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The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos during the Holocaust, by Dan Michman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 191 pp. $85.00.
In this short and stimulating—if ultimately flawed—book, Dan Michman provocatively challenges a number of assumptions about ghettos that pervade popular representations of the Holocaust. As Michman rightly points out, ghettos were not established everywhere, and even when they were set up, they differed from each other in important ways. In some ways, Michman is not saying anything particularly novel here. Christopher Browning, in an important essay first published in 1986, noted that ghettos were established in Poland in 1939–41 for different reasons in different places. Even the late Raul Hilberg, whose work Michman challenges, was careful to draw a distinction between physical ghettos that were not set up everywhere and a looser set of segregatory measures that he dubbed ghettoization. It is Hilberg’s positioning of ghettoization as one stage in his machinery of destruction that appears to be in Michman’s sights, when he argues that far from being a vital “preliminary stage of the Final Solution,” ghettos “represented a sharp escalation of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policy” (p. 154).
In seeking to decouple ghettos from deportation and mass murder (as well as the establishment of Judenrate), Michman is largely convincing. However, again there is nothing particularly new about questioning ghettoization as “preliminary stage of the Final Solution.” That can be found in Browning’s early essay, in my own earlier work where I seek to decouple ghettoization and deportation in Hungary— although Michman misreads me here (p. 16)—and a wealth of so-called “functionalist” scholarship from the 1970s and 1980s. Where Michman does contribute a novel interpretation is in arguing that ghettoization was a making concrete of antisemitic perceptions of the Ostjuden that the Nazis encountered in Poland. However here his argument—based on a “cultural, linguistic and semantic approach” (p. 3)—fails to convince.
Michman offers a thoughtful overview of the emergence and shifting meanings given to the word “ghetto” over a number of centuries, before focusing in on Peter-Heinz Seraphim’s 1938 book Jewry in the Territory of Eastern Europe as the critical “semantic turning point” (p. 45). For Seraphim, the ghetto—by which he meant Jewish quarter in Eastern European cities—was a threatening colonizing space and force. It was this changed thinking about the “ghetto” which, Michman argues, then changed Nazi thinking and practice: “the ghettos were not established as some new ex nihilo creation, because . . . ghettos, as the Germans understood them, already existed . . . the Germans merely demarcated their boundaries” (p. 74).
However, there are a number of problems with this thesis. Firstly, Michman makes too much of 1938 as turning point. He is wrong to dub Heydrich’s plans for separate Jewish resorts in 1937 as “metaphorical” (p. 41). The planned separation of Jewish and non-Jewish vacation resorts was profoundly material. But more significantly, Michman’s highlighting of chronological differences between Heydrich’s thinking in 1937 on separate resorts and his thinking in 1938 on rumors of a ghetto for Berlin, ignores the shifting geography at play here. The Baltic coast and the capital of the Reich were very different places in the Nazi imagination. That sense of the particularity of place—so central to understanding ghettos—could be much more to the fore in the book as a whole.
Secondly, Michman fails to substantiate the links between Seraphim’s ideas and subsequent practice on the ground. Seraphim’s book may have been “on the desks of German administrators” (p. 62), but Michman pushes its influence further than his evidence allows. He acknowledges that “Seraphim was not of high enough rank to dictate the extent to which the idea of concentrating Jews in ghettos would be implemented; nor was he ever actively involved in these efforts at ghettoization,” yet writes that “I believe, nevertheless, that his logic, as well as his understanding of the concept of ghettoization . . . lay at the basis of the actions taken on the ground” (pp. 94–95). It is not only the case that I don’t share Michman’s “belief.” There are other ways to explain the evidence on the ground without drawing on Seraphim. Michmann overstates the significance of locating the Theresienstadt ghetto at the periphery rather than the center of the city “like in Poland” (p. 135), given that serious consideration was given to peripheral locations in cities like Warsaw, but more important, locating urban ghettos where Jews already largely lived can be seen as pragmatically—and not simply ideologically—driven.
This links to a third, and ultimately more significant critique. Michman ignores an important literature that situates Nazi ghetto policy as part and parcel of Nazi imperialist “Germanification” of cities in occupied-Poland (which is another way of explaining why ghettos were established in Eastern rather than Western Europe without relying on Seraphim). This emphasis can be seen in the older work of historians such as Martin Broszat, but also in the more recent careful study of Łódź by Gordon Horwitz. Both are missing from a bibliography that has some serious gaps. What Michman fails to recognize is that the reshaping of cities that ghettoization entailed did not simply involve Jews (and fears of Ostjuden). Rather it also involved Poles and Germans. Of course antisemitic discourses were central to the restructuring of urban space into German, Polish, and Jewish quarters, but ghettoization was about more than simply antisemitism. Social economic issues and pragmatism appear to have played their part.
In offering a robust critique of Michman, I do not dismiss his work as unimportant. Far from it. This is an important book that forces academic engagement with a topic that has been relatively underexplored aside from individual histories of some of the major ghettos. Michman rightly cautions us from assuming a monolithic and unchanging view of ghettos. I do not think that Michman asks all the right questions in this book, let alone gives all the right answers, but his provocative thesis deserves both a wide reading and vigorous response.
University of Bristol