Category Archives: History

Stalin: Waiting For Hitler


Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane – £35.00

It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.

          Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1513)

Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries… In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.

          Henri Barbusse (Stalin, 1935)

Can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?

          Boyd Maunsell (Portraits From Life, 2018)

To perhaps consider this book a testament to analytical thoroughness, would be an understatement. To perhaps consider it as a biography of someone who was forever on the move – having wrought both undeniable (social) change and suffering to the largest landmass on the planet – might just as equally evolve unto colossal understatement.

Having not long read Boyd Maunsell’s Portraits From Life, I cannot help but feel that it is increasingly and idiosyncratically clear that ”there is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative.” Wherein many ”biographers cherish the illusive essences which define characters […]. A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages” (Oxford University Press).

At 909 pages – excluding the most extensive Notes and Bibliography I have ever come across (not to mention a Preface, List of Maps, Credits and Index) – Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941 is surely to be read with an underlying knowledge that its author, Stephen Kotkin, has approached his subject with all the adroit acumen one would normally associate with a propulsive quest for the truth. A quest, which, given the most complex of ideological barbarity to which its subject wholeheartedly subscribed, really, really is no mean feat.

Kotkin himself concludes the end of the first chapter (‘Equal to the Myth’) with the words: Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”

Just as the unspeakably unpleasant, if not grotesque excuse for a president, Donald Trump, currently proves equal to that of his own egocentric, inflammatory folly; Stalin most definitely proved equal to the myth of his own (nigh impeccable) design. As if some sort of perplexing providence were enjoying a field day of reflexive history. A deadly, tempestuous hybrid of history at that: ”Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation.”

‘A mania for adulation,’ which, much like today’s Trump, was in and of itself, a self-perpetuating myth; wholeheartedly stepped within the colossal realm of far too much considered violence and vendetta. Although the prime difference betwixt Stalin and Trump is that the former ”radiated charisma” (albeit ”the charisma of dictatorial power”).

As much partially explains why one cannot help but agree with The Times‘ George Walden, when he writes: ”one of the tragedies of Kotkin’s book is its eerie and troubling relevance today.” Indeed.

With immense authority and terrific aplomb, Stephen Kotkin has herein written and compiled perhaps the benchmark of a work, by which all other works on the subject will surely be compared – for many years to come.

Compartmentalized into three distinct parts (‘Equal To The Myth,’ ‘Terror As Statecraft’ and ‘Three-Card Monte’), along with a Coda (‘Little Corner, Saturday, June 21, 1941’) each of these fourteen chapters bequeath the reader with yet another saga over which Stalin fundamentally presided.

Akin to a literary monster with yet countless more heads to essentially come to historical terms with, this book enables the reader to refer to almost any part – with fleeting random – and still become both enlightened and entranced at the degree to which Stalin unashamedly moved. Not to mention of course, the undeniable effervescence with which Kotkin is able to keep unbelievable, political pace.

Yet believable it is.
Even when addressing many of Stalin’s opposing cohorts – be they Russian, American, British or indeed German.

For instance. Chapter eleven – simply entitled ‘Pact’ – opens with the following two quotes:

In his present mood, the PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet.

          Sir Alexander Cadogan
          (British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs,
          private diary entry, May 20, 1939)

Hitler: The scum of the earth, I believe?
Stalin: The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?

          David Low
          ‘Rendevous,’ Evening Standard, September 20, 1939)

If said quotes (alone) weren’t enough to trigger a veritable tsunami of discussion, already on the second page int the chapter, Kotkin addresses the thorny issue of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (whom unsurprisingly, Hermann Goring had already dubbed ”Germany’s No. 1 parrot”).

In relation to being more than instrumental in devising and convincing Hitler to make a deal with Stalin, the author writes: […] Ribbentrop operated by intuition and strove to be ”radical,” rarely invoking limits (or consequences), which pleased Hitler no end. And what could be more radical, in its way, than a deal with Communist Moscow?”

So no matter from which angle one decides to address the vast trajectory of Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, Stephen Kotkin has a superlative, if not very substantial answer.

Thereby accounting for the second unquestionable instalment of a landmark achievement – the first being its predecessor Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which, according to Lucy Hughes-Hallett of The New Statesman was ”exhilarating, compelling, terrifying and utterly gripping.”

