At the Intersection of Political Science and Social History

By Cichopek-Gajraj, Anna | Shofar, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

At the Intersection of Political Science and Social History


Cichopek-Gajraj, Anna, Shofar


In his important book Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust, Evgeny Finkel shifts the analytical focus from the behavior of perpetrators to that of their victims. He asks why did “individual Jews choose particular behavioral strategies, and why does the distribution of these strategies vary across localities?”1 Building on existing historiography, Finkel proposes the following revised typology of victim strategies: (a) cooperation and collaboration, (b) coping and compliance, (c) evasion, and (d) resistance. He then uses nearly 500 Holocaust survivor testimonies to test this typology across three ghettos in Minsk, Białystok, and Kraków. He arrives at several important conclusions. He argues that the factors that shaped the Jewish victims’ choices were “the patterns and contents of their political activism, the type and intensity of the repression they experienced, the degree of their integration into non-Jewish society, and the ethnic composition of their social networks.”2 More specifically, “Jews who were politically active before World War II were substantially more likely to choose cooperation, public collaboration, or resistance than those who were not.”3 He further shows that “compliance was the strategy of a tiny minority; the majority’s choices fell between coping and evasion. … [P]eople who were more integrated into non-Jewish society were more likely to choose evasion. Those who occupied a predominantly Jewish social milieu and had Jewish support networks were more likely to opt for coping.”4

More broadly, Finkel argues that Jewish behavior was primarily shaped by one crucial variable: “pre-Holocaust political regimes,” especially “states’ policies that promoted or discouraged the Jews’ integration into non-Jewish society and patterns of state repression of independent political activism.”5 The role of the state in forging or hindering Jewish assimilation and political activism has long been the subject of Jewish studies, especially in the European and East European context. What is novel about Finkel’s work is his comparative analysis of three cities under different regimes (the Hapsburg and Russian empires, the prewar Polish Republic, and Soviet rule), which enables him to make a highly focused study of the impact of the state on the behavior of the selected populations. However, when he tries to extrapolate his findings from the three cities to the more than 1,100 ghettos in the USSR and the east and “rest” of Poland, his analysis comes up short. He offers a simplified model (based on a limited quantitative analysis of the Jewish uprisings and electoral politics), which does not account for local particularities or “potential alternative explanations,” as the author himself admits.6 In his quest for a pattern “beyond the three ghettos,” Finkel loses his greatest strength: his extraordinary attention to local context. His brilliance lies in an interdisciplinary approach in which he successfully marries historical analyses of the local with social-scientific methodological rigor and extensive qualitative data for the three cities under study.

Indeed, his book exemplifies the best traditions of interdisciplinary research and shows beyond any doubt the value of speaking across disciplines in our attempt to understand society in times of mass violence. Trained in political science, Finkel also shows comfort in social and oral historical methodologies. In his words, his analysis is an attempt to “bridge historical studies of the Holocaust and the social science literature on mass violence.”7 His writing demonstrates a sensibility in both fields. When he admits that his patterns are inevitably generalized—but with as much fine-grain as possible—he addresses a potential critique from historians who are notoriously suspicious of the typologies and structures of social science seen as generalizations that often obscure context, difference, and change. …

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