Ten years ago my wife and I visited Poland. Since I had studied the Holocaust for many years I thought I knew what to expect, but after visiting the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau I was wrong. Since many of my relatives were murdered in Auschwitz and part of my journey was to find my father’s village outside of Krakow I had a very sobering and emotional reaction to what I saw. I have read countless books on the Holocaust, but few measure up to Matthew Brzezinski’s ISAAC’s ARMY. The book is not a comprehensive history of the plight of Polish Jews during the Holocaust, but after reading it I had the feeling that it was. What is presented is an eye opening account of Polish Jewry before, during, and after World War II. The author’s main focus is the city of Warsaw which was depopulated and destroyed by the Nazis between 1940 and 1944. By focusing on a select number of Jews who lived, died, and survived the trauma that befell Eastern European Jews the reader is exposed to fresh insights and is taken on a journey like no other.
The author begins by describing the difficulty of imagining Warsaw from the platform of 2012. Today Warsaw is thriving with a modern capitalist economy, but as Brzezinski points out the office buildings, financial centers, hotels and other modern edifices are built on the “holy ground” that was the Warsaw Ghetto. The first chapter provides an insight to the Polish mindset as the German invasion takes place on September 1, 1939. The masses retained the firm belief that this was another Hitler land grab and once he seized Danzig (Gdansk) and some Silesian land he would be satiated and things would return to normal. Though their neighbors seemed confident there was a “collective nervousness” in the Jewish community. Within a few days reality hit home as the Germans entered Warsaw on September 8th.
After his introductory material Brzezinski shifts his attention to Warsaw and the ghetto that the Germans created. His narrative is presented through the eyes of a number of people. By focusing his attention on Isaac Zuckerman, Simha Ratheiser, Mark Edelman, Boruch Spiegel, Zivia Lubetkin, the Osnos and Mortkowicz families, and a number of other important individuals the reader is drawn into their world and their co-religionists struggle for survival. By mid-September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east making it very difficult to escape. As the narrative develops Brzezinski describes the inability of the Jews in Warsaw to develop a unified response to events. The Nazis created the Judenrat, designed to rule the ghetto and carry out their policy. Within the Jewish community a Zionist faction emerged whose goal was to get as many Jews as possible to immigrate to Palestine, opposing them was the Bund who felt allegiance to Poland and wanted to build up the Jewish community as nationalistic Poles and remain in Poland. A Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) was created and both the Zionists and Bund members could not unify against the Nazis. In addition the Polish gentiles created a Home Army supported by the British.
By October Poland as an independent nation ceased to exist. The Nazis worked ceaselessly to rekindle Polish anti-Semitism that had plagued Polish Jews for centuries but had declined in the early 20th century. Soon a Jewish underground developed to cope with the deteriorating conditions and oppose the Nuremberg Blood Laws which defined the Nazi version of Jewishness, the looting, roundups for slave labor and outright murder carried out by the German command. Through the eyes of Brzezinski’s characters the reader gets a glimpse of Jewish life and culture in pre-war Poland that the Nazis destroyed as they seized Jewish businesses ranging from banks to publishing and industry.
The author weaves the story of the escape of the Osnos family from Poland to Romania by way of Germany to highlight the immigration barriers set up by western countries especially the United States and the machinations of Breckenridge Long, an assistant Secretary of State who created numerous roadblocks to prevent Jews from entering America (see David Wyman’s two volume history of American immigration policy before and during the war towards Jews). The Osnos family escaped Warsaw before the Nazis walled in the ghetto in the fall of 1940 resulting in almost 500,000 people squeezed into 732 acres. (100)
Once the ghetto was created Brzezinski describes the underground smuggling operation that would feed the ghetto for the next three years. The author integrates the important role that children played in the process as families relied on their offspring for survival. Many Jews were rounded up and along with Gentile Poles were sent to perform slave labor in Germany and areas they occupied in the East. Isaac Zuckerman was one of the 1.6 million people who suffered the fate of being a forced laborer and through his eyes we experience what it was like. Overall the Jews in the ghetto suffered from an ethical dilemma, how much should they cooperate with the Nazis. Under the Judenrat, headed by Adam Czerniakow a Jewish Police Force was created to assist in rounding up and policing Jews. Czerniakow’s diary (THE WARSAW DIARY OF ADAM CZERNIAKOW edited by Raul Hilberg) describes his mental state as he presided over the ghetto under the Nazis and the day to day issues that Polish Jews faced. Finally on July 23, 1942, Czerniakow could no longer deal with the situation and committed suicide.
Though Brzezinski concentrates on the Warsaw Ghetto he also describes the pogroms in Vilna and Kovno following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. As numerous historians have pointed out Hitler did not plan in advance as to how the Jews would be dealt with once Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Decisions and killings would be made on an ad hoc basis until the Final Solution was decided upon at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Special killing squads were employed by the Nazis in the East and experimental methods were instituted to maximize death until finally the concentration camps were refined to maximize the killing.
On July 22, 1942 the Nazis ordered the Gross Aktion (Great Deportation) to empty the Warsaw Ghetto and settle people in the East. Mark Edelman emerged as a leading figure in the underground and as a hospital orderly he helped smuggle Jews out of the Ghetto. Preference was given to underground members and as Edelman described years later he felt like he was playing God as he chose who he could assist. Soon after this Edelman and his cohorts learned that Jews were not being resettled but were being taken to a new concentration camp, Treblinka. By September 21, 1942 the deportations had ended as over 300,000 Jews had perished at Treblinka.
