Ordinary Jews

Choice and Survival during the Holocaust

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Evgeny Finkel
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is it morally fair and meaningful to speak of choices for Jews during the Shoah? Famously, Lawrence Langer has contended that we are too often dealing with “choiceless choices.” Throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, Jews were interred in a system calibrated and formed for their destruction. Going even further, Nazi personnel and policies methodically, and sometimes chaotically, denied and sought to erase Jewish existence. Within a world generally indifferent or hostile to Jews, in which military and numerical power dominated, in what scope could an individual Jew make choices? Culturally, such a question is encapsulated in “Sophie’s Choice,” deemed a loss and devastation either way. Such a choice is no-choice: it is constrained, coerced, and tries to impugn the victim to become complicit in the violence of the Nazi system. But what of responsibility? To acknowledge some modicum of choice still leaves open the question of whether, and to what extent, were Jews responsible. Do we not want to maintain the Nazi allies, and the rest of the indifferent world, are the ultimate ones culpable? How should we examine Jewish choice and responsibility within such contexts?

In Evgeny Finkel’s Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, a social scientific approach, not a philosophical or moral one, is employed. The aim is to assess, quantify, and evaluate how individual Jews in three ghettos—Kraków, Minsk, and Białystok—responded to Nazi policy and threat. Finkel thus studies the lives and political and communal contexts of Jews before the Shoah while immersing himself in over five hundred witness testimonies—in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Polish—that account for how and whether Jews survived various assaults and purges. For example, who would likely have a better chance of survival outside the ghetto: a black-haired, dark-eyed circumcised Jewish male in Kraków who had studied in a Polish school or a blond, blue eyed Jewish female from Białystok who only spoke Yiddish? (195). Historical context, Finkel argues, is deeply important, but so is the strategy employed to survive.

Finkel identifies six main strategies that ghetto Jews used after Nazi occupation: cooperation, collaboration, coping, compliance, evasion, and resistance. The argument is that knowing the pre-Shoah history of those communities can reveal which method was more likely to be chosen, and why and whether some methods worked better in some areas than others. Finkel’s ultimate aim is to apply such methods in a wider focus, in a range of genocidal contexts. In genocide prevention, the typical focus is to examine conditions that seem similar to previous uprisings, so once these can be identified in the present contexts, steps can be taken to try to prevent future genocides occurring. Finkel places less hope on outside intervention to stop the mass atrocity or genocide. His method also assesses patterns which may overlap, or show similarities with previous contexts, but in order to allow threatened communities to receive the specific support they need for greater civilian self-protection.

The three ghettoes Finkel chooses to study provide some interesting test-cases for his hypotheses, and complicate and nuance the questions of choice, responsibility, and justice within the Holocaust. Like Primo Levi’s general silence on judging within the “grey zone,” Finkel is interested in presenting the cases and choices made by Jewish individuals, and explaining how such choices were often limited or developed because of the pre-Shoah political regime, the relations and conditions between Jews and non-Jews, Jewish experience in political or especially military groups, and pre-Shoah historical experiences with Germany. Importantly, for Finkel, Minsk was part of the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded on June 22, 1941, and so many of its Jews would have been—pragmatically—Soviet, with positive memories of Germany from WWI, and little knowledge of Germany in the 1930s—especially after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact when Soviet radio and newspapers were silent about any Nazi atrocities. The Jews in Kraków’s ghetto tended to be more informed of Adolf Hitler’s policies, and many would have had deep interactions and roles within Polish culture and society, with wide-ranging, though not necessarily friendly, relations with other Poles. In Białystok, the average Jew spoke Yiddish, had little or no affinity with Polish culture, nor with life under the Soviets. They, too, would have been cut-off from news of much of the Nazi atrocities after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. How, though, did these pre-Shoah contexts likely influence choices made by its inhabitants during the Shoah?

Two examples—among the many Finkel illustrates—can suffice here. Finkel shows that Jewish life under the Soviet regime in Białystok created conditions generating a more experienced and honed skillset for resistance than was present in Kraków (190). Without these skills, it was difficult, if not unlikely, to develop them after occupation had already occurred. Hence, the Zionist underground staged an uprising in Białystok, while their comrades in Kraków did not (190). In terms of evasion, especially passing as a non-Jew and living outside the ghetto, how one acted could matter as much as how one appeared. Jewish females deemed to look Slavic or Polish had a better chance than similar Jewish males due to the practice of circumcision, but knowing the local cultures, language, and Catholic religion—especially in Kraków—was as important. Finkel notes that Jews in Minsk had a greater chance to survive outside the ghetto than those in Białystok given that pre-Shoah Soviet policy had weakened intra-Jewish community ties. This meant that a significant number of Jews in Minsk would have more non-Jewish contacts and were better positioned and prepared to act as a typical Slavic man or woman, thus avoiding easy detection.           

Finkel wants to restore more agency among Jews within the Holocaust, and among others “targeted by mass violence” (6). Implicitly, the argument is that restoring victims’ ability to make choices, no matter how constrained or limited, is another way to repair a sense of their dignity and humanity. It is also a means to evaluate which decisions turned out to be safer, and perhaps more delicately, just—as seen in Finkel’s candid and non-judgmental chapter on those who collaborated. The explicit hope is to render the choices of those within atrocities “somewhat less choiceless” (198). This is an important and worthwhile aim. So, too, is his call for social scientists to be more active in Holocaust and genocidal studies. Responsibility, however, remains a crucial element in these discussions. As more Holocaust works push through the barrier of the Holocaust as unknowable, restoring Jewish life and agency before, during—and after—the Shoah is essential. Finkel’s work makes a solid contribution in this regard without losing sight of the people, actions, policies, and laws most responsible for creating the contexts of such life-or-death “choices.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is lecturer in theology in the school of theology, philosophy, and music and the coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
July 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Evgeny Finkel is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.


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