Sliwa on Ferenc, '"Każdy pyta, co z nami będzie": Mieszkańcy getta warszawskiego wobec wiadomości o wojnie i Zagładzie'

Maria Ferenc. "Każdy pyta, co z nami będzie": Mieszkańcy getta warszawskiego wobec wiadomości o wojnie i Zagładzie. Warsaw: Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, 2021. 528 pp. 49,00 PLN (paper), ISBN 978-83-66485-48-8.

Reviewed by Joanna Sliwa (Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference))
Published on H-Poland (July, 2022)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

Among the central questions about the Holocaust are the level and sources of knowledge that Jews had about Nazi anti-Jewish policy and what they did with that information. Maria Ferenc, sociologist and Holocaust scholar, presents a case study of the Warsaw ghetto in her book, “Każdy pyta co z nami będzie”: Mieszkańcy getta warszawskiego wobec wiadomości o wojnie i Zagładzie (“Everyone asks what will become of us”: The inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto in the face of the news about the war and the Holocaust). Ferenc focuses on the process of acquiring, accessing, disseminating, and interpreting information about the persecution and murder of the Jews as the Holocaust was unfolding. This meticulously researched and richly contextualized book has received the 2022 Polityka award in Poland for the best new book in history published in 2021. It is an important study about the Jewish perspective during the Holocaust, about the history of the Warsaw ghetto, and about wartime contacts between Jews and Poles. More broadly, this book is a timely commentary on how news is collected and circulated, how events are understood, what kind of actions are elicited by various sources of information, and what functions information serves in extreme situations.

The book consists of seven chapters, an epilogue, and a conclusion. Chapter 1 explains the theoretical and structural frameworks of the book. The author engages with the following main questions: What did the Jews know? How did they imagine their fate? How did they view their situation? In chapter 2, Ferenc explores how news, especially brought by refugees, was communicated before the creation of the ghetto. Warsaw Jews, who had been isolated already for a year, received the information with disbelief. As the war continued, Jews tried to assess the situation from the war fronts that had been omitted from reporting in German papers. As Ferenc explains in chapter 3, if Poles tended to boycott the German texts, Jews sought to understand how the Germans thought and conveyed their progress in the war. Chapter 4 focuses on how Jews perceived life on the “Aryan” side. Ferenc examines the written and oral information that reached Jews in the ghetto from non-Jewish Polish sources. In chapter 5, Ferenc demonstrates how correspondence with relatives served as a source of information for Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Chapter 6 turns to the question of when the Jews in the ghetto first became aware of the Holocaust and how they reacted to the news. Most often, they interpreted the mass murder actions that the Germans perpetrated in summer 1941 as isolated incidents. Chapter 7 outlines how the events in larger ghettos served as announcements of things to come for the Warsaw Jews. Geographic proximity to the mass murder reflected increasing awareness and understanding of the news by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.

“Każdy pyta co z nami będzie” belongs to a new genre of Holocaust scholarship that draws from an array of fields, such as history, sociology, and psychology, to scrutinize issues that, until now, have been discussed rather superficially. At the heart of this book is an analysis of the Jewish perspective during the Holocaust. Ferenc has illuminated the myriad of communication sources that Jews had access to and sought out in order to gauge the situation and determine their individual and collective position. This, in turn, adds to what is known, that the Jews’ social, and later physical, isolation was incomplete. Ferenc provides a detailed account of the reasons why and the ways this permeability occurred. The Jews in the ghetto looked outward, onto what was happening outside the ghetto, but they also looked inward. For example, aside from rumors on the street, Jews observed the behavior of members of the ghetto elite. Ultimately, access to information was uneven. In fact, as Ferenc explains, the underground press that covered the mass killings of Jews reached at most 20 percent of the ghetto population. Without sufficient tools and influence, Jewish resisters were unable to inform the ghetto population about what awaited them. An interconnected question concerns reactions to such knowledge. Ferenc offers an enlightening commentary, solidly underpinned by theoretical methods, on how Jews in the ghetto interpreted and acted upon acquired information. This is a key exploration in the book that illuminates human behavior in extremis. Emotions play an important role in this inquiry, and Ferenc expertly explains the changes in the mentality of Jews in the ghetto and their various reactions to the evolving situation.

Because this book centers on the Jewish responses to the Holocaust, its primary source material consists of memoirs, diaries, letters, and accounts. This is a great strength of the book. Using such a source base allows Ferenc to trace the messengers and their effect. She also examines when and how the news was disseminated. The voices of the victims at different points during and after the Holocaust inform this study. To a large extent, this book is based on the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute, including the Ringelblum Archive. In this way, Ferenc illuminates how this collection continues to expand our knowledge about the Holocaust. However, among the several archives consulted for this book, one important archive appears to be missing—the Archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which contains many letters, postcards, and reports created between 1939 and 1941.

“Każdy pyta co z nami będzie” is an innovative book that charts daily life in German-occupied Warsaw and in the Warsaw ghetto through information that trickled in through various means. Ferenc illuminates the emotions, reasonings, and patterns of human behavior in time of grave danger. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Ferenc explains, searched for familiar parallels in history to give them strength, hope, and points of reference to try to survive. They faced disparate access to sources of reliable information, and their assessment of the reality was challenged by censure, misinformation, and propaganda. Still, Jews used immense creativity to channel, acquire, and evaluate information. This is one of the most valuable threads in the book because it emphasizes the broad notion of resistance to oppression. By circumventing the official policies and devising a code language that was intelligible to segments of the ghetto population, Jews tried to make sense of the reality and of their future. They shared that knowledge with their loved ones and colleagues, as well as with strangers to inform and warn them. In so doing, they created evidence of the Nazi crimes. Escapees, couriers, resisters, refugees, observers, and participants of events relayed the stages of Nazi anti-Jewish policy outside Warsaw. In this way, the book explores what was happening elsewhere in both urban areas and the provinces. Ferenc shows how this information was received in the Warsaw ghetto by various religious, political, and social groups. Ferenc’s “Każdy pyta co z nami będzie” is a groundbreaking book that is bound to inspire more questions about knowledge about the Holocaust and about the responses to it in other ghettos, geographic regions, and countries. It is an essential text for anyone interested in the Holocaust in Poland and in how news from the “Aryan,” Polish, side of Warsaw reached and affected Jews in the city’s ghetto.

Citation: Joanna Sliwa. Review of Ferenc, Maria, "Każdy pyta, co z nami będzie": Mieszkańcy getta warszawskiego wobec wiadomości o wojnie i Zagładzie. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.