On the Eve: the Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein

An old question, forever new: what does it mean to be Jewish? A religion? Judaism is, but few Jews practise it. An ethnic group? Unlikely, since ethnicity is a cultural concept and Jews have no common culture and no common language.

by Bernard Wasserstein

But why ask the question at all? It would be just as hard to define the French or the Germans. Jews themselves cannot answer it adequately. Kafka mused: “What have I in common with Jews?” And he answered ­indirectly by identifying himself with ­persecuted Jews. Freud could not quite come up with an answer either: he knew no Hebrew, he explained, he was estranged from the religion, did not share the Zionist dream, so what was there left to him that was specifically Jewish? His answer: “A very great deal … probably its very essence.” But this “essence” he, the Uber-shrink, the inventor of the talking cure, admitted, disarmingly, “could not … express clearly in words”.

Bernard Wasserstein cannot answer the question either but offers us instead an extraordinary and unparalleled mapping out of the “Jews” of Europe on the eve of the genocide. In 1939 there were some 10 million Jews in Europe, three-quarters living in only four countries: 3.2 million in Poland, 3 million in the USSR, 850,000 in Romania and 625,000 in Hungary. Another million or so were in the three leading Western European countries: Great Britain (380,000), France (320,000), and Germany (345,000). What emerges most strongly from this fascinating demographic anatomy of European Jewry is how different Jews were (and are) from each other. A minority were Sephardim (10 per cent, mainly in parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire). The others were all Ashkenazim, but they were deeply divided: the “Litvaks” in Lithuania, the Galitsyaner in Galicia, the Odessa Jews, the Polish Jews, the Western Jews, the Ostjuden (emigrants from Eastern Europe), the emancipated and “modern”

Jews of France and Germany. Each group carried stereotypes of each other. As Joseph Roth remarked: “The more Western the origins of a Jew, the more Jews there are for him to look down on. The Frankfurt Jew despises the Berlin Jew, the Berlin Jew despises the Viennese Jew, the Viennese Jew despises the Warsaw Jew. Then there are Jews from all the way back in Galicia, upon whom they all look down, and that’s where I come from, the lowest of all Jews.”

But is this so special? Many non-Jews, too, despise others because of the differences in accents, or wealth, or education, or beliefs, or politics. Perhaps Jews, like the English, the French, the Americans and many others, believe that everything about them is ­exceptional.

Wasserstein, dispassionately and with exemplary level-headedness, tells us where Jews are different. Since they were particularly urbanised, it is not surprising that there should have been so many among the urban self-employed. Still, the numbers are staggering. In Romania, for example, Jews owned nearly one-third of all private commercial enterprises. In Vienna, as many as 65 per cent of doctors were Jews, in Poland it was half. In Hungary, where Jews were only 5 per cent of the ­population, half the lawyers and one-third of the journalists were Jews. Access to the civil service was more difficult everywhere except in the Soviet Union, the country in Europe in which, according to Wasserstein, “Jews were most disproportionately represented in the power elite”. Though Soviet Jews were only 1.78 per cent of the total population, they were 15.5 per cent of university graduates in 1939. Jews qua Jews were not a primary target of the great terror –  Genrich Yagoda, a Jew, was head of the secret police from 1934 to 1936. (But then, that was a most dangerous job and Yagoda too was eventually executed.)

Most Jews were middling poor, like most people before 1939. The most prosperous, however, were the German Jews – so proud of their (German) culture, and so disdainful of the language and lifestyle of the Ostjuden. Hence their disorientation in the late 1930s when their material and social world ­crumpled.

Much of the distinctiveness Wasserstein attributes to Jews can be found elsewhere. Many Jews adhered only to some essential rites of passage: circumcision, religious marriage. Judaism was like an à la carte menu – just like Catholicism for many Catholics. Some refrained from eating pork but ate oysters; others did not smoke on Saturday but drove. Secular Jews viewed religious Jews with utter contempt (as many secularists do even now). “Modern” Jews considered Yiddish, on the retreat everywhere, a barbaric language, just as educated French and Italians looked down on those speaking patois. Divisions, even among the orthodox, could be formidable. An ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi regarded other ultra-orthodox, the Agudists, with unmitigated hatred: “The Agudists, may their name be blotted out … are worse than those dogs the Zionists.” A further example, it is said, of Freud’s thesis on the narcissism of small differences.

The Zionists were a minority everywhere and deeply divided into rival factions: in the centre the pro-British mainstream led by Chaim Weizmann, on the Left Poalei Zion,  and on the far Right the Revisionist Zionists of Vladimir Jabotinsky (whose legacy is carried by Benjamin Netanyahu). In Poland the left-wing Jewish Bund denounced the Zionists and their dream “of a Jewish state built on sand and English guns”.

Zionists shared with anti-Semites a belief in the impossibility of Jewish assimilation. Anti-Semitism was, then as now, the fuel of Zionism. There was no room for the Jews in our society, declared the anti-Semites, they must be expelled or destroyed. The Zionists agreed: Jews must have a nation state like everyone else. Both were highly critical of existing Jewish society. A Zionist wrote of other Jews: “They live like a worm reared in the gutter of a roof which then falls off the roof into a street drain but perforce acclimatises itself to the new environment.” Not surprisingly, in post-Anschluss Austria the SS assisted Zionists to organise the departure of Jews to Palestine.
Wasserstein wants to refute the view that the Jews of Europe did not react to their predicament, that they waited passively. On the contrary, they sought to meet the threat facing them in all possible ways: some tried to assimilate, some tried to emigrate, some converted, some enclosed themselves in a cultural ghetto, some became Communists, or socialists, or liberals, even Fascists. They tried to be actors in their own history but were never strong enough to be masters of their own fate.

Children of a Vanished World (S.Mark Taper Foundation Book in Jewish Studies by Roman Vishniac
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