Review of 'Born Jewish', Marcel Liebman, Verso £14.99
Marcel Liebman was a Belgian Jewish socialist historian. He lived part of his childhood in the shadow of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Born Jewish is a memoir of his family's day to day battle to survive. It is a moving and inspiring account that testifies to the courage and resilience of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. In a trenchant introduction, Jaqueline Rose identifies the book's crucial themes.
Soon after the German invasion of May 1940, Jews were required to register with the authorities, while shopkeepers had to indicate their Jewishness with a sign. Undoubtedly, the most shameful aspect of the persecution was the collaboration of the Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB), run by a clique of wealthy Jews - some of the fortunate 5 percent with Belgian nationality who despised immigrant Jews of Eastern Europe. They drew up this register on behalf of the Nazis and encouraged Jews to undertake 'voluntary' deportation.
Liebman's family became impoverished and, at first, it required his father's ingenuity and elaborate network of friends in high places to keep from starving.
But their problems greatly intensified in the summer of 1942, when the Jews' persecution began in earnest. Deportations were no longer 'voluntary' but forced, and again the collaboration of the AJB greatly facilitated the Nazi enterprise. This theme of the Jewish community being riven by class, with the affluent and high status Jews able to buy themselves out of the worst persecution, runs right through the memoir. Ironically, as Jacqueline Rose reminds us, for Liebman understanding Nazism led him inexorably to look at capitalism.
From 1942 until its liberation by the US army in 1944, the Liebman family lived in hiding, never sure whether a knock on the door signalled the arrival of a friend or of the Gestapo. Secretly visiting his girlfriend, Liebman's elder brother Henri was arrested and deported to Auschwitz.
During the last year of the occupation, the remaining three boys were looked after by the Catholic-sponsored Christian Workers' Youth group. Responsible for this was the Jews' Defence Committee, a Belgian resistance organisation founded by Emile Hambresin, a left wing Catholic journalist, and Gert Jospa, a Communist militant and member of the Independence Front, the main resistance movement. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, 'Resistance is the key to this memoir.' The main resistance was provided by the far left Zionists, the Bund socialists and the Communists.
Liebman's book surely ranks alongside the great narratives of the Jewish struggle for survival under Nazi occupation. To his credit, he refuses to draw nationalist conclusions from the Holocaust. For the majority of Jews, Stalinism and Auschwitz destroyed the hopes of a socialist solution to anti-Semitism. A minority, whom Liebman joined, rejected Zionism as a form of colonialism, keeping faith with an older notion of Jewishness, one that Isaac Deutscher described as that of 'the non-Jewish Jew', the tradition of the Jew as outsider. For Liebman it is a refusal to see Jewishness as 'affirming an identity that goes beyond any other consideration. One is not a Jew above every kind of social standing... Jewishness is not a self enclosed, timeless and immutable essence, but a presence on the margins of society, implying an openness to the exploited and oppressed of the world... My own way is that of... a socialist who has adopted a stance of refusal towards capitalism.'