Leesfragment: On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

16 april 2012 , door Bernard Wasserstein
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25 april gaat Denise Citroen bij Spui25 in gesprek met Bernard Wasserstein over diens nieuwe boek On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War. Ter gelegenheid daarvan mogen wij de inleiding online zetten.

De Brits/Amerikaanse historicus Bernard Wasserstein presenteert in Spui25 zijn nieuwe monumentale boek On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War (Profile, 2012). Na verscheidene studies over de naoorlogse Joods-Europese geschiedenis en een monumentale geschiedenis van Europa in onze tijd (Barbarism and Civilization, Oxford UP, 2007), schildert Bernard Wasserstein, hoogleraar Moderne Europees-Joodse Geschiedenis aan de University of Chicago, nu een wijds maar gedetailleerd panorama van het Joodse leven in Europa zoals dat er uitzag aan de vooravond van de holocaust. Van Nederland tot Istanbul, van Spanje tot Thessaloniki, van seculiere tot orthodoxe gemeenschappen, en van sjacheraars tot bankiers, de verscheidenheid van het Joods-Europese leven komt in het werk in alle schakeringen en variëteit aan bod.

N.B. De Nederlandse vertaling verschijnt in november 2012 bij uitgeverij Nieuw Amsterdam.



A specter haunted Europe in the 1930s—the specter of the Jew. 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.
In the 1920s the European Jews had presented the appearance of a vibrant, dynamic, and flourishing people. For the first time in their history they were recognized as citizens in every country in which they lived. Especially western Europe and the Soviet Union, an ambitious, meritocratic middle class was rapidly climbing the social ladder. The best-educated ethnic group in Europe, Jews shone in all fields of science, dazzled in the theater and literature, and constituted the beating heart of musical life. But this book does not rehearse what are often called the “contributions” of Jews to European culture and society in this period. That is a familiar story.
Within the short space of two decades a dramatic change transformed the Jewish position. By 1939, two years before the Nazi decision to commit genocide, European Jewry was close to terminal collapse. In much of the continent Jews had been deprived of civil rights and were in the process of being turned into outcasts. The demographic outlook was bleak, heading in a downward spiral toward what some contemporaries forecast would be “race suicide.” The great mass of Jews in east-central Europe were sunk in dire poverty—and sinking further into total immiseration. A nation of shopkeepers, the Jews found themselves superfluous men, both in a Soviet Union that had abolished the marketplace and in militantly nationalistic states that complained of Jewish dominance of it. The USSR at least allowed the Jew to change from Homo economicus to the new Stalinist model worker; Germany, Poland, and Romania regarded the Jews as unregenerate and demanded that they leave.
A large part of the explanation was anti-Semitism. The roots of the antipathy toward Jews have been endlessly explored. No discussion of the Jews in this period is feasible without reference to this antagonism, deeply entrenched in the consciousness of European civilization. But that is not the primary focus of this book, which is squarely on the Jews themselves, not their persecutors.
Nor is anti-Semitism by itself a satisfactory explanation of the Jews’ predicament. In large measure the Jews were victims of their own success. Whether in the USSR, Poland, Germany, or France, Jews sincerely protested their loyalty to states of which they were citizens. Yet the more they took advantage of their newfound legal equality and embraced the national life of their countries of residence, the more they evoked a jealous, exclusionist hostility. Many responded by trying even harder to throw off their distinctive traits, hoping to blend in so as to be unnoticed. Confronted by violent enmity, they embarked on a road toward collective oblivion that appeared to be the price of individual survival.
As a result, Jewish culture was in retreat. Religious practice was decreasing and the orthodox, in particular, felt embattled and threatened. Secular alternatives that sought to replace religion as the core of Jewish identity found themselves increasingly overwhelmed by apparently invincible forces of acculturation to the non-Jewish world. The cultural glue that had long bound Jews together was losing its cohesive power. A telling index of this process was the fading away of Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Judeo-Espagnol, the tongues, respectively, if the Jews of north eastern and south eastern Europe.
Yet in a continent that in the 1930s was overwhelmed by economic depression and racist resentment, the Jews found that assimilation and acculturation, rather than easing their path to acceptance, aroused still more hatred against them. This book therefore examines the position of a people confronted with an impossible dilemma.