Throughout the book Brzezinski provides details of the negotiations between the different factions among the Jewish community as to how to deal with Nazi depopulation policy. In addition, the author provides insights concerning discussions with the Polish Home Army to acquire weapons. What emerges are the many obstacles that the Jews faced as they tried to fight the Nazis and just survive. The latent anti-Semitism of the Home Army, the ideological predilections of the different factions, and the many “greasers” (the term used to describe Ukrainian and other ethnic groups that the Nazis used to harass, rob, and murder Jews) all contributed to the inability of thousands of Jews to save themselves. By January, 1943 the Germans began to round up the remaining 50,000 Jews that had escaped the Gross Aktion.
The new German effort to deport Jews to Treblinka led to the ZOB merging with the Bund and a more unified Jewish command. The ZOB took over leadership from the Judenrat and Brzezinski explores how they developed their strategy, bomb making capacity, and acquisition of weapons. Though they did not acquire a great deal from the Home Army they were able to manufacture their own “version” of weaponry. On April 20, 1943 the SS stormed the Ghetto to liquidate it. They were met by roughly 500-750 armed Jews. Receiving little help from the 380,000 member Polish Home Army they shocked the Germans who expected to be met by a few revolvers not bombs. Heinrich Himmler fearing another Stalingrad type situation in Warsaw appointed Jurgen von Stroop his counter insurgency expert to deal with the situation. Von Stroop applied massive artillery to flush out the insurgents as building after building was destroyed. Brzezinski goes into great detail as to how the Jewish defenders survived the onslaught. The remaining Jews were able to escape their harrowing situation by entering the sewer system to reach the Aryan side of the city and seek a path to safety.
On May 16, 1943 von Stroop declared the Ghetto liquidated, but 28,000 Jews remained hiding in the city. The biggest threat were the “greasers” who continued to extort and murder Jews. These “greasers” numbered between 5-10,000 Poles and were on a fee basis from the Gestapo. Brzezinski correctly points out that little research has been done concerning this problem, but he sheds more light on the precarious situation Jewish survivors of the liquidation faced. It is interesting that so much work has been done concerning the role of Righteous Christians, but so little with “greasers.” (See Jan Grabowski’s new book, HUNT FOR JEWS: BETRAYAL AND MURDER IN GERMAN OCCUPIED POLAND)
On August 1, 1944 Warsaw erupted once again as the Home Army led a revolt against the Nazis. The Poles wanted to liberate themselves before the red Army arrived. Brzezinski explores the diplomacy among Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin concerning the future of Poland and it becomes clear by the Tehran and Yalta Conferences that Britain and the United States despite protestations realized that Poland would fall into the Soviet sphere. During the Warsaw uprising Stalin kept 800,000 troops from entering Warsaw and refused the use of Soviet airspace to the British and the United States who sought to assist the Home Army. From Stalin’s perspective the more Poles the Nazis killed the better. The man who was responsible for the Katyn Forest Massacre earlier in the war was just finishing a project to decimate the Polish leadership, politically and militarily as soon as possible. On October 2, 1944 Warsaw capitulated with 200,000 casualties in 63 days. (362) “From a pre war population of 1.35 million, only an estimated five thousand remained hidden in the rubble of October 1944.” (369)
Once Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union and the war was brought to an end the full horror of the Holocaust was brought front and center for the world to witness. For the remaining Jews who survived the war they trickled back to Poland, but their ordeal was not at an end. Over 300,000 Jews returned to Poland and most did not want to remain as most Poles were not happy that so many Jews survived the war. Isaac Zuckerman worked ceaselessly to assist as many as possible to immigrate to Palestine, but the British, now a declining empire refused their admittance for fear of angering the Arabs. For those Jews who wanted to remain in Poland prewar anti-Semitism quickly resurfaced. As Jews tried to regain their homes, businesses, and other property from the prewar years many Poles either owned or occupied them and refused to go back to their prewar status and return them to their rightful owners. Beatings of Jews and robberies and other types of harassment were common in postwar Poland, but none reached the level of the pogrom at Kielce in July, 1946, which resulted in the death of 40 Jews and many more injured. The massacre was carried out by “ordinary Poles; bakers and seamstresses, white collar workers and carpenters, God-fearing Catholics who went to church on Sundays. How, after the tragedy of the Holocaust, something like this could occur in a supposedly civilized society, Isaac could not understand.” (401) For a full description of the events in Kielce and the role of the Polish government consult Jan Gross’ account in his book, FEAR: ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND AFTER AUSCHWITZ. The Polish government would then, after asking permission from the Soviet Union, facilitated the immigration of 115,000 Jews to Palestine. (403)
Brzezinski closes his narrative by reintroducing characters that he had interviewed for the book . Some of these survivors lived in Israel and had to deal with the remnants of their experiences. Issues such as post traumatic stress disorder were apparent in most survivors and for Isaac and Zivia death would come at a fairly young age. Mark Edelman returned to Lodz after the war and became one of the Poland’s leading heart surgeons. Many settled in Krakow, while others went to Toronto and New York. As time moves further and the continued building of skyscrapers all physical evidence of the Holocaust in Poland will be extinguished except for a few yards of the ghetto wall which stood as of my visit in 2003. At that time the wall was tended to by an older gentleman. I wondered as I closed Brzezinski’s book if that gentleman was still alive, and if not had someone else taken over the mission of caring for some of the last evidence of the Nazi destruction of such a beautiful city. ISAAC’S ARMY is superb book that reads like fiction, but the trouble for humanity is that it is all based on fact.