The Terrible Choice

Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust


Project Coordinator

Melvyn Conroy


Melvyn Conroy has kindly donated these original essays to JewishGen for online presentation

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The Terrible Choice

Some Contemporary Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

White shall not neutralize the black, nor good
Compensate bad in man, absolve him so:
Life's business being just the terrible choice.

Robert Browning
The Ring and the Book

This collection of brief essays is an attempt to portray the character and personality of a number of the prominent Jews of occupied Europe, and the manner in which they responded to the unique circumstances of the Shoah. Of necessity, the studies presented here are of those individuals of whom much is known. These individuals and their actions should by no means be assumed to be typical; they represent an infinitesimally small number of the potential and actual victims of the Holocaust, the great majority of whom had little or no direct influence on the events described or left a record of their experiences; but the impact of these few named persons on the life and death of their fellow Jews was immense. Sometimes that influence was for good; sometimes less so. And sometimes actions are impossible to assess in such simplistic terms.

It would be a mistake to rush to judgement concerning the behaviour of the subjects of these studies. For only if we have at some time been in the kind of position they occupied and faced the reality of the choices they had to make, can we claim the right to pronounce a verdict. And so, inasmuch as it is possible, these essays attempt to present a balanced view. That is sometimes difficult to achieve. We are dependant on the evidence of such documentary material as has survived, and the opinions of both victims (via their diaries and other records) and survivors. The latter presents a particular problem; understandably, an individual who has seen his entire family deported to a death camp or shot into a pit, is unlikely to take an objective view of the actions of those Jews in authority who were considered responsible. This was among the most diabolical aspect of German planning. By administering their rule through the Judenräte, the Jewish Councils, they often created the illusion that it was the Jews who condemned their fellow Jews. And so the councils, and particularly their chairmen, were faced with the most terrible of terrible choices – who should live, who should die. Not all of them were prepared to take such decisions.

The subjects of these texts do not consist solely of chairmen of the Judenräte. They include some who chose armed resistance, some who chose to risk their lives by recording the events they witnessed for future generations, some who chose other options. There was no alternative that guaranteed survival. Whichever of the terrible choices they nominated, few of them remained alive at the war's end.

This is neither history nor biography, but rather an introduction to the lives of a few individuals who achieved some kind of prominence during the years of the Shoah. Clearly the choice of subjects is selective and personal. If most of these portraits are of eastern European Jews, this is simply because it is from there that most of the victims came, and it is there that most of them died. Some brief background information of events has been provided, but for detailed particulars of specific locations, incidents, and individuals, reference should be made to the sources quoted. These are by no means exhaustive, restricted as they are to publications and websites in English, but the general reader will find in them a good deal of detailed information concerning these matters. It is intended to add further essays as time permits.

Finally, my thanks to Joyce Field, whose suggestion and support led to the creation of these pages, and to Robin O'Neil, whose friendship and scholarship I will always treasure.


Abraham Asscher & David Cohen
Adam Czerniakow
Elchanan Elkes
Jacob Gens
Hirsh Glik
Vasily Grossman
Chaim Kaplan
Mosze (Moniek) Meryn
Alfred Nossig
Emanuel Ringelblum
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski
Mordecai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff)
Yitzhak Zuckerman
Szmul Mordekhai “Artur” Zygielbojm

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Contact person for this translation Melvyn Conroy
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Updated 14 July 2006 by LA