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on October 8, 2012
This is an exceptionally readable book which touches on an important part of Holocaust history that until recently has overlooked or ignored by most books and films on the topic - the Jews that resisted and did whatever they could to fight back against the Nazis. I consider myself well-read on Holocaust topics and yet I found this book highly enlightening and chock full of information, events, and insights that I wasn't fully aware of previously.

Too often, the conventional storyline has been that the Nazis marched into an area and the Jews offered feeble or no resistance as they were marched to the death camps. This book is the latest in a series of memoirs and non-fiction accounts of the groups of Jews who did not surrender to their fate, but instead, through a combination of resourcefulness, courage, and good fortune managed to survive the Holocaust and even participate in armed resistance against the Nazis.

The focus of the book is on the Jews of the Warsaw, and their reaction to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The book is masterfully written such that the reader gains a clear and intimate understanding of why the Jews of Warsaw did not organize resistance right away. The book chronicles the incremental nature of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw which caused so many Jews to assume that the phase they were in would end soon or that the occupation would never progress to an outright plan for their annihilation, in spite of the rumors they were hearing of what was happening to Jews in other parts of Poland and further East. The heroes of "Isaac's Army," a disparate group of individuals who resort to different means for survival, and in some instances armed struggle, constitute a cross-section of the survivors of the Jewish community in Poland. The author's characterizations of them are so vivid and multi-layered that almost any reader can find someone with whom they can identify as they consider what they themselves would have done (or like to think they would have done) amidst those horrific circumstances.
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on May 3, 2013
I am an 85-year old survivor. My story is almost the same as Anne Frank's. (She lived a block from us in Amsterdam.)
When we were ordered deported in July, 1942, we went into hiding. Six months later, we were arrested and thrown
into prison awaiting the next transport. After three days we were separated. I was fourteen and never saw my parents
again. They were murdered in Sobibor and Lublin.
I managed to escape three times and went from one hiding place to another. I was liberated in Limburg, in the
Southern province of Holland. My last hiding place was on a farm which was requisitioned as a temporary headquarters
of a Wehrmacht entity. The Germans were in retreat. I stayed in plain sight, pretending to be the son of a German mother
and a Dutch father. I was there when the officers celebrated the surrender of the Warsaw uprising. A few days later the
Wehrmacht departed. A few more days later, around October 14, I was liberated by scouting tanks of the Second
Armor Division, "Hell on Wheels".
When I read this book, I wept.
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on October 21, 2012
There are many books on the atrocities that occurred in Warsaw during World War II. This book, by a non-Jew, nicely ties together accounts and stories about not only the sufferings and courage of Jews in the Ghetto, but also the heroism, sacrifice, and perfidy or their Polish neighbors. The stories of the Jewish resistance fighters are riveting, but I have read very little about the righteous gentiles who helped hide them and arm them-- that to me was the new view offered by this book. Matthew Brzezinski also tells the story in a way that left me wondering form nearly the beginning whether I would have had the courage to leave my family and fight, or if I was Polish, to help Jews knowing discovery of such aid would mean death for me and maybe my family. The book ends with an interesting comment on that which I will leave for anyone fortunate enough to read it. It is an engaging read, and I can't recommend it enough.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 7, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book presents a narrative history of the Jewish struggles to survive in occupied Poland (mostly in Warsaw) in a well written, gripping and insightfully manner. This book demonstrates that the narrative format can convey more of what actually happened than a more academic format, and by focusing on the plight of individuals as opposed to the whole, have more impact. The book focuses primarily on the struggles of six individuals, among them Isaac Zukerman whose story forms the basis for the title. However, Isaac's story is only one of several told in the book, all told in an interwoven manner. A "cast of characters", which I found to be very helpful and even necessary at times, is provided to help keep these stories straight. The book it is not, nor does it purport to be, the complete or definitive story of the struggles of the Jews occupied Poland, or even in Warsaw, but the power of the narrative more than makes up for this.

