Some Jews managed to flee, escape, or otherwise hide from the Nazis. Some took to the woods, and were among the founders of the "partisan" movements, guerrillas who fought against the Germans from the woods. The Germans did not have endless forces, and they could not go into all the forests to flush everyone out. Certain areas were simply left cordoned off.

Jewish Partisans operating in the forests of Belarus.

Some of those few who went into hiding used their freedom to fight back. They engaged in acts of sabotage – blowing up bridges and roads, and killing thousands of German soldiers.

The biggest problem for the Jewish underground was that they did not get Allied support like other nationalist groups. Those groups received money, weapons and supplies flown in.

The Jewish resistance suffered the additional disadvantage of fighting on both ends: not only against the Germans, but also against the locals. Wild gangs roamed the countryside, vowing to kill any Jews they found.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

At its peak, the Warsaw Ghetto held over 400,000 people in an area slightly larger than one square mile. By January 1943, it had dwindled to 37,000 people. The rest had died of starvation and disease, or were taken away to slave labor and death camps.

Word got out that the Nazi tormentors were going to eliminate the ghetto entirely. In the most famous revolt, a group of ill-equipped, starved, disease-weakened ghetto Jews decided to fight back against the German war machine.

Nazis burn down the Warsaw Ghetto to quell the Jewish uprising, 1943

The Jews had been anticipating this revolt, and had convinced the Germans to let them build hundreds of air-raid shelters in the ghetto – ostensibly to keep the slave laborers safe from the incessant Allied bombings.

Now the people used those very shelters to fight against the Germans.

When the Germans came in to clean out the ghetto, much to their surprise, they were met with resistance. Over 1,000 Jewish fighters, including children, used pistols and Molotov cocktails against the sophisticated Nazi weaponry. For weeks, they successfully repulsed the Germans.

It was a short-lived victory. The Germans returned a short while later. This time they brought major firepower and set about destroying buildings, one by one. They broke into the hospital, shot everyone in their beds, and torched the building. Gradually, they destroyed the entire ghetto.

When the Nazis reached the air-raid shelters, they drilled holes into them and gassed the people inside. When some Jewish fighters escaped to the sewers, the Germans raised the water levels to drown them out.

After four weeks, the main fighting was over. Most of the remaining Jews were rounded up, but it actually took many months of combing through the ruins before the uprising was fully put down.

Although the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not ultimately “successful,” it marked the first time in all of German-occupied Europe that organized resistance was carried out against the Nazis. This encouraged others, and was followed by Jewish resistance in other places, including concentration camps. In October 1944 at Auschwitz, Jewish women smuggled in explosives and helped destroy part of the crematorium.