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A Tale of Three Ghettos.

Evgeny Finkel's recently published book, Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, lays out a very ambitious agenda. The Holocaust has been overlooked by social scientists, Finkel believes, and he wants to put that right: "a 'political science' of the Holocaust," he states, "is both feasible and desirable." (1) To further this aim, he uses three specific Jewish ghettos--Krakow, Minsk, and Bialystok--to serve as a "controlled comparison" of Jewish behavior.

This "controlled comparison," Finkel argues, suggests a new topology of Jewish options under German occupation. Finkel suggests four basic behavioral templates: compliance/coping, collaboration/cooperation, escape/evasion, and resistance. Having outlined this topology, Finkel then tried to show why Jews acted as they did:
The factors that shaped the Jews' choice of a particular strategy
are... the patterns and contents of their political activism, the type
and intensity of the repression they experienced, the degree of their
integration into non-Jewish society, and the ethnic composition of
their social networks. (2)

And, Finkel argues, the crucial variable that shaped all these factors was the city's pre-Holocaust political regime.

Professor Finkel quite rightly asserts that it is important to study the Holocaust not just at the macro-level but also at the micro-level and the meso-level; to discard broad-brush descriptions of passivity in favor of serious inquiry into the broad range of Jewish reactions; to consider the impact of prewar experience and culture on the behavior of Jews under Nazi occupation. He also wants to correct a tendency of Holocaust scholarship to pay more attention to the perpetrators than to their victims. Furthermore, he argues that scholars should not minimize the degree of agency that those victims had. This is all well and good.

Professor Finkel asks good questions. Chapter 3, "What Did the Jews Know?" compares what Jews in Krakow, Bialystok, and Minsk knew and did not know about Nazi intentions. For example, Finkel argues, Jews in Minsk knew less than the others because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact caused the Soviet propaganda machine to obfuscate the truth about Nazi behavior in occupied Poland. Therefore they were less likely to flee in 1941. Krakow Jews knew more and thus fled in quicker numbers in September 1939. Of course Krakow Jews did not have to deal with a Soviet regime that often made the decision to flee quite difficult.

Chapter 4, "Cooperation and Collaboration," is less straightforward and more controversial. Finkel states that cooperation and collaboration meant "working with the enemy by either participating in or facilitating the persecution." (3) Cooperators acted for what they felt to be the good of the community while those who collaborated "knowingly acted to the detriment of the community's or individual Jews' survival." (4)

Finkel, unfortunately in my opinion, largely discards the more compelling distinctions between collaboration and cooperation made by Isaiah Trunk and Yehuda Bauer. "The forced dichotomy between 'collaboration' and 'cooperation,'" he states, "limits our ability to understand their choices and actions."' The same leader, Finkel states, might, over the course of time, both cooperate and collaborate.

In my opinion Finkel's distinction between cooperation and collaboration is somewhat forced, and it leads him to certain untenable judgments, such as his assertion that Efroym Barash, the head of the Bialystok Judenrat, crossed the line into collaboration when he broke his promise to warn the ghetto underground of a final deportation. He learned the shocking news on the night of August 15-16, 1943 and kept silent. But scholars should think twice before they pass such a judgment on a harried Judenrat leader who had done the best he could, who had gotten the news of impending deportation literally at the last moment, and whose relations with the resistance had been under strain in the last days of the ghetto. Can one presume to know his psychological state, the impact of this shock on his ability to decide what to do?

Chapter 5, "Coping and Compliance," develops an interesting discussion on how Jews who did not flee the Germans and who did not cooperate or collaborate dealt with the grim realities of ghetto life. A minority of Jews complied with German orders, and in so doing sealed their fate. German and Austrian Jews deported east were especially likely to comply rather than cope. A majority of ghetto inmates, however, flouted the rules as best they could and actively tried to buy time and survive through smuggling, trading, and work. In the end coping proved almost as futile as compliance, but Finkel rightfully emphasizes that coping reflected Jewish agency rather than helpless passivity.

