Europe’s Jews were a sit­ting tar­get

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - Bernard Wasser­stein

WAS THE Holo­caust pre­dictable? That was the ques­tion asked in 1975 by the Is­raeli his­to­rian Ja­cob Katz. His an­swer was a clear neg­a­tive. And he ar­gued that even those Jewish lead­ers in the 1930s who spoke in doom-laden, semi-apoc­a­lyp­tic lan­guage, notably Vladimir Jabotin­sky, head of the Re­vi­sion­ist Zion­ist move­ment, were think­ing merely in terms of “the ag­gra­va­tion of eco­nomic, so­cial, and po­lit­i­cal mea­sures against the Jewish com­mu­nity in Poland” rather than of the mass mur­der of the Jewish peo­ple.

But then, it is of­ten asked, how could the Shoah have been fore­seen? How could any per­son with an iota of faith in hu­man­ity fore­see the hor­rors of the War­saw ghetto or pre­dict mass ex­e­cu­tions such as Babi Yar, let alone the gas cham­bers of Auschwitz?

For a long time af­ter the Sec­ond World War, it was as­sumed that the geno­cide of the Jews was the re­sult of a long-planned process that be­gan with an­ti­semitic laws and then pro­ceeded by suc­ces­sive stages to the vi­o­lence of the Kristall­nacht, the con­cen­tra­tion of Jews in camps and ghet­tos, and the “final so­lu­tion” of in­dus­tri­alised killing. Katz noted that many peo­ple there­fore asked: “How could peo­ple have been so fool­ish as not to have seen what was in store for them at the hands of Adolf Hitler?”

Yet most his­to­ri­ans now agree that the Nazi decision for mass mur­der was taken only in the sec­ond half of 1941. So how could any­one fore­see a crime that the criminals them­selves had not yet re­solved upon?

But there is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion that a his­to­rian may prop­erly ask: not, could the Shoah have been fore­seen, but was it fore­seen? His­to­ri­ans, af­ter all, are un­com­fort­able deal­ing with hy­po­thet­i­cals: trained in the assem­bly and anal­y­sis of data, they pre­fer to stay close to their ev­i­dence.

The gen­er­ally ac­cepted an­swer to that ques­tion is that, be­fore the out­break of war, the Euro­pean Jewish com­mu­nity was blithely in­sou­ciant about the gath­er­ing forces of ha­tred that were about to con­sume it. Yet the ev­i­dence shows that, con­trary to this re­ceived ver­sion, there was a wide­spread, dawn­ing recog­ni­tion by Jews in Europe in the 1930s that they stood on the edge of an abyss.

As early as the spring of 1933, a mat­ter of weeks af­ter Hitler’s as­sump­tion of power, Rabbi Leo Baeck, who emerged as Ger­man Jewry’s leader and spokesman in its final decade, de­clared: “The thou­sand-year his­tory of Ger­man Jewry has come to an end.”

About the same time, one of the most acute con­tem­po­rary an­a­lysts of Euro­pean Jewish pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety, Ja­cob Lestchin­sky, wrote un­equiv­o­cally in a dis­patch to the New York Times from Ber­lin that the Nazis aimed at “a mass slaugh­ter of Jews”.

The prob­lem was not just Ger­many. The Nazis were the van­guard of a wider Euro­pean phe­nom­e­non of stig­ma­ti­sa­tion, ex­pro­pri­a­tion, ex­tru­sion, and blood­shed. An­tisemitism, al­most ev­ery­where on the con­ti­nent that Jews lived, had risen to un­prece­dented heights and was di­rected against ev­ery sec­tion of Jewish so­ci­ety, even chil­dren, the el­derly, and the dis­abled. Chris­tian moral­ity, which in the past had set some lim­its to the worst ex­cesses of Jew-ha­tred, showed no ca­pac­ity (nor, in the case of the Ro­man Catholic Church, much readi­ness) to re­strain racist bru­tal­ity.

None of this was news to con­tem­po­raries. “The strug­gle for ex­is­tence” was one of the char­ac­ter­is­tic and most of­ten heard phrases of the pe­riod among the Jewish masses of east-cen­tral Europe. Even if no­body could fore­see the hor­rors of Auschwitz, no se­ri­ous ob­server of Euro­pean Jewry could be any­thing but deeply pes­simistic about its fu­ture.

As for the young, theirs was a gen­er­a­tion, wrote a jour­nal­ist in the War­saw Yid­dish pa­per, Lit­er­ar­ishe bleter, in Jan­uary 1939, that was “naked and bare­foot, a gen­er­a­tion of fed up, poor lit­tle men­shelekh, with no yes­ter­day, no to­day, no to­mor­row”.

