- Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1940–1943 by Katarzyna Person
This assiduously researched volume offers a critical and judicious analysis of the experience of assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. The scope of the study is modest. Yet, as the author convincingly argues, assimilated Jews—though still a minority within the broader community—were active in Jewish organizations and highly visible. They were also the object of considerable commentary, much of it tinged with suspicion and hostility. As in the era prior to the war, their perceived advantages of education, wealth, status, and privilege, as well as their devotion to Polish language and culture, cast doubt upon the depth of their identification with and concern for their fellow Jews. Still, it is the merit of this study to add nuance to common assumptions [End Page 136] about the responses of this cohort to the shared stresses and challenges of daily life in the ghetto. To be sure, even behind the walls of this beleaguered enclave, many of the assimilated remained isolated and exposed to criticism. Yet, as others would discover, life in the ghetto provided occasion for both the non-assimilated and the assimilated to encounter and come to know one another; such contacts often resulted in closer bonds and deeper mutual appreciation. Among assimilated Jews, talented stage and cabaret artists performing in Polish were especially successful in expressing a newfound Jewish identity and in winning admiration for their contributions to the cultural life of the community.
In defining her target population, the author properly attends to the key distinguishing markers of age, language, schooling, professional attainment, and cultural affinity. Such attributes ensured that many of the assimilated entered the ghetto with material advantages and connections that protected them from the worst privations experienced by the ghetto’s poor and destitute. Access to better health care, food, employment, and housing were markers of unequal treatment and sources of resentment. Most importantly, assimilated Jewish professionals who practiced in the legal and medical professions disproportionally obtained desirable positions in the Jewish Council bureaucracy, in clinics and hospitals, and, most visibly, in the Order Service, or Jewish police. Success in obtaining such sinecures would have the additional benefit of shielding the assimilated from having to endure enlistment in punishing labor details, and later would secure for them temporary reprieve from deportation. Converts to Catholicism, a conspicuous minority, for a time continued to receive supplemental goods from Catholic charitable organizations; some were even provided living quarters in the relatively peaceful setting of one of the churchyard areas within the ghetto precinct.
Still, many assimilated Jews lived cooperatively among the wider ghetto population and shared in it travails. Person notes: “An especially important factor in this respect was the existence of house committees, which gathered all socially active inhabitants of the apartment blocks irrespective of their background” (p. 37). Participating in common tasks and responsibilities provided frequent opportunities for positive interaction across the lines of status, religious practice, and cultural expression. Similarly, some intellectually engaged and self-conscious Jewish nationalists were open to welcoming assimilationists into their ranks. As the author notes, “among Oyneg Shabes collaborators were assimilated and acculturated Jews who before the war had no contact with the general Jewish community or with the nationalist movement” (pp. 37–38). Indeed, as Emanuel Ringelblum would write early in 1940, the “completely assimilated Jewish intelligentsia is coming to join us” (quoted p. 38). Established youth groups also proved open, initially, to welcoming new members from relatively prosperous, assimilationist families. This openness, it seems, did not last. For the assimilated, barriers to acceptance within Jewish youth combat organizations, where long-established relationships mattered most, proved daunting. Exceptions were made, [End Page 137] however, for a small number of assimilated youth whose unique traits proved advantageous. “The few assimilated boys and girls who cooperated with the armed underground,” we learn, “worked mainly as messengers—a task that required flawless Polish and ‘good’ looks” (p. 143).
The author finds the most compelling signs of a growing mutual regard and affiliation...