Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, by Evgeny Finkel (Princeton University Press, 279 pages; $29.95)

The beat goes on:

“This Donald Trump Rally Looks Like a Scene from Nazi Germany,” intoned the Huffington Post. “In Trump’s America, echoes of Weimar. Pay close attention,” warned the New York Daily News. “It was funny for a little while. But the guy is Hitler. And by that I mean that we are being Germany in the ’30s. Do you think they saw the shit coming? Hitler was just some hilarious and refreshing dude with a weird comb-over who would say anything at all,” said comedian Louis C K. “When I saw [the] gathering of the Republican party retreat,” said former Mexican president Vicente Fox, “Trump being there reminded me of Hitler addressing the Nazi party.” Instances of this mass hysteria have been appearing on a weekly basis, revealing an historical illiteracy so vast that it could contain 1,000 books on the Holocaust.

If the ignorant could read only one of them (assuming they read at all), Ordinary Jews would be an excellent way to begin their education. Historian Evgeny Finkel opens by analyzing victims’ responses to the Final Solution, the Nazi destruction of the Jewish people. Adolf Hitler made no secret of his prejudice and planning. In Mein Kampf, the charismatic World War I veteran-turned-politician harangued his fellow Germans: “A racially pure people which is conscious of its blood can never be enslaved by the Jew. In this world he will forever be master over bastards and bastards alone.” His fellow citizens, exhausted by runaway inflation, beleaguered by monstrous debt and international humiliation, cheered when he was appointed chancellor in 1933.

Why didn’t the Jews see what this portended?  Why didn’t they organize? Why didn’t they try to combat the murderers early on, while they still had the chance? The answers take the investigator down some tangled paths. “It is natural,” Finkel notes, “to focus on the immediate visible changes wrought by the Nazis—the yellow stars, the ghetto walls, the mass graves and the smoke billowing from the chimneys of the crematoria.” But to understand the Holocaust more deeply, “we should take a serious look at the pre-Holocaust period, not only as a setting but as an explanation.”

Eastern Europe, the main killing ground, had a long history of anti-Semitism. Without it, Hitler could never have implemented his plan to wipe out an entire people. The concept of a pogrom—indeed, the very word—derives from the Russian gromit, meaning “to demolish violently.” Demolition was a Romanov specialty, used whenever the Czars needed scapegoats for Russia’s economic or military setbacks. Like German’s National Socialists of the future, they characterized the Hebrews among them as Bolshevik agitators or financial leeches, depending on which narrative fit the situation. Beating, imprisonment, and exile followed. Yet the Jews survived—until the 1940s.

To explain what occurred, Finkel offers a tale of three cities: Minsk, Bialystok, and Krakow. Minsk had been occupied by German authorities after the Russian Revolution. These administrators expelled Communists and provided a surprisingly stable and benevolent rule. After the Great War, the Kaiser’s forces retreated. The Soviets quickly filled the vacuum, brutally oppressing the Jewish population. Yiddish schools were shut down and highly placed Jews were expunged during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.  The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact in 1939; immediately afterward, the media silenced all reports of Nazi roundups and concentration camps. Little wonder, then, that the Jews of Minsk naively viewed Deutschland as a place of restoration rather than devastation. By the time they learned the truth from a handful of escapees and eyewitnesses, it was too late.

Bialystok was different. On the border between Russia and Poland, the Manchester of the North was a thriving industrial community. Jews, who occupied the urban center, were often the target of Polish mobs, but they were a resilient and cohesive group, quite capable of defending themselves. They were also worldly. When Soviet troops moved into the city, a wisecrack made the rounds: by preventing German rule over Bialystok, the Russians had “commuted a death sentence to life imprisonment.”

Jews had been living in Krakow since the twelfth century. They were an integral part of the city’s economy and cultural life. And almost all of them had relatives in Germany. Hitler’s racial policies became law in 1939, when Polish Jews were driven out of the Fatherland. Many sought shelter with relatives in Krakow. This led to overcrowding and, after the Nazi takeover, confinement in a harsh new ghetto. Though it contained its share of collaborators, the area also had two resistance groups, the members of which were eventually rounded up and executed. Thereafter, the ghetto became a labor camp where, as a matter of policy, the occupants were worked to death. A small group of Jews was assigned to a factory owned by Oskar Schindler. They, too, expected to die within months. But as viewers of the film Schindler’s List know, the stern-faced boss saved more than a thousand of his employees.

The remainder became part of the Six Million murdered by the Nazis. Most were ordinary Jews like those in Finkel’s account. If their tragedy is to have any meaning some 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, it is because in their very ordinariness they represented a recognizable humanity—tradespeople, laborers, professionals, shoppers, neighbors. On the other side of the ledger, by employing all the modern means of propaganda, barbarism, and genocide, the Nazis have become the very definition of evil.

These facts are documented online, in countless films, in grade-school textbooks, in voluminous histories, in contemporary accounts, and in biographies.  Those who refuse to acknowledge the truths of these works we know as Holocaust deniers, but those who persist in comparing Adolf Hitler with any U.S. politician reveal themselves as members of a group just to the side of the Holocaust denier—the Holocaust trivializer. There are no lower categories.

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


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