Lest one forget, this book concludes in 1941- the year Germany invaded Russia – so there is clearly more to come. I for one, can’t wait.

David Marx


The French Resistance


The French Resistance
By Olivier Wieviorka
Translated by Jane Marie Todd
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £29.95

It can hardly be said that during World War II the resistance was preoccupied with rescuing the Jews. Its indifference fuelled and continues to fuel suspicion. Are we to consider silence the price to be paid for the primacy of the political or armed struggle waged against the occupier? Or are we to read it as the sign of the ideological proximity of a portion of the underground forces to the Vichy regime? In either case, the Jews of France could only rarely count on the army of the shadows to save them from death, even as the Germans and the French State, beginning in 1940, unleashed a racial persecution campaign targeting that community, which in 1939 was estimated at 330,000 members

                                                       (‘Response to Persecution of the Jews’)

Regardless of how, and what one feels about the role of the French Resistance during the Second World War, the movement (somehow) never truly relinquishes to be firmly embedded, if not stained, by gross ambiguity. A very fraught ambiguity, which to this day, remains just as equally complex and romantic, as it was back in the day: a wide-simmering-synthesis of deeply entrenched beliefs.

Were this not the case, then how on earth could it have lasted for as long as it did within the most murderous parameters as those regulated, and set in place, by the Nazi regime?

Belief, if not spirit, was surely the burgeoning clarion call – as triggered and so clearly set forth by Charles de Gaulle within the ending of his (in)famous radio address to the French nation in June 1940: ”Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not go out.”

He was invariably right.

The flame of French resistance was never (ever) extinguished, but its reasoning was oft brought into quintessential question.
Was it spiritual?
Was it political?
Was it ideological?
Or was it merely national?
If primarily the latter, then the above opening quote resonates just that little louder – does it not?

At the very outset of this overtly compelling and rather brilliant book (Chapter One, ‘The Call’), author Olivier Wieviorka – in a round-a-bout sort of way – nigh asks the very same question(s): ”By what means might resistance come into being?”

That France was only partly occupied during World War II, which in and of itself was roughly demarcated by the north and south of the country, does go some way in answering such means. As do the eighteen chapters of The French Resistance, a most concise, no bars held account of that which it’s title suggests (and wholeheartedly pertains to).

Beginning with four pages of comprehensive Abbreviations (from ACP – Assemble Consulative Provisoire d’Alger/Provisional Consultative Assembly of Algiers – to VdL – Volontaires de la Liberte/Voluteers for Liberty), Wieviorka’s book presents a most comprehensive history of the French Resistance, defiantly synthesising it’s social, political as well as military aspects.

In so doing, a number of fresh insights become known; which, without wanting to give too much away, defies conventionality.
Especially in so much as the aforesaid romanticism of the Resistance is (inexorably) concerned.

For instance, in returning to the chapter ‘Response to Persecution of the Jews,’ such embraced thinking and conventionality becomes ever more resonant: ”the deeply distressing scenes that unfolded in the occupied zone and then in the southern zone moved the population. The terrible ordeals imposed on very small children, victims of an incomprehensible obduracy, erased many prejudices or relegated them to the shadows […]. That distress was expressed, relayed, and amplified by four prelates in the southern zone, who vigorously protested the anti-Semite persecution.”

Suffice to say, these 471 pages (excluding Notes, Chronology, Selected Bibliography and Index) do, in almost every way, warrant the most acute of further investigation.

As Michael S. Neiberg, author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944 has since made abundantly clear: ”Wieviorka brings important insights into a critical and often misunderstood topic. Going beyond the myths and partisanship surrounding the Resistance, and World War II more generally, this book will help set the tone for future work on the period.”

Such is most indeed the case – although don’t necessarily take my or his word as being gospel. In years to come, The French Resistance will still probably be referred to as if something of a landmark within the genre.

David Marx

Hue 1968


Hue 1968
A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Grove Press/Atlantic – £20.00

According to Karl Malantes – whose astonishing novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) I reviewed upon publication – this book is ”an extraordinary feat of journalism.”

Indeed, with unprecedented access to war archives in both the US and Vietnam, and in conjunction with an array of interviews with participants on both sides, writer, journalist and reporter, Mark Bowden, herein narrates each stage of this crucial battle through a fine literary prism of multiple perspectives.

