Executive Director and CEO of YIVO Jonathan Brent exposes the lie that Jews went “like sheep to the slaughter” during the Holocaust
Jonathan Brent, an academic and historian who serves as the Executive Director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, appeared on the most recent episode of Podcast Against Antisemitism where he explained what YIVO’s archive can teach about Eastern European Jewry’s response to the rise in antisemitism.
YIVO is a cultural organisation and place of higher learning with a world-renowned library and archive of 24 million documents whose mission is to preserve, study, share, and perpetuate knowledge of the history and culture of Eastern European Jewry worldwide.
Mr Brent stated how YIVO’s archive served as evidence of the various means of resistance from Jewish communities during the Holocaust, refuting the lie that Jews went to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter”.
Mr Brent said of Jewish people persecuted in the Holocaust: “You have to remember, they had no army. They had no police. They had no means, they didn’t have guns. What did they have? They had the resilience.”
The YIVO CEO spoke passionately of the “inner resilience” and “cultural resistance” that can be seen throughout the archives.
He said: “The Jewish people of Eastern Europe responded largely through trying to organise their societies, to cope with these outbreaks of antisemitism…we have photographs of these Jewish defence committees throughout the Pale of Settlement. But what could they do when there were thousands, tens of thousands, of angry Ukrainians or Lithuanians or Romanians, let alone the Nazis, that came?
“So what did they do? Many became partisans and one of the fantastic things that has come out of the materials that we have is the diary of Yitskhok Rudashevski, a young boy – again, thirteen years old – who wrote his diary in the Vilna Ghetto, and he talks about how what they are doing in the Vilna Ghetto in retaining their traditions, in singing songs, in having literary events, in putting on music, in reading poetry, in writing poetry, how this is defying the Nazis. This is their act of defiance.”
Mr Brent noted that “yes, it is a tragic story but within this tragic story, there is so much to be proud of. So much to think about in terms of how, as a small people, one deals with these forces that are growing in the 1920s.”
Outlining the multitude of threats that the Jewish world faced, he added: “There was Bolshevism to the East, and Nazism to the West, and America would not let Jews in. And what could you do? You were stuck. The world would not let Jews in.
“They resisted, in the ways that they could, and thank God that they did, because that resistance gave them dignity, and that is the thread that connects us to them. That dignity. That pride, that they had in being who they are.”
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Podcast Against Antisemitism, produced by Campaign Against Antisemitism, talks to a different guest about antisemitism each week. It streams every Thursday and is available through all major podcast apps and YouTube. You can also subscribe to have new episodes sent straight to your inbox.
Previous guests have included comedian David Baddiel, television personality Robert Rinder, writer Eve Barlow, Grammy-Award-winning singer-songwriter Autumn Rowe, and actor Eddie Marsan.