- Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust: Moral Uses of Violence and Will
“We made up our own ethics in the forest, since the old ethics only meant death.”(6)
Through its interdisciplinary approach and extensive use of interviews with resistance veterans, James M. Glass’s Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust makes an important contribution to our understanding of Jewish responses to Nazi tyranny and genocide. This book approaches resistance from an unusual angle—exploring the inner lives and moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by the beleaguered Jews of wartime Europe—that illuminates a series of questions not usually confronted in the historiography of anti-Nazi struggle. The first section of Glass’s book examines Jewish partisan warfare against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Glass unflinchingly acknowledges that Nazi oppression compelled many Jews—especially those who undertook armed struggle—to jettison humanistic values, which actually became barriers to survival and resistance in the forests and ghettos. By creatively applying Frantz Fanon’s theories to his topic, Glass then argues that violent action against the oppressor “reclaimed the self from a shattered psychological universe,” and affirmed the dignity and sense of community of the oppressed. Glass’s persuasive use of Fanon—who wrote on the revolutionary violence of colonized peoples in Africa and elsewhere—helps place Jewish resistance in a broader context, geographically and temporally, an effort too rarely made by historians in this field.
Through its focus on the psychological and social effects of Nazi oppression, Jewish Resistance deepens our understanding of the Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied Europe. Glass vividly describes the grotesque reality of ghetto [End Page 114] existence and its debilitating physical and emotional effects. Nightmarish images recur throughout the book: “individuals and families disintegrating emotionally; catatonic children wasting away, fouling themselves against ghetto walls; shrieking women roaming the streets; suicides increasing daily” (73). These passages underscore the difficulty of engaging in any sort of resistance. The daily struggle to keep body and soul together precluded, for most, individual or collective action against the Nazi tormentors. Glass treats the contentious issue of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) within the ghettos in a sensitive and measured fashion. Jewish Resistance recognizes the untenable situation the Council members faced but concludes that their futile efforts to placate the Nazi authorities, rather than aid the underground movements, “undoubtedly had a considerable impact on why millions met their deaths worn out from the very struggle with life” (85). Yet many individual Jews succeeded in preserving and even enriching both their identity as Jews and their inner lives, as Glass demonstrates.
The last four chapters analyze “spiritual resistance,” and through his investigation of the “unprecedented moral and ethical dilemmas” that rabbis and other Jews faced, Glass helps expand the boundaries of non-military forms of resistance. The author’s grounding in Jewish history and traditions allows him to provide subtle, persuasive interpretations of rabbinical sermons and other clandestinely political texts. But Glass also captures the tension between practitioners of spiritual versus armed resistance, as several of the former partisans he interviewed expressed their disdain for, in their view, the uselessness of non-violent struggle. To its credit, Jewish Resistance honors all forms of anti-Nazi resistance, and the book balances its justifiable enthusiasm for direct action with its appreciation for private forms of opposition, which also thwarted the Nazi goal of “debasing the spirit and destroying the will before killing the body” (127).
Jewish Resistance is not free of some problems in both style and substance. There is considerable repetition, although usually in the interest of emphasizing the book’s central themes. Several German terms and names lack their umlauts (Judenräte, most prominently), and the excessive use of the semicolon can be distracting. As for more substantive matters, the author suggests, through his consistent use of “German” and never “Nazi” as an adjective to characterize anti-Jewish policies and action, that the Holocaust was a project not only of the Nazi state, but of the entire (non-Jewish) German people. This view, expressed most forcefully in...