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  • The Jews of Białystok During World War Two and the Holocaust
  • Tim Cole
The Jews of Białystok During World War Two and the Holocaust, Sara Bender (Brandeis University Press, 2008), xiv + 384 pp., cloth $50.00.

After his appointment in 1942 as deputy commander of the ghetto police in Białystok, Poland, Moshe Berman remarked: "If at some point a monograph is written on the ghetto, we shall deserve an honourable mention" (p. 137). His hopes are fulfilled in Sara Bender's clear narrative—a narrative that offers a fairly sympathetic rendering of the Jewish leadership within the Białystok ghetto. In telling the story of the city's Jews, Bender sensibly adopts a chronological structure to capture the radical changes they experienced living in one of Europe's border zones. But she also focuses on the unlikely relationship of two leading ghetto personalities who saw differing solutions to Nazi rule. One was the leader of the ghetto Judenrat—Ephraim Barash—and the other, the leader of the ghetto underground—Mordecai Tenenbaum. The result is an important case study that fits into broader literatures on the role of the Jewish Councils in occupied Europe and the nature of Jewish resistance in the ghettos.

Bender traces the history of Jewish life in Białystok from the seventeenth century through the late nineteenth century. At the close of this period, Jews made up an extraordinary 76 percent of the total population of this industrial city. By 1936, the influx of Polish peasants into the city meant that the proportion of Jews dropped to just over 42 percent. The city changed hands between Russia and Poland a number of times around the time of the First World War. These were difficult times for the Jews, but worse was to come. In September 1939, the city was occupied briefly by the Germans. Six days left more than 100 Jews dead and more than 200 Jewish factories and homes looted. In the aftermath, the Jews welcomed the Soviet occupation—although as Bender points out, the impact of Soviet rule on Jewish economic, cultural, and religious life was largely negative.

The German occupation in June 1941 brought about a radical change of fortunes for Białystok's Jews. The initial weeks of occupation were bloody; Police Battalion 309 killed more than two thousand Jewish men, including around eight hundred who were burnt alive in the synagogue. After Police Battalion 309 came the Einsatzgruppen and another wave of shootings in which several hundred Jewish men were killed. Worse was to come with the arrival of Police Battalions 322 and 316, which shot approximately four thousand Jewish men on a Sabbath in mid-July. The targeting of Jewish men points to the gendering of these initial waves of killing across the former Soviet territories. While gendered stories are implicit in Bender's account, they are not as developed as they could be, in particular given that the widows of the men killed in these early atrocities played an important role in challenging the authority of the Judenrat once the ghetto was established.

After the immediate trauma of initial evacuations to Pruzhany in the fall of 1941, the ghetto settled into a period of relative "calm"; a modus vivendi of sorts was achieved between the Judenrat and the local German authorities. Because [End Page 300] Bender draws primarily on Jewish rather than German sources, the attitude of the German occupation authorities to the ghetto during this initial period remains under-studied. The author's focus is on the decision-making of the Jewish Council, which emphasized a strategy of "survival through work" and opened ghetto factories that ultimately employed more than eight thousand people. However, this policy meant that when the Germans called for the evacuation of part of the ghetto population to Pruzhany in the fall of 1941, the Judenrat prioritized the unemployed and unskilled, including many of the so-called "Sabbath widows" whose husbands had been killed on July 12, 1941. The Judenrat did not support deported Jews who managed to slip back into the ghetto, and it denied food ration cards to any who failed to report for these evacuations—decisions that...


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