Review: Yehuda Bauer's Brilliance Shines Light on the Death of the Shtetl

Yehuda Bauer has written a magnificent book of history -- The Death of the Shtetl -- that tells the tragic story of the eradication of the Shtetl, the small Jewish town in Europe, from off the face of the Earth.

The book is researched and organized brilliantly and written convincingly. We right off do note that Bauer is an Israeli scholar so his English is a bit choppy at times. And he also comes across a bit more opinionated than they typical American scholar (and we assume that's after editors toned down his rhetoric).

Bauer's work provides a definitive and focused closure for us on the topic. We taught for years the romantic idealized European shtetl of Zbrowski and Herzog via Life is With People, and we tolerated the Broadway version of the culture in Fiddler on the Roof. (Bauer leaves no doubt in his work that he has no patience for that representation of the shtetl.)

In his meticulous, vivid and argumentative manner, Bauer tells how the shtetls of the kresy region in Eastern Poland were weakened by the Russians and then eliminated by the Germans. "By the end of 1942, most of the shtetlach in the kresy had been decimated...By early 1943 the shtetlach had been annihilated...(page 67)."

He constantly inquires and probes into how history unfolded with thought experiments of what might have been if certain facts had been different. You get to know how Bauer makes his historical facts. There's nothing ominous or secret about how he reconstructs the past. But man, is it tense and dramatic.

A personal reaction.

We nearly jumped out of our seat when we got to his discussion about Jewish resistance. When we realized that Bauer invented his own term for describing resistance and called it "Amidah" -- we heard clicks go off and then canons boom, because to us that meant much more than you can imagine. We identify in our new book one of our archetypes of the synagogue with the rabbinic Amidah prayer. This identifiable behavior that Bauer labels Amidah fits the pattern our archetype perfectly. We have some more to say about this in our forthcoming volume.

Here is how Bauer describes the phenomenon of Amidah in his earlier book, Rethinking the Holocaust:
"The Hebrew term amidah...means literally "standing up against," but that does not capture the deeper sense of the word. When I speak of resistance, I mean amidah, and that includes both armed and unarmed actions and excludes passive resistance, although that term is almost a non sequitur, because one cannot really resist passively. When one refuses to budge in the face of brutal force, one does not resist passively; one resists without using force, and that is not the same thing.

What does amidah include? It includes smuggling food into ghettos; mutual self-sacrifice within the family to avoid starvation or worse; cultural, educational, religious and political activities taken to strengthen morale; the work of doctors, nurses and educators to consciously maintain health and moral fiber to enable individual and group survival; and, of course, armed rebellion or the use of force (with bare hands or with "cold" weapons) against the Germans and their collaborators.(Rethinking the Holocaust, p. 120.)
The discussion in this book notes that, "Unarmed Amidah in the Kresy was limited by the impossible external circumstances, although it did exist in some places and was expressed in ways that were specific to the areas discussed here." (And note how in this later book he capitalizes Amidah.)

Okay. This is not a perfect book. But it is definitive and compelling. In the example that I summarized regarding Amidah, and in many other ways that Bauer retells this tragic chapter of our people's past, his version shines brightly with insights and explanatory power.

1 comment:

grzegorz said...

Just read this book and I have strong feeling that the author is jumping to his conclusions too quickly, ignores a lot of historical context and is treating subjective materials (like memoirs) as objective, historical sources.

He is also very chaotic in defining geographical and administrative nuances of Kresy (one moment he is talking about Kresy just to start about purely Belarusian territories in a second)

The argument which has put me off the most was this one: "Holocaust was impossible without active role played by (Polish) inhabitants. Germans, according to him, were unable to achieve their goals, without active role of the locals.
If this is a fact, how come 3 million of native polish citizens had lost their live also during the events???????????
So according to Bauer 3 milions of Jews couldn't have possibly been wiped out without "Polish helpers" but 3 milions of native Polish could? Explain this to me.

This is barely one of many "shortcut's" Bauer is taking without explanation.

According to his book Jews were helpless subjects of local antisemites. He argues that there were more hostile gentiles in Poland who sought to kill Jews due to their deeply-rooted antisemitism then there were the rescuers. This again is a simple ignorance of the historical context and unjust simplification. Stating this he is forgetting the fact that only in Poland if the hidden Jew was found, often whole gentile family had to die.

He seem to be very proud of proving that Jews resisted their oppressors by peaceful means (excuse me??????) ignoring completely the fact, that JEWISH police and JEWISH judenrat's were first to help to put the Jews to the transports instead of organising resistence... that the resistance movement in famous Warsaw Getto has been set up in 1943!!!! 1943 when in the getto of 500.000 were only 60- 70.000 left!!! And this due to arguments between Bund, Zionists and other organisations.

This book is not advancing the study of holocaust but putting this study +/- 10 years back!