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Intolerable Memories

Judenrat

by Isaiah Trunk
Macmillan, 664 pp., $14.95

Hunter and Hunted: Human History of the Holocaust

selected and edited by Gerd Korman
Viking, 320 pp., $8.95

October ‘43

by Aage Bertelsen, translated by Milly Lindholm
Gross Brothers Printing Co., Inc.(New Jersey), 246 pp., $1.25

The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies

by Donald Kenrick, by Grattan Puxon
Basic Books, 256 pp., $6.95

Maimonides said: “If pagans shall tell them [the Jews], ‘Give us one of yours and we shall kill him, otherwise we shall kill all of you,’ they should all be killed and not a single Jewish soul should be delivered.” Rumkowski, the leader of the Judenrat at Lodz and dictator, under the Nazis, of the ghetto, said in 1942: “Perhaps it is a satanic idea, and again perhaps it is not—but I cannot restrain myself from mentioning it. Deliver to me those sick ones, and it may be possible to save the healthy ones instead.” The militant Zionist leader Jabotinsky visited the Jews of Czernowitz on the eve of war, and listened to those who were still reluctant to make for Palestine. He left them with an epigram that was brutal and truthful and useless: “Yiddishe kinderlech, lernt eich schiessen.” You’d better learn to shoot!

In the agonizing quarrel over the role of the Jewish Councils, these quotations were mauled almost to meaninglessness. Perhaps it was a quarrel between the use of history for understanding and the use of history as raw material for the new myths demanded by the struggles of the state of Israel. A last service was asked of the dead millions who had gone without resistance to the boxcars for Treblinka, and who had waited with their children outside the doors of the gas chambers: that their memory should be used to set off the glory of those who stood and fought in the blazing ghettos or on the frontiers of Israel.

The gravity and steadiness of Isaiah Trunk’s book suggest that the irrational force of that great dispute has blown itself out at last. Nobody now is going to fall upon Trunk for saying in his preface that “it was not my intention to pronounce judgment either way on these institutions [the Jewish Councils],” and reproach him for lack of moral courage. It is possible for the facts about the Councils to be collected and deployed and, at least, heard out with respect. This is not merely because time has passed; it is also because of new situations that have arisen since the controversy.

Three matters seem to me important here. One, obviously enough, is the June War: an Israel which has won such dominance over its Arab neighbors no longer requires to pursue the old argument about militancy. A second element, influential in the Diaspora, is more painful: it is the historical irony suggested by Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. An Arab mayor in occupied Jordan, mediating between his own people and the Israeli authorities, is not Rumkowski: he is not required to deliver his community’s sick and unemployable to their deaths. Nonetheless, the moral problems posed by his collaboration and that of his subordinates would be all too recognizable to Jakob Gens of the Wilno ghetto or Adam Czerniakow of Warsaw.

Thirdly, there is the Polish question. In the late Sixties, a faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party chose to play the anti-Semitic card in its struggle for power and—through its control of the security apparatus—drove more than half of the surviving, and politically irrelevant, Polish Jews out of their jobs and into exile. Most Poles looked on this campaign with contempt. But it was seized upon in the West, not without relish, as “proof” that Poland was a nation of inveterate Jew-baiters. It is not easy to forget the sight of a Jewish professor, freshly forced into emigration, being screamed down by a Jewish audience in London when he tries to explain that the special disgrace of the anti-Zionist campaign lies in the fact that it was a cynical political ploy rather than a spontaneous movement.

A handy side effect of the affair was to take much steam out of the increasingly squalid argument about behavior in face of the gas chambers. If both sides could now agree that the Poles were viciously anti-Semitic and had helped the Germans to bring about the final solution, the passivity of the Jewish victims was more easily explained: the odium could be conveniently transferred to the Poles. At least one survivor of the Holocaust was loudly reproached by Jewish organizations in Britain when he traveled to Poland in April to attend the thirtieth anniversary commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto rising.

It is here that the otherwise admirable Mr. Trunk puts the wrong foot down. In summarizing his conclusions at the end of the book, he states that “260,000 persons” cooperated with the Germans in the General Government (the rump of occupied Poland), and then goes on to observe that “collaboration of non-Jews was on a voluntary basis, either because of sharing the Nationalist-Socialist ideology, or because of opportunity for personal gain…or in order to let off pent-up hatred against the Jews, or because of a lust to rob and kill.”

