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An Interview with Dr. Havi Dreifuss

The Test of Jewish Solidarity

Asaf Tal
  1. The Damascus Blood Libel was an accusation, in Damascus in 1840, that Jews had killed an elderly Italian monk in order to use his Christian blood for ritual purposes. Police arrested the leaders of the Jewish community and tortured them until they "confessed" to committing the crime. Blood libels have plagued Jewish communities worldwide for centuries. –Ed.
  2. The Przytyk pogrom was a riot that broke out in Przytyk, Poland, on March 9, 1936 in which two Jews and a non-Jewish Pole were killed, several dozen Jewish apartments and shops were destroyed, and more than 20 people were severely beaten. Przytyk was predominantly Jewish at this time; 90 percent of its 3,000 inhabitants were Jews. The town served as a market for neighboring hamlets. The Przytyk progrom was later immortalized by Mordkhay Gebirtig in his song, "S'brent". –Ed.
  3. For more about these house committees, see the Main Article in this newsletter: Jewish Solidarity in the Holocaust: the Individual and the Community, by Jackie Metzger. –Ed.
  4. For more on the role of the couriers, see "The Female Couriers During the Holocaust", in a previous issue of the newsletter. -Ed.
  5. Lea Preiss, "The Impact of the Refugee Problem on Jewish Communal Life in the City of Warsaw and in the Warsaw Ghetto (September 1939 – July 1942)" (PhD diss., Hebrew University, 2006) (Hebrew).
  6. Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. XIV, 1998: 143-165.
  7. Professor Samuel Kassow identifies him, apparently with justification, as Stanisław Różycki. The Ringelblum Archive, Part I, Document 154. 
  8. The Great Deportation was the aktion (roundup of the Jews) that began on July 22, 1942 and ended in September, 1942, during which more than 245,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were deported to Treblinka and murdered there. –Ed.
  9. Ben Sasson, Havi, Goldberg, Amos, Goldman Hada, Years Wherein We Have Seen Evil – The Story of Religious Jewry During the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003), p. 89.
  10. Mordechai Lensky, A Physician Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, 1939-1943 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1983), p. 212.

Dr. Havi Dreifuss is a senior lecturer in the department of Jewish History at the University of Tel Aviv. Her book “We Polish Jews"? The Relations between Jews and Poles during the Holocaust - The Jewish Perspective [Hebrew] was published by Yad Vashem in 2010. She has published many articles on the period of the Holocaust in general, and on the history of the Jews of Poland in particular. She is the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem.

The annual subject of this year’s Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day was the subject of Jewish solidarity and mutual assistance during the period of the Holocaust. Can you introduce the issue with a few words on the concept of solidarity?

When we deal with the concept of solidarity during the period of the Holocaust, we must emphasize that we are speaking of interrelationships between private individuals and groups; that is, we are speaking about human behavior. As such, if we look at the question of solidarity in our own times, we find that there are certain areas extant in which solidarity exists, and other areas where solidarity is absent. A similar reality existed during other periods. Moreover, even if in the past we spoke about one leadership, one solidarity, today we understand that we are actually speaking about a much more complex issue. Solidarity can be expressed as a limited occurrence, partial and local in its scope – or, alternatively, as a phenomenon that is much bigger and broader.

What are the roots of solidarity and mutual assistance in the history of the Jewish community?

From the nature of things, we cannot relate to the Jewish community as isolated from its past, and it is important to differentiate among the processes that the Jewish community underwent before modernity, during it and afterwards. 
In the pre-modern community, that is, the traditional community, the normative infrastructure was based on established practices and customs. From the perspective of its characteristics, this was a group that possessed specific principles that all its members shared. They accepted the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai as a critical juncture, idealized the past, and shared the common perception that their generation was dwindling in size. Despite the changes that this society underwent, tradition remained a central value of the community, and all its members recognized and respected it. As a result, they shared a common language. 

Ashkenazi Jews comprised a great part of world Jewry at this time. They had commonality and affinity towards each other in many different areas. Among other things, they spoke the same language, or at least the same language group, and there were economic bonds among them as well as spiritual unity. An example is that of arranged marriages – the traditional Ashkenazi community generally arranged marriages within itself.

