Evgeny Finkel on his new book, Ordinary Jews

Focusing on the choices and actions of Jews during the Holocaust, Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival During the Holocaust examines the different patterns of behavior of civilians targeted by mass violence. Relying on rich archival material and hundreds of survivors’ testimonies, Evgeny Finkel presents a new framework for understanding the survival strategies in which Jews engaged: cooperation and collaboration, coping and compliance, evasion, and resistance. Rather than looking at the Holocaust as a whole, Ordinary Jews focuses on three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—to try to understand why Jews in these communities had very different responses when faced with similar Nazi policies. Recently, Finkel took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

The Holocaust is one of the most researched episodes of human history. What new angle does your book contribute?

EF: It is true that the Holocaust had been extensively researched, but we still know very little about why European Jews chose different responses to the genocide—why some rebelled against the Nazis while others collaborated with them; why some escaped while others did nothing. This book is different from the existing research in that it focuses exclusively on the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and on what made individual Jews choose different survival strategies in response to the Nazi genocide. Instead of looking at the Holocaust as a whole or focusing on one place, as historians usually do, I compare three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—and try to understand why, when faced with similar Nazi policies, the Jews in these communities reacted in dramatically different ways.

So what could the Jews do during the Holocaust and why did they behave in different ways?

EF: I identify four main strategies used by the Jews: cooperation and collaboration with the Germans; coping with the danger and attempting to survive while staying put; evasion via escape and hiding among the non-Jews; and armed resistance to the Nazis. What I discovered is that the choice of a particular survival strategy was shaped more by the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and the regimes under which they lived—decades before the Holocaust—than by what the Nazis did. People who were politically active before the Holocaust were more likely to choose cooperation with or resistance to the Nazis. Jews who were more integrated into the non-Jewish society were much more likely to escape and hide, and the stronger the pre-WWII local Jewish community was, the higher was the number of people who chose coping.

But eventually, no matter what the Jews did they almost all died?

EF: True, in those parts of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Nazis most Jews did not survive the Holocaust, but this general observation obscures important local dynamics: for instance, those who chose evasion were more likely to survive than those who stayed put. Even more so, buying fake documents and going to Germany proper (and often to Berlin!) as a Polish or Russian laborer was likely the most successful survival strategy. The tragedy was that the evasion strategy was not available to everyone because it heavily depended on the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and interactions with non-Jewish people. Even very basic contacts such as having non-Jewish janitors in one’s workplace or apartment building could sometimes be the difference between death and survival. Speaking Polish or Russian without a Yiddish accent was much more important than having “non-Jewish looks” or being rich. For minorities, integration into the majority’s culture takes decades. In places where pre-WWII government encouraged such policies, Jews were more likely to have the tools to successfully escape and hide than in places where segregation between the Jews and the Christians was almost complete. In Kraków, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed and encouraged the Jews’ integration before Hitler was even born. The Empire itself collapsed twenty years before the WWII, but the legacy of its policies allowed quite a few Jews to successfully hide and eventually survive. In Białystok, neither the Russian Empire nor the interwar Polish state encouraged Jews to integrate into the broader society. When the Nazis came, for the local Jews, evasion was simply not an option because very few spoke Polish or had non-Jewish acquaintances to ask for help.

What about resistance?

EF: Actually, Jewish armed resistance was not as rare as people think. We tend to equate Jewish resistance with open uprisings like that of the Warsaw ghetto. But there were several ways to fight the Nazis and not all of them involved rebellions. The three communities I study all had Jewish armed resistance groups, but only the Białystok ghetto rebelled. In Kraków, the Jewish resistance bombed a coffee shop packed with German servicemen and engaged in anti-Nazi sabotage. In Minsk, the Jewish underground helped to establish and supply communist guerilla units in the forests around the city and smuggled numerous Jews out of the ghetto. Yet, because the Białystok ghetto uprising was a highly visible, symbolic act of resistance, it tends to be widely remembered, while the Kraków and Minsk Jewish undergrounds are largely overlooked and forgotten, in spite of the fact that they likely killed more Nazis than the Białystok uprising did.

Is it true that only a minority of the Jews resisted? Why wasn’t there unified resistance as the Nazi agenda became clear?

EF: Overall, only a minority of Jews chose resistance, but the expectation that all, or even the majority of Jews should or could have resisted is naive. Resistance, especially organized resistance, is not a matter of spontaneous decision taken on the spot. It required time, money, and resources that most Jews, especially those with families to provide for, simply did not have. It also required cooperation with likeminded and equally committed comrades, which is why this strategy attracted mostly Jews who were politically active before the Holocaust. Most importantly, skills to outfox the Nazi security services were essential. Without these skills, a resistance group was doomed to fail. As with other strategies, pre-Holocaust realities influenced who could become skillful resisters to the Nazis. In pre-WWII Poland, communism was repressed by the government and Jewish communists had to go underground. In the Soviet Union, the communists were the ruling party and therefore no young Jewish communist had underground resistance skills. On the other hand, the Zionists were persecuted in the USSR, but not in Poland. As a result, organized Jewish resistance to the Nazis was most widespread in Eastern Poland – an area that was briefly occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1941 prior to the Nazi takeover, and in which both the Zionists and the Jewish communists had the skills to fight back.

Can your argument explain the behavior of victims of mass violence beyond the Holocaust?

EF: Obviously, there are differences between the Holocaust and other instances of mass murder and genocide, but I think the overall list of possible behaviors is the same everywhere, be it during the Holocaust or in areas currently under the control of ISIS. That the behavior of victims of mass violence is heavily influenced by their pre-war lives is, I believe, also true beyond the specific case of the Holocaust. And if we know which potential victims of mass violence are more likely to try to escape, and who is more likely to fight back, then the hope is we would be better equipped to assist these people as the violence unfolds.

FinkelEvgeny Finkel is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.