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2013 Workshop Report

Resisting the Path to Genocide: Individual Resistance

An International Workshop at the University of Southern California

Organized by USC Dornsife College 2020 Genocide Resistance Research Cluster, September 27 – 28, 2013


Conference Report

Submitted by: Alida Liberman


Last September, a group of interdisciplinary scholars from Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia and the United States and participants from USC gathered in Los Angeles for two days of productive and engaging discussion on the topic of individual resistance to genocide. 

The conference was the third of three annual workshops organized by the Genocide Resistance Research Cluster at USC.  The Cluster consists of twenty USC scholars from over twelve disciplines and is dedicated to facilitating and encouraging collaborative discussion and research about the resistance to genocide.  While this year’s workshop emphasized genocide resistance at the individual level, in 2011 and 2012 the workshops dealt with resistance at the state/societal and group levels, respectively. 

The first day of the conference was held at the University of Southern California.  Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation Institute, provided an introduction in which he emphasized the difficulties in defining resistance to genocide, and the importance of focusing on the acts of individual resistors.  He noted that while the 2020 Genocide Resistance Research Cluster will be ending this year, the interest in genocide resistance is continuing, for example with an upcoming Center for Advanced Genocide Studies and an undergraduate minor at USC on Resistance to Genocide.

The morning sessions offered a variety of case studies concerning ways in which people persecuted by the Nazis in Europe managed to resist.  Christoph Kreutzmueller, a German historian, spoke of how Jewish business owners mitigated or negated the impact of anti-Semitic boycotts, embargoes, and violence in Berlin between 1933 and 1942.  For example, they set up their own co-ops of banks and loan systems, as well as systems for giving legal advice.  Some created branches of their business in other countries, in order to have valuable foreign currency that the Nazis needed. While some explicitly advertised as a Jewish business in order to attract Jewish customers, for example in Jewish newspapers, others concealed the fact that they were Jewish. 

Discussion of the paper noted the difficulties with determining when resisters act individually and when in community, especially because individuals are always living and acting in relationships, and determining when behaviors are active acts of resistance and when they stem from habit or mere convenience. 

Aleksandra Loewenau discussed three interesting case studies of prisoners’ resistance to Nazi medical experiments in concentration camps, focusing on the factors that enable people to become resisters and affect their decision-making processes. One resister was Maria Broel-Platter, who was injected with gangrene in her leg to test drug treatment. She participated in a march of cripples with other women to publicly show that they had not volunteered for the experiment, and wrote a letter to the head of the concentration camp Ravensbrück calling them out for performing illegal experiments.  Lowenau, a historian of medicine from the UK, concluded that factors that contributed to the ability to become resisters included a great deal of luck; one’s nationality, camp arrival year, and profession often determined who was selected for an experiment.  Resistance often depended on one’s relationships with other inmates, personality, identifications, and motivations. 

Marta Ansilewska (Jewish Studies, Berlin) spoke about identity change as a survival strategy of Jewish children in Poland.  In spite of a death penalty on Jews who posed as Gentiles in German occupied Poland, a number of Jewish children were baptized as Catholics and given non-Jewish identities in an effort to hide and save them.  The Jewish identities of such children were often entirely erased; they were given fictional origin stories, brought up to speak Polish without Yiddish accents, and taught Catholic prayers and customs. Many of these children did not even discover that they were Jewish until adulthood, if ever.  This means of resistance is not part of a popular or common narrative, but it was widely used by Jewish parents or Polish “saviors.” 

After the morning session, conference participants were treated to a keynote film presentation from Pierre Sauvage, an Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker and director of the Chambon Foundation in Los Angeles.  Sauvage screened excerpts from And Crown Thy Good—Varian Fry in Marseille, a feature documentary about Americans involved in rescue in Marseille, France.  The film focuses on Varian Fry, an American journalist and intellectual, as well as some of his helpers. Fry went to Vichy France and orchestrated the escape of several thousand Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees, many of them prominent artists, intellectuals, and public figures. Sauvage also screened a work-in-progress documentary short Three Righteous Christians of France, in which he uses interviews with three French Christians in Le Chambon, France—Madeleine Barot, pastor André Dumas, and Jean-Marie Soutou—who hid, protected, and ultimately saved five thousand Jews who fled for to the town for protection during WWII. Sauvage himself was born in Le Chambon during this time, and he and his parents were among those saved.

After the keynote presentation, Selma Leydesdorff outlined her historical research on the biography of Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, leader of the uprising in the Sobibor extermination camp in 1943.  Stories about Pechersky have been since mythologized, and Leydesdorff’s research aims at answering questions as: What motivated him to resist? In what ways did he actually resist?  How did he understand his Jewish identity?  Discussion focused on a variety of further questions about Pechersky’s life, as well as his continuing legacy and perception, especially in Israel. The last talk of the day featured Paul Morrow, a philosopher, who spoke about the concept of praiseworthiness, and how this relates to resistance.  Most discussions of moral responsibility relating to genocide focus on blameworthiness of perpetrators and of bystanders.  Morrow aimed at developing a theoretical account of praiseworthiness, or the conditions in which an act by an individual—such as an act of resistance—may be praised.  He argued that there are three elements that an account of praiseworthiness must encompass: an action requirement (i.e., performing a good act), a knowledge requirement (i.e., doing so in the knowledge that what you do is good), and a motivation requirement (i.e., doing the act for a morally good, or at least permissible, reason.)  Morrow’s account was not just a nice capstone to the day, as it was enlightening to apply his theory to the variety of case studies discussed earlier, but also resonated with the most recent trends in research on resistors, since it focuses more on the praiseworthiness of individual actions rather than the character of actors.

