Saturday, June 22, 2013


How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism, by Benjamin Ginsberg.

I'll admit it, I picked up this book in the hope of reading some of the juicy WWII stories to which I am addicted.  It's a conflict that fascinates me particularly because I was brought up in its shadow.  We lived just sixty miles north of London during the Blitz, in a big old rectory that served to house not just our family, but numerous billetees from the armed services (particularly RAF, from the nearby Cranfield airfield) and intelligence: Bletchley Park, of Enigma fame, was a bike ride away.  The Nazi leaders were the super-villains of my youth, and the evil of the Holocaust, known only at the end of hostilities, was the worst of all imaginable atrocities.

All this was real to me, and I was looking for that kind of reality from the book--the nit and grit of real experience, the subversive deeds of defiant partisan resistance, the dangerous work of spies, all that excitement...  If I was disappointed, then, it was due to my own expectations.  Because the book is very largely a compilation of statistical information: the percentage of Jews in such and such an organization, the numbers of weapons delivered to the Soviets from America, and so on.  It lacked the juice and the drama I was looking for.  I found it to be interesting, but it failed to inspire or excite my imagination.  I have no way of evaluating the information it assembles, but assuming it to be reliable, it's an impressive, comprehensive record of the Jewish contribution to the war effort, whether in England and America, the Soviet Union, or the German-occupied territories.  It covers the work of scientists and spies, partisan groups and bureaucrats, in a methodical presentation of the historical facts.

The author, Benjamin Ginsberg, is at pains to make a case that answers those who ask why Jews did not do more to resist Hitler and his followers.  Those who died in the camps, the shtetls and the ghettos, he argues, had little opportunity to offer resistance: unarmed, untrained, they faced ruthless, well trained forces who had no compunction about slaughtering those who stood up to them.  Only those Jews who escaped the slaughter--most of them in the years before the war--were in a position to contribute to the war effort; and indeed, as Ginsberg amply demonstrates, their work as an international diaspora was in many ways indispensable to the defeat of Hitler and Nazism.

By far the most passionately argued part of the book, however, is the concluding passage devoted to "Aftermath and Afterward: From Tragedy to Farce," in which Ginsberg assails the anti-Semitism that persisted, despite the Holocaust, in the years that followed the war, and continues into our own time.  He is particularly incensed by the antagonism of "the Left," both here in America and in Europe, provoked principally by Islamists and their intellectual allies, united in their hatred for the state of Israel.  I see this as further tragedy, not farce.  And however much truth there may be to Ginsberg's arguments, they seem misplaced in the context of his book's ostensible theme--and indeed, by the time we reach the end, seem almost to have replaced it with a new one.

So passionate and prolonged is this epilogue, the reader is left to wonder whether it was not the author's true purpose at the outset.  I personally don't for one moment question that anti-Semitism is an evil that should, by now, have been eradicated from the realm of human prejudice--along with all other forms of racism and irrational hatred.  But Ginsberg allows his concluding screed, which constitutes a good quarter of his text, to become the tail that wags the dog.  Forgive the extended metaphor, but I wish he had instead put a bit more meat on the bone he started out with.

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