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Second Annual International Workshop: Resisting the Path to Genocide: Groups and Networks

September 6 – 8, 2012

The “Resisting the path to Genocide: Groups and Networks” International Workshop began with an informal dinner on the evening of September 6th in downtown Los Angeles. This was an excellent opportunity for the speakers, moderators and participants from across the US and Europe to meet for the first time and enjoy a delicious dinner. All agreed that this was a great way to start off.

In his opening remarks on Friday morning, Shoah Foundation Institute director Stephen Smithidentified the most enduring question that emerges in the study of the Holocaust. Namely, where was the resistance?  How mass violence and genocide are resisted in different cases is some of the most useful information about how to ameliorate the suffering of people in genocidal conflict in the contemporary world. The mechanics of how genocide and mass violence emerge are studied in many fields, but the study of resistance to genocide and mass violence is still unchartered territory.  USC and the Shoah Institute are leading the study of resistance to genocide. 

Nine speakers drawn from many professions such as law, advocacy, and education, along with an audience made up of scholars, students and members of the public came to USC campus on Friday the 7th of September to learn about how mass violence and genocide were resisted in different historical cases. What are the lessons from other cases? What does this tell us about resistance in each case?

Throughout the two day workshop we returned to these questions.

Walter Richmond of Occidental College spoke about Circassian efforts to broker peace with Russia during the 100 year war. Circassian attempts to broker peace with Russia were unsuccessful, but his paper demonstrated that some sub-groups within the Circassian tribes were willing to negotiate. On the same panel, Tim Gallimore, a practitioner with the Higher Learning Commission, delivered a paper about the role of external groups in combating genocide ideology and denial in Rwanda. He asked questions such as: Should we expect external groups to be responsible for resisting genocidal acts elsewhere? Is the right to intervene and protect known of as R2P useful or a hindrance? The morning session concluded with a paper by Chapman University professor of law, Michael Bazyler, who addressed the role of lawyers as resisters, perpetrators and bystanders to the Holocaust.  Bazyler raised the question, how can lawyers be trained to resist genocide when in some historical cases – he cited the Wannsee Conference – lawyers are involved in drafting the laws that lead to genocide?

The keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Mark Rosenberg, the Pat M. Glazer Chair for Jewish Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. His paper “Rescued from Memory: Hidden Networks and Hidden Jews in the Holocaust” uncovered the wartime activities of an anti-Nazi group known as the Bund. Recognizing that postwar memory is distorted by time, for protagonists and others, Rosenberg read archival materials from Bund members which elucidated the way rescue requires nuance for its full understanding.  For instance, some members of the Bund were interested in upholding a caring identity, though they still harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. Large networks of individuals, sometimes up to seventeen people, were needed to help Jews survive. The Bund group itself was able to survive undetected because of its informality; they were like a group of friends, casual and non-threatening and mostly female. For example, one of the Bund groups ran a vegetarian restaurant – this did not seem like an anti-regime movement. Thus the Gestapo didn’t take them seriously. Most significantly, the existence of the Bund flies in the face of arguments that the ordinary German public knew nothing of what was going on during the Holocaust, particularly as the majority of Bund members were drawn from the ordinary German public. The history of the Bund also challenges the binary of victim and perpetrator. Where rescue and resistance were concerned some of the motivations were political while others were personal, but the fact that they operated as a collective, rather than individually, meant that they could share resources and avoid detection and destruction alone. This forces us to consider the nuance of the act of resistance and its motivation.

In the afternoon on Friday, two graduate students shared insightful papers about groundbreaking work into resistance in Poland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. History Ph.D student Tannja von Fransecky from the Technische Universitat Berlin shared her excellent research on how groups escaped deportation trains in Europe. Fransecky interviewed survivors who jumped from deportation trains across Europe. Her findings revealed the factors that contributed to the likelihood of train escapes. There were: persecution experience in the past which made them suspicious of “labor in the East”, involvement with Zionist networks or other organizations, knowledge of their impending fate, and finally, help after escape such as fake papers. Luck and serendipity also played a role in success. Men were also more likely to jump, and this may have resulted from their socialization and the fact that women were more likely to be caring for other individuals within the train carriages. However she also explained that the social tension within the train carriage impacted on the ability to escape; sometimes people within the train carriage were terrified they would be shot upon arrival in the camps if the carriage numbers were inaccurate, as they had been told by the Gestapo. Here we can see how power moved from the Gestapo into individuals to cause them to made decisions which further persecuted them and eliminated survival strategies. Just as Durkheim noted there are different types of suicide, Fransecky said, in cases of genocide and mass violence there are different types of resistance.

Yale history Ph.D. student Jadwiga Biskupska delivered a paper on the polish intelligentsia and the primacy of Jewish victimhood. She asked: what was the significance of the Polish intelligentsia in resistance to the Holocaust? Biskupska’s innovative research showed how the Polish intelligentsia went from being a victim group to witnessing another’s genocide, but they didn’t help Jews passively or actively. Resistance activities are important, but contemporaneous conditions and intentions create the milieu and are also significant. Resistance to genocide includes failure, it includes the desire to do so but the inability to do so because of conditions, or because of capture. The milieu has a lot to do with resources such as disposable money, food, and other necessary items to help secure the safety of others. It is better to consider the milieu rather than the group, as a factor in determining whether resistance will manifest.