Chapter 6, "Evasion," discusses how some Jews tried to flee, hide, or secure Aryan papers. Jews who had been well integrated into non-Jewish society before the war, or who had had either close or even casual contacts with non-Jews had an easier chance to survive in this way than Jews who knew little Polish or Russian and who had lived in an exclusively Jewish milieu before the war. By the same token, Finkel posits, the best evaders often made the worst copers in the ghettos. Relative outsiders, they found it a challenge to adjust to an all-Jewish environment and adapt to new realities.

Chapter 7 defines "Resistance" as "involvement in organized activity aimed at harming the personnel and property of the perpetrators of mass violence." (6) Resistance could be violent or it could include such nonviolent acts as disseminating an underground press or collecting intelligence to be used against the occupiers. Finkel thus rejects the view of Yehudah Bauer and other Israeli scholars that a whole range of activities aimed at preserving Jewish life and dignity, called in Hebrew amidah, could also be seen as resistance. Smuggling of food, doctors' struggles against disease, and clandestine ghetto schools were aspects of "coping," (7) not resistance.

Summarizing resistance activities in Krakow, Bialystok, and Minsk, Finkel stresses the salient role of those who had been political activists before the war. He believes that activists in movements subject to "selective repression," (8) such as Communists in prewar Poland, were much more effective resistance fighters than members of Zionist youth movements that did not suffer from Polish persecution. Finkel also rightly stresses the importance of "biographical availability": the right age, the absence of responsibilities for children, spouses, or aged parents. The summary of the resistance activities in these three ghettos covers themes that are well known to scholars: ghetto or forest, relations with the official Jewish leadership, the complex relations between Communists and Zionists in the former Polish ghettos, the fraught tension between the Soviet partisans and ghetto escapees in Minsk.

Finkel is to be commended for taking on such a daunting and ambitious task. He does a good job in describing the three ghettos he selects and in presenting several keen and enlightening insights. His chapter on "Data and Archival Methods" is especially well done and enlightening, although in my opinion, he is too prone to give short shrift to the value of contemporaneous Jewish sources, such as Ringelblum's Oyneg Shabes archive and the voluminous wartime materials from Lodz and Vilna. Such materials might have shed at least as much light on Jewish perceptions and choices as many postwar memoirs and testimonies.

It is also unfortunate that Finkel does not use, as he readily admits, Yiddish language sources. In Bialystok and even in Minsk Yiddish remained the main language of the ghetto. Furthermore, in the immediate postwar years more research, studies, and victim testimonies were published in Yiddish than in any other language.

In his conclusion Finkel states that his study has
important practical and policy implications: it shows that it is
possible to analyze and even to try to predict the behavior of people
targeted by mass violence, and it proposes that doing so might increase
our ability to help these people when violence unfolds. The emerging
literature on civilian self-protection argues that the international
community and humanitarian organizations should move away from the
noble, but unrealistic "salvation from the outside" mode of thinking
and instead help victims of mass violence to become better prepared to
help themselves. (9)

Does this book meet its stated goals? In my opinion it does not. This skepticism, far from impugning Finkel's merits as a scholar, may well reflect the fact that as a historian my acute awareness of detail and contingency makes me instinctively leery of broad models and topologies, especially when dealing with the Holocaust. It may well be possible to develop such models and topologies--my doubts notwithstanding--but to do so would require a much larger number of examples than Finkel uses. This is especially true if one hopes to use such studies to "predict the behavior of people targeted by mass violence." (10)

One of his major points is the importance of prewar experience as an indicator of Jewish behavior during the war. To a certain degree this approach offers some important insights, but it also requires a more nuanced understanding of prewar Jewish culture and politics than can emerge from the three examples used in this book. Do these three ghettos suffice to provide a sufficient foundation to reach such ambitious conclusions? Probably not.

