Sad shrink­ing of Europe’s Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - David Aaronovitch

ITHINK I’VE told readers be­fore that, in many ways, I barely qual­ify to write this col­umn. I was brought up know­ing only that my fa­ther was “Jewish”, that my grand­mother spoke a pe­cu­liar lan­guage (it didn’t help that she’d of­ten leave her teeth out) and that my Un­cle Joe — who came round ev­ery Box­ing Day, did not cel­e­brate Christ­mas. As I got older, I grad­u­ally got to know more about where that mys­te­ri­ous “ish” had come from. Bear­ing this name, it of­ten seemed that oth­ers pre­sumed they un­der­stood far more about me than I did about my­self. This still hap­pens, and usu­ally not in a good way.

Any­way, at one point, I be­gan to won­der about that peo­ple to whom I was linked — “the Jews” (a dan­ger­ous folk, as op­posed to the vanilla “Jewish com­mu­nity”), in a his­tor­i­cal sense. What had Euro­pean Jewry been like and what had been lost? Over time, this took on the ap­pear­ance of a blurred-edged kalei­do­scope of ro­man­tic images: shtetls, Yid­dish theatre, ur­bane Ger­man Jews, chic French Jews, learned folk, red-haired women, li­braries, Vi­en­nese psy­cho­an­a­lysts and — like my grand­par­ents – il­lit­er­ate crafts-peo­ple. All brought to an end by the Holo­caust.

This week, through my let­ter box in one of the leafier parts of the di­as­pora, came the his­to­rian Bernard Wasser­stein’s new book, On the Eve, the Jews of Europe Be­fore the Sec­ond World War. As I read it, the ro­man­ti­cism and the il­lu­sions be­gan to be dis­pelled. In­stead of only see­ing “what was lost”, I started to have a real view of what was hap­pen­ing to Euro­pean Jews be­tween the wars.

Wasser­stein writes that Jews — “de­fined in­clu­sively as that per­son who con­sid­ered him or her­self or was con­sid­ered by oth­ers to be a Jew” — were a pop­u­la­tion of 10 mil­lion in Europe by the late 1930s. There were 3.2 mil­lion in Poland, three mil­lion in the USSR, with large com­mu­ni­ties in Ro­ma­nia and Hun­gary. In 1939, there were 381,000 Jews in War­saw — more than in the whole of Greater Ger­many. (I love this fact: de­spite mak­ing up a third of War­saw’s pop­u­la­tion, the Jews pro­vided, in 1925, less than 0.01 per cent of its ar­rested drunks.)

Jews across the Con­ti­nent were un­der­rep­re­sented in agri­cul­ture, heavy in­dus­try, the civil ser­vice, the armed forces, academia (es­pe­cially in Poland), and were con­cen­trated in small com­merce. Many were in the pro­fes­sions of law and medicine, very few were the plu­to­crats who got so much at­ten­tion.

Though (or per­haps be­cause) they were great in­sti­tu­tion builders, cre­at­ing so­ci­eties and char­i­ties, Euro­pean Jews were riven by di­vi­sion. Far from there be­ing a Jewish lobby, the Lit­vak and Gal­itzianer, Cha­sidim and Mit­nagdim, the city Jews and the coun­try Jews, had lit­tle to do with each other.

But the ter­ri­ble thing is that, even be­fore the Holo­caust, the Jews were in de­cline. “By 1939,” writes Wasser­stein, “Euro­pean Jewry was close to ter­mi­nal col­lapse.” Due to an­tisemitism, or a mod­ern de­sire to shrug off old cus­tom, Jews dis-iden­ti­fied. They mar­ried out, em­i­grated and ei­ther con­verted or brought up their chil­dren as non-jews. They stopped speak­ing Yid­dish and Ladino.”

And ev­ery­where their birth-rate fell. In that sense, says Wasser­stein, they were “much less as­sim­i­la­tors to ex­ist­ing so­cial pat­terns than pioneers of the de­mo­graphic tran­si­tion that, over the next two gen­er­a­tions, was to trans­form Euro­pean so­ci­ety as a whole”. In the eight years be­fore Hitler came to power Ger­man Jewry had shrunk by 11 per cent. Hun­gary’s de­clined from 473,000 in 1920 to 400,000 by 1939. In the en­claves of Lodz and Kovno the Jewish pop­u­la­tions stag­nated in poverty.

My­self, as a sec­u­lar part-jew, I feel caught be­tween un­der­stand­ing and re­gret. I like the idea of post of­fices, pubs and li­braries, but I don’t use them. I have never par­tic­i­pated in Pe­sach but I wish you Gut Yon­tiff from the bot­tom of my heart.

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