Commentary Magazine


Underground: The Story of a People, by Joseph Tenenbaum

Life And Death of Poland’s Jews
Underground: The Story Of A People.
by Joseph Tenenbaum.
Philosophical Library. 532 pp. $4.50.

 

This book includes a cursory thousand-years history of the Jews in Poland until the German occupation, the story of the life and death of Polish Jewry under the Germans, and, finally, the author’s personal reminiscences of his native pre-war Poland and of a trip there in 1946. With minor revisions and additions, a good two-thirds of the book was published in 1948 under the title In Search of a Lost People: The Old and the New Poland. Only eight of the present twenty-seven chapters are entirely new.

Though choppily presented, the bird’s-eye view of Polish Jewish history is useful as a brief and popular presentation, encompassing the most important facts of external Jewish history in Poland. However, the author’s interpretations of some of these facts are occasionally oversimplified and naive. Thus, on the question of minority rights in Poland, Mr. Tenenbaum writes: “World War II might well have been averted by a more statesmanlike settlement of the minority issues.”

The body of the book summarizes, in the main, works published in Yiddish and Polish on the German extermination of Polish Jewry in Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, Vilna, and other Jewish centers; it also deals briefly with the death camps in Poland and with the role of Jews in the partisan movement. Dr. Tenenbaum puts before the reader once again the major facts of the German extermination program: concentration in ghettos, slow death by starvation and forced labor, and, ultimately, deportation to the death camps. In making us face these facts again, in helping keep alive the record of the German murder of the Jewish people, Dr. Tenenbaum has rendered a service. Unfortunately, the account is marred by several faults. One is an underestimation of Jewish resistance to the Germans, resulting from Dr. Tenenbaum’s insistence on armed revolt as the only valid form of resistance. Thus, he finds himself forced to seek reasons why the Jews in Lodz or Lemberg or Lublin did not make an uprising. This is unfortunate, for though we may give greatest honor to the memory of the Jews who rose up against the Germans in Warsaw or Bialystok or Treblinka, we must not fail to remember that every Jew everywhere resisted the Germans by the very fact of his continuing to live. Smuggling food into the ghetto, organizing underground schools, fighting disease, hiding in bunkers—these and countless other acts constituted Jewish resistance.

Another fault is the author’s uncritical use of sources and his frequent failure to identify them. One example will suffice. In a chapter on Jewish partisans, Dr. Tenenbaum quotes an alleged Soviet decree, issued by Kalinin at the end of 1941, ordering the evacuation of Jews from the path of the Germans. As far as can be ascertained this quotation appeared in a pro-Soviet Yiddish book about Jews in the partisan movement of Soviet Russia. According to Solomon M. Schwarz’s authoritative study The Jews in the Soviet Union, there is no evidence for the existence of the alleged decree; the German slaughter of Jews in Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, and other Russian cities gives ample indication that there was never any attempt to rescue the Russian Jews, and Dr. Tenenbaum’s own sources reveal also the hostility of the Russian partisans toward the Jewish partisans.

As I have said, two thirds of this volume appeared in essentially the same form four years ago, and the relation of the present book to the earlier one is of some interest. The new chapters—on Czestochowa, Lublin, Vilna, and the partisans—while adding more information, in no way change the author’s approach to his material or his conclusions about it. But the new book is not offered merely as a revised, enlarged edition of the earlier work; it seems rather as if the author is deliberately burying the earlier book, having first salvaged from it whatever was usable. In fact, only a small part of the 1948 book was discarded. That was devoted to a panegyric of the “new” Poland and its “achievements” in agrarian reform, economic nationalization, educational and cultural advancement. The removal of this entire section and of certain sentences and paragraphs from the earlier text indicates clearly that Dr. Tenenbaum is no longer favorably inclined toward the Red totalitarianism. Greater the pity, then, that he did not round out the picture of Jews and Jewish life in Poland by filling in the final details of the second total destruction of Jewish communal life in Poland. Such a chapter would have added immeasurably to the stature of this book.

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