Played out over twenty-four days of the most harrowing fighting – which ultimately cost somewhere in the region of 10,000 combatant and civilian lives – the Battle of Hue was without any shadow of a doubt, the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign. When it ended, the American debate was never really the same again.

It was no longer about winning the war in Vietnam per se, but how best to leave the country; which for all intents and ideologically political purposes, Bowden brilliantly reconstructs amid these 539 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Vietnamese Glossary, Source Notes and Index). This ought hardly be surprising given the calibre of Bowden’s writing, whose previous thirteen books include Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo.

While having been to Vietnam and seen for myself the relatively primitive, albeit deadly, organic means by which the North Vietnamese fought their American foes; I also stumbled upon the broad and inbred trajectory of vast humility. A quality, which, perhaps unbeknown to the Vietnamese themselves, is systematically endemic within the everyday fibre of their being.

As much is candidly brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; perhaps none more so than in a particularly pertinent if not poignant section of ‘Part Five: Sweeping the Triangle,’ wherein Bowden writes:

””I have something to say,” she said.
Quang asked her to unfold her arms. He was younger than her son.
”I am a wife,” she said. ”And a mother. These two” – she motioned to her husband and son – ”are guilty. It is known. They have done the nation wrong. As a mother and a wife, I am begging you for forgiveness.”
Quang let them go. Both father and son thanked him profusely. Puffed up with his own magnanimity, he told the son, ”Your mother has just given birth to you for the second time.”
Such generosity was the exception, so much so that Quang was later censured for it.
”Since they were aware of their mistakes and reported on their own son, it wasn’t necessary,” he argued in his defense. ”What mother isn’t hurt if her husband and son are in this position? It isn’t about one side or the other, it’s about being human” (my italics).
He forgave the police lieutenant who had nine children. The man had not reported himself; he had been arrested. Under the rules, it meant he had to be sent away. But Quang weighed the fate of his wife and children and told the man, ”You have to live to raise you r children. I forgive you because your nine kids are still too young. Your crimes are way too clear to forgive, but because of your children I here let you go home.”

Brittle as well as immensely (relentlessly) powerful, Hue 1968 traverses the Vietnam War in such a way that’ll make many readers sit-up and think. Not to mention maybe re-read what they’ve just read. Perhaps one of the many reasons being that it brings home what took place in Vietnam in 1968, as if it took place only yesterday – which really isn’t an easy thing to do. Let alone capture.

Replete with maps and a number of sterling black and white photographs, this book is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in The Vietnam War.

David Marx

White Trash


White Trash –
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Atlantic Books – £20.00

The circumstances of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

                                       Thomas Jefferson,
                                       Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)

Disturbing in an overtly non-surprising sort of way, this fascinating read sets the record straight concerning a variant of wholly misconceived issues regarding the rather derogatory term, ‘White Trash;’ namely that of it’s umbilical, yet highly tenuous relationship concerning eugenics within the United States.

And yes, you read right: eugenics within the United States.
To say nothing of its appalling, underplayed class system.

To be sure, it might appear morosely myopic to think that Nazi Germany was the only relatively modern state to introduce eugenics as a form of socio-politico policy. A policy which promoted the biological improvement of the Ayran race (or Germanic Übermenschen) unto the everyday manifestation of Nazi political ideology.

Although make no mistake – the land of the free and the so-called home of the brave got there first: ”The British colonial imprint was never really erased […]. For their part, nineteenth-century Americans did everything possible to replicate the class station through marriage, kinship, pedigree, and lineage. While the Confederacy was the high mark – the most overt manifestation – of rural aristocratic pretence (and an open embrace of society’s need to have an elite ruling over the lower classes), the next century ushered in the disturbing imperative of eugenics, availing itself of science to justify breeding a master class. Thus not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions” (‘America’s Strange Breed – The Long Legacy of White Trash’).

Indeed, by way of overt class filtration, it’s hardly a well-kept secret that the United States had already partaken in the hideous execution of eugenics a couple of hundred years ago.

