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In Search of a "Social Science of the Holocaust".

In 2012, Charles King made a convincing case for the integration of Holocaust studies and the political science of violence to create cross-fertilization between these two burgeoning, but relatively separate, fields of study. (1) Evgeny Finkel's newly published book demonstrates the potentially rich benefits that can come from this integration, making a significant contribution to the "social scientific turn" in Holocaust studies. Methodologically, Finkel chose to focus on "meso-level research" (political science--speak for the space between national-level and individual-level factors), which he identified as one of the least developed types of analysis in studies of mass violence. (2) Ordinary Jews traces the choices of Jews in the ghettos of Krakow, Bialystok, and Minsk, while arranging these choices around a set of six carefully defined categories of behavior: cooperation, collaboration, cooption, compliance, evasion, and resistance. A number of old and new ideas sprout from Finkel's impressive effort.

Least surprising for readers familiar with the Holocaust will be that the strategies chosen by most Jews in these ghettos fall into the categories of either coping or evasion, while very few detainees chose compliance and resistance. Yet, the prewar trajectories that catapulted Jewish detainees into these strategies of survival form the most interesting findings of Ordinary Jews. Finkel compellingly argues that the choices of Jews were rooted in prewar political realities, as crystallized in the types of Jewish communities and the interactions between Jews and Gentiles. One of the core conclusions of Ordinary Jews highlights that Jews acted inside the confinements of their previous social networks and cultural realms: "people who were more integrated into non-Jewish society were more likely to choose evasion. Those who occupied a predominantly Jewish social milieu and had Jewish support networks were more likely to opt for coping." (3) In other words, Jews from Minsk, who were highly integrated culturally and linguistically and who had numerous Gentile friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, were much more likely to escape and hide outside the ghetto, while jews from Bialystok, by contrast, who had previously been closely tied to a dense network of largely Jewish communities and had been more culturally isolated from local Gentiles, were predisposed to choosing coping (inside the ghetto), rejecting evasion, even when faced with imminent death. In Finkel's account, the pre-Holocaust political regimes of Poland, the Soviet Union, and even the Austro-Hungarian Empire become leading explanations of the type of social connections forged between Jews and Gentiles.

With this major point, Evgeny Finkel transforms the discussion of the issue of regional differences during the Holocaust. Earlier research by Yitzhak Arad, Barbara Epstein, Yehuda Bauer, Ray Brandon, Wendy Lower, and Jan Gross, among others, when read together, indicated the possibility that Gentiles from the territories west of the Soviet (pre-1939) border were more hostile toward Jews during World War II, while Gentiles from the neighboring Soviet territory were less inclined to harm their Jewish compatriots. (4) Mv own comparative research on Jewish-Gentile relations in the Soviet-Romanian borderland during the Holocaust argued that, in places where states encouraged integration between Jews and non-Jews, important interethnic social connections were forged, leading to more cooperation and less violence in Jewish-Gentile interactions. (5) By exposing the regional patterns of behavior of the Jewish population, Ordinary Jews significantly reinforces and further develops the above-mentioned ideas by introducing new approaches, concepts, and theories. Equally importantly, all of these studies, taken together, indicate that different types of societal relations had a separate, independent role to play during the Holocaust, and this pertains to both Jews and Gentiles.

Another principally important result revealed by this book is that, despite what conventional wisdom would lead us to believe, "what the jews knew," (6) when they knew it, and where simply does not provide significant traction to explain their actions. As Finkel states clearly, "knowledge and information alone cannot explain the variation in behavioral strategies across and especially within communities." In fact, the experiences discussed in this book will take the reader to an even more dire conclusion: when confronted with information about imminent danger, humans' first reaction is not necessarily to escape, but is often to hesitate and to filter this information through the lenses of one's own views, past experiences, and even hopes. The case of German Jews deported from Niirnberg to the Minsk ghetto vividly illustrates this point: they knew better than any other group of Jews, and from direct sources, all the details about Nazi ideology and policies. Moreover, once inside the Minsk ghetto they were warned about their deadly future, and yet "until the very end many German Jews were confident that they would be spared." (7)

This book also raises many intriguing questions and stories that are sure to spawn other research projects. The story of compliance, as manifested by the German Jews in the Minsk ghetto, forms one of the most puzzling pieces. It certainly begs another question (and additional research): why was this group so visibly more compliant than all the others studied by the author? The explanation of difficulties created by the lack of language and orientation in the local environment seems insufficient. Strikingly, none of the German Jews' accounts mention building hideouts--Russian language was not needed for this task--which existed in almost every house in the Soviet ghetto, and very few recall stealing food in a ghetto ravaged by hunger. What were the factors that made this group significantly more compliant? Exploring the impact of previously acquired patterns of political, religious, and economic behavior may be avenues for other scholars to add to Finkel's revelatory analysis.

Ordinary Jews will impress readers with its high level of research, its abundance of empirical detail, and its clear style of writing. Historians will notice that the book could have succeeded with a purely qualitative methodology, but Finkel incorporates some statistical analyses as well. Alas, the discussion of the Jewish resistance from this section of the book I find less convincing.

