The ghettos established by the Nazis in German-occupied Eastern Europe during the Second World War have mainly been seen as lawless spaces marked by brutality, tyranny, and the systematic murder of the Jewish population. Drawing on examples from the Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna ghettos, Dance on the Razor's Edge: Crime and Punishment in the Nazi Ghettos (University of Toronto Press, 2021) explores how under these circumstances highly improvised legal spheres emerged in these coerced and heterogeneous ghetto communities.
Looking at sources from multiple archives and countries, this book investigates how the Jewish Councils, set up on German orders, formulated new definitions of criminal offenses and established legal institutions on their own initiative as a desperate attempt to ensure the survival of the ghetto communities. Bethke explores how people under these circumstances tried to make sense of everyday lives that had been turned upside down, taking with them pre-war notions of justice and morality, and considers the extent to which this rupture led to new judgments on human behaviour. In doing so, this book aims to understand how people attempted to use their very limited scope for action in order to survive. Set against the background of a Holocaust historiography that often still seeks for clear categories of "good" and "bad" behaviour, Dance on the Razor's Edge calls for a new understanding of the ghettos as complex communities in an unprecedented emergency situation.
Svenja Bethke is Lecturer in Modern European History and Deputy Director at the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester, UK.
Steven Seegel is Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.