The 260,000 Poles in question were those who retained jobs in administration, or in state enterprises like the railroads, of whom tens of thousands were actively involved in various resistance movements. The charge that these men and women deliberately stayed in their jobs because they were Nazi sympathizers or anti-Semites is so appalling and absurd that one must suspect—and hope—that Mr. Trunk forgot a sentence linking his second remark only to Poles who collaborated with the Germans in actions inside the ghettos. It is worth recalling that the Polish rescue organization “Zegota” is thought to have saved some 20,000 Jews from extermination.1

This is one lapse in a majestic book. Argument about the right and wrong of what the Councils did will continue, one can assume, and by going into such extensive detail Mr. Trunk raises many more ancillary moral problems than his facts can solve. But here, in any event, is what happened. Mr. Trunk has deliberately avoided emotion and descriptive prose. He has devoted himself to assembling evidence from diaries, from the fragmentary archives which have survived from the various ghettos, and from systematic inquiry among those who still remain alive. Wherever possible, he tried to assemble statistics by sending out questionnaires about important problems like the social composition of the Councils and the ghetto police forces. Hidden in the middle of this calm narrative, the photographs of ghetto reality acquire a peculiar horror.

Within the walls and fences of the eastern ghettos, the Nazis established a new world. Like Satan, they created a world and foreordained what was to befall those who inhabited it. Their purpose was half-hidden, and the people of the ghettos were separable into those who divined that purpose, awaiting a judgment day in which all must perish in flame, and those unable to contemplate a Providence, even a fascist Providence, that had no mercy. There is a rare disease known as progeria, the unnatural rushing-on of old age which brings a man to shrunken senility at twenty-five. The ghettos were a normal society with progeria, with the dimension of time hideously foreshortened. Witnesses from outside, like the Polish agent Jan Karski who managed to enter the Warsaw ghetto, saw a feverish scurrying, like the motions of a speeded-up film. In a normal society too, all men must die: there are those who feel that inevitable doom is there to be struggled against and transcended, those who wish to be comfortable while they can, and those whose sense of life’s shortness and fragility leads them to resist disrupting the makeshift existence of the many for the sake of the visions of a few. Exaggerated almost out of recognition, these categories also arose in the world of the ghettos.

The creator ordained that there should be conflict. The Jews were to be effectively paralyzed while they waited in the new ghettos for the final solution. On the one hand, the Nazis knew that in the ghettos they were offering the Jewish communities the greatest degree of self-government they had ever enjoyed, and that their leaders would be tempted to cling to this “achievement,” even though it was granted by their oppressors, rather than sacrifice it in the cause of united resistance. The Germans had played the same trick with the Slovaks and the Croats. On the other hand, they intended that these “autonomous” Councils should bear the immediate blame for the steady escalation of misery and humiliation that they planned. It was a clever idea, based on some knowledge of East European Jewry, and it worked.

The first Councils were often led by the same men who had tried to organize relief in the first weeks of terror and chaos following the German occupation. They were formed on Heydrich’s order, sometimes by local SS officers simply nominating the nearest rabbi as chairman, and instructing him to produce a list of members almost on the spot. Trunk’s figures indicate that the Councils were composed principally of people with higher education or in the professions; the representation of workers and artisans was minimal. Even at this stage, there was opposition from those who saw through the trick, but collective refusal to form a Council seemed suicidal. One little town near Wilno illustrated the problem: all refused to volunteer for the Council, so the community assembled in the prayer house and formed the Judenrat by drawing lots.

The Councils were entrapped. At their leisure, the Nazis slowly closed their jaws on them. At first, there was the duty to provide forced labor contingents. Then there was the advancing starvation, the inescapable need to choose which categories would receive enough to stay alive. Then came the first deportations for “resettlement,” a euphemism whose true meaning slowly became apparent. The Councils, aided by their police force, nominated the categories that could most easily be spared, the old and sick and the younger children, and often assisted the Germans in driving them from their houses to the trucks or boxcars which took them to their end.

There arose the desperate principle of “Rescue Through Work,” the hope of the Councils that the oppressor would value and spare at least those who were able to work for him and give productive labor to the war effort in the factories and workshops of the ghettos. But deportation after deportation steadily reduced the ghettos to frantic remnants. The helpless went, and then the supposedly immune workers, and finally, in the last “Aufräumung,” the Council members and their army of officials and the ghetto police themselves were taken to the gas chambers too.

Trunk recounts this process in remorseless detail. The fate of each ghetto was a little different, only its end remaining the same. In Lodz and Warsaw they starved by thousands; in Wilno, it seems, better organization prevented deaths from hunger. In some ghettos there was little or no resistance to the Councils and the Nazis. In Warsaw they fought; in Lachwa, near Pinsk, the whole people flung themselves at the wire when the Germans came to take them away, and a few hundred broke through and joined the partisans in the forest. In Lodz and Warsaw, the Councils opposed resistance, and in Upper Silesia members of the underground were handed over to the SS. In Minsk, the Council gave resistance its secret support. In Wilno, Jakob Gens, head of the Judenrat, played a famous double game: he gave money to the partisans and then betrayed their leader, Itzhak Witenberg, to the Nazis. The Gestapo killed Witenberg, and shot Gens himself two months later.

