns and/or support the right to own them get very easily worked up whenever you broach the topic of taking them away through legislation. There is a reasonable argument to be made on both sides of this hot-button topic.

One thing that's not reasonable, however, that I have heard time and time again in the discussion of gun control from a Jewish perspective   – and appears often in the above-mentioned thread -- is the trivialization of the Holocaust when people argue that more armed Jews could have prevented or mitigated it.

The idea that Jews or any of the other persecuted groups facing the Third Reich, the most lethal killing machine in human history could have somehow blasted their way out of Germany or German occupied territory with handguns or rifles from their homes is profoundly absurd. 

Yes, armed partisan groups that contained Jews were effective in fighting the Nazis. With perhaps as many as a million fighters interspersed in Europe, they were like an additional army and yes, guns made them effective. But for the most part they worked in coordination with the Allies who provided arms and intelligence. Less organized resistance didn't fare as well.

"The Nazis came in with overwhelming force," says Mitch Braf, founder of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation. "If you fired at them from a window they destroyed the building." He notes that many of the partisans had prior military training and captured their arms on the battlefield, but still had to learn guerilla tactics to be effective. "I don't think more Jews owning guns in Europe would have made a significant difference."

The fact that thousands of Jews, massively outnumbered and outmatched and in the most hopeless circumstances, did give the Nazis hell as resistance fighters is a testament to the kind of unconquerable spirit that later led to the rebirth and contemporary survival of Israel. But the notion of individual gun ownership evening the battlefield with the Nazis illuminates an exaggerated sense of power some gun owners have.

Someone will no doubt respond that, as Jews in wartime Europe, they would rather  go down fighting the Nazis, as did members of the Bielski brigade or the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, did than die at a concentration camp.

I can’t pretend that I know what I might do if placed in such dire circumstances, but I believe it’s human nature to continuously cling to hope, often until it’s too late.

And so I think that even if they had guns, the vast majority of (non-Bielski) civilians would still take their chances praying for the defeat of the Nazis and liberation rather than undertake the certain death of an assault on an SS battalion.

I have argued before that, in these dangerous days, shuls and other Jewish institutions should consider the prospect of professional armed guards, like the heroic  Steven Johns who put down a crazed anti-Semitic gun-toting maniac as he stepped in the door of the Holocaust museum, at the expense of the guard's own life.

But I think more laws and better laws, not firepower, are still the best line of defense; laws that keep guns in the hands of law-enforcement and responsible, sane, law-abiding people and out of the hands of criminals and psychopaths.


You will take my 30 caliber off of my dead cold clammy hands. While it would not have made much of a difference, if i could have held off a few nazi's while my kids ran, it's all worth it.

Grandfather was polish army he later joined up with the french resistance during ww2. he was put in the concentration camps for being a member of the resistance in France my entire family on my fathers side was wiped out. He was going to be Hung by the Germans but escaped. Id like to know how more gun control would have helped my family any?? as it seems you are arguing that, there should be more gun laws now? people can do amazing things when push comes to shove. alot of people were murdered in the camps including my family however my grandfather fought and lived. I'm sure he took a few Germans in the process to ;-) you can keep your gun control thank you...

"A shoot-out is better than the gas-chamber!".

I think you're overestimating the effectiveness of the German fighting machine and you're forgetting that every soldier the Germans diverted to suppressing uprisings meant one less soldier fighting the Americans and Russians. When you're stretched as thin as the Germans were for most of WWII, it doesn't really matter how good your soldiers are individually, you're still going to lose.

Second, you're incorrect that the resistance movements were armed with allied weapons. Arming troops in your own territory is a difficult logistical task. Directly arming a hidden resistance movement behind enemy lines is impossible. Simply put, the resistance has to arm itself. They used a mix of locally manufactured firearms (guns are easy to make) and captured german firearms.

Homemade versions of the sten were also common. The sten has its own wikipedia article. This is something any person with ordinary tools can make in their home. These guns used the ordinary 9mm pistol ammunition carried by any German soldier.

Of course, without the will to use a weapon, it might as well be a paperweight. Who can say that jews who lacked the foresight or initiative to evacuate Europe in the 30s would have faced their fate honestly and decided to go down fighting when it was too late to leave? Who can say they wouldn't have given up their guns if asked? It's really more a problem of convincing people to fight back than a problem of where to find enough sheet metal to make guns for everyone.

If you have a weapon, at least it becomes a choice whether to go like sheep to the slaughter or whether you fight and take some people with you. Even if only 10 percent of the people murdered by the nazis (say 6 million jews plus 10 million others) fought back and managed to kill one nazi loyalist, that would be a toll of over 1.6 million. Is that a price the nazis would have even been capable of paying? Fighting 16 or even 1.6 million people to the death is extremely difficult, far more so than ordering them to peacefully walk into a room full of poison gas.

The purpose of gun ownership is not to make it possible to defeat the government in a stand up fight, it's to make tyranny and genocide so expensive so that the government never becomes an entity worth fighting. Calling out the swat team to deal with armed resistance (in the criminal context) once a week is tolerable. Calling out the swat team a ten thousand times a day is impossible. Tyranny barely works when people are obedient. Throw in some resistance and it rapidly crumbles.

So, you would rather just lower your head and shuffle to the train?