The air of in­tense gloom in the Jewish world was re­flected in de­bate in the late 1930s about a “re­turn to the ghetto”. In the face of the hos­til­ity of their neigh­bours, some Jewish thinkers ad­vo­cated such a vol­un­tary with­drawal from sur­round­ing so­ci­ety.

In April 1938, af­ter the hor­rors of the An­schluss (the Ger­man an­nex­a­tion of Aus­tria), the Yid­dish poet Ja­cob Glat­shteyn pub­lished his “Good­night, world”, a sav­age, un­spar­ing, pe­tu­lant cry of rage: A gute nakht, brayte velt. Good night, wide world. groyse, shtink­endike velt. Big, stink­ing world. oyf mayn ay­genem gebot — At my own be­hest — gey ikh tsurik in geto. I re­turn to the ghetto.

As some­times hap­pens when an idea is al­ready in the air, pub­li­ca­tion of the poem fanned smoul­der­ing em­bers into a fiery con­tro­versy.

Many re­pu­di­ated the idea of such res­ig­na­tion from the world. Ro­man Zil­ber­sh­tayn, a War­saw city coun­cil­lor, told a meet­ing of the Jewish Mer­chants’ As­so­ci­a­tion: “We must burn out with a red-hot iron ev­ery kind of non­sen­si­cal thought of go­ing back to the ghetto. We may per­ish but we will not per­ish in a ghetto.”

The acer­bic War­saw lit­er­ary critic Yoshue Rapoport wrote that, for sev­eral weeks, he could “nei­ther swal­low nor spit out” Glat­shteyn’s poem. “So Glat­shteyn goes will­ingly into the ghetto? Not me,” he thun­dered.

And if the day should come that he (Rapoport) was con­fined in a ghetto, he de­clared, he would go not with mis­placed pride but shout­ing out loud that he was be­ing shoved in by force and cre­at­ing a great com­mo­tion in or­der to let in a breath of the wider world.

Mean­while, the ed­i­tor of Paris Yid­dish daily pa­per, Parizer haynt, ob­served that the dis­as­ters be­falling the Jewish peo­ple had left many fear­ful that en­tire Jewish com­mu­ni­ties would be an­ni­hi­lated and wiped off the face of the earth.

THE CON­TRO­VERSY rum­bled on un­til the final word was ut­tered by a grand old man of yid­dishkeit. On Au­gust 25 1939, six days be­fore the Nazi in­va­sion of Poland, 79-year-old Si­mon Dub­now, the lead­ing Jewish his­to­rian of the age, wrote in an open let­ter pub­lished in the War­saw Yid­dish daily, Haynt: “The last two Hitler-years, 1938-1939, have left many peo­ple with the im­pres­sion that we are at the be­gin­ning of the destruc­tion [ khurbn] of Euro­pean Jewry.”

Hitler’s “ex­ter­mi­na­tion-sys­tem” ( oys­ro­tungs-sis­tem), he main­tained, was a straight­for­ward re­cre­ation of Ha­man’s plan “to de­stroy, to mas­sacre, and ex­ter­mi­nate all the Jews”, with the dif­fer­ence that, in Ha­man’s case, it had re­mained merely a plan.

Of course, not all Jews sub­scribed to such grim prog­nos­ti­ca­tions. In late 1938, the par­ents of the young Ger­man-jewish so­ci­ol­o­gist Nor­bert Elias, who had em­i­grated to Eng­land, vis­ited him there from their home in Bres­lau. He begged them not to re­turn.

His fa­ther replied. “All our friends are in Bres­lau, and in London we don’t know any­one.” He added: “Ich habe nie et­was Un­rechtes getan. Was kön­nen sie mir tuen?” (I have never done any­thing wrong. What can they do to me?).

In some coun­tries, such as Italy, Jews com­forted them­selves that the tor­rent of hos­til­ity would by­pass them and leave them un­scathed. When Mus­solini, ap­ing Hitler, pro­mul­gated an­ti­semitic laws in 1938, Ital­ian Jews re­acted with a mix­ture of dis­be­lief and de­spair.

An­gelo For­tu­nato Formiggini, who had pro­duced the monthly lit­er­ary re­view, L’italia che scrive, since 1918, was or­dered by the gov­ern­ment to re­move his name from that of his pub­lish­ing firm: he jumped to his death from the Ghirlan­d­ina bell-tower of Mo­dena cathe­dral.