An understandably inflammatory issue, which the authoress, Nancy Isenberg, makes clear on a number of occasions throughout the thoroughly well-researched and highly analytical, White Trash – The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

In three distinct parts (‘To Begin the World Anew,’ ‘Degeneration of the American Breed’ and ‘The White Trash Makeover’), this occasionally inflammatory read, substantiates the degree to which pond-life voters – those who voted the heinous Donald Trump into the White House for instance – have nigh always been a permanent part of the American fabric.

The ideological and totally non-surprising background of which is already brought to bear in the book’s very first chapter, ‘Taking Out The Trash – Waste People In The New World,’ wherein Isenberg writes: ”The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labour in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset. It was a world not unlike the one Shakespeare depicted in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. Virginia planters felt entitled to their flesh and blood in the forms of the innocent spouses and offspring of dead servants.”

So much for a new way of thinking in a brave new world!

These 321 pages (excluding a List of Illustrations, Preface, Notes and Index) do much to show how poor (uneducated) whites, have always been central to America’s Republican Party.

To be sure, the country’s terrible Civil War itself was fought just as much over class issues, as it was slavery. And from there on, reconstruction pitted white trash against newly-freed slaves, which again, proved a mighty big factor in the inevitable rise of eugenics – a widely popular movement embraced by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, which targeted poor whites for sterilisation.

Said vicious circle of societal deprivation is majestically deciphered and explained throughout White Trash, right up to the present day; at the helm of which stands America’s current president and ultimate depiction of white trash, Trump himself.

He who lauds over a vast congregation of implausible ignorance and stupidity, which does much to suggest that the lunatics – or in this instance, white trash – have now taken over the asylum.

David Marx

Hemingway at War


Hemingway at War –
Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent
By Terry Mort
Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton 

Money can be easy to come by, especially and obviously when it’s inherited; integrity is not.

This is a terrific book.

Apart from being very readable and very honest – not to mention flawlessly written – its fifteen chapters take the reader on a perilous journey through wartime Europe, as brought to bear by that equally perilous and utmost of seemingly blokey characters, Ernest Hemingway. Yet even if you’re not into Hemingway, which admittedly I am, it’s the sort of book that’ll have you turning the pages with all the great haste regularity of a curious gazelle.

There again, we are talking about Ernest Hemingway; who not only led one of the most interesting and colourful lives this side of Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, but is perhaps someone, many would consider as among the first rock’n’roll writers of his generation. He was after all, married four times, was something of a rebel rouser (to put it mildly) and enjoyed a pint. All of which is painfully, yet marvellously captured throughout Hemingway at War – Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Indeed, so far as Hemingway’s spell as a most reticent reporter during the Second World War is concerned, Terry Mort (whose previous books include The Hemingway Patrols, The Wrath of Cochise and The Monet Murders) has herein left no stone unturned.

The author has unearthed his subject with as much truth, daring and research as is surely possible.

For instance, as the outset of chapter two, Mort touches on Men at War – which Hemingway spent much of 1942 editing and to which he also contributed three selections from his own novels – which, in and of itself, could well trigger an abundance of debate among Hemingway aficionados: ””This book will not tell you how to die.” That is Hemingway being Hemingway, but not the best of him […]. And in what surely is an unintentional visitation of irony, he writes that Mussolini’s bluster and military posing were designed to cover up the fact that he had been fearful, even terrified, during World War I. Surely Hemingway would be enraged to know today that that is almost exactly the criticism that was, and is, levelled at him, in some quarters. Worse, that same criticism is also used to question his sexual identity – does a hairy chest conceal some different needs! He would not have liked that, either. And in fairness, that sort of analysis – the defence mechanism argument – is facile and in some cases has a whiff of agenda-driven criticism. But if you, meaning Hemingway, are going to use it, you cannot be surprised when others do it to you.”

Suffice to say, the above is loaded with what many could well assume to be high-octane ambiguity; especially from the stand-point of ”Mussolini’s bluster” and Hemingway’s chest quite possibly concealing ”some different needs.”

It’s all relative conjecture of course; although in historically literal terms, there is needless to say, no smoke without fire. Or in this particular instance, no cover up without the most boisterous need to both subvert and divert.

Assorted light is further shed on such thinking in chapter eleven, by which time, Hemingway, who was involved in the Liberation of Paris, was staying at the Ritz Hotel. Mort writes of Hemingway having initiated a reunion with his old friend and occasional benefactor, Sylvia Beach. Quoting from her memoir: ””There was still a lot of shooting going on, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house […]. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while the people in the street cheered.

