Isaac’s Army: A Sto­ry of Courage and Sur­vival in Nazi-Occu­pied Poland

Matthew Brzezin­s­ki
  • Review
By – December 18, 2012

Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, there was a sig­nif­i­cant amount of Jew­ish resis­tance dur­ing the Holo­caust and it did not begin and end with the War­saw Ghet­to upris­ing in 1943. Instead, it spanned the entire war, took many forms and belies the myth that Jews were pas­sive and per­fect” vic­tims. Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army is a riv­et­ing account of the Jew­ish resis­tance in wartime Poland. Writ­ten with the skill of a sea­soned jour­nal­ist and the pen and eye of a gift­ed writer, the book reads like a nov­el, rich in detail and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. He pro­vides the kind of sweep­ing nar­ra­tive and his­to­ry that this impor­tant sub­ject deserves.

The book fol­lows the lives and exploits of a small group of Jew­ish resisters from their ear­li­est acts of defi­ance in 1939 to the under­ground exo­dus to Pales­tine in 1946. It cen­ters around Isaac Zuck­er­man, the twen­ty-four-year-old charis­mat­ic resis­tance leader who slips into the War­saw Ghet­to to forge an under­ground move­ment. Aid­ed by four oth­ers — eigh­teen-year-old Mark Edel­man, a com­man­der in the Jew­ish Fight­ing Orga­ni­za­tion (JFO); Zivia Lubetkin, the high­est-rank­ing woman in the JFO and even­tu­al­ly Isaac’s wife; Simha Ratheis­er, Isaac’s body­guard and lead couri­er, and Baruch Spiegel, a qui­et and resilient foot sol­dier in the JFO — Zuck­er­man cre­at­ed an effec­tive resis­tance pres­ence that was able to nav­i­gate through the upris­ing in May 1943, the liq­ui­da­tion and the arrival of the Red Army in the spring of 1944. They sent couri­ers around Poland dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion; ran covert print­ing press­es and ille­gal schools; slow­ly built up a cache of weapons; robbed banks and exe­cut­ed col­lab­o­ra­tors; fought in the Ghet­to upris­ing; escaped through the sew­ers; par­tic­i­pat­ed in some of the fiercest bat­tles of the gen­er­al Upris­ing, and launched a human smug­gling oper­a­tion to get Jews to Palestine.

Much of this his­to­ry is known in broad strokes, but Brzezin­s­ki pro­vides rich detail, con­text, and frame­work that cre­ates a fuller pic­ture. People’s sto­ries were ren­dered from the first day of the war to the last, and in some cas­es beyond. That gives the read­er insight into who these peo­ple were, their moti­va­tions and how they evolved into hero­ic fig­ures. Brzezin­s­ki inter­viewed most of the main char­ac­ters of the book who were still liv­ing in Poland, Israel, and Cana­da. He also explored the dif­fer­ent forms of resis­tance: col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual, armed and spir­i­tu­al, con­scious and sub­con­scious. From the moment the exter­mi­na­tion pol­i­cy was launched, any steps tak­en by Jews to ham­per the Nazis’ efforts to erad­i­cate them was resis­tance — brib­ing offi­cials, pay­ing peo­ple to hide them, flee­ing to the forests, steal­ing food — were acts of defi­ance that required per­se­ver­ance, courage, and planning.

Brzezin­s­ki also places the resis­tance in a broad­er his­tor­i­cal con­text, rec­og­niz­ing that Jews were direct­ly affect­ed by the larg­er events around them: by the com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry of Pol­ish-Jew­ish rela­tions; by the anti-Semi­tism per­va­sive in Pol­ish soci­ety; by the shift­ing alliances with­in the fac­tions of the Pol­ish resis­tance; by deci­sions made in Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton, and by the cyn­i­cal agen­da of the invad­ing Sovi­et army and polity.

This is a remark­able and com­pelling book that is hard to put down and that offers a fresh and human­ized take on the Jew­ish resis­tance in Poland.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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