What expressions of solidarity were there in the traditional community?

Within the framework of the traditional community there were local community institutions that were responsible for responding to the "weaker members of the community", so to speak. These institutions included so-called "gmachim" (benefit societies), old age homes, orphanages and more. In the nature of things, there was a gap between reality and ideology. For instance, despite the existence of orphanages and widespread concern about orphaned children, when the Jews were forced to supply youths at cantonments for forced enlistment in the Russian army, some communities preferred to send their weakest members, among them orphans and the poor. That is, solidarity in the past was not necessarily as we imagine it, but it is certain that the infrastructure existed in traditional Jewish communities. In light of the principle characteristics of the traditional community, it's clear that the concept of "community" nowadays is different and possibly more complicated than it was in the past.

What were the most significant changes that occurred in the Jewish community in the modern period?

The meeting with modernity caused a basic change in the Jewish world. Broadly speaking, we can identify one of the central shifts: the Jewish community, to a great degree, broke with the structures and societal connections that had existed for years, and alternative communities were created in which there were many varied overarching "meta-communities", such as Hasidism, the educated strata or political movements (Zionism, the Bund, etc.) in various places, or the development of Orthodoxy – which is actually a modern phenomenon in and of itself. This is not to say that traditional solidarity disappeared, but it did change its face through the creation of new frameworks. Present, as well, through all these years were expressions of a lack of solidarity.
That is to say, within local, more immediate communities themselves, a variety of connections between different circles of society existed. Naturally, different individuals within the society shared a solidarity with those sections of society that revolved around them, and as such it becomes difficult to discuss a general Jewish solidarity. In addition to general Jewish philanthropy, which was concerned with Jewish groups in need, there were also inner circles and inner groups within the wider Jewish society.

Is it possible to distinguish between larger and smaller communities?

Urbanization was one expression of modernity, together with enlightenment, industrialization, technology and other elements. Each of these had ramifications for the nature of the Jewish community. In large cities, without a doubt, the process of modernization was faster. Because of this, the meeting between the Jewish individual living in these cities and new movements was direct and unmediated. Having said that, the changes that modernity brought with it occurred in smaller places as well, which were more like traditional communities, on the one hand, and on the other hand, these communities also experienced the crisis of modernity and were changed – they were no longer the same traditional communities. For instance, in almost every shtetl there was a library, and sometimes even more than one library; some of the books that were found in these libraries were books that, in a past era, would never have been included – such a thing would have been unthinkable.

If we are discussing the differences between cities and shtetls, there is no strict dichotomy; there are, instead, shades of gray. As such, it can't be said unequivocally that the cities underwent modernization, the significance of which was necessarily social alienation, and that smaller traditional communities remained within the familiar, warm frameworks. Often, in fact, the smaller, familiar traditional community was characterized by controversy, confrontation and the building of ideological walls between people. In this context, the process of urbanization was one of the expressions of modernity. Between the two World Wars most of the Jews of Poland lived in cities, but 25% of approximately three million Jews lived in small communities. This is a sizable minority.

At the same time, international philanthropic organizations and frameworks were established and became active. Did these activities characterize the period?

Jewish philanthropy around the world is one of the characteristics of the modern period. That is, the fact that Sir Moses Montefiore became involved with the Jewish community due to the Damascus Blood Libel1 was not a given. During this period, Jews were exposed to the distress of other Jews the world over, and became involved in order to help them. When the Jews of America established the Joint Distribution Committee during World War I, they did this within the philanthropic framework of solidarity even outside their own borders and continents. In this same vein we can find other expressions of solidarity: the Jews of France on behalf of North African Jewry, the United States on behalf of Eastern European Jewry (the Joint), Germany on behalf of Polish Jewry (during World War I). In a later period, the Jews of Poland also aided the Jews of Germany (Zbąszyń). 