Finkel might have been on firmer ground had he discussed in some detail the three major cultural subdivisions of prewar Polish Jewry: Litvak, Congress Poland, and Galicia. One can surmise that Warsaw Jews, who were more closely involved with Polish culture than Jews in Bialystok and Vilna, might have been more open to taunts about Jewish passivity and thus more prone to resist. But this is only a hypothesis--one I raised in an article some years ago--that merits further investigation. One might guess that the "Litvak ghettos" tended to show more social cohesion and less collaboration, although this too is a guess. Certainly the record of the Jewish police in the Kovno ghetto, while complex, is quite different from that of the police in the Warsaw or Krakow ghettos.

Rather than compare the number of ghetto uprisings in Eastern Poland with the rest of the country, as he does, he should consider different areas of Eastern Poland: the Northeast, Volyn, and Galicia. These regions all had different sociocultural characteristics before the war. One might also want to question whether the makeup of the surrounding gentile population had any impact. Were uprisings less likely to occur in majority Ukrainian areas than in a majority Belorussian region? While Finkel uses various election data, a few assertions in the book raise questions about how well Finkel understands the prewar Polish Jewish scene. For example, he states that the PPS was a pro-government party, which, apart from a small fraction, it most certainly was not. He registers surprise that a Zionist newspaper was published in Yiddish, despite ideological hostility to that language. Indeed, the biggest and most important Jewish newspaper in prewar Poland was Haint: it was Zionist and also appeared in Yiddish. It is all well and good to use the Sejm election results of 1928; those elections give a relatively accurate barometer of political sentiment at the time. But 1928 was also a relatively stable year for Polish Jewry: economic conditions were tough but the depression had not quite begun. Pilsudski's firm hand kept violent antisemitism at bay. Jewish political preferences were indeed quite volatile. In 1928 the Bund attracted little support, outside its base in the big city Jewish unions. Ten years later municipal elections (also a relatively good indicator) showed overwhelming Bundist victories in Warsaw (62 percent of the Jewish vote), Lodz, and other cities.

One might also question the usefulness of the categories--coping/compliance, collaboration/cooperation, resistance, evasion--that Finkel employs. Can these schematic rubrics really convey the shocks and surprises of ghetto time, the sudden shifts from relative stability to indescribable terror? Consider, for example, the situation in a small shtetl in the Vilna region (Szarkowszczyzna) where the Judenrat "cooperated" with the Germans by encouraging ghetto workshops and "coped" through the facilitation of smuggling. But when it learned on June 17, 1942 that strange and menacing new units (in fact Einsatzkommando 9) had come to town, it suddenly shifted to "resistance." The members of the Judenrat set fire to the ghetto and encouraged its 1,000 Jews to run through the cordon of armed killers and hide in the forests. Only a minority of Jews chose to run and most of those who did were killed. But a few hundred made it to the forest, where they became the object of a manhunt by local peasants encouraged by promises of German rewards. Five days later the German Gebietskomissar offered the survivors "amnesty." For a few days they would be allowed free passage into a neighboring ghetto (Glubokoe). Almost every Jew chose to go to that ghetto, knowing full well what the consequences would be.

Now if one follows Finkel's topology, one sees every category of Jewish behavior playing out within a period of two weeks: cooperation, resistance, escape, and finally compliance. Only collaboration was missing. The question that remains is: so what? What do we learn from this?

Finkel's omission of "shtetls" is a serious shortcoming, even though he implicitly includes them in his appendix on the frequency of resistance. After all, even though the focus of Eastern European Jewish life had shifted to the big cities, about half of Polish Jewry lived in shtetls in 1939. The example of these smaller communities would certainly have been relevant to Finkel's hypotheses. On the one hand shtetl Jews, in Congress Poland and even in Galicia, were less likely to speak Polish as their first language and thus were little integrated into the surrounding society. On the other hand they were much more likely than Jews from major urban centers to enjoy "weak links" with the non-Jewish population a term used by Finkel to define casual commercial, personal or neighborly ties. How did this affect their choices? Many small-town and rural Jews, as the research of Jan Grabowski, Barbara Engelking, and other scholars suggests, actively tried escape and evasion. Very few survived. A convincing topology of Jewish behavior would have included these experiences.