In keeping with the broader path-dependency thesis of the book, Finkel argues that Jewish resistance was higher in areas where Jews had previously been "subject to selective repression that spurred them to acquire operational security skill." (8) This is both an intriguing and entirely plausible hypothesis. The problem arises with evidence used to test its validity. Finkel chose to measure "sustained Jewish resistance" (9) in the ghettos by exclusively counting instances of ghetto rebellion. This becomes problematic because, as Finkel himself observes, it is widely-known that such rebellions were primarily initiated by Zionist activists and were based on the ideologically "Jewish reason" of leaving a "historical record" (10) of Jewish heroism, rather than saving Jewish lives (given the impossibility of victory in such uprisings) or putting up lasting resistance to the Nazi oppressors. As such, the eruption of such rebellions are more likely a demonstration of how influential Zionists were in one ghetto versus another, rather than of security skills developed in the prewar period. And this is entirely consistent with the empirical results presented in the book: where the movement was strongest before the war--eastern Poland--the number of uprisings was higher. It seems likely that uprisings were higher because Zionists were more successful in convincing fellow Jews in the ghetto to engage in those acts. At the same time, given the fact that Zionism was suppressed by the Soviet regime and that the local Jewish leaderships' broader goals during the war were tied to the all-Soviet fight against Nazi Germany, the smaller number of observed ghetto uprisings is not particularly surprising.

In the same vein, the explanation that jews of Minsk and Krakow were less wired for resistance than the Bialystok Jews seems highly debatable. As visible from the book's evidence, the Minsk ghetto's underground movement deliberately channeled its activity toward survival outside the ghetto and closely coordinated with Soviet partisans. Smuggling Jews to the Gentile parts of the city and nearby forests were viewed as bigger priorities than organizing internal uprisings. Where violence was pursued, the Jewish underground focused on organizing acts of sabotage outside the ghetto walls. Moreover, most scholars of Soviet history will likely disagree with the assertion that Soviet citizens were less prepared than their Polish neighbors for resistance work. There is a rich base of historical work highlighting the military-patriotic education that was a pervasive feature of Soviet life and the Soviet system in the interwar period. In addition to forceful military training, which was included in all educational institutions, the GTO program, which stood for "Ready for Work and Defense of the USSR," trained millions of Soviet citizens of almost all age groups on a variety of military activities that would be useful for resistance, including shooting, grenade throwing, and activities that encouraged discipline and group cohesiveness, such as marching. Similarly, civilian military training was provided by organizations such as Osoaviakhim (The Society of Assistance to Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction of the USSR), which counted millions of members and ran army-style camps. (11) The organization's regimen required hundreds of hours of training, including parachute jumps, tests on topography, and first aid tests, among other skills relevant for resistance. There was also the widely known Voroshilov shooter training, which in some instances relied exclusively on military-grade weapons. While the paramilitary training could not (and was not meant to) replace regular army training, it did provide young Soviet citizens with the skills to mobilize quickly and, most importantly, prepared them psychologically for taking action against a given enemy. That Minsk became "a hub of underground resistance" (12) may, potentially, reflect this particular aspect of the Soviet war preparation.

In essence, I would like to have seen an alternative measurement of "resistance" given the important role it plays in Ordinary Jews. At a minimum, however, moving forward, the discipline will need to disentangle competing explanations of ghetto uprisings. None of this, however, should distract from the overall achievements of the book. Not only has this significantly advanced the field of Holocaust studies, it has made an important contribution to our understanding of political violence, resistance, borderlands, and behaviors that occurred specifically in Poland and Belarus during a seminal moment in European history.


(1.) King, "Can There Be a Political Science of the Holocaust?" 323-41.

(2.) Finkel and Straus, "Macro, Meso, and Micro Research on Genocide," 56-67.

(3.) Finkel, Ordinary Jews, 10.

(4.) Arad, "The Local Population in the German-Occupied Territories"; Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943; Bauer, The Death of the Shtetl; Brandon and Lower, Introduction to The Shoab in Ukraine; Gross, Neighbors.

(5.) Dumitru, The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust.

(6.) Finkel, Ordinary Jews, 51.

(7.) Ibid., 57.

(8.) Ibid., 212.

(9.) Ibid., Appendix 3.

(10.) Ibid., 161.

(11.) Merridale, Ivans War, 37.

(12.) Finkel, Ordinary Jews, 164.


Arad, Yitzhak. "The Local Population in the German-Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union and Its Attitude toward the Murder of the Jews." In Nazi Europe and the Final Solution, edited by David Bankier and Israel Gutman, 233-48. Jerusalem: International Institute for Holocaust Research, 2003.

Bauer, Yehuda. The Death of the Shtetl. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Brandon, Ray, and Wendy Lower, eds. The Shoab in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialisation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2008.

Dumitru, Diana. The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Epstein, Barbara. The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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

Finkel, Evgeny, and Scott Straus. "Macro, Meso, and Micro Research on Genocide: Gains, Shortcomings, and Future Areas of Inquiry." Genocide Studies and Prevention 7, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 56-67.

Gross, Jan T. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. New York: Penguin, 2002.

King, Charles. "Can There Be a Political Science of the Holocaust?" Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (June 2012): 323-41.

Merridale, Catherine. Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939A945. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.


Diana Dumitru is an Associate Professor of History and the Head of Doctoral School at Ion Creanga State University of Moldova. Her fields of expertise include the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, nationalism, and the politics of history. Dr. Dumitru has authored over thirty articles and two books. Her second book, The State, Antisemitism and the Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. Dr. Dumitru is a member of the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure. During the 2017-2018 academic year, Dr. Dumitru served as a research fellow at Imre Kertesz Kolleg at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.
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Author:Dumitru, Diana
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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