There are different circles here; some are small, local and community-based, and others are much broader. For many Jews there was a feeling of belonging to something bigger than the geographic community in which they were physically located, and they found different focuses of identity: Eretz Israel and Zionism, workers' parties, the Jews as Jews. Each particular individual in Europe, which was in the throes of all these shifts and changes, gave of himself for the good of the particular collective to which he felt a sense of belonging (evidencing a need to belong to something bigger than oneself). The question of belonging preoccupied many Jews in this period, and could have been expressed as national local identity that was not necessarily Jewish, just as the French Jews identified with France, and the Jews from Russia identified with the Russian Revolution.

How would you characterize the way the Jewish society in Poland was coping on the eve of World War II? Did the Jews cope with the crisis of Nazi occupation by leaning on the traditional community framework?

On the verge of World War II, after Hitler's rise to power, certain expressions of solidarity can be seen, together with expressions of the crumbling of solidarity. Both trends existed simultaneously. Solidarity was expressed at times within the intimate community framework, and at times within an overarching, meta-framework. For example, when the Jews of Poland enlisted in the effort to assist the Jews of Zbąszyń, this was an example of support from the global Jewish community – here, both national and international, with funding coming from the Joint [Distribution Committee] in the U.S. This is a wide, transcendent expression of solidarity. In other instances the aid could have been local and community-based in nature, as in the case of the assistance provided to the Jews wounded in the pogrom of Przytyk2, and in other occurrences. Certainly we can see, on the eve of the war, circles and focal points of solidarity in one form or another.

It cannot be said that the traditional structures disappeared entirely with the outbreak of war. Perhaps they lost some of their strength in the Jewish society and perhaps they had already receded from the forefront, but they still existed. Local community organizations continued to persevere and operated in the small and large communities. At the same time, because one of the characteristics of the Jews of Poland between the two World Wars was the politicization of the society, frequently solidarity was not expressed with respect to the neighbor who lived closest to you, but with respect to another person who lived farther away, who was a member of the same political party. In fact, it's clear that many expressions of solidarity were made on the basis of political connections which nourished many phenomena such as education, cultural and public activities.

In addition to these aspects, there was also solidarity that was more localized in character, in different circles and social spheres: family, geographic area, neighborhood and more. The political trends in Poland between the two World Wars colored many of the connections between individuals and groups, and this includes expressions of solidarity.

How did the outbreak of the war and the beginning of the German occupation of Poland affect social frameworks and Jewish communities?

First, it's important to point out that with the outbreak of the war, Polish Jews specifically, like Jews in other places, were subject to a battle for survival as individuals and also as members of a community. The German occupation caused a complete destabilization of Jewish life: the public communal treasury no longer existed; Jews were kidnapped for forced labor; Jews were humiliated, etc. Moving forward with assistance and aid requires not only good will, but also material resources; yet, a great part of the experience and the resources that had been collected up until the outbreak of the war were no longer available. For this reason, a good deal of time passed before the Jews were able to adjust to their new reality, so different and so awful.

It is commonplace to discuss the Holocaust from the perspective of Auschwitz as a symbol of extermination, but it is important to point out that the reality in which the Jews found themselves after September 1, 1939 in Poland was a reality that they had never thought possible. In this connection, the overturning of all the basic rights, such as the possibility of managing a bank account, caused a great crisis that is not often discussed. As a result, the first struggle of the Jews of Poland was a struggle for survival – personal, familial, communal, public and organizational. At this stage we find the first stages of coping with the new reality, which was focused on the attempt to recreate what had existed before and to find new ways to successfully address existing problems. In my humble opinion there was a very impressive attempt by people who sincerely wanted to respond to the distress that existed, even while they themselves did not yet understand the reality surrounding them.

The significance of this battle for survival was a constant, unceasing existential struggle, but only later did this struggle become a real battle, literally, for air to breathe. Coping with reality included leaning on networks that had existed, in some cases, for hundreds of years – such as the network that surrounded the figure of the rabbi, or tens of years – such as the network of political party activities. There were also social enterprises that were created with the outbreak of war because of this new reality, such as the house committees in Warsaw.3 At the beginning of the occupation there was an attempt to lean on the existing networks. Sometimes this was successful; other times, less so.

