Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dismal Before Dark -- Bernard Wasserstein's new history on European Jewry during the interwar years

Bernard Wasserstein is a non-Zionist historian sympathetic to Israel while critical of its policies. Now based at the University of Chicago, the London-born Wasserstein has focused much of his intellectual energies on matters Jewish. He does so again in On The Eve, a rich and nuanced history of the 10 million Jews of Europe before the Second World War aiming 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."

 The new book is a sort of prequel to his Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe Since 1945 published 16 years ago. Wasserstein like many a liberal academic has convinced himself that the Arab-Israel conflict is fundamentally a non-zero sum game and that the two sides are bound to "reconfigure their tortured but inseparable relationship."

His latest work is not primarily about Zionism and except for his gratuitous hatchet job on Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Wasserstein approaches pre-war European Zionism with comparative sympathy.

Though in an odd turn of phrase, coming from the author of Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945, he seems to chide the Zionists for their "failure to persuade the British to relax immigration restrictions in Palestine after 1936." The striking thesis of On The Eve is that the prognosis for European Jewry, even before 1933 when Hitler came to power, was bleak: "The demographic trajectory was grim and, with declining fertility, large-scale emigration, increasing outmarriage, and widespread apostasy, foreshadowed extinction. Jewish cultural links were loosening… many Jews wanted to escape from what they saw as the prison of their Jewishness." Millions of Jews abandoned Europe in the interwar period, perhaps 10 per cent of the Jewish population; many headed to America.

Wasserstein well-chosen dedicatory quote is from historian Simon Dubnow (whose quixotic championing of autonomous Diaspora-based Jewish nationalism is itself a historical footnote): "The historian's essential creative act is the resurrection of the dead."

 Economically, most Jews made their living in commerce or in the professions since anti-Semitic strictures essentially closed academia, government and agriculture to them. Demographically, by the early
1930s most Jews in Germany were marrying out. Politically and theologically, across Europe they were riven by disunity: Agudas Yisroel against the Reform; both against the Zionists; the anti-Zionist extremist Hassidim of Satmar against the anti-Zionist fanatics of Munkatcher. The General Zionists versus Revisionists, and so on. 


 With portraits of life in heder, nigun-composing Hassidic rebbes, the workings of yeshivot such as Mir, Lublin and Ponevezh, and a sketch of the Musar movement, Wasserstein shows an Orthodoxy in decline yet by no means defeated. It faced minor competition from the non-Orthodox whose Budapest rabbinical school, for example, allowed its seminarians (gasp) to attend the cinema. 

The real challenge to tradition in much of Europe came from newfound access to the outside world while in the Soviet Union it was the jealous god Stalin. The book is not all doom and gloom. There is a charming segment on luftmenchen, those who had no visible means of support to sustain their lifestyles which ranged from poor to comfortable. The remarkable devotion of Jewish parents to their children also gets nice treatment.

Bit by bit, as the doors were closing, thousands of children were brought to safety in the 1932-33 youth aliya, the brainchild of a little known heroine named Recha Freier; the Kindertransport later delivered 10,000 children to England. Wasserstein's treatment of "anti-Jewish Jews" is compelling given the abundance of ashamed Jews coming out of the woodwork in our own day.

In their selbsthass or self-hatred, some Jews parodied anti-Semitic tropes. Of course, as Wasserstein points out, they did not literally hate themselves as much as they despised other Jews.

Some were outspokenly disdainful of the Nazis; most were fixated by Jewish issues; many ultimately renounced Judaism, assailed Jewish solidarity, yet paradoxically abhorred Jewish powerlessness while seeking to "liberate the self from compromising affiliations," in the words of one contemporary observer.

There is also a sketch of the far-left Jews who, much earlier, had quit Palestine to return to Russia after the 1917 Revolution to create Jewish colonies in the Crimea. No less engrossing is Wasserstein's treatment of the Jewish press. A considerable number of dailies were owned, edited and read religiously by Jews (as well as by non-Jews) including the liberal Pester Lloyd in Budapest, Berlin's Tageblatt and the Neu Freie Presse in Vienna, where Theodor Herzl worked. Mirroring our own day, "such papers did not, however, see themselves as Jewish publications," Wasserstein notes.

Add to this mix the scores of polemical and party newspapers of every stripe that did cater exclusively to Jews. And on the culture and Yiddish-language front, were the composers, artists, cantors, filmmakers, authors, and an entire world of books embodying intellectual and artistic vibrancy. Surprisingly, however, only a handful of Yiddish novelists were able to make a good living exclusively from their craft.

 Dispensing with maudlin nostalgia, On The Eve is a heartrending, unabashedly compassionate, portrait of doomed European Jewry. Wasserstein emphatically makes the point that they "were by no means all of a kind. Indeed, they were probably the most internally variegated people of the continent." In the absence of a sovereign Jewish state, however, they were friendless, powerless, and trapped -- everything and everyone they could possibly have counted on failed them.


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