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Could the Jews Have Escaped?

I’ve always wondered if the Jews could have escaped from the Nazis. I think a lot of people would ask this same question. Several of our scholars have touched on the answer, and then I found a resource here in Jerusalem that gave more ways to answer it. Here are some ways the Jews DID try to escape and what happened. Remember, it’s a complicated question and I don’t pretend to have all the answers here. There’s a related question that I’ll answer in a later blog, “Did the Jews resist?”  

  1. Yes, there were periods early during Hitler’s regime when it was possible for some to escape. It was easier in some countries than in others. Some individuals did flee in 1939 before Hitler closed the borders of the countries he occupied. But it was very difficult for entire families to flee, so parents stayed with children and adults with elderly. It was easiest for youth in their 20s to get out and go to Palestine. Also, the Zionists wanted only healthy young adults and would not give the OK to families with little kids or to old people.
     
  2. The Jews did not know what Hitler had in mind, and even he didn’t have a clear plan to try to kill all Jews when he issued laws that gradually took away their property and rights. They had been through persecutions before and thought they could survive this one too. 
     
  3. Many German Jews were deeply committed to German music and art and many had successful businesses, so they thought it was crazy to leave all this and go into the deserts of Palestine.
     
  4. In areas of Ukraine and Poland, where there were deep forests near Jewish villages, Jews did set up family camps where they lived for a year or more away from the Nazi soldiers. One camp held about 1,200 people and another about 800. There were never more than 10,000 in these forest camps. But Jews were hated also by the local peasants, so if the peasants found them, they killed them—whole families! Hard to believe, isn’t it? We don’t know how many Jews survived the war by hiding in family groups in the forests.
     
  5. Up until the 1930s, Jewish religious leaders discouraged their members from going to Palestine, even when it was still possible. Why? Because the leaders of the Zionist movement were secular Jews who said, “Don’t wait for a miracle from God. We need to do something ourselves.” That sounded like a rejection of God’s providence. Later, when these leaders realized that Hitler was determined to kill all Jews, it was too late to get out.
    Dr. Louise Prochaska (left) with Holocaust survivor Havka Raban.

     

    Dr. Louise Prochaska (left) with Holocaust survivor Havka Raban.
  6. There were attempts to escape from the ghettos. Here is a photo of Havka Raban. She was 16 in the Warsaw ghetto. Since she was blond with blue eyes, she could pass for a Catholic Pole, so she smuggled out and traveled to the other ghettos to bring them the underground newspaper printed by Warsaw Jews. She was arrested in Krakow, sent to prison and finally rescued by Swedes who paid for her. She now lives in Israel with her children and 12 grandchildren.
     
  7. Boatloads of Jews left Europe during the 1940s but were stopped at the shores of Britain and sent back because Britain had a strict quota of Jews. Also, at least one ship full of Jews was turned back from Palestine. Britain controlled Palestine and could not cope with the conflict between the Arabs who already lived there and the thousands of Jews who tried to find refuge there.
     
  8. During the death marches that started when Hitler realized he was losing the war, the Jews from the camps were so weak from malnutrition and hard labor that they could not run. If they had any strength, they were helping others who were weaker. If someone fell down, they were shot. And where to run? Into the forest, alone? With no food or shelter? Those who did get into the forest were later found dead.
     
  9. It was nearly impossible to escape from the work camps or death camps, even though some tried to organize escapes. There were three somewhat successful uprisings in the six death camps. At Auschwitz, Jews smuggled gun powder from the rooms where some were making bullets. They were able to blow up one of the four crematorium buildings. But it didn’t stop the gassing of the Jews already in the camp.
     
  10. Lastly, if one or two could have escaped, their striped clothing and starved appearance would have alerted any non-Jew about who they were, and it was a capital crime to assist any Jew.