Dead Tree Book Log: The Bravest Battle by Dan Kurtzman

October 29, 2007 at 8:03 pm (books)

Like every book that tackles the horrors of Hitler’s holocaust, Dan Kurtzman’s The Bravest Battle: The 28 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is painful and difficult and necessary. And always, unfortunately, relevant and urgent and familiar. Such a subject is difficult to react to in words.

Non-fiction re-constructed to resemble something that reads more like a novel, this book aims to focus upon a facet of genocidal histories commonly glossed over: resistance to their perpetrators. The history of resistance to this particular genocide, though rich, is understandably hard to grasp. In a system of extermination so closed and complete, what methods could serve as means for resistance that did not play into the plans of the exterminator? What could the outlawed do in this situation to express dissent without ultimately benefiting their oppressors? Were such acts even possible?

Kurtzman, after sufficiently setting the scene, recounts the detailed events of each day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Surely destined for death, the main administrators of the resistance (organized and not) to Nazi Germany and the execution of their people in this place and time were left with jurisdiction over only one thing: their own death. Some of the hunted swallowed poison. Others jumped from buildings after smothering their children. Better to die of their own hands than at those of their enemies, they reasoned.

And some gathered what resources (each other’s cooperation and planning, smuggled or homemade weapons) they could with which to engage the Nazis at their own method of destruction, albeit at a level hundreds of thousands of times less powerful politically and militarily. Diverse groups of resisters worked together or alongside each other, struggling to convince the other members of the ghetto that it was worth it to fight while dying, to convince them that it wasn’t worth acting compliant with the hopes that if they did, they may get off more easily and survive longer. To convince the rest of Poland and the world that the situation was too immediate to warrant rationalization of inaction with their own fear of Nazi Germany.

Self-consciously doomed to failure from the start, and indeed, more successful than expected, the uprising was never meant as a solution. It was not meant even as a struggle toward another, better day because, even though each moment survived was precious and beautiful, it was inarguable that that fight had already been lost (though some resisters did indeed make it out of the ghetto). The uprising was manifest of the desire for some sort of permanence of memory; if the victims were to be struck from the earth, then may some semblance of their own narrative remain of their own accord.

And so by reading their stories, we can each do our part to validate the desperate experience that, were it not for our acknowledgment of them, offer options of retaliation so meager that their enactment has the same result that might occur if they were not enacted at all. In this way, these acts of desperation become acts of resistance when subsequently observed by another, for which the acts were truly committed anyway, and which demonstrate a rebellious spirit merely by imagining compassion.

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