How much did the public figures rely on these existing traditions?

People are able to feel a sense of belonging to an idea or to a collective and are able to acknowledge this connection once they are able to breathe. There were those who were able to do so after a number of days, and others that required a much longer time. The first collision of the Jews with the German occupation in Poland may have occurred during bombing, fires or in other difficult circumstances such as the deaths of close family members. At the beginning of the German occupation masses of people lost their lives and were murdered, at times before the eyes of their relatives. In this reality it is apparent that what occurs is a turning inwards – the main concern of an individual is for himself and his family. With that, after the first shock, many people joined forces for the public or social good. Among them there were activists who were experienced, and those who were unsophisticated. By the way, this is true not only with respect to political activists, but also with respect to those who were active in organizing charity and rescue efforts. Naturally, there were attempts to rehabilitate the prewar connections.

It is difficult to describe one particular pattern of behavior, but in a general sense, after that initial shock, individuals and groups, social circles and different communities, tried to provide relief for the most pressing needs, as they were defined at the time, and did this with different degrees of success. Most of the aid activities were based on an infrastructure, connections or different social spheres that had existed previously. In this context, we often mention the youth movements and their activities during the Holocaust. It is important to remember that the youth movements were a phenomenon that had existed between the two World Wars. Their source was in the feeling of responsibility for the center as concerns the periphery. So, for instance, during the Holocaust, the phenomenon of the couriers4 had a different face – it was of course heroic – but its foundations had existed before the war.

Can we outline geographic distinctions in connection with different expressions of solidarity during the war?

If we take, for instance, the process of the undermining of Jewish society mentioned earlier, one of the central phenomena that is not often discussed is that of refugees.5 In other words, at a time when most of the community was deported, social and community activism was consequently cut off. For instance, when 4,000 refugees were deported to a community that had previously numbered only 1,000 to 1,500 people, there was a need to care for their welfare. In this respect, the communities in which great numbers of refugees were concentrated bore a burden that was objectively greater, and they therefore had more difficulty preserving the social and organizational aid and welfare frameworks that had existed beforehand. That is, geographic distinctions were a consequence, first and foremost, of the German policies and the way the Germans operated in any given place. There are, of course, special instances – for example, the fate of the community of Krakow, from which at first 40,000 Jews were deported, was different from that of Warsaw, Łodz or Będzin. Each one of these places was completely different from the other. Important variables in this connection were the make-up of the population during the war and additionally, to what extent the population remained similar to what it had been before the war. Population movements greatly affected the functioning of communities. There was movement of people from small cities to larger cities, as well as the opposite. The flight of some 300,000 Jews at the beginning of the occupation had a great affect, especially since many of those who fled came from the ranks of the leadership. As such, many communities found themselves leaderless. It must also be emphasized that all these developments had a direct affect on the ability of the communities to organize anew in the face of a changing reality.

The problem before us is very complicated. Further to this discussion, an article by Dalia Ofer, "Cohesion and Rupture: The Jewish Family in East European Ghettos During the Holocaust"6, deals with the Jewish family. In my opinion, her conclusions are applicable to other areas as well. That is, the shift between cohesion and rupture characterized not just the Jewish family, but also the community and the Jewish society. In a general sense the discussion takes place along a continuum and not in sharp terms of a dichotomy, because in reality there was no dichotomy. There were phenomena that indicated a dichotomy, but during the period of the war most of the public and most of the Jewish communities found themselves in a gray area. Within this area, impressive expressions of unity can be found, next to difficult instances of rupture. It's clear that there were periods when the solidarity was greater, and periods when solidarity crumbled, but that's an issue specific to time and place.

