Assim­i­lat­ed Jews in the War­saw Ghet­to, 1940 – 1943

Katarzy­na Person
  • Review
By – April 2, 2015

Holo­caust schol­ar­ship con­tin­ues to reveal new lay­ers and nuances of the experi­ences of the vic­tims. Jews in Nazi-occu­pied War­saw in 1940 were under tremen­dous threat as they were stripped of their rights and forced to live in a guard­ed and walled-in ghet­to that was final­ly sealed off on Novem­ber 16, 1940. At its largest, the ghet­to con­tained over 480,000 Jews, most of whom were killed. Pri­or to the Nazi peri­od, War­saw was brim­ming with schol­ars, polit­i­cal activists, aspir­ing writ­ers and actors and was the cen­ter of Jew­ish polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al activ­i­ty. It was the seat of all major Jew­ish par­ties, youth move­ments, reli­gious expres­sions, trade unions, research cen­ters, pub­lish­ing hous­es, and Zion­ist and Jew­ish social­ist activ­i­ty. It was also a city where assim­i­lat­ed Jews felt com­fort­able, try­ing to live a life of cul­tur­al ambiva­lence where no one cul­ture or iden­ti­ty was domi­nant. Katarzyra Per­son in her fas­ci­nat­ing and orig­i­nal study, Assim­i­lat­ed Jews in the War­saw Ghet­to, 1940 – 1943, focus­es on the small but dis­tinct group of assim­i­lat­ed, accul­tur­at­ed, and bap­tized Jews and tries to recon­struct the mul­titude of voic­es and expe­ri­ences of this under-stud­ied seg­ment of ghet­to inhab­i­tants. These peo­ple gen­er­al­ly had long­stand­ing per­son­al, pro­fes­sion­al, and often fam­i­ly con­tacts with the Pol­ish milieu, spoke Pol­ish flu­ent­ly, often didn’t know or speak Yid­dish and con­sid­ered them­selves part of Pol­ish soci­ety. Unwill­ing to inte­grate into the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and, once the Nazis imposed their racial cri­te­ria, unable to merge with the Pol­ish one, they formed a dis­tinct group liv­ing” a lim­i­nal exis­tence in the ghet­to. The Nazis chose their iden­ti­ty for them, but it remained an uncom­fort­able and strange one. 

Hav­ing spent their lives prov­ing their Pol­ish­ness, being forced into the ghet­to was par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly as well as phys­i­cal­ly. Their invest­ment in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of inte­gra­tion into Pol­ish soci­ety was shat­tered. Per­son explores the diver­si­ty of this group and how its mem­bers’ iden­ti­ties shaped their involve­ment in and con­tri­bu­tion to ghet­to life. Some attempt­ed to merge with the com­mu­ni­ty around them, with peo­ple whom they felt dis­as­so­ci­at­ed from or even ashamed of. Oth­ers remained apart from it, orga­niz­ing a very suc­cess­ful com­mu­nal life of their own, includ­ing Pol­ish-lan­guage schools and cul­tur­al activ­i­ties. They were in the ghet­to but nev­er real­ly a part of ghet­to soci­ety and were per­ceived by the major­i­ty as priv­i­leged” Jews who because of their con­tacts with the Aryan side of War­saw and famil­iar­i­ty with Pol­ish soci­ety had a bet­ter chance of sur­vival than the mass­es of tra­di­tion­al and reli­gious Jews. In the social real­i­ty of the ghet­to, where the norm was phys­i­cal degra­da­tion, dis­ease, and star­va­tion, any­thing beyond what was absolute­ly nec­es­sary for sur­vival was seen as a sign of priv­i­lege. As a result, they lived in a kind of moral gray zone” in the eyes of many ghet­to inhab­i­tants. But Per­son effec­tive­ly dem­onstrates that any per­ceived advan­tage must be under­stood in the con­text of a des­per­ate and all-encom­pass­ing strug­gle for sur­vival. In the end most of them were swept up in the great Aktion that began in July 1942 and were killed in Tre­blin­ka with their more tra­di­tion­al co-reli­gion­ists. In this sense assim­i­la­tion was a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence. Per­son, in this infor­ma­tive, read­able, and orig­i­nal work, adds to our under­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ty of the social real­i­ty of War­saw ghet­to life and death.

Relat­ed Content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions