Dance On The Razor’s Edge: Crime And Punishment In The Nazi Ghettos

Author: Svenja Bethke (translated by Sharon Howe)
Publisher: Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2021. 304p.
Reviewer: Michael A. Livingston | August 2021

With the passage of time, there is an inevitable tendency to historicize the Holocaust, that is, to move beyond our wholly justified outrage and place the event in its historical context. Part of this process involves the comparison of the Holocaust with other human rights outrages—Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the earlier Armenian genocide—so as to identify common themes and (one hopes) prevent further recurrences. Part of it involves more in-depth study of the behavior of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, again with the purpose both of understanding what happened and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. Like the American Civil War, the interest in the subject seems to increase with the passage of time, so much so that a secondary literature about Holocaust memory and its uses and abuses has produced an impressive number of products.

The volume of Holocaust scholarship entails benefits but also dangers. There is a tendency toward narrower and narrower subjects and more and more forced comparisons. A quick Google search will find literally millions of references for such combinations as the Holocaust and Abortion, the Holocaust and Climate Change, and (of course) the Holocaust and the Palestinians. While none of these subjects is necessarily irrational, there is an obvious danger of trivialization and selective application in favor of preconceived arguments. One wag has suggested a rule (Godwin’s Law, named after the American lawyer Mike Godwin) under which any Internet discussion that continues long enough will eventually entail a reference to Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust.

To be sure, not all new directions in Holocaust scholarship are bad ones. One of the more promising directions concerns the life of Jews in ghettoes and other locations, where they tried to maintain a semblance of humanity under impossible conditions. The term Kiddush Ha’Chayim (Sanctification of Life), a play on the more common Hebrew phrase Kiddush Ha’Shem (Sanctification of God’s Name, typically by death), has often been applied to this process, together with the simpler term Amidah (Standing Up, also the name of an important prayer). One has to be careful here, because there is an understandable tendency to overstate the virtue of people in such a horrible situation, and the boundary between history and memory can rather easily be blurred. Still, there has been some very good work in this area, helping to restore the balance with earlier work—largely based on German sources—which tended to downplay the degree of Jewish resistance in the ghettos and camps.

The trends above—a potentially exaggerated historicism and a rightful focus on victims as well as perpetrators—converge in Svenja Bethke’s new book Dance on the Razor’s Edge: Crime and Punishment in the Nazi Ghettos, now available in an English translation by Sharon Howe. Bethke, who has previously written on Jewish approaches to fashion together with several Holocaust-related subjects, here addresses legal decisions of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) in Warsaw, Łódź, and Vilna, which had some limited room for maneuver until the ghettos, and the Councils themselves, were liquidated later in the Holocaust. In particular she is interested in the definition of criminal offenses by the Councils and how these definitions reflected the tensions between prewar experience and the obviously extraordinary circumstances of ghetto life. A related goal is to define some category of morally ambiguous behavior—what Primo Levi has referred to as the zona grigia or grey zone—which contrasts with the stereotypical “good” or “bad” of many Holocaust narratives.

This is a touchy subject. The behavior of the Judenräte has been controversial since the work of Hannah Arendt, if not before, and some observers will no doubt object to any effort to attribute agency or independence to the Councils (see Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 1994); see also Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (3rd ed.) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).  Primo Levi’s analysis, notwithstanding his reputation, has been subject to the aforementioned criticism, particularly when applied to Eastern Europe as opposed to Italy itself (see especially Primo Levi, If Not Now, When? (New York: Summit Books, 1985)). Finally there is the sheer awfulness of the situation at stake. There is nothing very nuanced about the concentration of people for the purpose of physical destruction, and there is a danger that by attempting to historicize the ghettoization and deportation process some of the uniquely brutal character of that process may be lost.

That said, Bethke responds to this challenge in a measured and respectful way, describing the decisions of the Councils without ignoring or rationalizing the horrific circumstances under which they operated. This she accomplishes by an extremely detailed and professional review of decisions by ghetto courts, police, and other functionaries in three of the larger ghettoes (Łódź, Vilna, and Warsaw), broken down by subject and recognizing the different situation prevailing in different ghettos and in different periods of time. The author’s command of the sources, which are in at least three languages (German, Polish, and Yiddish) and sometimes require a further understanding of Hebrew, is nothing short of extraordinary.

The core of the book is Chapters Four and Five, which deal with the ghetto courts and the closely related issue of penal institutions. Here as elsewhere, the author notes the severe limitations under which the courts operated, but also the somewhat surprising discretion that they were permitted in individual cases. This was particularly true when the offenses in question related to internal ghetto regulations that did not directly implicate the far more powerful and ruthless German authorities. While some of these cases involved traditional crimes such as murder or rape, most involved smuggling, petty theft, fraud or stealing of ration cards, and other behaviors that—had they been allowed to continue—might have undermined the “Rescue Through Labor” approach that ghetto leaders believed might save the lives of ghetto residents (the quoted phrase is identified primarily with Łódź but accurately describes policy in all three ghettos). The penalties imposed ranged from fines to imprisonments to forced labor and, in a significant number of cases, turning the person over to German authorities for final disposition, which usually meant more or less immediate death.