Out of Trunk’s narrative grow the tragic, sometimes “satanic” figures of the Judenrat leaders who wielded this power of life and death. There was Adam Czerniakow of Warsaw, who killed himself when the first deportation took place. There was Gens, who seems to have used Jewish police to assist at mass executions. There was the terrible Rumkowski of Lodz (portrayed in hagiographical pictures as an angel hovering over the ghetto) who dreamed that Hitler would appoint him head of a Jewish state after the war, and Moshe Merin of Bedzin who heard a voice telling him that he had been chosen as a second Moses to lead his people out of bondage.

Perhaps one can now think of these deluded men with some mercy. But the sort of society that they developed in the ghettos was evil not only through the original Nazi sin of its creation. It was in itself unjust and inhuman. Too often, a small minority of officials and racketeers lived in relative comfort while the poor lived in unspeakable misery. Ghetto taxation struck at the weakest and most indigent; declining rations left the privileged nourished while taking from the poor the means to stay alive. Ration cards were sold, not distributed free. The educated and the men of consequence were protected from forced labor and deportation; the workers and refugees were abandoned, sometimes because—as happened at Horodenka—they could not buy exemption cards costing a hundred dollars. Every kind of corruption flourished; so, in righteous opposition, did every kind of courage. Trunk comments dryly: “There was no social peace in the ghetto because there was no equality among the inmates….”

Trunk relates the ghetto societies to history. He points out that the Councils only carried on the traditions and often the membership of the prewar Kehillas, the community leadership which had been resisted by “progressive Jewish social and national movements…as fortresses of obscurantism.” They revived, too, the response of Jewish communities ordered to produce conscripts by Nicholas I; then, too, the leadership had often protected the gifted youths and the future scholars and delivered the lowly and the helpless. The theme of Trunk’s book, in the end, is that the Judenrat was not a unique phenomenon, but something “which must be discussed in the framework of Jewish history.”

The volume of essays and excerpts collected in Hunter and Hunted was apparently intended to be a contribution, a theoretical reevaluation even, of the Holocaust’s place in the history of the Jews. It did not quite work out that way. The “group of scholars and writers” which met in New York five years ago to “try to explain the meaning of the catastrophe” found it impossible to agree on an interpretation. Their contentiousness, related by the bruised but respectful editor Gerd Korman, makes almost cheerful reading after Isaiah Trunk’s book: Hitler, you failed! The result is a collection of diverse writings whose only connection is chronological order.

The best of the contributions, it must be said, are already familiar: they are extracted from deservedly successful books. There are three texts by Elie Wiesel from Night: his arrival at Auschwitz, the death of his father at Buchenwald, his liberation. There is Simon Wiesenthal’s touching and humorous account, taken from his autobiography, of how he and his wife, each believing the other dead, found each other after the war. There is Alexander Donat’s account, which originally appeared in Commentary, of his experience in the Ghetto Rising, and passages taken from the Warsaw diary of Chaim Kaplan (this astonishing relic, which begins in a slightly testy and self-righteous tone and ends—the great deportations reaching Kaplan’s own street—in a wild and magnificent pavane for Polish Jewry going to its doom, has been republished in a fuller paperback version by its editor Abraham Katsh2 ).

Best among the new material is Zvi Yavetz’s account of the complex political scene in Czernowitz before and after the German arrival, but some of the other essays lack weight and definition, and Gerd Korman’s own introduction to the book, a survey of the situation of European Jewry between the wars, seems to run on inconclusively between a few good perceptions. He is sometimes inaccurate: Natzweiler and Belsen, for example, were not in “central or southern Germany” but respectively in the extreme west of the Third Reich and not far from Hamburg.

October ‘43 is an account of something sturdy in the state of Denmark, the triumphant rescue by the Danes of almost the entire Jewish population when the Nazis attempted to deport them in October, 1943. The main rescue organization was the so-called “Lyngby Group,” which arranged the concealment of Jewish families and then their covert passage by fishing boat across the straits to Sweden. The author of the book, Aage Bertelsen, was the Lyngby Group’s leader.

He and his men were, as he admits, rather slow to recognize the essential ruthlessness of the Nazis. As late as 1943, when the rest of occupied Europe had long learned the new facts of life and death, they could not believe that the Germans really intended to deport the Danish Jews. When they did believe it, they supposed that they could help by merely making out for the Jews an irregularly large number of legal exit permits. There was some excuse for this. The SS and Gestapo were as sadistic toward armed resistance as elsewhere, but the Wehrmacht took no part in deportations and reprisals, and some senior German officials secretly collaborated with Danish patriots. It was Duckwitz, later to be the West German diplomat who did most to foster reconciliation with Poland, who warned Danish friends that the October action against the Jews was imminent.