Who was the European Jew in the 1930s? Or rather, since the notion of a single national, ethnic, or religious type, so commonly held in that period, is now indefensible, who were the European Jews, in the plural? Were they atomized individuals or did they, or some among them, share ideals, outlooks, assumptions, memories, expectations, fears—in short, can we identify collective Jewish mentalities? What values did they hold in common? Was theirs a distinctive culture or set of subcultures? Can we locate Jewish milieux, whether as geographical sites, as social clusters, or as dwelling places of the imagination? What meaning should we attach to such terms as Jewish literature, music, or art? How cohesive were Jewish communities? How effective were Jews in building social capital— the networks of connectedness in the form of institutions (political parties, representative organizations, charitable bodies, hospitals, schools, newspapers, and so on) that might shape their lives? Was the Jew merely a passive object, acted upon by a hostile, circumambient society, or could the individual, whether alone or in concert with others, try to attain at least some degree of control over the threatening vagaries of fate?
My answer to the last question, at least, may be stated at the outset in the affirmative, even if the results were often tragically out of proportion to the efforts invested. The European Jews in the 1930s were actors in their own history, though they have too often been depicted otherwise. They struggled by every available means to confront what was already perceptible to many as a challenge to their very survival.
They faced a common threat but they were far from a unified monolith. Economically they ranged from a tiny elite of gilded plutocrats to a horde of impoverished pedlars, hawkers, and beggars. A large minority, mainly in east-central Europe, remained strictly orthodox; others, particularly in western Europe and the Soviet Union, were thoroughly securalized; a broad, middling majority of the semitraditional were comfortably selective in their degree of religious practice. Politically the Jews were deeply divided but none of the ideologies in which they reposed confidence, whether liberalism, socialism, or Zionism, offered any immediate solution to their predicament. As for utopian schemes for settlement in exotic locations around the world, these too failed to alleviate their deepening plight.
By 1939 more and more Jews in Europe were being reduced to wandering refugees. They were being ground down into a camp people, without the right to a home anywhere and consequently with rights almost nowhere. Growing numbers were confined in concentration or internment camps—not just in Germany but all over the continent, even in democracies such as France and the Netherlands. Indeed, in the summer of 1939, more Jews were being held in camps outside the Third Reich than within it.
From there to mass murder was not an inevitable step. I have tried, as far as possible or reasonable, to avoid the wisdom of hindsight and to bear in mind that the nature and scale of the impending genocide was unforeseeable to those I am writing about—though, as we shall see, there were surprisingly frequent and anguished intimations of doom.
While the word Europe appears in the title and although the book is in some ways a forerunner to my history of postwar European Jewry, Vanishing Diaspora (1996), the spotlight here is on those parts of the continent that were occupied by the Nazis or their allies between 1939 and 1945. Countries such as Britain and Turkey consequently lie outside my purview.
As in Vanishing Diaspora, the Jew is defined inclusively as that person who considered him- or herself or was considered by others as a Jew. In this period, when racial, religious, and secular conceptions of Jewishness battled in the ideological arena and within the souls of individuals, such a broad framework of consideration is essential for understanding what was known at the time, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as the “Jewish question.” Indeed, it is precisely in the frontier area of the “non-Jewish Jew” that we may glean valuable insights into the aspirations, the achievements, and the agony of the European Jews.
My account ends with the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in September 1939. But the reader will very likely have a natural human desire to know what later became of many of the individuals who appear here. The epilogue therefore gives brief details, so far as these have been possible to establish, of their subsequent destinies.
There exists a huge literature on the genocide of the Jews under Nazi rule. We know in precise detail almost every stage of the process by which the Nazis annihilated the Jews in every country of occupied Europe. By contrast, much less attention has been paid to the worlds that were destroyed: the private worlds of individuals and families and the public ones of communities and institutions. What has been written about all this has too often been distorted by special pleading or sentimentality.
This book, therefore, seeks 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. It discusses their hopes and beliefs, anxieties and ambitions, family ties, internal and external relations, their cultural creativity, amusements, songs, fads and fancies, dress, diet, and, insofar as they can be grasped, the things that made existence meaningful and bearable for them. The fundamental objective has been to try to restore forgotten men, women, and children to the historical record, to breathe renewed life momentarily into those who were soon to be dead bones.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernard Wasserstein

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