Analyzing Jewish Behavior during the Holocaust

David Engel. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 36, Issue 1. Winter 2018.

Evgeny Finkel’s Ordinary Jews is an important book for two reasons. First, it offers one of the few sustained efforts to analyze how Jews in different places behaved in response to Nazi rule instead of simply describing how they experienced it. Most Jewish-centered narratives about the Holocaust have been descriptive and evocative in nature: they have concentrated upon “giving voice” to victims’ perceptions, to elucidating their plight, or to tracing the evolution of their behavior. Ordinary Jews does these things, to be sure, but it also notices aggregate patterns of behavior that varied from community to community, and it tries to account for them using methods and insights from the social sciences.

Among other things, the book’s analytical thrust contributes to the study of one of the central problems with which scholars of the Holocaust are grappling today: explaining the wide variation in outcomes of the final solution over space. This is the second reason why Ordinary Jews is an important book. By identifying collective patterns of Jewish behavior that also vary over space, it invites the question of the extent to which those patterns may have affected differences in survival rates from place to place. Debates about that question—which can also be stated as, “To what extent did Jews under Nazi rule affect their personal and collective fates by their own actions?”—have a long history, but until now they have not been informed by much systematic analysis of available data. The author appears to regard it as axiomatic that “the actions of people targeted by mass murder impact the outcomes of the violence.” The findings presented in Ordinary Jews do not demonstrate that proposition conclusively. Nevertheless, those findings do suggest that an attempt to map more fully the two sets of variations and to explore possible correlations between them may eventually help scholars understand how victim behavior and outcomes are related.

For example, in Kraków in May 1945, 4,262 Jewish survivors registered with the provincial office of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. That number amounted to about 9 percent of the city’s Jewish population according to the 1921 census. By contrast, in the same month only 189 Jewish survivors registered in Białystok, or less than half of 1 percent of the 1921 Jewish population. Of course, those figures do not necessarily show that Jews in Kraków were 18 times more likely to survive than were Jews in Białystok. But they do call for explanation, and the possibility that the differences in the distribution of Jewish survival strategies between the two cities that the author has noted contributed in some measure to the difference between them surely ought to be considered in the effort to find one.

We are, however, still a long way from being able to make any generalizations in the matter, or even to offer any plausible hypotheses. For one thing, it is far from obvious that the particular combination of significantly greater compliance, marginally greater resistance, and significantly lower evasion in Białystok than in Kraków that the author has highlighted should have manifested itself in any difference in survival rate. We can easily think of numerous other factors that also merit consideration. Some have less to do with the German pursuit of the final solution than with the postwar environment. But other factors are anchored squarely in the conditions of Nazi rule, including the timing of ghetto establishment and liquidation in relation to the overall progress of the war effort; the timing and pace of Aktionen; the identity of the various local Nazi authorities and the relations between them; the strategic importance the Germans attached to particular locations; the proximity of labor camps; the availability of food; and the sources of supply. Still others were functions of the topography of the surrounding region, the density of nearby village settlement, or proximity to political borders. And others involved not the behavior of Jews under Nazi impact but demographic, socioeconomic, and historical conditions independent of any the Nazis imposed: age distribution (which helped determine, among other things, the proportion of Jews in any location with living memories of the First World War, or educated in Polish-language schools, or eligible to participate in the Jewish youth movements that formed the backbone of armed resistance organizations), class structure and degree of industrialization (which determined the presence of factories and a skilled workforce that might serve as the basis for individual and collective survival strategies), and the presence or absence of strong communal institutions and traditions of self-help. All of these factors could, in theory, have influenced how many Jews perished in any given locality and how many survived. It turns out that differences are evident between Kraków and Białystok along almost all of these axes. The same is true when Minsk—the third community that the author considers, where the survival rate was about 12 percent—is thrown into the mix.