The shipping-out of the Jews was perilous enough, but it was almost totally successful: the only blood shed by the Lyngby Group, Bertelsen recalls with benevolently heavy humor, was the result of persuading an Orthodox young man to shave off a conspicuous beard with a safety razor. Bertelsen and his friends kept going on benzedrine and cigarettes, selling Jewish furniture and leeching money out of closely guarded trust funds to pay the crews of the escape boats, who were very expensive indeed. Not all Danes were saints. Some worked enthusiastically with the Nazis in the “Hipokorps”; some felt that it was immature to make such a fuss; some belonged to that inevitable fringe of all resistance movements which takes selfless risks and also has a large hand in the movement’s till.

What is the context of this quotation? “We must remember that although we are dealing with people who members of this council would not look on as human beings in the normal sense, they have children who are likely to grow up to become a kind of sewer in society….” And another: “There are some of the people you can do nothing with, and you must then exterminate the impossibles.” The correct answer is that they were both spoken by English local politicians in the Birmingham area, that they date from the last ten years, and that they refer to traveling Gypsies.

The Jews have added to all societies, at least since the Renaissance. They have helped bourgeois society to overcome feudalism, and socialism to develop its transcending attack on middle-class capitalism. The Gypsies have remained outside: sounds in the night of history, campers in Europe’s deserted houses. They have had only one function—that of traveling metallurgists, a profession as old as the Bronze Age that was already declining when the Gypsies reached Western Europe in the fifteenth century. When that role ceased to be indispensable, they were allowed no other.

When the Jews were winning tolerance from a more sophisticated world, when the Rabbi Loew was discussing the ennobling of lead into gold with the Emperor Rudolf, the Gypsies were still selling horses and getting branded for fortune-telling. Let there be no competition in catastrophe between the two races: both in the twentieth century were sent to Himmler as suitable cases for treatment. But the Jewish people, at least, has a nation and a written history, a way—through writers like Isaiah Trunk and Elie Wiesel—of bringing some harmony into intolerable memories. Some of the Gypsies encountered by Kenrick and Puxon, in contrast, were not certain when the war had begun and ended: their experiences of harassment, violence, and expulsion had not varied so greatly.

A very rough estimate suggests that a quarter of Europe’s Gypsies—numbering perhaps a million or less before the war—were murdered. But the Nazis treated them with a certain respect denied to the Jews. Himmler intended that certain “pure” Gypsy groups, the Sinti and Lalleri, should be preserved; it was assumed that they would not breed out with non-Gypsies. Correspondingly, action against those of mixed race was all the more radical. If two of a person’s sixteen great-great-grandparents were Gypsies, he was registered as a Zigeunermischling (part Gypsy) under Nazi regulations: this was a more intense application of racial legislation than the Jews endured, and when the deportations of Gypsies to Auschwitz began, the two-sixteenths taint consigned thousands to the gas chambers. In the end, the attempt to distinguish between “pure” and “mixed” foundered in confusion, and all Gypsies became liable to death or to castration.

Kenrick and Puxon are scholarly, but they are also profoundly engaged. They discovered that no history of the Gypsy “final solution” could be written in isolation, because public ignorance of the Gypsy’s background was so total, and their book therefore begins with the emigration of the tribal groups from northern India about a thousand years ago, and continues into the Middle Ages where prejudice began (the Gypsies blacken their children, they steal our babies, their language is a witch babble, they have no religion at all but merely ape what church they see…). The authors fear the sort of “interest” which scholars took in the Gypsies, like that of the racial scientists Ritter and Eva Justin who loved the Gypsy ways so much that they gave expert advice on their sterilization and murder. Puxon, especially, sees the answer in the new “Rom” nationalism represented by the World Romani Congress, and he foresees this consciousness bursting into revolution: “In the richest states Gypsies have become the rubbish people, grubbing a living among the filth of civilization.” The Zion of the Gypsies is neither in assimilation nor in a distant land, but—so Puxon seems to say—somewhere within themselves.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Nora Levin, The Holocaust (Schocken, 1973), p. 359. The balance of Polish behavior toward the Jews during the occupation, good and evil, has yet to be drawn up, but it is heavy on both sides; its complexities are not served by furious generalizations. For a respectable plea on the positive side, see: Ten Jest Z Ojczyzny Mojej, edited by Bartoszewski and Lewinowna (Znak: Cracow, 1966). There is a rather inadequate summary in English at the end.

  2. 2

    The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, translated and edited by Abraham Katsh (Macmillan, 1973).

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