Surviving Nazi racism: a Marxist memoir

Issue 

Born Jewish: A Childhood in Occupied Europe
By Marcel Liebman
Verso, 2005
181 pages, $39.95 (hb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

The Belgian brothers, Marcel, Henri, Leon and Jean-Claude Liebman, sustained by "the patriotism of official ceremonies and school displays", initially relish the coming battle when Nazi Germany invades Belgium in 1940. Born Jewish, the memoir by Marxist historian of the Russian Revolution Marcel Liebman, reveals the rapid disillusion of the boys' hopes when confronted by the reality of war, anti-Semitism and Nazi occupation.

With the invaders closing in, the Liebman family try to escape to France, but fail. When the brothers sight their first German soldiers, they instinctively hide their noses ("the giveaway nose, the suspect nose, the Jewish nose"). Hiding soon becomes more imperative as anti-Semitic discrimination turns to persecution, then to genocide.

Unlike the wealthy Jews, the Liebmans could not afford the false ID papers that offered true anonymity. They went into a more precarious, partial hiding. Pervasive anxiety and occasional fear shadowed the boys' constant hunger — for food, news, books, exercise. Through luck and ingenuity, the family survives a number of Gestapo raids until Marcel's older brother Henri is arrested and sent to his death in Auschwitz.

Marcel and his two remaining brothers find relative safety at a Catholic home for adolescents, where they masquerade as Spanish Civil War refugees. Their haven had been organised by the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne, a Catholic organisation dedicated to saving Jews in discreet collaboration with the Comite de Defense des Juifs (CDJ), a Belgian resistance organisation, established by a left-wing Catholic and a communist resistance activist, which saved 2500 Belgian Jewish children from deportation.

The CDJ had been set up as an alternative to those in the Jewish establishment who were criminally hastening Belgian Jews to their death. The Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB) was the Belgian version of the Jewish Councils established by the Nazis in occupied countries to ensure the "voluntary" compliance of Jews in their deportation to labour and extermination camps. Nazi-appointed wealthy Jews governed the AJB. The chief Rabbi of Belgium was its president. Its leaders displayed "harshness, arrogance, hauteur" to poor Jews (especially immigrants from Poland, like Marcel's parents) who sought its protection.

The AJB, says Liebman, knew exactly what the deportations meant, but continued to deceive the Belgian Jews they registered and cajoled into the cattle trucks. The Jewish elite collaborated, argues Liebman, in the hope that Nazism would be directed only towards the lower orders, preserving the privileged, bourgeois Jews. "You died in occupied Belgium", writes Liebman of that country's Jews, "if you had neither the money, privilege nor connections with which to protect yourself". Class was a life and death matter for Jews.

The task of the collaborationist Jews, adds Liebman, was smoothed by a Jewish cultural proclivity towards passive submission to their fate. Orthodox Judaism had met a long history of anti-Semitism with "fatalistic resignation" and saw Nazism as just the latest example of the "inevitable" persecution that was the Jews' lot. The Yellow Star was met with "silence and serene detachment" in Liebman's family, and when Maurice, Marcel's cousin, gives himself up to be with his captured parents, this act of "poignant passivity" is traced by Liebman to the "exaltation of martyrdom" drawn from centuries of Jewish oppression.

Yet there were Jewish Resistance partisans whose heroism showed it was "not lack of courage which explains the passivity of the majority, but their marginal situation within Belgian society". Traditional Jewish institutions, "whose label was nationalism or religion", and which were trapped by a social isolation they reinforced, were either impotent against, or fell into collaboration with, the Holocaust.

Jewish militants who resisted, on the other hand, were not "particularist Jews cultivating and exalting their differences". They recognised the necessity of Jew and non-Jew solidarity on a broad-left front against a common enemy. They successfully rejected Jewish resignation, abdication and complicity with the unfolding horror.

Nazism, says Liebman, found better accomplices among the European bourgeoisie who celebrated the fascist "suffering inflicted on the Spartakus League in Germany, on the miners in Asturias, on Guernica and on the German proletariat". The issue, as Jacqueline Rose writes in her introduction to Liebman's memoir, is not just condemning the "most glaring atrocities of the Holocaust at which we can all be comfortably outraged" but analysing the wider, and less visible, capitalist ruling class complicity with fascism. For Liebman, understanding Nazism means understanding capitalism.

Heckled by Zionists for his criticisms of Israel's role as a bulkhead for Western imperialism in the Middle East — "How can you attack Israel and defend the Palestinians? Don't you think of your dead, your own people, your brother?" — Liebman answers, yes, he does think, often, of Henri as a victim of the Holocaust, but he also thinks of the need to "reject the racism which is its source", whether it is the anti-Semitism of the Nazis or the anti-Arab racism of the Zionists busily exploiting the Holocaust for their own colonialist ends. Israel cannot be, says Liebman, the solution to genocide. Zionists do not speak for the dead Jews of Europe.

Liebman's memoir has the lucidity of his superb, critical Marxist defence of Leninism (Leninism Under Lenin) and the lyrical sadness of the most moving Holocaust memoirs. Liebman's memoir, however, is not just an emotional narrative of the Jewish struggle for survival under Nazism. It is also about resistance as well as suffering, understanding as well as grieving, and it is about capitalism — and a socialist solution to anti-Semitism — as well as the horrors of Nazism.