We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake […].”

The author then goes on to (perhaps clarify?) by writing: ”Beach’s account of the meeting suggests strongly that it took place as Hemingway was entering the city. His ”bloody” and ”grimy” appearance does not suggest the appearance of a man who had just spent the night at the Ritz. And you would think he would not need a bar of soap – surely the could Ritz provide that. (Although there were shortages of everything after four years of occupation and rationing).”

The mere fact that Terry Mort writes of such open ended conundrum, is just one aspect of what accounts for Hemingway at War being such a valuable and weighty, if not quasi-inflammatory read.

Naturally, not all of the 263 pages (excluding Introduction, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index) lean toward such supposition, as the following direct Hemingway quotation from a 1958 edition of the Paris Review – one among many – surely substantiates: ”All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last, you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”

It’s not often a book will have one reading on the edge of one’s seat – but hey, this Hemingway. Replete with bluster and braggadocio.

David Marx

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism


Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism 
U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015
By Melvyn P. Leffler
Princeton University Press – £32.95

Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit. It’s one thing to be afraid when someone’s holding a shotgun on you, but it’s another thing to be afraid of something that’s just not quite real. There were a lot of folks around who took this threat seriously, though, and it rubbed off on you. It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy… When the drill sirens went off, you had to lay under your desk facedown, not a muscle quivering and not make any noise. As if this could save you from the bombs dropping. The threat of annihilation was a scary thing.”

                                                                   Bob Dylan
                                                                   Chronicles, 2004

That the above was written by Bob Dylan in his book, Chronicles (on pages 29/30), should go some way in both dismantling and deciphering the American psyche throughout much of the last century as well as the beginning of the twenty-first. That Dylan is of unquestionably severe intellect, and is rather renowned for his seething honesty, ought further highlight the very substantial link that lies at the heart betwixt American paranoia and its own self-induced perplexity.

After all, the very first part of this book’s title alone (Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism) immediately conveys a troubled, underlying essence of its own design.

The mere fact that U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security has to ”safeguard” it’s very own ”democratic capitalism,” is surely something of a political blight that has burdened North America for many years. Much of the manifestation of which has invariably been ingrained within the very fibre of American thinking. The above opening quote of which is a prime example.

One does need to remember however, that what Dylan professed to, absolutely wasn’t, and still isn’t something to be taken lightly.

It still isn’t something to be merely brushed aside, as if mere words; even if said words, were spoken by one of the most utmost of intellects in the world today. But where Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism – U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015 comes into its own, is its quintessential acknowledgement that what Dylan was saying, still remains at the very core of American psychosis.

And if psychosis – as characterised by an impaired relationship with reality; in other words: a symptom of serious mental disorder – isn’t at the helm of the current American presidency, then I really, really don’t know what is. Neither for that matter, may Melvyn P. Leffler (who, apart from having written For the Soul of Mankind and A Preponderance of Power and is also the Edward Stettinius Professor of American History at the University of Virginia), because these eleven chapters rather frustratingly conclude in 2015.

That said, in Chapter Two’s ‘Herbert Hoover, the ”New Era,” and American Foreign Policy, 1921-1929,’ Leffler does have the clarity of literary mind to regale readers with an excerpt from 1921 no less, made by the then Secretary of Commerce, Robert H. van Meter:

”There is nothing that would give such hope of recovery in life and living as to have this terrible burden and menace [arms expenditures] taken from the minds and backs of men. As Secretary of Commerce, if I were to review in order of importance those things of the world that would best restore commerce, I would inevitably arrive at the removal of this, the first and primary obstruction.”

Again, it does need to be remembered that van Mater wrote this (to President Warren G. Harding) in 1921. So is it any wonder that thirty years later, a young Dylan was perpetually being ingrained with the preposterous notion that cowering beneath his school-desk would save him from nuclear annihilation?

The notion of Dylan wanting to ”die in his own footsteps,” as aided and worryingly abetted by American Foreign Policy ever since God knows when, is herein brought to bear amid perhaps some of the finest essays written on the subject in a long time.