What is in the book -
While book is primarily devoted to the struggles of the Jews of Warsaw to survive, it also discusses the more general plight of the citizens of Warsaw and how after the Warsaw uprising they were subject to the same deportations and summary executions as the Jews had suffered and continued to suffer. The book begins with the German attack on Poland, followed shortly by the attack of Soviet Russia. The life and death choices of fleeing, but to where, or staying in Warsaw are told in heart-rending detail. This is followed by the grim struggle to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto, where smuggling in food was the only way to survive. It covers the removal of most of the residents of the Ghetto to concentration camps, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of some of the remaining remnant, the later uprising in all of Warsaw, the belated Soviet attack on Warsaw (after most of the city had been destroyed and its citizens slaughtered), and finally Zukerman's struggle to bring the remnants of Polish Jewry into Israel. The book details not only the struggles of the Jews against the Germans, but also of internal struggles between right wing, left wing oriented Jewish groups. It also details the interactions with the Gentile citizens of Warsaw and Poland in general, which ranged from the most criminal and venal to the most heroic attempts (sometimes successful) to save Jews; often complete strangers.
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VINE VOICEon October 7, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book has been written differently than other books I have read about Poland and the Holocaust in WW2. This one is written about the stories of several different people who were living in Poland at the time of the invasion. It shows what happened to these people and their families and is a compilation telling what they did and showing how they were all affected.

Most of them were involved in the Warsaw uprising. It contains lots of valuable, interesting information on exactly how they did things during the siege in the Ghetto, and takes you right there amongst them. All of them have a very important story to tell and the author has done an excellent job of bringing it all together. These people are heroes, though I'm sure they don't think of themselves as such.

I feel that it is very important that people take note of what went on under the Nazi occupation, and see how easily all of this can happen again. A heartfelt thank you to the author and all the people who gave him material for this book. Their courage and spirit will always live on.
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VINE VOICEon January 10, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book focuses on Jews in occupied Poland - primarily Warsaw - who fled, hid or fought during the Holocaust. It's not perfect but it's a worthy book.

Brzezinski sets the stage very well, creating a 3-D view of Polish Jewry at the war's outset. His portrait reaches across the many walks of life they inhabit: the wealthy, the poor, the assimilated, the pious, political activists of different stripes. People who looked or talked Jewish, and those who didn't, which made a difference in who survived and who could perform underground work outside the ghetto undetected.

His trip through the war is quite nuanced. I've read much about the Holocaust including the Warsaw Ghetto, but I don't think I've ever read a book that did quite as good a job as this one describing the arc from start to finish.

That includes the aftermath as survivors of the Ghetto Uprising struggle to remain alive in still-occupied Poland, some caught up in the whole city's Rising a year later (egged on by the Russians, who then sat and watched from across the river while the Nazis destroyed the city and any resistance that might later resist the Russians.)

Brzezinski follows 6 or 8 people through the war. In one wealthy family, one branch escapes from Poland via a tortuous route, while another survives the war in hiding, helped by family money and contacts with Polish Gentiles.

But the best part of the story revolves around characters Isaac Zuckerman, Zivia Lubetkin, Mark (to history, Marek) Edelman, Boruch Spiegel and Simha Ratheiser, fighters and leaders during the Uprising.

Zuckerman and Lubetkin, who marry, are Zionist activists at the war's outset, committed to Jews moving to Palestine and leaving Europe behind. They become leaders of the Zionist faction in the ghetto. The others are mostly Bundists, a Jewish labor faction committed to remaining in Poland. And they are younger - teenagers at the war's outset, who participate in clandestine activities, who lose their families but survive to fight, having risen through the ranks over time.

The Zionist-Bundist split is the main one detailed. The Bund, essentially Social Democrat, is anti-Communist and pro-Polish. The Zionists aren't Communists either, but more willing to deal with them particularly after the war to get Jewish refugees to Palestine. And there's little love lost with Poland for them. These splits aren't trivial. These parties can't cooperate with each other until just before the Uprising in spring 1943. When the worst is beginning - rumors that the Nazis and their local henchmen were murdering thousands of Jews in the nearby Baltic states in 1941 - they can't bring themselves even to share intelligence, forcing each faction to send out its own couriers on dangerous missions.

And neither can cooperate with right-wing Jewish factions such as Jabotinsky's Revisionists or its youth branch Betar. The story of these is not as well told here; Brzezinski says that there were no survivors of the rightist Jewish Military Union, which helped defend the ghetto during the Uprising, and as a result little is known of its leader David Apfelbaum. But Brzezinski adds that leftist groups who survived the war have tried to write the JMU out of history, which is shameful if true. The rightists were better-armed, through their good relations with Polish nationalists, more disciplined and better trained. They built and used secret shooting ranges under the ghetto to practice. The left groups would have done better to work with them. It's unclear whether Brzezinski was as inclined to dig up their story, though.

