A Catalog of Defiance

History

By Joshua Cohen

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust
Edited by David Engel, Eva Fogelman, et al.
Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 146 pages, $22.95.

‘Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust,” a catalog published to accompany an exhibition of the same title that recently opened at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, begins with an arresting image of opposition, and pride. Taken by Rachel Posner, wife of Rabbi Akiva Posner, who was the last rabbi of prewar Kiel, Germany, the photograph is framed from the interior of their home looking out, foregrounding a menorah in the windowsill, while beyond the window’s pane, from the balcony of an opposite building, hangs a swastika flag. It is Hanukkah 1932. Subsequent pages and galleries host a trove of similarly improbable and miraculous truths: a Passover Haggadah handwritten in Hebrew script in the Unterluss labor camp in 1944, an underground typewriter and copies of underground newspapers and bulletins, a homemade radio from the Jasenovac concentration camp, and, perhaps most disturbingly, photographic evidence of the systematic murder of European Jews — taken, developed and reproduced as early as 1942.

This catalog is another, and ultimate, example of such defiance — seeking as it does to document a challenge to the cliché of congenital Jewish weakness in the face of oppression and murder. That famous stereotype is as follows: Jews, as a lame and bookish species given to culture and leisure, went like lambs to the slaughter. As with all stereotypes, though, the existence and transmission of such represents a flaw in the historical record. “Daring to Resist” seeks rectification — and does so with impressive intelligence.

Most familiar Holocaust images and accounts, both documentaries and those fictionalized after the fact, are inevitably those of the camps: from Buchenwald survivor Eugene Kogon’s “The Theory and Practice of Hell” to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” the most lastingly famous narrative portraits of the Holocaust come from the Appelplatz, the tragedies of the gas chambers and ovens. “Daring to Resist” offers an illuminating alternative: not just that image of a menorah’s symbolic defiance but also the spectacle of Jewish resistance fighters organized in the ghettos, and reproductions of forged identity cards and telegrams issued in partisan code. Here are snapshots of men and women who did not, who would not, “go gently.” As an antidote to a millennium of poisonous accusations of impotence or inaction, their lives are vital to an understanding of the true nature of Jewish European existence.

The texts collected here alongside the images are just as revealing: Rabbi Leo Baeck’s “Honor and Inner Strength” is reprinted, his message delivered to German Jewish communities during the Shabbat Nachamu observance (the Sabbath of Consolation that immediately follows Tisha B’Av) of summer 1935, as is a tragic excerpt from the justly famous diary of Polish Jewish physician Janusz Korczak, martyr of the orphans of Warsaw. Lesser known but overwhelmingly compelling are a number of compiled oral histories: from the surviving students of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a painter and teacher of art in the Czech camp of Theresienstadt, to that firsthand of Chaya Porus Palevsky, a Lithuanian Jewish partisan affiliated with the armed resistance movement known as Nekahmah (Revenge). Palevsky recounts movingly, but clear-eyed: “To keep our morale high, we decided to keep our group of ninety people together and fight any way we could. Gertman and I and eight others were sent to Linkmenys near Swieciany [Palevsky’s hometown] to burn an electric station. We stayed in a peasant’s house about 500 yards from the station. That night I dreamt that our group was surrounded and I heard shots. When I woke up I learned that three people had been killed; Gertman had been wounded and shot himself to avoid being captured by the Nazis. We promised ourselves that when we were liberated, we would bury the corpses in Swieciany.”

“Daring to Resist: Jewish Defiance in the Holocaust” — and the posterity it should ensure for the men and women and their deeds remembered herein — is itself also a form of liberation, a freeing. The history documented in its pages is, to many Jews, unfortunately too new to be otherwise.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.


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