New documentary attempts to depict Holocaust more fully than Hollywood typically does

resistance they fought back

A poster for the documentary “Resistance: They Fought Back.”

In Israel, May 5 marks the start of Yom HaShoah, a national day of remembrance in which the losses, and lessons, of The Holocaust are commemorated.

Never forget, people are urged.

But what should they remember?

In America, almost 80 years after the Nazis’ fall, eyewitnesses to those horrors are in increasingly short supply (although Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation has done much to preserve survivors’ memories). For the vast majority of Americans, what little they know of those times is what they see in TV dramas, or movies.

It provides an imperfect picture, at best.

When Hitler first came to power, most of the Hollywood moguls were reluctant to criticize him. Even after war was declared, and the studios finally, fully came out against the Reich, they often cloaked their criticisms in euphemisms. Although some movies made references to concentration camps, the true horrors — and primary victims — were rarely mentioned.

After the war ended, there was an effort to tell the whole truth; both Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock supervised the editing of documentary footage from the death camps. And in 1956, French director Alain Resnais made his great nonfiction film “Night and Fog,” intercutting ghostly footage of a modern Auschwitz, now overgrown with weeds, with proof of the bustling murder factory it once had been.

But it would take another decade, as censorship rules began to relax, before American dramas started to examine the true horrors of the war, with 1964’s “The Pawnbroker” delving into the present traumas of one aging survivor.

Yet while there are infinite ways to tell a story, the movies that focused on the era itself often stuck to the same template.

In the first act, a family of middle-class, well-assimilated Jews note the increasing anti-Semitism around them, but try to discount it. In the second act, they see the ugly hatred turn to violence, with stores vandalized and homes raided. Then the third act: a train to the camps, unspeakable horrors, a desperate, often futile, wait for liberation.

But as a new documentary suggests, there is another way to tell this story, too.

“People have this myth stuck in their heads that Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter,” a historian notes in “Resistance: They Fought Back,” now in limited release. “But this is where the real story begins … Jews did not go as sheep to the slaughter.”

Instead, the film documents, they rebelled.

Sometimes there did this through peaceful methods. Confined to increasingly grim ghettoes, Jewish communities worked stubbornly to preserve some semblance of Jewish life. They established schools, libraries and charities. They put on concerts. And they documented German war crimes, knowing a reckoning would eventually come.

Sometimes they rebelled through more direct means.

Jews who escaped the ghettoes often joined partisan groups fighting the Nazis, or formed their own. In Lithuania, Jewish men and women served together; dubbing themselves The Avengers, they sabotaged railroad lines and killed German soldiers. In what is now Belarus, the Bielski brothers took a different approach; focusing on simple survival, they went deep into the forest, and saved the lives of more than 1200.

And sometimes Jews fought back in the most impossible places of all. In the Warsaw ghetto, facing extermination, outnumbered warriors with a few weapons battled the Nazis for nearly a month. Six times, Jewish prisoners even led rebellions in the death camps themselves, fighting with whatever they had. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were even able to destroy one of the gas chambers.

The forces they were fighting were implacable. The odds were insurmountable. Most of those who resisted died.

But they died on their feet.

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List.”

Yet this is not the story that Hollywood often tells. Think of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” perhaps the most famous Holocaust film of all. It is superbly acted, and brilliantly directed. Still, it focuses on a sympathetic Gentile — like those old films about apartheid, or the Civil Rights era, that only saw the struggles of Blacks through a white liberal’s eyes.

Ask yourself: What would Spielberg’s story be like if it were told, not from the point of view of Oskar Schindler but of Itzhak Stern, the accountant who inspired him to save more than a thousand Jews from slaughter? Or what if Spielberg had made an epic, not about a Christian savior, but about the Jews saving themselves?

There are some exceptions to the lambs-to-the-slaughter narrative. The 2001 TV film “Uprising” recounted the Warsaw revolt. The 2008 film “Defiance” told the story of the Bielski brothers. The German film “The Forger,” released in 2022, dramatized the life of a handsome young Jewish artist who managed to not only survive wartime Berlin, but to pass as a German officer. This year, the TV miniseries “We Were the Lucky Ones,” tried to tell a fuller story as well.

But these are the exceptions.

Perhaps they should be the rule.

Recently I heard Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speak at NYU. He talked of the stubborn prevalence of anti-Semitism, and the ongoing efforts to combat it. And, he confessed, he wasn’t sure the old methods still worked.

At one time, he said, if he were trying to have a dialogue with a bigot he would urge him to visit a Holocaust museum. But did that really do any good, Foxman wondered. Or did it just convince the anti-Semite that he wasn’t alone in the world? That lots of people hated Jews?

Besides, Holocaust films that only depict the doomed is a little like telling stories about slavery, or the Civil Rights era, that focus only on the victims. Yes, the pain of those who suffered, and died, has to be remembered. But so does the righteous anger of those who fought back, in any way they could, and at any cost. Maybe for every three movies about MLK, or the Freedom Riders, we should have at least one about Toussaint Louverture.

Yom HaShoah is not an easy day in Israel, and it will be incredibly harder this year. Israelis must not only confront their own past, but their present. Things are suddenly, cruelly complicated. The current war in Gaza began with the worst anti-Semitic atrocities since the Holocaust; it has gone on to spur charges of genocide against the Jews themselves. There will be, and need to be, many painful conversations about history, and the future.

But the whole truth needs to be told, always. About everything.

Because only then will Never Forget truly become Never Again.

For more on “Resistance: They Fought Back,” visit


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