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A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism

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A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism

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A Community Under Siege
The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism

By Abraham Ascher
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Stanford University Press, Stanford: 2007
ISBN 10: 0-8047-5518-3
ISBN 13: 978-0-8047-5518-4

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 18, 2009

The history of Jews in Germany under the Nazis is complex and wrought with unimaginable horrors. Abraham Ascher, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus, at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, studies this important aspect of the Holocaust in his compelling book A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism. Studying the history of Breslau as a microcosm for the totality of Jews in Germany under Nazism, Ascher has crafted an authoritative and eminently readable book that chronicles the fate of German Jews during this period.

With precision, chicanery, and intimidation, the Nazis systematically 'liquidated' the Jews of Breslau. In this work, Ascher not only details how this liquidation was carried out, but also how it impacted the greater Jewish community, as well as individual Jews. Most telling, he also examines how various Jews reacted to the ongoing liquidation, how much they really understood about what was going on, and how unreliable the information they were receiving really was. It is easy in hindsight to declare, 'how could they not know what was happening'. However, when looking at what was known, by when and by whom, you begin to get a better feel and understanding for what was happening at that exact period in time, and why, in hindsight, the actions and reactions of the Jewish community in Germany seem so incongruous.

In writing this book, Ascher consulted not only traditional archival sources, both published and unpublished, as well as the wealth of letters, diaries, newspaper reports, and other first hand accounts that exist from this period, but he also interviewed many of the Jews from Breslau that survived the Holocaust. There were not many! He also drew from his own experiences and those of his family, who came from Breslau. The information garnered from these interviews has been seamlessly interwoven into the historic narrative, presenting first-hand accounts of the liquidation of Breslau, and the fate of those that were forcibly removed from the city.

A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism is an important work on many fronts. It is the first, comprehensive study of a single Jewish community in Nazi Germany. Significantly, Breslau was the third largest Jewish community in Germany, before the War, with a Jewish population of more than 20,000. To the very end, the Jews of Breslau declared that they were German yet they never let go of their Jewish identity. As well, in addition to simply detailing how this once vibrant community was destroyed, Ascher also details the efforts that the community took to preserve its identity and social structures - including the continuation of religious observances even under the most horrific of circumstances. As such, this book helps to answer the questions, "Why didn't more Jews flee from Germany" and more important, "Was there anything the Jews of Breslau, or of Europe as a whole, could have realistically done to prevent the Holocaust that befell them?"

Breslau is no more. It is now part of Poland, and its name has been changed to Wroclaw. While there are still a handful of Jews in the town, the large vibrant community that existed in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, has vanished.

A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism should be read by all students of the Holocaust, as well as by anyone who truly wants to understand what it was like for German Jews living under Nazi domination. It is well suited for use as a supplemental text in University level courses on the Holocaust, World War II, Nazi Germany, and Jewish history. Ascher's up-to-date bibliography and detailed endnotes will also prove useful to anyone desirous of investigating in more detail, this tragic period in Jewish history.

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