What makes this difference is that her great-grandfather was part of the Bialystok Ghetto Judenrat, and her Grandmother was a censor for Stalin:
I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.She is right, whether there are realistic ways to work with Trump, they need to be viewed through a moral lens, and not whether they provide a temporary or minor respite.
My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.
With the election of Donald Trump—a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government—this question has confronted us as urgently as ever. After I wrote a piece about surviving autocracy, a great many people have asked me about one of my proposed rules: “Do not compromise.” What constitutes compromise? How is it possible to avoid it? Why should one not compromise?
When I wrote about my great-grandfather in a book many years ago, I included the requisite discussion of Hannah Arendt’s opinion on the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which she called “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story” of the Holocaust. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she asserted that without Jewish cooperation Germany would have been unable to round up and kill as many Jews as it did. I quoted equally from the most comprehensive response to Arendt’s characterization of the Judenrat, Isaiah Trunk’s book Judenrat, in which he described the councils as complicated and contradictory organizations, ones that had functioned differently in different ghettos, and ultimately concluded that they had no effect on the final scope of the catastrophe.
When my grandmother—the Judenrat leader’s daughter—read the manuscript of my book, she demanded that I remove the Arendt quote. I told her I could not: as controversial as Arendt’s view was (and continues to be, forty years after her death), one cannot write about the Jewish councils and not acknowledge it. But I sincerely assured my grandmother that I viewed her father, who had been a local politician before the war, as a deeply moral man who did only what he thought was best for his people. My grandmother refused to understand; she and I did not speak for a few years after the book came out.
That was the argument [that the job would get done by someone anyway] my other grandmother used when she became a censor for the Soviet government. Her argument was by no means a moral cop-out. On the contrary, it was a moral choice. She had been trained to be a history teacher, but she decided that she could not engage in the act of active lying, especially to children. She did not want to use her charm, beauty, and kindness to make children think the way Stalin wanted them to think. So she became a censor. Her job was to open personal mail that arrived from abroad, read it, and block it if it contained banned material, such as a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Western natural-science magazines that an émigré kept sending his scientist brother.
In Bialystok ghetto, my great-grandfather’s responsibility in the Judenrat was to ensure that the ghetto was supplied with food. He ran the trucks that brought food in and took garbage out, he ran the canteen and supervised the community gardens that a group of young socialists planted. He also discouraged the young socialists from trying to organize a resistance movement: it would be of no use and would only jeopardize the ghetto’s inhabitants. It took him almost two years to change his mind about the resistance efforts, as he slowly lost hope that the Judenrat, by generally following the rules and keeping the ghetto inhabitants in line, would be able to save at least some of them.
As in other ghettos, the Judenrat was ultimately given the task of compiling the lists of Jews to be “liquidated.” The Bialystok Judenrat accepted the job, and there is every indication that my great-grandfather took part in the process. The arguments in defense of producing the list, in Bialystok and elsewhere, were pragmatic: the killing was going to occur anyway; by cooperating, the Judenrat could try to reduce the number of people the Nazis were planning to kill (in Bialystok, this worked, though in the end the ghetto, like all other ghettos, was “liquidated”); by compiling the lists, the Judenrat could prevent random killing, instead choosing to sacrifice those who were already near death from disease or starvation. These were strong arguments. There is always a strong argument.
We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.
Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.
Now is not the time to talk about the need to come together, it is the time to talk about right and wrong.