Oct 2012 Journal

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European Jewry on the eve of destruction

The distinguished historian Bernard Wasserstein, son of a Jewish professor of classics who fled from Germany to Britain and himself now a professor at the University of Chicago, made his name with his early study Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945, followed by a steady stream of publications on Jewish subjects and the Middle East. His latest book, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War (London: Profile Books, 2012), is a sweeping and often magisterial historical overview of the Jews of Europe between the First and Second World Wars, ranging across the entire continent, from France to Poland, Lithuania and the Soviet Union, from Holland to Slovakia, Romania and Greece.

Historians of the Jews of Europe in the twentieth century have understandably concentrated on the Holocaust and its origins, on the wartime period 1939-45, or on German policy between 1933 and 1945, treating the preceding years as a mere curtain-raiser. But that, as Wasserstein ably shows, is to ignore the period when the culture (or, given the diversity of the Jewish national communities, cultures) of the Jews of Europe had reached a high point. To focus on the Jews under Nazism also presses them into the role of passive victims, overlooking the earlier period when they were active agents, able to take independent initiatives and to seek to determine outcomes, even if by 1939 those initiatives had largely come to nought.

Wasserstein’s substantial study, weighing in at 552 pages, is packed with information about any number of important aspects of Europe’s Jewish communities in the interwar years. It ranges with sovereign ease from Slovakian Hasidic rabbis to diamond workers in Amsterdam, from the rarefied scholarship of the Frankfurt School to Yiddish popular theatre in Poland, from Communist publications in Paris (in the Marais district, known by Jews from the East as the Pletzl) to the works of Franz Kafka. It encompasses the stevedores of Salonica, the textile and garment workers of Warsaw, the scientists and managerial apparatchiks of Moscow and Minsk, the traders and shnorrers of the eastern shtetlakh (there is a memorable chapter entitled ‘Luftmenshn’), the yeshiva bochers of Vilna, and the cultured middle-class Jews of Berlin and Vienna.

All this is backed up by a wealth of ‘hard’ statistical information about occupations, incomes, mortality rates, intermarriage and emigration, by a sensitive and sophisticated approach to literary and other texts, and by an analytical intelligence that illuminates the many and varied features of Jewish life, especially in the collective sphere of its communal institutions. For Wasserstein is essentially a bottom-up historian, gathering a mass of detailed information and distilling from it a compelling picture of his subject, bringing European Jewry vividly to life while at the same time supplying an acute analysis of its development and its reactions to the conditions it encountered.

Eschewing complex conceptual or methodological models, Wasserstein does not proceed from any preconceived theoretical viewpoint, though the main outlines of his argument are readily discernible. He sees the ten million Jews of Europe changing from a vibrant, confident people that in 1919 was gaining rights unprecedented in its historical experience to one that was in 1939 ‘close to terminal collapse’. That was, he argues, neither due only to the rise of Nazism and other anti-Semitic regimes that threatened the very existence of the Jews of Europe, nor to the tightening economic vice that was squeezing the life from the material foundations of their communities.
Wasserstein sees those communities as threatened also by demographic developments, by emigration (from the eastern European heartlands to the USA), by intermarriage and conversion, by the disruption of traditional communities and practices, and by the very success of assimilation, which led Jews onto a one-way path to integration, so that, in face of continuing hostility, ‘they embarked on a road toward collective oblivion that appeared to be the price of individual survival’. ‘Appeared’ is the operative word here, for by 1939 even the hope of survival was fading for communities left friendless and defenceless and at the mercy of those bent on their elimination. Even in the Soviet Union, where Jews enjoyed real equality at least in the early years, the process of ‘sovietisation’ meant that they were ‘advancing towards disappearance’ as they adapted to the Soviet model of society.

Wasserstein allocates the Jewries of Europe to four zones: the Western democracies, where they had full civic and political rights; east-central Europe, where they suffered discrimination; the special case of the Soviet Union, where religion had officially been abolished; and the Third Reich, which wished to eradicate the Jewish presence entirely. This last case allows Wasserstein to dwell poignantly on ‘the toppling of German Jewry from its pedestal as the most proud, wealthy, creative and forward-looking Jewish community in Europe’. German-speaking Jewry bulks large in his tribute to the extraordinary contribution that Jews made to the culture of interwar Europe, especially its avant-garde, to the role of education in the mass rise of Jews from the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie into the professional and entrepreneurial classes, and to the hunger for ‘Bildung’ that led to the remarkable overrepresentation of Jews in universities in Berlin or Budapest, Warsaw or Bucharest.

Wasserstein emphasises how greatly the ‘social pyramid’ of the Jewish communities diverged from those of the gentile populations around them. Few Jews were employed in agriculture, mining, domestic service or the public sector, the largest categories of labour almost everywhere. Instead, they were heavily engaged in commerce, often as small traders and shopkeepers, in garment manufacturing or the grain trade. They also preferred self-employment, frequently as artisans working from home. And they moved rapidly into the professions, especially in the great capital cities, almost all of which saw a significant immigration of ‘metropolitanized’ Jews from impoverished rural areas like the former Pale of Settlement.

Remarkably, these patterns were observable even in the Soviet Union, where private commerce was effectively eliminated. Jews were eager to integrate into Soviet society; however, they did so not as industrial workers in factories, mines or steelworks, but in white-collar positions in senior management, in the bureaucracy, the universities, the media, in the judicial system, hospitals and laboratories. It was for this reason that Jews were hit hard by Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s, which were not yet openly anti-Semitic; the purges impacted on bureaucrats and intellectuals more severely than on manual workers.

Wasserstein accurately identifies ‘the Christian problem’, the prejudice and discrimination against Jews in supposedly Christian societies, as the source of many of the troubles affecting the Jews of Europe. Yet he does not shy away from the divisions and hatreds endemic within Jewish communities. With the steep decline of Orthodoxy and of traditional Jewish education, Wasserstein sees Judaism in retreat even in Poland, its foremost European stronghold. As the Jewish languages, Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino, declined, European Jewry was poised in the interwar period between ‘sustaining its own culture and embracing that of others’. Language, Wasserstein argues persuasively, was the matrix from which Jewish culture grew. As Jews abandoned their languages for those of the societies around them, so the vitality of their culture diminished and their autonomous communal life threatened to wither on the vine.

Anthony Grenville

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