  • 1. The Damascus Blood Libel was an accusation, in Damascus in 1840, that Jews had killed an elderly Italian monk in order to use his Christian blood for ritual purposes. Police arrested the leaders of the Jewish community and tortured them until they "confessed" to committing the crime. Blood libels have plagued Jewish communities worldwide for centuries. –Ed.
  • 2. The Przytyk pogrom was a riot that broke out in Przytyk, Poland, on March 9, 1936 in which two Jews and a non-Jewish Pole were killed, several dozen Jewish apartments and shops were destroyed, and more than 20 people were severely beaten. Przytyk was predominantly Jewish at this time; 90 percent of its 3,000 inhabitants were Jews. The town served as a market for neighboring hamlets. The Przytyk progrom was later immortalized by Mordkhay Gebirtig in his song, "S'brent". –Ed.
  • 3. For more about these house committees, see the Main Article in this newsletter: Jewish Solidarity in the Holocaust: the Individual and the Community, by Jackie Metzger. –Ed.
  • 4. For more on the role of the couriers, see "The Female Couriers During the Holocaust", in a previous issue of the newsletter. -Ed.
  • 5. Lea Preiss, "The Impact of the Refugee Problem on Jewish Communal Life in the City of Warsaw and in the Warsaw Ghetto (September 1939 – July 1942)" (PhD diss., Hebrew University, 2006) (Hebrew).
  • 6. Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. XIV, 1998: 143-165.

Can you give specific examples of attempts to cope inside the ghettos, by the Judenraete and also in other frameworks?

There are a number of ways that we can relate to these phenomena. We can discuss them in their official and unofficial frameworks – for instance, a great deal of the aid activities that were undertaken were undertaken first and foremost by the Judenraete, the official leadership framework, and by its different departments, in large places as well as in small places. This, despite the demonic image that even we historians have created in our research throughout the years. Sometimes welfare activities were carried out because there was no other choice – like the example above of the Judenrat that was forced to contend with a number of deportees that exceeded the amount of the population. In addition, the other aid organizations, that were less official, also became official at a certain stage (Jewish aid and self-help). The character of self-help also changed according to its geographic location. This is one way to examine the assistance and welfare frameworks that operated in the ghettos.

Another way to relate to the issue is to describe the phenomenon of solidarity within different circles: from the circle of the individual and his family, to solidarity expressed through organizations like the house committees in large places like Warsaw, or the incidents of solidarity between members of the same community that had been deported to the ghetto, refugee committees and so on, as well as expressions of solidarity among members of political circles, religious circles and professional circles (workers' unions from before the war, etc.). Here, too, there was a system of connections that nourished these instances of cohesion.

Another circle was made up of individuals whose role it was to take care of the "weak" groups, like orphans, abandoned children, hospitals; initiatives that at first were specifically turned into organizations that enlisted the services of new and young people. As I pointed out, since the Jewish society in Poland was characterized, among other things, by its politicization, there were youth groups, political groups, and political leaders, as well as rabbis and others, who had public positions. We can describe social groups and circles in which each of them tried to manage the distress and to make things easier – at least for its own members. The rabbi tried to assist his followers, the youth groups tried to take care of their young members. Of course, also on this plane, reality moved along the spectrum from cohesion to rupture. One who tries to find incidents that express cohesion will find them throughout, and this is true also for those who emphasize expressions of rupture. The question is what you choose to focus on.

How were the phenomena of mutual aid and support understood in writings of the time period?

Naturally, the writings of the activists themselves have a tendency to explain the difficulties that confronted them in the organization for which they worked. But in a large part of the writings that deal with mutual assistance activities, we can also find much criticism; for instance, criticism of the fact that children were abandoned in the streets despite all the organizations that worked to take care of them, or criticism of the fact that many medicines were not available in the hospitals despite the dedicated doctors. In my humble opinion, this criticism is important because it shows us not only what was lacking, but also points out what did exist. The activists themselves raise the challenges that faced them and the decisions that they had to make. The diary of the Jewish police in Kovno, for example, reveals the difficulties, their hesitation and indecision, and the decisions they made, which were sometimes more justified and sometimes less so.

