Hunter and Hunted: Human History of the Holocaust
The Destiny of Europe’s Gypsies
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 …