The ghetto - a half million people crammed into a few hundred acres - has distinct phases. Early on, it has a thriving underground economy, with materials smuggled into the ghetto and finished goods smuggled out. The poorest people already suffer from privation but most people avoid it, managing to eat much more than the Nazis' starvation rations. Later, when the Nazis start executing Gentiles caught going in or out, these businesses can't function. Disease and starvation start kiilling people. In the summer of 1942, the major deportations send most of the ghetto's inhabitants to Treblinka in waves of horrifying "Aktions" to fill the boxcars. Left behind are maybe a tenth who are slave laborers in German-owned ghetto factories, resistance conspirators with false identities, wealthy, politically connected, or gangsters.

Brzezinski captures a major reality: Jewish community elders can't believe it will get as bad as it does, and continually rein in youths they deem hotheads, but whom later are proven correct.

The elders correctly worry about Nazi reprisals. They correctly see their own side has virtually no arms nor knowledge of how to use them, and Polish resistance groups meanwhile refuse to give the Jews any.

But they wrongly think prudence will lead to survival. As the persecution lengthens and worsen, middle-aged leaders, even those seen as tough guys before the war, are displaced by young people like Edelman, an orphan taken in by Bundists before the war. Now he is colder, harder, more ruthless and better able to both survive and lead under the most harrowing conditions.

And ruthless they can be. Edelman, whom Brzezinski interviews before he dies, won't discuss some things, but what he does talk about is telling: execution of traitors and collaborators, assassinations, shakedowns of the wealthy, including kidnapping their children, to get money for arms just before the uprising. Plus fairly brutal life-and-death calculations at various points.

Brzezinski notes that by the war's end Poles had all been exposed to so much death, violence, brutality and atrocity - mass rapes, babies being used for target practice, murder as a public crowd sport - that they had become hardened to it. Many of the cruelties survivors recount have to be weighed against this. People who have stepped over naked, starved corpses on the sidewalks every day for years necessarily look at life and death differently from those of us privileged to remain more innocent.

We get a good snapshot of Mordecai Anielewicz, who emerges as the uprising's commander. He's just the type of hothead the Jewish elders shut down earlier, but now a charismatic leader among the young who want to fight back. Anielewicz is distrusted by the book's subjects, as he hasn't been living in the Ghetto for most of the occupation, and because even they think he's a hothead, costing several hundred people their lives in reprisals after he assassinates two SS men. Still, his actions galvanize the ghetto, as Jews realize after centuries of victimhood and passivity that they, too, can fight back.

Anielewicz and his followers commit suicide in a bunker when they can fight no more during the uprising. The JMU fights to the death. Most of our book's subjects escape through the sewers at the end, a handful of survivors.

Every one of the book's subjects has numerous brushes with death. Ratheiser, blonde and blue-eyed, able to pass as a non-Jew, is a gifted BS artist who bluffs his way through any number of harrowing situations. Spiegel survives four months of starvation on a labor detail, refusing to die and being nursed back to health by his family after his release. Zuckerman is shot in Krakow and has to make his way, bleeding, back to Warsaw because there is no one to whom he can turn for help in Krakow. Spiegel's fiance Chaika Belchatowska Lubetkin is put in a boxcar to Treblinka but escapes with a handful of others, busting out a vent and jumping from the moving train.

There are a few things I don't like about the book. Brzezinski bends over too far to be fair to the Russians, who in their treachery let Warsaw be destroyed with 200,000 people killed. He makes only passing references to Soviet persecution and genocide. He is promiscuous with the term "far-right", often lumping in all of those right-of-center. This is illogical on its face: conservative Jews are shown making common cause with rightist Gentiles, and to put the latter in the same camp with Jew-hating fascists, or to tie right-wing Jews in with same, is ridiculous. Liberals may want to bask in the rosy glow of locating anti-Semitism on the right, but meanwhile Brzezinski's left of center protagonists can't get arms from their non-Jewish Socialist allies. (I think the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is one of history's greatest examples of why private citizens should own guns and why Jews particularly ought to rethink the historical antipathy too many have for them.)

Still, a fine read. Brzezinski - a nephew of the former National Security Advisor - does a good job weaving together the stories of these participants, giving the impression he's done lengthy interviews with all of them. Actually, Zuckerman and Lubetkin are dead a quarter century by the time he wrote this book, but he's been able to mix interviews with those still alive with formidable archival materials to write a first-rate book on one of history's darkest hours.
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on October 20, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've read a fair bit of fiction and nonfiction (and watched a lot of movies and documentaries) about World War II and the Holocaust. Except for Leon Uris' novel "Mila 18", I hadn't read anything about the Uprising, and I knew very little about Poland in general.