Similar descriptions can be found in the writings of the police from other places. Activists in self-help organizations acknowledged in their writings that they were not capable of helping everyone, and that they were forced to make problematic decisions. People who were not part of these decision-making circles criticized this, because they saw suffering and needs that were impossible to relieve in absolute terms. But much to our sorrow, the Jewish community under the Nazi occupation was not able to give absolute relief to the distress, because Nazism had created the reality, and Nazism did not allow the Jewish public to take action to ameliorate it, or even to exist. As a result, in Jewish writings from this period it is possible to find much criticism. In my view, this criticism is very significant because it testifies to the high level of Jewish public awareness. It shows the great expectations and the impressive actions that were taken in impossible circumstances.

Other examples of writings that deal with specific circles can be used. Activists that were identified with a certain group frequently attacked other groups in their writings. Ardent Zionists wrote about the acculturated Jews; the acculturated Jews and the converts wrote about the Jews whose behavior, to their minds, made the reality even worse than it was.

If I relate to a document written anonymously7 about the streets of Warsaw in July, 1942, the writer reports that the ghetto was split into groups of castes, and each caste worried about itself and about its own circle. This is a characteristic of Jewish society not just in Warsaw, but in other places, and not just on the eve of the Great Deportation.8 That is, there was a kind of unification of the public around their spheres and social circles, each circle taking care of its own. There were some circles that were stronger than others, and the dimension of success of each of them was different. A large proportion of these circles had roots that went back to the inter-war period; clearly there were arguments that had begun in the past and continued to exist in the ghettos. The activities that took place under the Nazi occupation gave a different shade and color to the existing political debates.

To what extent did the day-to-day difficulties and distress create cooperation between the different, or opposing, frameworks?

Part of the cooperation was created by the German powers of coercion. In Germany in the 1930s, as more synagogues were being closed, and in particular after the November 1938 (Kristallnacht) Pogrom, German Jews (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) found themselves forced to share the same synagogue, even though they belonged to different streams of Judaism, or had taken part in a deep argument previously. There are very interesting expressions by Rabbi Aschelbacher from Düsseldorf after the November 1938 pogrom9:"The community was comprised of 2,400 members, of which about 300 took part in Sabbath services. […] But the synagogue again became a 'Beit Knesset', the sole meeting place of the Jews." What was for him a positive development was a huge tragedy for others, who had previously believed that their strength was in their self-imposed separation from others.

There was cooperation – some positive and some doomed to failure. But it cannot be claimed that people rose above the ideological differences that divided them. Outside pressure and duress was required in order to accomplish this. Cooperation was created at a certain stage, but not by natural means. As long as there was a place for action and personal expression, the different social circles remained, as did the differences of opinion among them. We can see this also as positive – it is an essential characteristic of part of the nature of Judaism that not everyone follows the same path.

Is it possible to speak of solidarity during the period of extermination?

Solidarity against the background of extermination is a problematic issue. This is because in order to express solidarity, one needs to have the possibility of freedom of choice and action. During the period of extermination, most people did not have any choice. A large part of the Jewish public was murdered without having any arena in which to take action. It doesn't matter whether they were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen in Lithuania or in the framework of the first deportations, when no one yet understood what was happening. This is one problem. Another problem touches on the fact that expressions of solidarity sometimes led to the demise of the group. Mordecai Lensky from Warsaw, a doctor by profession, claims that when we speak of "Kiddush HaShem" and "Kiddush HaHayyim" we must also speak of "Kiddush HaMishpacha" – death in sanctification of the family.10 This means that all the people who went with their families to Treblinka made a noble sacrifice, though one that led to the demise of the entire group. This is an example of solidarity; it was an unfathomable and terrible choice for parents to go with their children to Treblinka, yet this solidarity had one consequence – death. As such, the end of the story was fast and very sorrowful. The significance of survival was the dissolution of solidarity. We must remember that in the period of the Holocaust, there was almost no chance for large groups to stay alive. Perhaps this is where the tragedy lies – because of the extermination, people were forced to act against their instincts. At this point there was a need to determine who would be saved. A person could not save all his children; there was no chance to save everyone. It became necessary to decide whom to save. These were the dreadful decisions. There were instances of solidarity, of people who decided to go to their deaths as a group. For instance, families from Holland decided that if one of them received a deportation order, all of them would go together to Auschwitz. This is a courageous and impressive decision, but it led to the loss of their lives.

