Unable to fight

In ‘Ordinary Jews,’ Evgeny Finkel explores survival strategies adopted during the Holocaust

A scene from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A scene from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In an appeal to the ghetto Jews of Bialystok written in January 1943, underground commander Mordechai Tenenbaum pledged, “We shall not go like lambs to the slaughter! If we are too weak to defend our lives – we are strong enough to defend our Jewish honor and our human dignity. We shall fall like heroes, and in our death – we will not die!”
Although the ghetto population did not join the uprising, Tenenbaum and his comrades fought valiantly, forcing the Nazis to use tanks and air power to subdue them. Apparently, Tenenbaum took his own life during the final stages of the fighting.
Why didn’t more Jews in Bialystok and elsewhere take up arms? Resistance, Evgeny Finkel, a professor of political science at George Washington University, reminds us, was one of several “constrained choices” available to Jews living – and dying – under Nazi occupation. In Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, he puts Holocaust victims front and center, takes their agency seriously, and lays out the survival strategies (cooperation, collaboration, coping, compliance, evasion and resistance) as they unfolded in the ghettos of Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow.
Drawing on the testimony of more than 500 Holocaust survivors and data on more than 1,000 ghettos established by the Nazis in Poland and the USSR (with a sophisticated understanding of the limitations of his sources), Finkel provides a fresh and often fascinating analysis of the impact of knowledge (and uncertainty) about their genocidal policies on behavior and the practices of ghetto Judenrats and Jewish police forces. He makes a compelling case that the response of Jews was based in no small measure on their experiences before the war, especially the degree to which they were politically active and well integrated into non-Jewish society.
Finkel distinguished between the “first wave of Judenrat leaders,” like Ephraim Barasz in Bialystok, who were respected members of their communities who genuinely sought to save as many members of the community as possible, and the self-interested, compliant collaborators chosen by the Nazis. He indicates that most of the Jewish police (who were often refugees without significant ties to the community) acted to save their own skins and feather their own nests.
Unlike compliance, which was the deerin-the-headlight response of many German Jews, coping, Finkel demonstrates, should not be equated with passivity and paralysis. Because they did not have an army, he writes, “Jews could not be lions.” However, they could be foxes, ferreting out hidden opportunities. Coping routinely required breaking rules, stealing, smuggling, bribing, black-market exchanges, engaging in mutual assistance, religious practices and living in hideouts. Understanding that people who did not work would not survive, Krakow Jews, Finkel indicates, presented fake employment cards, falsified birth certificates, and lied about their skills. A largely individual survival strategy, coping, Finkel notes, was more challenging inside the ghetto for Jews who had assimilated into Polish society and cut themselves off from Jewish support networks.
Evasion (hiding outside the ghetto walls, assuming a false identity, or leaving the country), required money; a “good” (i.e. non-Jewish) physical appearance; the ability to “pass,” culturally, behaviorally and linguistically; and relationships with sympathetic non-Jews. Fear and lack of contacts were major deterrents. Minsk Jews, Finkel reveals, could reasonably hope for help when they reached the “partisans” zone. Only a minuscule number of Jews in Bialystok, however, chose evasion, a fact he attributes to the city’s history of toxic interethnic relations.
Hoping to move the discussion “from completely unreasonable expectations” (one way or the other) about Jewish resistance, Finkel acknowledges that identity, emotion and “biographical availability” (no dependents to support or who would suffer retaliation at the hands of the Nazis), Finkel acknowledges, were factors in decisions about whether to fight the Nazis. He maintains, however, that prior political activism (including affiliation with Zionist or communist groups) and possession of operational skills led them to prioritize collective action over personal survival. Tenenbaum, for example, had been a leader in the Zionist underground in the USSR, where he worked with activists in the Marxist Hashomer Hatza’ir.
For Finkel, as for so many of us, understanding the constrained choices that European Jews confronted in the 1930s and 1940s is more than an academic exercise. He began his project by watching the videotaped testimony of his maternal grandfather. Lev Finkel, his other grandfather, grew up in Poland, was drafted into the Soviet Army, and returned home in 1945 to discover that all of his relatives were dead, having been either shot locally or gassed at Belzec. He never mentioned them, Finkel writes. Although he lived about 150 miles from his hometown, Lev never visited, not once, “and I can barely recall him laughing.” Finkel never interviewed his grandfather, who died recently at age 96, fearing the conversation might be too painful.
Now he wishes he had – and so do we.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.