On the second day of the conference, participants met at the beautiful Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, the former exile home of the German writer Lion Feuchtwanger.  First, Robin Krausespoke about Ludwig von Estorff, a German general and colonial governor who played an important, if reluctant, role in implementing certain genocidal policies after 1904 by cordoning off in the dessert the Herero people in German Southwest Africa.  While obeying his orders, he spoke out against against them, and even attempted to mitigate these genocidal policies.  Later, Erstoff resisted in a variety of ways—challenging his superior’s battle plans, asking his superior to accept a negotiated surrender from the Herero, negotiating a surrender with the Nama, and—in what was most obviously an act of resistance—closing the brutal prison camp at Shark Island the day after he gained control of it.  The workshop participants discussed the role that religion played in Erstoff’s resistance, and the question of whether Erstoff conceived of himself as resisting, or simply as suggesting new or different policies.

Next, Stephen McLoughlin, a political scientist from Australia, spoke about the postcolonial role of African political leaders in the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities, focusing on Seretse Khama in Botswana, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, and Julius K. Nyerere in mainland Tanzania.  He proposed to discuss the ways in which political leaders can engage in mitigation of risks of mass violence, although they are more often studied as perpetrators of genocide.  Similarly, as there is much focus on external actors regarding genocide prevention, he proposed instead to consider the role that local and national actors play in preventing genocides in their own communities. Risk mitigation strategies for these leaders included: creating a new, more inclusive political party or ideology, emphasizing harmony between traditional community organizations and modern democracy, and focusing on equality and self-reliance .

Paul Bartrop concluded with a presentation about two case studies of Jewish resistors to mass violence in Sarajevo and Mostar during the Bosnian war from 1992 – 1995.    During the Bosnian war, Jews were considered neutral and were basically left alone by all sides.  Jakob Finci, the “partisan neutral” in Sarajevo, saved lives by running a benevolence organization. Zoran Mandlbaum, the “Bosnian Schindler” in Mostar, forged Jewish papers for people to use to escape, as neutral Jews could travel freely. 

Wolf Gruner offered closing remarks.  He noted that one should avoid isolating resisting individuals: they have relationships with others that are necessary for acquiring resources and information, as well as opportunities for help. He highlighted some of the lingering questions or themes of the conference, such as: What is the trajectory of someone who resists genocide?  Do people who perform such acts revert back to ordinary lives? Why does religion motivate resistance for some, but not others?  What kinds of experiences push people to act?  And why do such experiences motivate only a few?  A key theme seems to be that resisters of genocide do not just use the opportunities they have; they also create opportunities to act and resist, which is especially praiseworthy. The workshop concluded with a literary reading from Sviatlana Kurs, a Belarusian writer and journalist and current Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa Aurora.  


Conference Program:

Thursday, September 26: Arrival/Evening dinner for conference participants


Friday, September 27: USC, Doheny Library, Library Friends Lecture Hall, room 240


Welcome remarks: Stephen Smith, USC Shoah Foundation


Christoph Kreutzmüller – History, Villa der Wannseekonferenz, Berlin, Germany

Jewish Business owners in Berlin 1933-1942


Aleksandra Loewenau – History of Medicine, Oxford Brookes University, GB

Prisoners' Resistance Against Nazi Medical Experiments at Ravensbrück, Auschwitz

and Dachau


Marta Ansilewska–Jewish Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Freed by Baptism? – Identity Change as Survival Strategy of Polish Child Survivors


Keynote film screening: Pierre Sauvage – Chambon Foundation, Los Angeles

Presentation of excerpts from documentaries:

And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille (excerpts work-in-progress)

Three Righteous Christians (from We Were There—Christianity and the Holocaust)


Selma Leydesdorff – History, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Sacha Pecherski: The Forgotten Leader of the Resistance in Sobibor


Paul Morrow – Philosophy, Vanderbilt University, USA

Responsibility, Resistance, and the Limits of Praiseworthiness


Saturday, September 28: Villa Aurora, Pacific Palisades


Robin Krause – History, Clark University, Worcester, USA

Estorff as Perpetrator and Resistor in German Southwest Africa


Stephen McLoughlin -- Political Science, Griffith University, Australia

The Role of Political Elites in Resisting the Path to Genocide.


Paul Bartrop -- History, Florida Gulf Coast University, USA

Acts of Goodness in the Face of Genocide: Jewish Leadership in Sarajevo and Mostar,



Concluding remarks: Wolf Gruner, USC, 2020 Research cluster


Public reading: Sviatlana Kurs, Writer and current Feuchtwanger Fellow (Villa Aurora)

"The Archivist's Visit"