Choiceless Choices

July 25, 2019

What has been tremendously enlightening about this trip (besides the incredible lectures, the experience of visiting such important sites and the many museums, synagogues and cemeteries, of course) has been observing how the rest of the group takes on the information being presented and how they react to this experience.

I am completely immersed in Holocaust history and education every day. It is a huge part of my job to research and learn more about the topic in order to better present information to students, teachers and museum docents alike. I have also had a personal interest in this since I was in middle school. I remember learning about the Holocaust for the first time in my 8th grade Reading class with Ms. Persson. I remember reading Frederich and watching The Devil’s Arithmitic. I remember the number 6,000,000 written on the board. I can still see it to this day. A Holocaust survivor named Rudy came to speak to our entire grade. Unfortunately I do not remember much about his presentation. I have not been able to find out who he was now that I have made a profession out of creating and running Holocaust educational programming.

One of the big questions we get from students, and a recurring type of question that came up more than once on this trip is along the lines of “Why didn’t they fight back?” or “why didn’t they leave?” Why didn’t they do this or that is something that many students, regardless of age, often struggle to wrap their minds around. One theme keeps returning to me as I hear these questions and as I learn more about the stories of the places we have visited: choiceless choices.

This incremental dehumanization, persecution and oppression was exactly that: incremental. Gradual. One by one, rights were restricted, possessions were confiscated, homes were taken. At gunpoint, by law, with the help of their neighbors, etc. This happened over years. Stripped down to nothing, Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and other targeted people were finally to be removed from Europe one way or another. And those caught in the fray were left to make unthinkable choices. Choices that had only disastrous consequences. The choice often was, which of these options is less terrible for everyone?

Not only was this incremental, but also deceitful. The Nazis used numerous deceptive methods to keep targeted people calm. They kept them believing it would only be their bicycle that would be confiscated, the radios, too. They were told the yellow star or the white armband was for their protection or would only be necessary until they were relocated to a Jewish settlement in the East. Their homes were taken but, from the ghettos, surely they would be removed to this aforementioned Jewish settlement. Being forced and cramped into a cattle car couldn’t possibly be a journey that could last a week, could it? They were told to bring food and whatever they could carry; surely this was to help them set up their new home, wherever it was. They have arrived at a train station with a clock and signs pointing to towns in either direction: it would be impossible for there to be gas chambers on the other side…

I think of the Judenrat, or the Jewish Council, the group of Jewish men and women who would serve as the conduit between the Germans and the Jews of the ghettos. This group would be responsible for carrying out the wishes of the SS. Not exactly a dream job, is it? The Council would be responsible for filling quotas: a certain amount of people for forced labor, valuables worth a certain value, provide census information on the ghetto population, appease a ransom order, etc. One of the most interesting aspect to look at is how each Council, and head Council head in particular, responded to these demands and how they handled the everyday threats of deportations and killings.

However each leader decided to handle the situation, it was generally to keep the ghetto going as long as possible. Avoid liquidation. Preserve as many lives as possible while handing over other lives destined for death. Rumkowski, the leader of the Judenrat in the Lodz Ghetto was made famous for his speech asking for the Jewish people to give him their children in order to save the ghetto as a whole. The Nazis demanded children under the age of 10 and the elderly for deportation in exchange for them not destroying the ghetto. Choiceless choices.

Rabbi Oshry was placed in the Kovno (now Kaunas) Ghetto and recorded the wide-ranging spiritual and practical questions Jews had asked him while in the ghetto. How should they observe Shabbat? The High Holidays? How to share food with those who have none, when I have so little for my family? Do I save my children, knowing that someone else’s children will take their place and likely lose their lives? Choiceless choices.

For those who wanted to help Jews but were truly terrified of endangering their families. Do we help these people from being killed and risk our lives and those of our children? Do we turn them away knowing that we could be persecuted anyway in the long run? Is anyone safe during wartime? Can we live with ourselves knowing we did not stand up for targeted people? Choiceless choices.

The Holocaust is complex, in a word. Governments are complex. People, situations, predicaments and choices are complex. Can we blame the Judenrat for this level of cooperation with the Nazis? Is it collaboration? Is condemnation black and white 100% of the time or are there gray areas? I have no answers myself and at this point and have stopped seeking them. Not every question has an answer, but information that helps us understand the question better.