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

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.”


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.

Jabotinsky did not live to see the Holocaust or the re-creation of Israel. On August 3, 1940, at age 59, he died suddenly of a heart attack in New York, where he had gone to urge American Jews to support a Jewish Army to help repel the Nazis. Three days later, more than 12,000 people stood outside his funeral services on Second Avenue, with three rabbis, 200 cantors, and 750 invited guests inside (including British, Polish, Czech, and other diplomats). A throng of 25,000 people followed the cortege and lined the 50-car motorcade to the cemetery. Today, his burial place is on Mt. Herzl in Israel.

Back in 1940, Jabotinsky’s assistant was a 30-year old named Benzion Netanyahu, who would become a distinguished historian of the Jews and the father of an Israeli prime minister. Writing in Haaretz on May 1 this year about Benzion’s death last month, Ari Shavit noted that:

[Benzion Netanyahu] never forgave the Zionist leadership for ignoring the warnings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and failing to evacuate Europe’s Jews from the killing fields in time. He never forgot that the United States didn’t heed his warnings about the Holocaust in the 1940s.


Prof. Wasserstein slights Jabotinsky with faint praise, dismissing him with a cursory analysis, denigrating even his appearance. He quotes this recollection of an eight-year old boy who met Jabotinsky in 1938:

Jabotinsky was small; he was dressed in a gray suit with a pale stripe; he seemed calm and self-assured, and more interested in us than I had expected him to be. But what struck me most of all about him was that he had some powder on his face. It was, I suppose, some kind of talcum powder which he had put on after shaving and which he had not bothered to wipe off; but then it seemed quite mysterious to me, and not a little embarrassing.

The quotation comes from a 1961 memoir in COMMENTARY by Dan Jacobson, recalling Jabotinsky’s visit to Jacobson’s boyhood home in Kimberly, South Africa two decades before. Jacobson’s father had often told him that Jabotinsky was a great man who had “talked to kings.” Jacobson had been surprised to discover that Jabotinsky was only 5’ 7” with powder on his face.

Years later, Jacobson and his father visited a museum in Israel, finding a roomful of Jabotinsky relics: manuscripts, photos, his Jewish Legion uniform; and pictures of the Jabotinsky followers who fought for a Jewish state in Palestine after his death. “The wars that Jabotinsky had prophesied for Europe had come about; the wars he had anticipated in Palestine had been fought — and won. The State, for whose realization he had expended his life, was in existence.” Jacobson concluded with this:

As we came out of the museum, it was not just the glaring sunlight and the hooting traffic which dazed and assailed me; it was my own ignorance. I remembered the visit of the great man of my childhood to Kimberley; I remembered my own incomprehension as to what the visit had been about. How much more, how much better, did I comprehend now? I knew at least what I had not known then: that time passes; that men act; that out of their acts a history is made.

From Jacobson’s powerful memoir, the only part Prof. Wasserstein included in his book was the eight-year old’s observation of Jabotinsky’s small size and talcum powder.


Prof. Wasserstein’s image of flies slowly suffocating is a portrait of powerlessness in the face of history. It is a view of history Jabotinsky would have rejected. He traveled the world telling his people they were the sons of ancient kings; that their historical heroes included Samson; that it was not enough for them to be an educated people: they needed to learn how to shoot. He formed a “revisionist” movement espousing neither a return to the ghetto nor reliance on the goodwill of strangers, but rather a return to Zionism’s Herzlian roots and the goal of a Jewish State throughout Palestine, not merely an indistinct homeland.

In 1938, Jabotinsky’s South Africa address was titled “Na’hamu, Na’hamu Ami” (“Be Ye Comforted My People”), a phrase commanding that “just at the moment of the deepest darkness the Jew should never lose his ability to see the light beyond the horizon and to give comfort to himself and to his brethren [from] that adamant faith and conviction which has been the secret of our eternal vitality.” He quoted a poet’s observation that a ship in a gale could go in either direction — it was the set of the sail that determined the direction — and ended with this:

I do not believe in the blackness of the horizon. I see light. I think that the good set of the sail can transform that storm into a wind of salvation and of redemption. … What did the world know about Palestine and the Jews except two things? First, that the Jews had been turned out of Palestine by force; and second, that the Jews have never ceased claiming Palestine back. … And it is not true that there is no plan and no alternative [to the hopeless, squalid depression in Jewish ranks]. The ten-year plan of transforming Palestine into something which will save us … is what we stand for.

Jabotinsky’s youth movement in Poland had about 50,000 members in 1938. Its leader was a 25-year old Jew named Menachem Begin. Ten years later  — on the day Israel was reborn and was attacked by surrounding nations — Begin addressed his “fighting family” in the Irgun. He recalled what had happened over the prior decade:

[D]o you remember how we started? With what we started? You were alone and persecuted, rejected, despised and numbered with the transgressors but you fought on with deep faith and did not retreat; you were tortured but did not surrender; you were cast into prison but you did not yield; you were exiled from your country but your spirit was not crushed. … [As we fight], we shall be accompanied by the spirit of those who revived our Nation, Zev Benjamin Herzl, Max Nordau, Joseph Trumpeldor and the father of resurrected Hebrew heroism, Zev Jabotinsky.

Times passes; men act; out of their acts a history is made. History has long since vindicated Jabotinsky, but Jewish historians have yet to fully and fairly restore him to the historical record.