'Isaac's Army': The Polish Jews Who Outsmarted the Nazis

A history within a history of those who were resourceful -- and lucky -- enough to escape.

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Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi Occupied Poland is a justifiably well-received new book by Matthew Brzezinski (author of three previous books, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and nephew of Zbigniew Brzezinski). Beginning in 2007, Brzezinski spent three years in Poland with his wife, who is Jewish and a partner in an international private equity firm. As he and the family settled into their "rented marble McMansion in a ritzy Warsaw suburb," Brzezinski kept asking himself how he would have responded to the Nazi tyranny that began with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

"For purely selfish reasons," he writes, "I wanted to seek out and meet the extraordinary individuals who had defied Hitler and try to discover what made them tick." While they did not realize it at the outset, the three million Jews in Poland at the time of the onslaught -- including my father, Joseph, my mother, Martha, and brother Robert -- would face death unless they chose one of three options: fight, flee, or hide. Ultimately, historians have concluded, 90 percent of the Jews were annihilated in concentration camps or killed wherever they were found, most notoriously in the Warsaw ghetto. Brzezinski's focus is on those Jews who resisted (usually until they were killed) or survived.

His main characters are Isaac Zuckerman, the 24-year-old co-founder of the Jewish Fighting Organization; Simha Ratheiser, a teenager who became Zuckerman's bodyguard and lead courier; and Zivia Lubetkin, the highest ranking woman in the Jewish Fighting Organization (and later Zuckerman's wife). Against immense odds, they all eventually made it to Israel. Their stories of resistance gathered in meticulous detail give Isaac's Army texture and context that is especially compelling as the last of the Holocaust generation passes away. Brzezinski's book has been called "as moving and powerful as any novel" (Kirkus Reviews), "taut and worthy' (Publishers Weekly) and "admirable" (Wall Street Journal).

But for me, Isaac's Army is much more than a fine book. Only when it was published did I learn (from my brother, who had been interviewed for the book) that one of its narrative lines describes how my father, mother, and brother, with remarkable wiles and guiles, managed to flee Poland after the swift Nazi takeover. Eventually, crossing from Romania, through Turkey and Iraq, they made it to Bombay, India, where I was born in 1943. They immigrated to the United States in early 1944, crossing the very dangerous Pacific on a troop ship with wounded GIs, Italian POWs, and 120 civilians. Nearly all of their amazing story -- my parents were in their late thirties and my brother still a child -- unfolded before I existed, and to read it within the broader canvas of the epic Polish-Jewish tragedy of the war gives it an impact that is exceptionally strong. Brzezinski also includes my mother's cousins, the Mortkowicz family, three generations of what he calls "Poland's greatest publishing dynasty." These three women were often hidden among Gentiles and nuns, and stayed in Poland through the Soviet era. Joanna Olczak-Mortkowicz wrote a superb book of her own, In the Garden of Memory, which received Poland's top literary prize in the 1990s (and was published in Britain by Weidenfeld and Nicholson).

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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