One poignant, if not necessarily typical, series of cases concerned so-called “lunch fraud” in the Łódź Ghetto: poignant because of the subject matter (the head of a carpet workshop delivering fraudulent soup coupons to former employees and allegedly trading in the coupons) and because these turned out to be the last cases decided in the ghetto, which was liquidated—that is, the remaining inhabitants killed on the spot or deported to Auschwitz—shortly thereafter (p. 107).

Bethke also devotes significant space to the relationship between the ghetto administration and preexisting Jewish Law. (Jewish Law traditionally did not distinguish between religious and secular subjects, although there have been various efforts to distinguish the two, most notably in Israel. The author’s discussion of this problem is generally fair and accurate (pp. 99-10).) The ghetto leaders were chosen by the Germans, and by and large they were not rabbis or Jewish scholars. Nevertheless, the author identifies several continuities between traditional Jewish norms and the rules and procedures employed by ghetto authorities. For example, she notes that testimony in ghetto trials was sworn over a Sefer Torah, and that the courts used certain punishments, including banishment, that were common in earlier periods. She further detects a continuity of the idea of independent Jewish law in prewar Jewish communities, the ghettos, and postwar Israel, although this is not her principal argument. While I am not an expert on this subject, her understanding of Jewish Law seems to me impressive, particularly for a book written by a secular historian.

The book also includes chapters on the ghetto police, the ghetto administration, the response of ordinary ghetto residents, and an introductory chapter on German and Jewish perspectives, and a conclusion that attempts to place all of this in historical context.

In short, the author has written a highly competent, very readable, and generally fair-minded account of a disputed issue in the historiography of the Holocaust, one that makes a potentially useful contribution to the literature and is plainly worth reading, analyzing, and thinking about. Both the subject itself and the author’s treatment of it seem to me deserving of scholarly and public attention.

Why then does this book make me uncomfortable?

I think my problem is less with the book itself than the way in which it is presented, a process which begins with the conclusion (Chapter Seven, titled “Criminality and Law Between the Poles of External Power and Internal Autonomy” (pp. 166–76)) but is hinted at in the introduction, the initial abstract, and what I have been able to see of the book’s marketing on Amazon and other websites. Essentially my disagreement boils down to two main points: first, the suggestion that the Jewish Councils had more of a scope for independent action than is generally conceded, and second, that there was a significant level of criminal activity in the ghettos which cannot be explained away as resistance in another form. These in turn lead to a third conclusion: the ghettos cannot be understood as a simple case of good and bad, but rather involved a high degree of moral ambivalence on the part of both the Ghetto Councils and ordinary inhabitants of the Ghetto.

Each of Bethke’s arguments suggests a refutation of common postwar understandings: that the Councils served largely as German puppets, behavior in the ghettos was generally as good or better than could be expected under the circumstances, and there was indeed a relatively clear line between right and wrong in the ghettos and throughout the entire Holocaust period. Implicitly or explicitly, these refutations suggest a further point about the essential unreliability of survivor testimonies, a point which is made more or less explicit in Chapter Seven. To put it more bluntly: the author is suggesting that we have been raised, since 1945, on a simplistic view of the ghettos and perhaps the entire Holocaust as a simple case of good and evil; the time has now arrived for a more nuanced, or at least an updated, view.

Well, maybe. But I wonder about both the analysis and the conclusions. First, I think the author somewhat overstates the freedom of action that was available to the Ghetto Councils. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see that, when one side is armed and powerful and the other is disarmed and inert, the latter will do mostly what the former wants it to. By the author’s own admission, most of the “crimes” referred to the Councils were not really crimes at all, but violations of rules (smuggling, fraudulent distribution of ration cards, etc.) that existed primarily so as to concentrate the Jewish community and weaken it for the final slaughter. This is a significant point.

Second, it is difficult to understand the behavior of the Councils, or the Jewish community overall, without a stronger background in Jewish history. Two thousand years of experience had taught that community that its best hope of survival was to appease its oppressors with intermediate concessions in the hope of avoiding total destruction. The author does not deny this history (see above), but never quite comes to terms with it, preferring to evaluate Jewish behavior in the light of theories developed by primarily Gentile scholars in a different political and cultural context. These differences, together with the dubious criminality of many of the crimes in question, make her “case study” approach somewhat difficult to fathom: what precisely is this a case study of?

Finally, there is the point that I began with, regarding the historicization of the Holocaust and its slow but steady morphing from a specifically Jewish tragedy to just another phase in Western (and especially German) history. The book is competently written, but weirdly lacking in context, as if the fact that nearly all of its protagonists were shortly to be gassed, worked to death, or executed by shooting—a process that had already begun by the time many decisions in the book took place—is simply an unfortunate detail of an otherwise clinical legal study. It is a bit as if one were to write a book about African Americans in the 1850s without addressing the violence of slavery, or a discussion of Hawaii in the 1940s that alluded only indirectly to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I suspect that I will not be the only reader with this reaction.

None of this is intended to take away from a well-written, well-researched, and generally very competent work. Certainly, it is unfair to hold the author responsible for the entire direction of Holocaust scholarship, or even that by German-speaking authors. But I think it fair to say that there are good and bad trends in that scholarship, and this book contributes in a limited way to both of them.

Michael A. Livingston, Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School; author of The Fascists and the Jews of Italy: Mussolini’s Race Laws, 1938-1943, 2014, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 274p.

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