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  • Choice and Survival Across Approaches and Disciplines
  • Evgeny Finkel (bio)

Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust builds upon the insights, theories, and approaches of social sciences, history, and Jewish studies to analyze how Jews chose their survival strategies during the Holocaust. More specifically, the book tries to understand what caused the different patterns of behavior adopted by the Holocaust’s Jewish victims in three important, but understudied communities—Minsk (USSR), Kraków (Poland), and Białystok (Poland 1922–1939, USSR 1939–1941). The book’s main argument is that the survival strategies adopted by the Jews in these three ghettos were shaped by the political regimes under which the Jews lived before the Holocaust. To demonstrate the impact of pre-Holocaust regimes, the book centers on the impact of different state policies that either promoted or discouraged the Jews’ integration into the non-Jewish society as well as patterns of state repression.

I am very grateful to the participants of this book forum for their thoughtful reviews and excellent comments. Representing different disciplines and research agendas, the reviewers highlighted various strengths and weaknesses of the book. The main goal of Ordinary Jews was to initiate an analytically driven conversation about the overlooked topic of Jewish behavior during the Holocaust, and I could not have hoped for better interlocutors. Unfortunately, in this short response I am unable to fully address all the points raised by the reviewers. Instead, I will discuss a number of key concerns and questions.


Several reviewers, most notably David Engel, Jeffrey Kopstein, Andrew Sloin, and Samuel Kassow, raise an important question about the [End Page 239] relationship between choice and survival. “Choice and Survival during the Holocaust” is the book’s subtitle, but did different behavioral strategies affect survival rates? “After all, no matter what [the Jews] did, the vast majority died,” notes Kopstein. Sloin puts things even more pointedly by asking “at what point, in the face of absolutely systemic and totalizing violence, choice becomes conflated with chance”?

Does focusing on the victims’ choices and behavioral strategies help us to better understand not only how the Holocaust unfolded, but also who was more likely to survive? I believe that the answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” A more fruitful approach to thinking about the impact of choice and behavior on survival is not to ask which strategy made survival more likely, but rather, which strategy made death even slightly less certain? Indeed, no matter what the Jews in the ghettos I studied did, the vast majority died. Yet some strategies, most notably compliance, made death not simply a very likely, but virtually an inevitable outcome. Cooperation with the Germans and serving in public roles, such as on Jewish Councils, also made survival extremely unlikely. Evasion, on the other hand, gave many Jews at least some chance to live to fight another day. This chance was not high as the deck was heavily stacked against survival, but it was nonetheless higher than zero. Accidentally, the same was true for resistance. The main reason for why we know so much about various Jewish resistance groups is because many resisters did survive to tell their stories. When discussing Jewish survival rates in Nazi-occupied Poland and the USSR, what we should focus on are odds ratios, not absolute numbers. When compared to zero or close to zero odds of survival, even a 1 percent chance is a significant improvement.

Can these odds be calculated to prove once and for all that Jewish strategies and behaviors do help to explain not only the process of genocide, but also outcomes? Unfortunately, not with the data we currently have and not in this particular empirical context. This kind of quantitative approach might be theoretically possible for smaller units, such as small towns or families, not middle-sized ghettos like the ones I study. Yet even if the data were available, chance and luck would heavily bias any potential conclusions a scholar might reach. Furthermore, as David [End Page 240] Engel rightly points out, the strategies I put forward in the book are “rather blunt instrument[s] for analysis.” To be analytically useful for fine...


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pp. 239-247
Launched on MUSE
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