Review: ‘Resistance: They Fought Back,’ starring Richard Freund, Dana Mazurkevich, Samuel Bak, David Gur, Dina Porat, Michael Schudrich and Yoel Yaari

April 28, 2024

by Carla Hay

An archival photo of Abba Kovner (back row, standing in the center) and the Vilna resistance in “Resistance: They Fought Back” (Photo by Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum/Abramorama)

“Resistance: They Fought Back”

Directed by Paula S. Apsell and Kirk Wolfinger

Some language in Polish and Hungarian with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Resistance: They Fought Back” features an all-white, mostly Jewish group of people historians, academics, Holocaust survivors and descendant of Holocaust survivors sharing historical information about what European Jewish people did to resist the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s.

Culture Clash: Resistance took many forms, including armed defense against the Nazis, smuggling away or hiding Jews from Nazi persecution, and providing food and education to Jewish people who were trapped in prison-like ghettos.

Culture Audience: “Resistance: They Fought Back” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries that have many personal stories about the Holocaust.

An archival photo of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto in “Resistance: They Fought Back” (Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Abramorama)

“Resistance: They Fought Back” is a vital documentary for anyone wanting a deeper understanding about the courage and the necessity of resistance by Jewish people and allies during the Holocaust. The movie combines history with personal testimonials. Many historical facts about the Holocaust are already known, but the individual stories revealed in this documentary aren’t necessarily taught in history classes.

Directed by Paula S. Apsell and Kirk Wolfinger, “Resistance: They Fought Back” features interviews historians, academics, Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust survivors. Many of the resistance stories that told in the documentaries are directly from diaries, letters and journals written by Jewish people who were imprisoned in Nazi-controlled ghettos or death camps in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Some journals, letters and diaries were buried and unearthed years later. Others were passed down through families for generations.

Early on in “Resistance: They Fought Back,” American professor Richard Freund, a Jewish historian/archaeologist, makes a powerful statement about the Holocaust that can be considered the purpose of this documentary: “People have this myth stuck in their heads that the Jews went to their death like sheep to the slaughter, but this is where the real story begins: They fought back.” (Freund died in 2022, at the age of 67. The documentary has a dedication to him in the end credits.)

The real-life written stories in “Resistance: They Fought Back” have voiceover narration from several actors, including Corey Stoll, Dianna Agron, Maggie Siff, Romy Rosemont, Julie Benko, David Rosenberg, Lisa Loeb, Joel De La Fuente, Andrew Kishino and Mark Zeisler. Documentary viewers will get behind-the-scenes stories about several heroic Jewish resistance fighters that are testament to how many people resisted Nazi oppression in many different ways. Most of the resistance fighters who are mentioned this documentary were in their teens and 20s at the time they documented their resistance activities.

Abba Kovner was a resistance leader from the Vilna Ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania. He is one of the more prominent people named in the documentary as someone who believed in armed resistance. Kovner became a commander of an informal army of Jewish resisters. Kovner (whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust) also insisted on including women as part of the armed fighters, even when several people under his command were sexist and said women could not fight alongside the men. Abba’s wife Vita Kempner-Kovner was also part of the resistance movement. Their son Michael Kovner is interviewed in the documentary.

Bela Hazan was a courier in the resistance movement in Gordo, Belarus. Because she could pass herself off as a gentile, she pretended to be Catholic so she could get past certain Nazi security checkpoints. Hazan carried food, messages and other resources to and from Jewish ghettos until she was imprisoned by Nazis. Her professor son Yoel Yaari is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. He gets emotional at one point and says he can’t go into details about the atrocities his mother experienced during the Holocaust.

Vladka Meed and Ben Meed were a married couple who were part of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance in Poland. The Meed spouses believed in Amdah: unarmed resistance. This belief included educating Jewish children when Nazis outlawed it; doing charitable work for people in Jewish ghettos; and helping Jewish people escape or hide from Nazi imprisonment. Drs. Rita Meed and Steven Meed, children of Vladka Meed and Ben Meed, are interviewed in the documentary.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, comments in the film: “Education was a form of resistance. If you never lost your humanity, then in a very real sense, you’re helping to beat the [Nazi] Germans.”