It stands to reason that all of these variables could also have influenced the choices Jews made in each community among the options the author considers: collaboration, cooperation, coping, evasion, and resistance. Surely, for instance, the thicker cover of forest surrounding Minsk than Białystok or Kraków added to the attractiveness of evasion strategies there, while Białystok’s larger industrial base and Jewish proletariat recommended the “salvation through work” strategy that served to deter evasion there. Hence it is difficult to endorse the author’s conclusion that “the variation in Jewish behavior was a direct outcome of one key variable: pre-Holocaust political regimes.” The influence of the full range of possibly relevant variables needs to be examined in many more communities before any generalization can be either affirmed or denied. Moreover, in order to test the importance of differences in prewar political regimes, it is necessary to search for variations in the distribution of behaviors among communities that shared the same political history. Comparing Białystok not only with Kraków and Minsk but with Grodno and Wilno, for example, could be highly instructive. All three cities were geographically close to one another; they were of roughly similar size, had roughly the same percentage of Jews, and had all been part first of imperial Russia and then of the Second Polish Republic. Yet, judging by the available narrative histories and memoirs, behaviors that the author classifies as “evasion” were significantly more frequent in Wilno and moderately more so in Grodno than in Białystok, whereas behaviors classified as “resistance” were significantly less frequent in Grodno and more or less equal in Wilno. Clearly other factors need to be invoked to explain these differences.

It may also be useful to extend comparisons beyond the great East European Jewish heartland that Ordinary Jews examines. It has been estimated that as many as 90 percent of Jews living in Belgium at the time of the German invasion in May 1940 had immigrated to the country from Eastern Europe during the previous twenty years. Those Jews displayed a relatively low level of integration into the surrounding society, closer to the level the author ascribes to Białystok Jews than to Jews in Kraków or Minsk. Yet not only did more than half of them survive the war, but their dominant survival strategy, as best we can tell from studies that have been conducted to date, involved evasion—the strategy the author associates with higher levels of integration. Two factors appear particularly to have encouraged a relatively large proportion of Belgian Jews to try to hide from the Germans. One was a general attitude of suspicion toward government authorities in general (arguably a legacy of lack of political integration in the East European communities from which they stemmed). The other was the existence of a highly ramified Belgian underground movement that committed itself actively to oppose anything that the Nazi regime undertook, including sheltering Jews marked for deportation. Thanks to that commitment, Jews in Belgium could often find hiding places or escape routes even if they had not enjoyed extensive connections with non-Jews before the war. For the most part, a similar commitment on the part of the main Polish underground did not exist in either Białystok or Kraków, despite the different levels of social integration in those two cities. This comparison suggests that non-Jewish attitudes and strategies for fighting the German occupation may have been crucial in determining Jewish behavior.

It also seems highly likely that scholars will view the range and distribution of Jewish responses to Nazi rule differently if they disaggregate the author’s five basic behavioral categories. One reason that such is the case lies in the author’s finding that 100 percent of his sample populations in each of the communities he has examined displayed behaviors he categorizes as “coping.” Such unanimity suggests that this category offers a rather blunt instrument for analysis. But the author’s own sources, along with others, reveal that “coping” manifested itself in many different ways. In Minsk, coping activities were, as the author notes, largely individual or family-based, whereas in Białystok communal organizations played a larger role. In this regard Kraków resembled Minsk more than Białystok. But so too did Grodno, where the underground activities that were so prominent a feature of coping in the Białystok ghetto were largely absent. “Evasion” also encompassed a wide range of actions: living under a false identity, seeking shelter on the Aryan side or in a village or farm, hiding in an urban bunker or in a forest, joining a partisan unit, fleeing to another town, or trying to cross a border into a region controlled by a less threatening regime. If these behaviors were considered separately, a different set of distributions would be generated, and the analysis modified accordingly.

All of this is to say that Ordinary Jews has laid foundations upon which it ought to be possible to erect a large and complex structure, and for doing so, scholars of the Holocaust will be in the author’s debt. Clearly the structure that will need to be erected will have to be a highly complex one if it is to contain all of the possible variables. In all likelihood, in fact, that structure will require computer-assisted data analysis; the task of constructing it is simply too big for a single scholar. But Evgeny Finkel has made a promising start, and his effort is to be applauded.