If this is the case, we can discuss solidarity in a small and limited group: solidarity that existed despite the rupture that was only natural in circumstances where there was a danger of death. I don't think that we can judge; we can only describe the reality that existed. It is important to point out that most of the people who expressed such solidarity met their deaths immediately. But we must also remember that those who seemingly "didn't preserve their solidarity" survived – if they in fact survived – at the price of a life of great torment. No one could guarantee his own survival, and they were forced to live with their "choiceless choices". The price they paid for their lives, which were lived on “borrowed time,” was disintegration of their group into individuals – its smallest components – and this is a fact that was for them, and sometimes is for us as well, difficult and very disturbing.

And what about prisoners in the camps?

In these cases, as well, we are speaking of solidarity in the most limited circles; for example, among cousins who arrived at the same camp, or solidarity with someone who came from the same city, or between neighbors in a barrack or among those of the same age. These are very limited circles, but the solidarity in and of itself was very important since it gave these people tools, and in some cases even the ability, to survive in the impossible reality that was the camps. It is understood that in the camps there were many signs of disintegration and rupture, and the more time that passed, the lower the level of cohesion became. Whoever showed solidarity with someone else did this many times at the expense of the "other." A prisoner in a camp who got some bread faced the decision of whether to keep the bread for himself or to divide it with his brother or perhaps with fellow prisoners. In this reality, where did solidarity begin, and where did it end? I am not sure that there are answers to these questions, but it remains important to ask them.

At what stage after the liberation is it possible to find attempts to once again come together as a family, as a society?

One cannot but wonder at the renewal of life after liberation in the context of the absolute rupture of Jewish life caused by the Holocaust. This is far from obvious. Though this was not a complete rebirth, the process of returning to circles of activity, circles of life, is very awe-inspiring, at least to me.

Those who were not constantly under threat of immediate death – who had some breathing room – for instance, those who had been in hiding, like Adolf Berman and his wife Basha in Warsaw, thought without respite about the future and wrote explicitly to this effect. Those who succeeded in surviving in hiding raised anew cultural principles and planned for the future after the war would end. In general, it must be said that those who were in hiding wrote obsessively and incessantly because of the great amount of time they had at their disposal and often also the means to do so. They were able to do this because in their tortured existence they were not under threat of imminent death. As opposed to their situation, those who were in camps were not lucky enough to have this room to breathe or the freedom to engage in writing. They were not preoccupied with questions such as whether today was May 1 or Yom Kippur. Prisoners in the camps did not necessarily think, at all times, of the end of the war or of meeting members of their families. They were disturbed more by the question of whether they would receive a portion of food, whether they had to stand at roll call in the snow, etc. And the moment they had some breathing room, we can find plans, contemplation of the future and looking towards it. 

If this is so, the process of rebuilding and rehabilitation did not begin after the war; its roots were planted during the war, though there was no real possibility of realizing it. It was not by chance that in the area of the liberation immediately after the war there arose Jewish organizations, organizations of survivors, organizations that searched for relatives, and those for the support and care of children, and there were efforts made to search for people in hiding places and to rescue children who had been hidden in monasteries. The thought of building these circles of self-help and of political movements began far before the end of the war. The motivation to rehabilitate existed, but without the ability to do so. The moment the war ended, there was the first eruption of new organization, painful because there was no possibility of recreating and collecting all the pieces that had been scattered. This was also the first time that the survivors understood the magnitude of their loss, the appalling murder and the total extermination.

  • 7. Professor Samuel Kassow identifies him, apparently with justification, as Stanisław Różycki. The Ringelblum Archive, Part I, Document 154.
  • 8. The Great Deportation was the aktion (roundup of the Jews) that began on July 22, 1942 and ended in September, 1942, during which more than 245,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were deported to Treblinka and murdered there. –Ed.
  • 9. Ben Sasson, Havi, Goldberg, Amos, Goldman Hada, Years Wherein We Have Seen Evil – The Story of Religious Jewry During the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003), p. 89.
  • 10. Mordechai Lensky, A Physician Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, 1939-1943 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1983), p. 212