Barbara Engelking is a Polish scholar who writes for a Polish audience. Yet that is precisely what makes her book Holocaust and Memory so significant to Holocaust studies outside of Poland. There is a serious lack of Polish studies of the Holocaust translated into English—serious because it leaves a very important question unanswered: how do people living in a land whose soil is saturated with the ashes of the Jews understand what took place there? Engelking provides a good answer to that question. Basing her insights on interviews with twenty-two Polish Jews who survived [End Page 180] the horror, as well as on numerous other studies, Engelking takes a social-psychological approach to her subject. She is aware of the problems that her relatively small “sample” might pose, but she also demonstrates the opportunities that her “biographical method” presents for exploring the very personal, existential dimensions of the reality we call “the Holocaust.”
In the first of her five chapters Engelking explores the differences between the wartime experiences of Poles and Jews. One key difference is that, while the Poles had only the Germans to worry about, the Jews were threatened by both the Germans and the Poles. The aggression from the Poles, in fact, was especially painful to the Jews, since the Poles had been their neighbors. Engelking also presents a good analysis of the differences in how Poles and Jews experienced time under the Nazis, explaining that for the Jews it was a “cursed time,” whereas for the Poles it was a “sacred time.” The two are perfectly illustrated in the distinctions between the Jewish Warsaw Uprising of April 1943 and the Polish Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. While the Jews had little expectation of anything more than dying with dignity, the Poles fought for the freedom of their homeland with every hope of overthrowing the tyrannical rule of the Nazis.
Chapter Two is devoted to a reconstruction of everyday life in the ghetto. In order to accomplish this daunting task, Engelking adopts fourteen categories as her key points of reference: the site, crowding, time, hunger, illness and death, switched-off morality, adaptation, information, mood shifts between hope and fear, work, study, social and cultural life, social distinctions, and the Final Solution. This chapter is very good for demonstrating that the ghetto was not a place to live or even a place to await death; rather, it was another tool of extermination, an anti-world in which the very soul was under a constant assault. In addressing moral issues in terms adapted from Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt, however, Engelking ignores the teachings and traditions that for centuries have defined the Jews and shaped their perception of themselves and the world. While she does very well in articulating the everyday horror—the very smell—of the ghetto, she leaves out the Jews, in that she ignores the tradition and testimony that the Jews represent as a people and that shape their own understanding of the Nazis’ assault on the body and soul of Israel.
The question that haunts all of Holocaust studies is the subject of Chapter Three: Why did it happen? Engelking responds to this question by considering four causal elements: the rise of Nazism, the history of antisemitism, the substitution of executive duty for moral responsibility, and the passivity of the victims. Her explanations of the rise of Nazism are the usual ones: the Germans’ loss of the Great War, economic collapse, the threat of communism, and so on. Engelking also follows a standard line when she distinguishes four types of antisemitism: Christian, ethnic, social, and political. She does, however, offer a good insight into the connection between the aims of Enlightenment philosophy and the aims of Nazism, where both aspire to create a world as “beautiful and as ordered as a garden” (p. 228), and that means eliminating the [End Page 181] Jews. On the matter of moral responsibility Engelking adopts Arendt’s position “that evil was banal and...