But most Jews sought refuge nei­ther in il­lu­sions nor in sui­cide. In­stead they spoke elo­quently in sup­port of the pes­simists — with their feet. More than a mil­lion Jews left Europe be­tween 1918 and 1939, 10 per cent of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion of the con­ti­nent.

More than half the Jewish pop­u­la­tions of Ger­many and Aus­tria fled be­tween 1933 and 1939. Many more would have done so if coun­tries of refuge had opened their doors a lit­tle wider.

The ex­o­dus was not only from those ar­eas of Europe al­ready un­der Nazi con­trol. At least 400,000 Jews left Poland in the in­ter-war pe­riod. In Ro­ma­nia in May 1938 a Jewish di­arist, Emil Do­rian, noted: “All the Jews end­lessly chew over the one pre­oc­cu­pa­tion: leav­ing Ro­ma­nia. But this is merely an ob­ses­sion, a neu­rotic symp­tom of pow­er­less­ness and de­spair. For in ac­tu­al­ity, no­body moves — since there is nowhere to go and no sal­va­tion in sight!… There is no way out. We scream, we groan, blood mixes with earth, and a whole gen­er­a­tion is de­stroyed.”

THE PROB­LEM was in­deed that there was nowhere to go. Bri­tain, France, the Nether­lands, and the United States af­forded asy­lum to tens of thou­sands of Jewish refugees, mainly Ger­man and Aus­trian Jews. Even the Soviet Union ad­mit­ted a few. But no gov­ern­ment was will­ing to con­tem­plate the im­mi­gra­tion of the much larger num­bers threat­ened with ex­pul­sion from coun­tries like Poland and Ro­ma­nia. Lib­er­al­ism and so­cial­ism failed in this pe­riod in the case of the Jews, as in so much else, to live up to the univer­sal­ist, en­light­en­ment prin­ci­ples on which they were founded. Al­lies to whom the Jews had looked with as­sur­ance in the past now had other pri­or­i­ties.

In Bri­tain, the pol­icy of sup­port for the Jewish Na­tional Home had been re­placed by an over­rid­ing con­cern for na­tional and im­pe­rial se­cu­rity, held to be in­com­pat­i­ble with con­tin­ued sup­port for Zion­ism or for largescale re­cep­tion of Jewish refugees, whether in Pales­tine or any­where in the Bri­tish Em­pire.

The Soviet Union had posed as the most de­ter­mined foe of Nazism; with the sig­na­ture of the Molo­tovRibben­trop pact, Stalin turned sud­denly in Au­gust 1939 into Hitler’s catspaw.

On the eve of the war, in con­se­quence, more and more Jews in Europe were join­ing the horde of refugees. Grow­ing num­bers were con­fined in con­cen­tra­tion or in­tern­ment camps — not just in Ger­many or the po­lice states of east­ern Europe but all over the con­ti­nent. In­deed, in the sum­mer of 1939, more Jews were con­fined be­hind barbed wire in camps out­side the Third Re­ich than within it, even in democ­ra­cies such as France, Bel­gium, and the Nether­lands.

Al­ready the Jews were in the process of trans­for­ma­tion into a “camp peo­ple”, with­out the right to a home any­where and con­se­quently with rights al­most nowhere

The Jews of Europe did not re­act to their predica­ment pas­sively. They were ac­tors in their own his­tory. They sought by ev­ery pos­si­ble means, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, to con­front the threats that loomed on ev­ery side. They tried em­i­gra­tion: but all the ex­its were blocked. They tried per­sua­sion: but few would lis­ten and any­way the blar­ing loud-speak­ers of the Nazi pro­pa­ganda ma­chine deaf­ened ears.

They tried po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion of ev­ery kind: but they were po­lit­i­cally weight­less. A hand­ful, even be­fore the war, tried vi­o­lent re­sis­tance: but their en­e­mies could wreak vengeance a thou­sand­fold — as the Nazis demon­strated on Kristall­nacht. Some tried prayer: but their God be­trayed them.

They might be cap­tains of their souls but they were not mas­ters of their fate. Wholly de­fence­less, largely friend­less, and more and more hope­less, the Euro­pean Jews, on the eve of their destruc­tion, waited for the bar­bar­ians. Bernard Wasser­stein is pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Euro­pean Jewish His­tory at the Univer­sity of Chicago. His book, ‘On the Eve: The Jews of Europe be­fore the Sec­ond World War’ (Pro­file Books) will be pub­lished on May 1. It is re­viewed in this week’s JC (Books, page 31)

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