Samuel Bak, a professional artist who survived being in the Vilna Ghetto, had his first art exhibit in the ghetto at age 9. Bak says art “kept the psyche of the people, more or less, alive.” Other Holocaust survivors who are interviewed in the documentary are Budapest resistance fighter David Gur and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Krystina Budnicka.

One of the most memorable Holocaust survivor stories comes from violinist Dana Mazurkevich, who escaped as a child from the Kovno Ghetto in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her parents gave her to a woman who smuggled Mazurkevich in a potato sack. At a Nazi checkpoint, Mazurkevich was making whimpering noises in fear, but the woman carrying her in the sack was able to fool Nazi security officials at the checkpoint into thinking that she had a live pig in the sack.

In the documentary, Mazurkevich says about her parents, who died in the Holocaust: “It took unbelievable courage that they could give me away, and not knowing if they will survive, or if they will survive.” She gets choked up with emotions when she adds, “I think it was a big, big act of resistance.”

Chaim Melcer, who was born in 1927, lived in the city of Sobibór, Poland, a few miles from the Treblinka Death Camp. Almost 2 million Jews were murdered at Treblinka Death Camp. Melcer says in the documentary: “We could hear the screams and smell the burning.” He and his father escaper and lived in a forest for two years. Tragically, Melcer’s mother and younger siblings were murdered in the Sobibór death camp.

“Resistance: They Fought Back” also has narration of letters from resistance fighter Marcel Nadjari, a prisoner at the Auschwitz death camp who was sent there from Greece at the age of 27. Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz were called Sonder Kommando. A letter that Nadjari buried in a thermos at an Auschwitz crematorium was found in 1980. In total nine different Sonder Kommando letters and diaries have been found at this site where the Auschwitz death camp used to be.

Other people of the resistance who are mentioned in the documentary include Oneg Shaber (Sabbath Delight) leader Emanuel Ringelbaum, Warsaw Getto Uprising Commander Mordeca Anielewicz, archivist David Graber, Feige Peltel, Vilna resistance fighter Ruzka Korchak and Sonder Kommando prisoner Elieze Eisenschmidt. Holocaust survivors who are mentioned include Eania Dunetz, Esther Raab, Ada Neufeld and Jack Kagan, a resident of Novogrudok, Belarus, who was rescued by World War II hero Tuvia Bielski. Descendants of Holocaust survivors who are interviewed in the documentary include Jack Kagan’s son Michael Kagan, Dunetz’s daughter Batya Cohen, Korchak’s daughter Yonat Robain, Neufeld’s son Ronnen Harran and poet Abraham Sutzkever’s daughter Hadas Kalderon.

Several academics and historians who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Pawel Sawicki of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Ilya Lensky of Jews in Latvia Museum, Paul Baum of BGC Engineering and Tomaz Oleksy-Zborowski of Sobibór’s Museum and Memorial. Professors who are interviewees include Gideon Greif, Avinoam Patt of New York University, Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University, Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University, Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Patrick Henry of Whitman College, David Fishman of Jewish Theological Seminary, Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University and Steven Bowman of the University of Cincinnati.

The documentary goes to several Holocaust locations, including the above-named museums, as well as Ponar Memorial and forest area, outside of Vilna, where Freund shows some of his students the death pits that were used to dispose of Jewish murder victims. Although “Resistance: They Fought Back” has disturbing and depressing accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust, the stories describe experiences of love and compassion not just for family members but for strangers who were also trapped in this terrible and shameful genocide. It’s this will to live and fight evil that will resonate the most with viewers of “Resistance: They Fought Back” and will serve as testament of the human spirit that ended up being much stronger than the Nazi forces who were defeated in World War II.

Abramorama released “Resistance: They Fought Back” in New York City on April 12, 2024, with an expansion to Los Angeles on May 10, 2024.

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