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Restoring the Record: European Jews on the Eve of the Holocaust

A new book by Professor Bernard Wasserstein glosses over some important facts.

by
Rick Richman

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May 21, 2012 - 12:00 am
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On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

Bernard Wasserstein, Simon & Shuster, 552 pages.

Professor Bernard Wasserstein, a distinguished academic who holds an endowed chair in modern Jewish history at the University of Chicago, has painted an extraordinary portrait of Jewish civilization in Europe on the eve of its destruction. His goal was “to capture the realities of life in Europe in the years leading up to 1939, when the Jews stood, as we now know, at the edge of an abyss”; to “breathe renewed life momentarily into those who were soon to be dry bones”; and to restore forgotten individuals to the historical record, without “special pleading or sentimentality.”

He has produced a book covering virtually every aspect of Jewish pre-war life — politics, religion, society, culture, language — in the four geographical zones that comprised Europe: (1) the Western democracies, in which Jews had been emancipated for several generations; (2) Germany and areas absorbed into the Third Reich, where Jews were being systematically stripped of citizenship, property, and economic rights; (3) Eastern Europe, where anti-Semitism was a significant element in politics and public policy, and (4) the Soviet Union, where Jews had upward social mobility after 1917 until the emergence of Stalin. He makes it clear the Jews faced existential threats in all four areas of Europe.

In the 1920s, European Jews appeared to be flourishing, recognized as citizens in every country in which they lived, the best-educated ethnic group in Europe, shining in all fields of science, theater, and literature, forming the heart of musical life. But in the following decade the “specter of the Jew” haunted Europe:

Simultaneously feared and despised as a Christ-killer, a devil with horns, subversive revolutionary and capitalist exploiter, obdurate upholder of an outmoded religion and devious exponent of cultural modernism, the Jew was widely regarded as an alien presence. Increasingly excluded from normal society and extruded from common human fellowship, the Jew was transmogrified from fellow citizen into bogey, a subhuman, at best an inconvenience, eventually almost everywhere a hunted beast. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, this was true not just in those areas of Europe already directly ruled by the Nazis but over the greater part of the continent.

By the end of the decade, the Jews were in crisis both internally and externally. Internally, they faced a grim demographic future, with declining fertility rates, increasing intermarriage, widespread apostasy, and large-scale emigration. Externally, they found that the liberalism and socialism in which they had placed their hopes had failed them; secularism and assimilation ultimately did not protect them; and the rationalist and universalist principles they thought underlay modern society turned out to be false.

The problem was not limited to Germany; anti-Semitism was prevalent across the continent, and “Christian morality, which in the past had set some limits to the worse excesses of Jew-hatred, showed no capacity (nor, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, much readiness) to restrain racist brutality.” In his final chapter, Prof. Wasserstein notes that by the end of the decade, talk of a “return to the ghetto” was common in Jewish discourse (reflected in Jacob Glatshteyn’s bitter Yiddish poem: “Good night, wide world/Big, stinking world/At my own command/I return to the ghetto”); liberals and leftists urged Jews not to succumb to a “deathly egocentrism” and to retain their faith in the brotherhood of men. Neither strategy succeeded.

Prof. Wasserstein writes that, by the end, the European Jews reflected “the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating.” With the Germans invading Poland and the British closing off immigration to Palestine, he ends with this sentence: “Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians.”

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The metaphor of ineffectual flies suggests that nothing could have been done. It has echoes from the story of the scouts that Moses sent to view Canaan, who reported the Canaanites were giants and “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” The scouts are traditionally condemned for viewing themselves as weak and ineffectual, demoralizing their people, and requiring Moses to argue with God for another chance. Prof. Wasserstein’s metaphor is particularly unfortunate because he has omitted from his book the prophetic 1938 Warsaw Tisha b’Av address by Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky — the scout who saw the abyss most clearly and proposed the boldest response.

Not only was Poland the heart of European Jewry, with the largest Jewish population of any country (and Warsaw the city with the largest Jewish population in Europe); it was the center of Jabotinsky’s Zionist movement, which by the late 1930s had nearly 100,000 young Jews in its training camps worldwide. In his address, Jabotinsky set forth both an alarm and a vision:

For three years I have been imploring you, Jews of Poland, the crown of world Jewry, appealing to you, warning you unceasingly that the catastrophe is nigh. My hair has turned white and I have grown old over these years, for my heart is bleeding that you, dear brothers and sisters, do not see the volcano which will soon begin to spew forth its fires of destruction. I see a horrible vision. Time is growing short for you to be spared. I know you cannot see it, for you are troubled and confused by everyday concerns. … Listen to my words at this, the twelfth hour. For God’s sake: let everyone save himself, so long as there is time to do so, for time is running short.

And this was his vision:

And I want to say something else to you on this day, the Ninth of Av: Those who will succeed in escaping the catastrophe will live to experience a festive moment of great Jewish joy: the rebirth and establishment of the Jewish state! I do not know whether I myself will live to see it – but my son will! I am certain of this, just as I am certain that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Mainstream Jewish leadership savaged Jabotinsky for what they called his “evacuationism.” In 1936, he had published an evacuation plan, similar to the one Max Nordau had proposed in 1920, to move to Palestine a large part of the Jewish populations of Poland, Hungary, and Romania (which together had nearly half the Jews of Europe) over a ten-year period. Jabotinsky secured support from the three governments, but Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the World Zionist Organization, opposed the plan, and the British vetoed it.

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