Of Heroes and Villains: Breaking Open the Grey Zone of Human Action

By Michaela Soyer

After more than 70 years, the Warsaw ghetto uprising remains an almost mythical example of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. After the war, some of the survivors immigrated to Israel and created the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz. In 1949, the year the kibbutz was founded, these men and women represented a narrative of survival against all odds welcomed by the new Zionist state. A quarter of a century later the construction of heroic survival loomed large over the beginnings of Holocaust remembrance. In 1976, Yad Vashem revealed Nathan Rapoport’s memorial commemorating the uprising. The sculpture portrays the Warsaw ghetto fighters as super-humans. In Rapoport’s depiction, they resemble Greek gods rising from the ashes of the Warsaw ghetto.

The Jewish Councils, put in place by the Nazis to guarantee smooth execution of their orders, have often been depicted as the counterpart to the selfless and heroic Jewish resistance movement.  Their actions stand for cowardice, collaboration, and failure of leadership.  If we believe Hannah Arendt’s controversial assessment in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Jewish leaders tried to save themselves and their families as they were getting the Jewish population ready to enter the trains to the death camps in Eastern Europe.

Needless to say, this distinction between heroes and villains does not reflect the complexity of human action surfacing in extremely totalitarian social situations. In the early 1980s, Primo Levi coined the term “grey zone” to describe the spectrum of human behavior he observed among the Jewish population imprisoned in camps and ghettos. According to Levi, surviving the Holocaust often meant playing by the rules the Nazis had imposed. As Levi writes: “The Lager reproduced the macrocosm of totalitarian society: in both without regard to ability and merit, power was generously granted to those willing to pay homage to hierarchic authority…. Finally power was sought by the many among the oppressed who had been contaminated by the oppressors and unconsciously strove to identify with them” (Levi 1989: 48). Unfortunately, Levi’s complex depiction of survival did not resonate well with a discourse about Holocaust that during the 1980s continued to focus on a clear separation between victims and perpetrators.

As the Holocaust recedes further into history, it becomes possible to lead a more nuanced debate about the emergence of resistance versus collaboration. Claude Lanzmann’s new movie, “The Last of the Unjust” about Benjamin Murmelstein, head of the Jewish Council of the ghetto Theresienstadt, for examples, takes on the issues of survival, collaboration, and resistance from Murmelstein’s perspective. As Mark Lilla writes in the New York Review of Books, Lanzmann’s movie forces us to understand Murmelstein’s collaboration from within the ambiguous, highly oppressive, and illogical structures of Nazi domination.

Interestingly, only very few social movement scholars[i] have so far taken on the Holocaust as a case study of collective action or the lack thereof. The small number of social movement studies addressing the Holocaust is indeed astonishing, given the extraordinary variety of historical sources that have been accumulated around the Shoah. In particular, the newly collected first-hand testimonies that can be accessed through Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation offer a novel source that has been underutilized by sociologists. These testimonies are not necessarily historically accurate, but allow us to understand friendships, loyalties, cross-pressures, as well the simple desire to survive, that are not as easily accessible in secondary data or more polished memoirs. In other words, the narratives offer a unique opportunity to uncover the individual and emotional aspects that may lead human beings to resist extreme oppression. The oral histories may also help us to better understand why a majority may refrain from joining a resistance movement when oppression has reached extreme levels.

In my article “Surviving Extreme Oppression,” I made use of such survivor testimonies, in addition to interviewing a small group of Holocaust survivors myself. In this comparative analysis of three smaller Polish ghettos—only one of which experienced a collective uprising against the Nazis—I describe the microsocial mechanisms that can generate or prevent collective action under extreme oppression.  I was able to identify that strong emotional connections to friends and families were indispensable for the survivors to manage daily life in the ghettos. Building on Einwohner’s and Maher’s typology of the role of threat during the mobilization process, joining collective action only became an option when immediate danger threatened the microscial unit and joining an uprising seemed to be the most likely way to secure survival. The decision to join an uprising is thus not only induced by threat but also mediated through strong emotional connections to others.

Understanding resistance and collective action not only as an isolated heroic act, but as one of several options that can secure survival in a life-threatening social environment is, in my opinion, a first tentative attempt to find a sociological language for what Levi so eloquently described as the “grey zone” of human action. Investigating behavioral choices in extremely oppressive social situations from within, rather than solely from a structural perspective, therefore allows us to more effectively theorize how collective action arises in unlikely situations.  Taking into account a whole spectrum of human action, largely driven by emotional connections to others, can help us to broaden our view of the kind of mobilization that is possible in a social environment that has completely devalued human life.


[i] Rachel Einwohner and Thomas Maher are notable exceptions.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

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