The point that is made when speaking of armed Jews in Nazi Germany isn't that they could have defeated the main army; it is that the cost of hauling off all of those Jews, and other groups murdered, would have been unacceptable to the Nazis. If the individual members of the group responsible for getting the Jews on the trains knew that there was a very good chance someone, with nothing to lose, was going to try to kill them, they would be a great deal more hesitant to follow orders. The Warsaw Uprising you note took Elite SS units to put down. These are units that might have been better used by the Germans fighting the Russian or Americans. But they weren't; they were stuck fighting armed civilians who chose to die like free men. If the government wants you dead you are dead, but you can raise the cost for them making it happen.

As an armed Jew, I must disagree. I own many guns and I think if there's anything our history in the last century needs to teach us, it's the danger of being defenseless in the face of those whose goal is to kill you. Ask yourself if Israel would exist if the Jewish residents of the British Mandate of Palestine had decided against taking up arms when the revolt began. There are two levels here:

The collective perspective
From this perspective, we ask whether many many armed Jews could have effectively resisted the Nazis. Anyone who disputes this has to come up with explanations for the success of the resistance movements in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other places where small numbers of people with small arms and explosives fought off great powers armed with nuclear weapons.

Recent history is replete with examples of modern weapons evening the odds for small resistance movements. It needs to be pointed out that most of this is technological; firearms and explosives give individual resistance fighters dramatically more power than swords and crossbows. It doesn't matter if the occupiers are armed with artillery and tanks because the benefit of resistance movements is that they get to choose the time and place of their attacks. They don't attack tank columns or try to take and hold terrain because they know they'll lose; rather, they bunker down in urban environments where they know the terrain, and they ambush vulnerable supply lines. These kinds of actions are terribly effective, as America's own history can demonstrate. Would our forefathers have been successful in such an action against the Nazis? Nobody can know for sure, but the only way to guarantee failure is to not try at all. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think we can all see the terrible price that so many innocents paid for hoping that the situation would blow over and being unprepared when evil arrived at their doorsteps.

The individual perspective
From this perspective, we ask what we as individuals would do if confronted with such a vile, ineffable evil. Think quickly: the Gestapo is going house-to-house, hauling away Jews at gunpoint. You hear the screaming, and see them a block away from your house headed in your direction. At this moment, would you prefer to have a rifle and twenty cartridges, or no weapons at all? I don't think I can imagine a single human being would would prefer defenselessness in this situation. Of course, the rifle may not save you, in fact it probably won't; but isn't a chance at life—with an honorable death should you perish—better than the certainty of abduction, helplessness, humiliation, dehumanization, torture, starvation, and a monstrous death? If armed men ever arrive to try and take you and your family away by force of arms, I'm willing to bet the desire or appreciation for the means to possibly fight them off is going to loom far larger in your mind than your chances of success.

You say that you think most Jews would have rather hoped that the situation was resolved geopolitically rather than face the certain death in armed struggle; while it's certainly preferable that the Nazi rise had been defused earlier, this seems curiously backwards to me. I have no power to affect geopolitics, so what happens there, that's the certainty from my perspective. But on an individual level, I may resist evil when it arrives, and at least I have the chance of success, however small it may be. Failure is never a certainty when human will is applied to a problem. Again, the only way to guarantee failure is to sit back and not try at all. The unprepared are always the worst ones off when the world turns upside-down.

I think that the author misses the essential point of an armed citizenry. Mass pogroms take time and manpower to achieve. Add armed, actively resisting victims and that time and manpower requirement skyrockets. Sure, with enough collected will, the Germans could have still drug all the Jews out and murdered them, but every bit of hardware needed and every soldier required could not then be used to fight the Soviets or us. At a certain point it becomes too difficult to achieve a proper mass murder.

The other thing that the author misses is the simple human dignity issue. If my choices are getting shoved into a cattle car to be taken to slaughter, or get shot where I stand, I'm going to fight here and now. Sure, many will cling to a false hope of some divine intervention. By denying weapons to the citizenry you take that choice away. More importantly, you make what would be a difficult job a totally impossible job. Effectively, disarming potential victims makes you an ally of their future murderers.

Mr. Dicter,

It is of course easy to review history, at the point of hopelessness, and say that an armed résistance -- by itself -- would have failed after the onset of hostilities. No historian and certainly no witness to that epic struggle would deny that. What the article lacks is a review of history "prior" to the Nazis' rise to power. Frighteningly, that is where the world may be now, a period of "reasonable" calm and balance, a long interim between the World War II/Cold War period and what may lay ahead. History shows however that those periods occasionally intersect with sudden violence and catastrophic death with little warning and soon after a point of no return.

There have been many microcosms of that happening outside of the industrialized and so-called Developed World since the end of World War II as reminders that tyranny, foreign or domestic, is always brewing and waiting for an opportunity to rear its head once more. Vigilance through education, communication and armed preparedness is the best defense and deterrence against catastrophic annihilation.

Certainly the founding fathers of this country saw the benefits of the armed citizen and the well regulated militia and their near autonomous relationship to organized government. Likewise, the founders knew that peacetime organized armies were neither economical, nor sufficiently swift in their formation when needed at the outset of danger. They also believed, as did the Greek philosophers of whom they studied, that good citizenship in a constitutional republic entailed personal arms and good stewardship.

Lets not forget that the Jewish authorities co-operated with the Nazis,
betraying their bretheren in the hope of "clinging" to life that little bit
While no-one can realisticly believe the Jews could have fought off the
Germans, the fact remains that the SHOAH was almost bloodless on
the German side. Would the effort have been so smooth if Jews had
killed even 6,000 Germans?

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