The search for the silver lining in the Holocaust can be unseemly. The Nazis created the most brutally efficient killing machines the world has ever known. And they were particularly adept at inflicting carnage on Poland. What is left to say when 90 percent of Polish Jewry (3 million of the 6 million Jews killed) is annihilated through gassing, mass shootings, beatings, starvation and despair?
It is in this context that Matthew Brzezinski reminds us that, through a combination of cunning and luck, some Jews managed to stay out of the concentration camps entirely. The book focuses on Warsaw, where the highest concentration of European Jews — 500,000 — once lived, as the heartland of Jewish life. The book is a poignant reminder that Warsaw between the world wars was not unlike New York City today — pulsing with theaters, cafes, cabarets, publishing houses, department stores and specialty shops. But not even a flourishing cultural life and a secular, assimilated existence offered protection from the Nazi storm. A cosmopolitan Jew and a religious shtetl-dweller were equally at risk. If you were Polish and Jewish, by 1945 you were almost certainly dead.
Brzezinski, however, has unearthed stories of survival among all those deaths. And “stories” is the right word, since the book jacket contends that “Isaac’s Army” is the first “narrative account” of resistance inside the Warsaw Ghetto, no doubt to distinguish it from Emmanuel Ringelblum’s iconic journal, “Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto,” which survived its author and upon which Brzezinski apparently relied. “Isaac’s Army” unfolds like a novel, with a thriller’s feel for pacing and intrigue, and generous supplies of gasping suspense. The characters are vividly rendered within a surreal environment that makes “The Hunger Games” look like survivor Little League.
The Warsaw Ghetto and its harrowing conditions for Jews are seen from three viewpoints: that of the Osnos family, who dramatically flee Poland and encounter various immigration nightmares; that of the Mortkowicz family, who are forced to hide their young daughter inside a Catholic convent while they literally hole up with Gentile families outside the Ghetto; and that of an assortment of orphans, led by Isaac Zuckerman, who organize the forces of Jewish resistance inside the Ghetto, fight alongside the Poles in their own uprising against the Nazis and, finally, in post-war, Soviet-controlled Poland, help relocate Jews to Palestine .
The third narrative, the one about the young ghetto fighters and Zuckerman’s improbable army, is the centerpiece of the book; it’s a tale of teenage rebellion. These agile compatriots master a number of underground activities: assassinating collaborators, shaking down merchants, surviving Gestapo tortures, disguising their identities, smuggling weapons, foraging for food, living in cramped hiding places, and generally inuring themselves to daily loss as Warsaw empties itself of Jewish life.
In one particularly ominous moment, Isaac’s band of brothers and sisters waded through a mile of Warsaw’s booby-trapped sewer system. “Every few hundred feet,” Brzezinski writes, “the body of someone who had drowned floated in the filth. Suddenly, at around 6 a.m., an explosion rocked the canal. A trip wire had been snagged, and the Germans . . . were throwing hand grenades down manholes, blocking the passage. . . . Going forward meant death. . . . They would have to go through the waterfalls and whirlpools, against the raging currents.”
Brzezinski shows an obvious admiration for his subjects, and “Isaac’s Army” often reads like a Greatest Generation tribute to heroic Holocaust survivors. Indeed, the subtitle could easily have been “The Indestructibles.” Any reader craving a dose of Jewish testosterone should add “Isaac’s Army” to a list that includes Rich Cohen’s “The Avengers” and “Tough Jews.”
But Brzezinski is not blind to the larger emotional and moral dilemmas faced by these ghetto fighters — they had to deal harshly with fellow Jews who abetted the Nazis or who were profiteers who got in the way; also, they had to make decisions that saved a greater number at others’ expense — while their Gentile peers were fretting over prom dresses or packing up for college. A cattle car to Treblinka awaited anyone who made one wrong move, took a hesitant misstep, betrayed a suspicious glance, or simply was not on the receiving end of good fortune. Despite all the derring-do, street smarts and gutter instincts, survival in the Ghetto often hinged on ordinary luck.
And that’s where this book runs the risk of trampling over sacred ground. The Holocaust, of course, is largely a story of mass deaths. The events memorialized in “Isaac’s Army” were freakish aberrations. Only an abnormality can produce a happy ending in a Holocaust tale. The triumph of the human spirit is trumpeted on every page, but the larger, darker truth of the Holocaust can end up being trivialized amid the desperate wish to affirm life. It is no coincidence that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, failed though it was, has been repeatedly dramatized on TV and in movies.
Fortunately, Brzezinski is sensitive to these aesthetic traps. “Isaac’s Army” marches through the minefield of the Holocaust mindful of what it truly meant to be liquidated from those ghettos. Nothing gets sugarcoated; no one who deserves blame receives a pass. And these teenagers who once functioned as terminators are not overly romanticized. Indeed, they are appropriately pitied. Not only were they robbed of their families and a normal young adulthood, but the life lessons they mastered in the conflict had little value outside the upspeakable world of the Nazis.
A few of the resistance fighters are still alive, elderly and in failing health. We learn what became of them, and what they were never able to overcome: nightmares and unrelenting memory. But they were also emboldened by the knowledge that nothing the world might throw their way could ever terrify them again.
A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland
By Matthew Brzezinski
Random House. 472 pp. $30