As such, these 335 pages (excluding Preface and Index) are, as the author of The World America Made, Robert Kagan, has since said: ”Always provocative, never doctrinaire, and often surprising in its lessons.”

David Marx

Ordinary Jews


Ordinary Jews –
Choice and Survival during the Holocaust
By Evgeny Finkel
Princeton University Press – £24.95

Killings and seizures for forced labour began in mid-August 1941. Initially the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliary troops and by the Belorussian police, seized males, who were then taken to the central square of the ghetto, beaten, and driven away to an unknown destination. None of them returned home. According to some sources, starting in late August women also were captured. About 5,000 people were caught and later executed during the August round-ups. The first large-scale massacre took place on November 7, 1941, the anniversary of the October Revolution. Ghetto inhabitants knew that something was brewing because skilled craftsmen, professionals and members of the Judenrat were moved to the ”Russian” part of the city on the evening of November 6th. Yet the scale of the killing shocked everyone. Local Jews, building on their historical experience, called it a ”pogrom.” The general assumption was that people would simply be thrown out of their apartments and probably beaten – no one imagined large-scale shootings in which thousands (10,000-12,000 is the estimated number) would perish.

         (‘Setting the Stage’)

Many made desperate attempts to escape when it was perceived as the last chance to survive, sometimes jumping off the trains carrying them to death camps. The vast majority perished, either hit by the moving trains, shot by German guards, betrayed, or killed by local Poles. In March of 1943, George Turlo, a non-Jew, took a train from Bialystok to Warsaw. ”During the first portion [of the journey],” he recalled, ”the train was stopping very often on the rail tracks, and a putrefied smell, stench, was coming from the outside. And I saw the German soldiers pouring the gasoline on some bodies along the track. And somebody told me this was the latest convoy from [the] Bialystok ghetto to…Treblinka. Only a few were lucky enough to survive the jump. Those who did had to navigate a hostile and unfamiliar terrain – physical, but more importantly also human and social. Gedaliyah Wender was ten years old when his father threw him and his sister out of a train bound to Treblinka; his mother jumped as well. His mother and sister were badly wounded in the jump, and it was clear they would not survive. In the last moments of her life the mother had to prepare her son for independent survival – she taught him how to say ”bread” and other essential words in Polish, because Gedaliyah had no knowledge of the language whatsoever.


To say this is a mind-bogglingly tough read, would be something of an understatement.

To this day, I still find it nigh impossible to comprehend just how Europe’s Jewish population coped with what surely has to be one of the darkest (if not the darkest) periods in human history. As Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker (April 6, 2015): ”[…] the Nazi concentration camp stands as the ultimate system of evil. The very names of of the camps – Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz – have the sound of malevolent incantation […] full of the kind of details that ordinarily appear only in Dantesque visions.”

Indeed, said visions aren’t worth thinking about.
They’re far too disturbing to come to (remote) terms with, even though Ordinary Jews – Choice and Survival during the Holocaust doesn’t so much focus on the Konzentrationlager (concentration camp) itself, but rather, that despicable penultimate place, the ghetto.

In focusing on the three Jewish ghettos of Minsk, Krakow and Bialystok, Evgeny Finkel brings to light the degree to which the Jewish response to Nazi genocide differed, depending on their experiences with pre-war polices that either ”promoted or discouraged their integration into non-Jewish society.” And like many books written on the subject, it’s the whole matter of fact mode of writing that in a way, is the most disturbing and distressing.

That’s not to say Finkel doesn’t care about his subject. Nothing could be further from the undeniable truth. He, along with his peers, clearly care very much.

It’s the sheer density of relentless suffering and the awful extent to which human nature can become so bestial and so ghastly (so quickly). Again, it doesn’t bear worth thinking about; which in turn, reiterates the issue as to why we choose to read about such horror(s) to begin with. If, as Kirsch writes: ”It is to merely to revel in the grotesque, then learning about this evil is itself a species of evil, a further exploitation of the dead.”

Like the eight chapters of this most sensitive of investigations, the actual execution of the reading itself is a tough call; yet Ordinary Jews is an ultimately important contribution toward the many writings on the subject of the Holocaust.

It’s complexity and deftness lies in Finkel’s telling, which, if truth be told, resonates with all the clarity of subdued beauty.

David Marx