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.

Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.

New Middle Eastern Studies Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new Middle Eastern studies catalog!

Of particular interest is Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter by Jonathan Marc Gribetz. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists, aspiring peacemakers continue to search for the precise territorial dividing line that will satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian nationalist demands. The prevailing view assumes that this struggle is nothing more than a dispute over real estate. Defining Neighbors boldly challenges this view, shedding new light on how Zionists and Arabs understood each other in the earliest years of Zionist settlement in Palestine and suggesting that the current singular focus on boundaries misses key elements of the conflict.

Also be sure to note Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict by Maud S. Mandel. This book traces the global, national, and local origins of the conflict between Muslims and Jews in France, challenging the belief that rising anti-Semitism in France is rooted solely in the unfolding crisis in Israel and Palestine. Mandel shows how the conflict in fact emerged from processes internal to French society itself even as it was shaped by affairs elsewhere, particularly in North Africa during the era of decolonization.

And don’t miss out on A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations:From the Origins to the Present Day. This is the first encyclopedic guide to the history of relations between Jews and Muslims around the world from the birth of Islam to today. Richly illustrated and beautifully produced, the book features more than 150 authoritative and accessible articles by an international team of leading experts in history, politics, literature, anthropology, and philosophy. Organized thematically and chronologically, this indispensable reference provides critical facts and balanced context for greater historical understanding and a more informed dialogue between Jews and Muslims.

More of our leading titles in Middle Eastern studies can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)