I knew enough about Nazi power and tactics to understand the difficulty - the futility -- of resistance, and that's why Brzezinski's account appealed to me. I wanted to understand why some people stayed and fought, some ran, and some hid. Isaac's Army gave me this understanding. I also wanted to understand why so many did nothing, and seemed to calmly accept certain death. In the final paragraph of the book, Brzezinski explains that too.

Brzezinski follows five major figures who fought in the Resistance and two families with members who managed to emigrate or remain in Poland undetected. Knowing that these people survived in no way lessens the book's tension. While the book may read like a novel, it would have been unnecessarily coy - a cheap trick -- for Brzezinski to keep us on edge about their fates. In this way Brzezinski shows respect for the reader.

The book is thorough without being didactic. There are colorful characters but the color is real, not added for effect. There is no political bent, no agenda. Brzezinski doesn't judge.

The book is not for the faint-hearted. There are several descriptions of atrocities that will turn your stomach, but they aren't gratuitous. It would have been disingenuous not to include them. I was left with a feeling of great sadness that these things happened, and just a little bit of hope that, if writers like Brzezinski continue to bring these events to light, maybe it won't happen again.
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VINE VOICEon October 20, 2012
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"Isaac's Army" by Matthew Brzezinski personalizes the harrowing history of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, Poland. Painstakingly reconstructing the events from 1939 to 1946 from the perspective of a small group of Jews who resisted and survived against long odds, Mr. Brzezinki's superb book offers profound insights about humanity at its best and worst.

Importantly, first-person interviews help bring the experience of war and the indomitable will to live home to us in a deeply affective and effective manner. We come to understand the fateful decisions that were made both individually and collectively as history unfolded in the most dreadful manner imaginable. As we learn how hundreds of thousands of Warsaw's Jewish residents were first ghettoized and then unmercifully executed, it is difficult not to take the opportunity to reflect on our own consciences.

And yet, the protagonists in Mr. Brzezinski's narrative somehow manage to fight back. That these courageous individuals could not win in the conventional sense was not important. The rare moments when Jewish fighters succeeded in surprising the Nazis and their collaborators were short-lived but nonetheless proved effective in lifting sunken spirits when little else could. Mr. Brzezinski goes on to explain how alliances formed during the heat of the prolonged struggle were useful in saving innocent souls; and after the war, in relocating Jews to the state of Israel.

Providing a humane perspective on a piece of human history that should never be forgotten, I highly recommend this outstanding book to everyone.
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VINE VOICEon October 7, 2012
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I have very few complaints about this book. Let me list them now. The topic of the book is not Jewish Resistance in occupied Poland but only Occupied Warsaw and by the time Isaac took charge this was no longer an army but a few dozen fighters. Thus the title is a bit deceptive. Secondly the inclusion of maps of Warsaw would have helped make described actions clearer. So much for the complaints.

Isaac's Army is a very important book, a very exciting book, and a good read. The fact of the revolt of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto is well known. The details of this revolt are not and this very readable account fills a needed void. Also less well known are the actions of those Jewish fighters that, in the end escaped from the ghetto. Again Mr. Brzezinski fills in important and interesting history. This is one of the best books I have read this year. Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 14, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Among my earliest memories is packing boxes of school supplies with my Mother to be sent to war-torn Europe amid pictures of children standing on mountains of rubble, every building in sight missing an outside wall. Picture after picture of London, France, Germany - all in ruins. I saw very few pictures of Warsaw, perhaps because it was behind the Iron Curtain by then or, more likely, because other than a few mansions inhabited by the Germans, Warsaw had been totally flattened as the Germans withdrew. (You'll find a glimpse of this destruction in The Pianist.) London & Frankfurt, while terribly damaged, have seen the remains of their historic districts restored but should you visit Warsaw you'll find a thoroughly modern city. Very little remains of pre-WWII Warsaw. The financial district sits on what was once the Jewish Ghetto, of which not a trace remains. It is that haunting disconnect that moved author Matthew Brzezinski to write Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland.

In his Preface,Brzezinski writes "To survive the Holocaust, Polish Jews had three options. They could run. They could hide. Or they could take up arms and fight." To tell the story of those who fought, Brzezinski sought out those few survivors of the Jewish Fighting Organization - the ZOB in Polish - around the world. It is their first-hand testimony that he records in the well documented pages of perhaps misnamed Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. (The book concentrates almost entirely on fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Other Jewish resistance groups outside of Warsaw are given only cursory treatment.)

The story is both riveting and imminently readable, one that those who have an interest in World War II and the Holocaust will find worthy of addition to their bookshelves.

Highly recommended
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