Violent resistance was extremely rare: weak, isolated and unarmed prisoners stood no chance against the SS. Still, there was plenty of resistance inside camps. Every day, prisoners broke SS rules. They hid food, dodged labour and held secret meetings.
More extensive resistance came from organized groups, composed of prisoners from similar national, religious or political backgrounds (though not all inmates were believers). Prisoners in these groups tried to help each other to survive. Some also went further, sabotaging SS orders and establishing links to the anti-Nazi resistance outside. In exceptional cases, they even saved others from execution.
There was also resistance during the Holocaust. It has sometimes been claimed that Jewish victims were passive. In reality, they carried out remarkable acts of defiance in concentration camps. Most notable was the October 1944 uprising by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Special Squad (the prisoners forced to work at the gas chambers), which destroyed one of the crematoria. Other Auschwitz inmates escaped and told the world about the genocide in the camp. However, prisoner escapes often had terrible consequences for the inmates left behind.
- 085 – The Jewish survivor Leon Szalet on prisoner “recreation” in Sachsenhausen
- 086 – The Communist Harry Naujoks on political resistance in Sachsenhausen
- 087 – The Auschwitz survivor Włodzimierz Borkowski on religious doubts
- 088 – Secret message from two Auschwitz prisoners to the resistance outside, 7 September 1944
- 089 – The Auschwitz prisoner Dr Otto Wolken on rescuing his “camp son” Luigi
- 090 – Secret prisoner notes on defiance at the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers
- 091 – Letter by the Jewish Special Squad prisoner Salmen Gradowski, 6 September 1944
- 092 – Rudolf Vrba on his escape from Auschwitz
- 093 – Oswald Pohl tells commandants that prisoners cannot be trusted, 6 January 1944
Related films & testimonies
“The time of the uprising was supposed to be 4.30”
David Nencel 2
A survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Special Squad (33 mins)
“Our aim was to defy Hitler, to do everything we can to live”
A Jewish survivor of Majdanek and Auschwitz (30 mins)
“I had various preparations for escape made”
Rudolf Vrba 1
A Slovak Jew on his escape from Auschwitz (8 mins)