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Book Review: Smoke in the Sand
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Book Review

The Shoah in Microcosm:

What happened to Lvov's Jews
,  June 2, 2005

Smoke in the Sand by Eliah Yones; Gefen Publishing House; 390 pages; $29.95.

Reviewed by Norman Manson

There have been numerous Holocaust histories, memoirs and other detailed studies of that catastrophic era, but relatively few case studies of particular Jewish communities - how they were attacked and how they reacted in the face of the overwhelming danger they were faced with. Thus, this study,  subtitled the "Jews of Lvov in the War Years, 1939-1944," is a valuable addition to the voluminous list of works about that era.
While much of what transpired in Lvov - a fairly large city in eastern Galicia that at various times was part of Poland, Austria-Hungary and Ukraine - probably is typical of the horrific happenings throughout nazi-occupied Europe, it would appear that some of the persecutions and other events differ from what took place in most other communities.
There appear to be some historical reasons for this difference. Firstly, Lvov and the surrounding area was a longtime battleground between Poles and Ukrainians, with the Jews literally caught in the middle and persecuted to varying degrees by both factions. Secondly, Lvov was in that part of Poland that came under Soviet control under secret terms of the infamous nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, which immediately precipitated World War II. While the almost two years that the area was under Soviet control were not a happy time for the Jews, they were sheer bliss compared with the years that followed, after the Wehrmacht swept through eastern Poland in its 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
Eliah Yones lived through the Holocaust in Lvov - he managed to escape to the nearby forests and joined the Partisans in fighting the Germans - and then immigrated to Israel. The book is based both on his personal experiences and his research for a Ph. D., which he earned at Hebrew University at the age of 79.
The generally held viewpoint about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe is that Jews were first herded into tightly controlled ghettos, where they led highly constricted lives, and at a certain point (usually in 1942 or early 1943) they were led onto freight trains headed for Auschwitz, Treblinka or the other death camps. The story in Lvov is quite different. Here, starting with the nazi takeover in the summer of 1941, they were subjected to a series of  Aktionen, during which significant numbers would be murdered. As time went on, these became virtually continuous,
shrinking the size of the ghetto considerably. While some Jews were sent to the death camp at Belzc, it appears that large numbers were slain in and around Lvov, many in a slave-labor camp called Janowska on the city's outskirts.
Also there was a dispute in nazi ranks between civilians, mostly businessmen, who wanted to "save" at least the able-bodied Jews for use as slave labor, and the Gestapo and SS, who were determined to conduct the final solution - the latter group of course won out.
Yones writes in considerable detail about the Judenrat (Jewish council) and its multiple departments, a massive bureaucracy employing 5,000 people at its peak. Gradually, it was transformed into a tool to implement the Germans' anti-Jewish schemes and for the Jews to perform the Germans' dirty work. He is most critical, however, of the Jewish police, who collaborated  with the nazis to the extent that survivors have severely condemned them. One of them wrote that they "left an ineradicable stain on the history of the ghetto in Lvov."
No punches are pulled in this account, so that Yones leaves us with a decidedly mixed picture of Lvov Jewry's actions under the extreme pressure of a ruthless enemy. A few terms are not properly explained, and some are left unexplained until later chapters, leaving the reader somewhat puzzled. But overall, this is a very well researched, carefully documented study of a community in a time of unbearable stress and strain.