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.
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.
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.
on October 20, 2012
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.