Masha Gessen writes: I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.
My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.
With the election of Donald Trump — a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government — this question has confronted us as urgently as ever. After I wrote a piece about surviving autocracy, a great many people have asked me about one of my proposed rules: “Do not compromise.” What constitutes compromise? How is it possible to avoid it? Why should one not compromise?
When I wrote about my great-grandfather in a book many years ago, I included the requisite discussion of Hannah Arendt’s opinion on the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which she called “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story” of the Holocaust. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she asserted that without Jewish cooperation Germany would have been unable to round up and kill as many Jews as it did. I quoted equally from the most comprehensive response to Arendt’s characterization of the Judenrat, Isaiah Trunk’s book Judenrat, in which he described the councils as complicated and contradictory organizations, ones that had functioned differently in different ghettos, and ultimately concluded that they had no effect on the final scope of the catastrophe. [Continue reading…]