In his discussion of resistance Finkel does not discuss the most famous example, the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Finkel calls this an "outlier" and indeed it is, but not for the reasons that he cites. The Warsaw ghetto uprising raises many key questions. Why did armed resistance get the support of the vast majority of the surviving Jewish population in Warsaw even as it was rejected in Vilna and Bialystok, even after the Jews there had heard stirring accounts of Warsaw's fight for Jewish honor? Finkel believes that exposure to "selective repression" plays a key role in organizing resistance: hence the importance of the Communists in the Bialystok and Krakow ghettos and the role of Polish Jewish Communists like Hersh Smolar in the Minsk ghetto. But in the Warsaw ghetto, despite postwar efforts in Stalinist Poland to prove the opposite, the role of Jewish Communists in preparing the uprising was next to nil. The "heavy lifting" was done by the Zionist youth movements and the Bund, all legal organizations in prewar Poland. Yes, some of these leaders spent some time in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland in 1939 and 1940, but was it long enough to make a difference? And if one applies Finkel's topology of Jewish behaviors to the Warsaw ghetto, how does one treat the building of 750 bunkers? They fall under the rubric of evasion, but they also were part and parcel of resistance. But without that network of bunkers the Warsaw ghetto uprising would have been quite different. Furthermore, Finkel's definition of resistance excludes the seminars of the Jewish youth movements. Fair enough. We know that when resistance leaders like Mordecai Anielewicz and Yitzhak Zuckerman first internalized the horrible reality of the Final Solution, they bitterly regretted the time that they had "wasted" on their studies of Hebrew literature and Jewish history. But after the war, Zuckerman changed his mind and emphasized that without the psychological preparation made possible by cultural resistance, the armed resistance could not have happened.

There are still many aspects of the Jewish experience under German occupation that can best be explained by contingency rather than by topology. It is all well and good to speak of "headship" rather than legitimate Jewish leadership in the ghettos, but does this apply to the Kovno ghetto whose Elder Council was chosen by Jews and survived until 1944? Yet Vilna, only sixty miles away, saw its legitimate Jewish leadership decimated by September 1941. Few cities had a more politically active working class than Lodz. Yet there was no resistance in the Lodz ghetto, and precious little escape and evasion either. How does one explain the marked differences between "coping" in a regimented ghetto like Lodz and in a more laissez-faire ghetto like Warsaw?

Finkel has rendered a real service and his book, even when its conclusions are open to question, will serve to stimulate the serious scholarship of Jewish life during the Holocaust that has gained such momentum in the past few years.


(1.) Finkel, Ordinary Jews, 17.

(2.) Ibid., 193.

(3.) Ibid., 73.

(4.) Ibid., 7.

(5.) Ibid., 72.

(6.) Ibid., 160.

(7.) Ibid., 99.

(8.) Ibid., 167

(9.) Ibid., 198.

(10.) Ibid.


Finkel, Evgeny. Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Kassow, Samuel. "Two Ghetto Diaries: Emanuel Ringelblum and Flerman Kruk." In Holocaust Chronicles: Individualizing the Holocaust Through Diaries, edited by Robert Shapiro, 176-78. Ktav: NY, 1999.


Samuel Kassow earned his BA from Trinity College in 1966, his MSc from London School of Economics in 1968, and his PhD from Princeton University in 1976. Dr. Kassow is the Charles Northam Professor of Llistory at Trinity College. He is author of Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia, 1884-1917 (University of California Press, 1989) and Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Indiana University Press, 2007), and editor (with Edith W. Clowes and James L. West) of Between Tsar and People: The Search for a Public Identity in Tsarist Russia (Princeton University Press, 1991). He has lectured on Russian and Jewish history in many countries, including Israel, Russia, and Poland.
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Author:Kassow, Samuel
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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