Civil­i­sa­tion that de­clined only partly through Nazism

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY NATASHA LEHRER

Bernard Wasser­stein Pro­file Books, £25

Bernard Wasser­stein’s new book takes a hard look at the sit­u­a­tion of Jews in Europe in the years pre­ced­ing the out­break of the Sec­ond World War. In a se­ries of of­ten melan­cholic and even ele­giac snap­shots, Wasser­stein sets out to show what life was like be­fore the Holo­caust de­stroyed Europe’s many and var­ied Jewish com­mu­ni­ties. He vividly de­scribes Jewish cul­tural re­al­i­ties, from re­li­gious prac­tice, Yid­dish theatre, fem­i­nist ac­tivism and ed­u­ca­tion, to sport, beauty pageants, drug-run­ning and horse-thiev­ing, as prac­tised by Jews across the con­ti­nent, from Paris to Moscow via Vi­enna and Salonika.

Ac­cord­ing to Wasser­stein, Euro- pean Jews in the 1920s ap­peared to be “a vi­brant, dy­namic and flour­ish­ing peo­ple” but this was a chimera, and the an­tisemitism that was to de­stroy the large­ma­jor­i­tyof Euro­pean­jew­ryby1945 was only half the rea­son why Jewish cul­ture­was­in­re­treat­bythe1930s.jewswere “the vic­tims of their own suc­cess” as the large-scale em­brace of post-en­light­en­ment sec­u­lar Jewish iden­tity was lead­ing in turn to in­creas­ing as­sim­i­la­tion in­tothecul­ture­sof coun­trieswherethey were newly af­forded cit­i­zen­ship.

Ona­con­ti­nen­triven­by­deep­eco­nomic de­pres­sion and the rise of fas­cism, this as­sim­i­la­tion and ac­cul­tur­a­tion proved not to be a shield against an­tisemitism. In spite of their em­brace of moder­nity, Jews found that they were still vic­tims of ha­tred. They faced an im­pos­si­ble dilemma, in vary­ing de­grees re­ject­ing and em­brac­ing cul­tural and re­li­gious par­tic­u­lar­ity, and si­mul­ta­ne­ously seek­ing ac­cep­tance in wider so­ci­ety, all the while ig­no­rant of the hor­rors that were wait­ing in the wings.

Wasser­stein’s ap­proach, ad­dress- ing the sub­ject by theme rather than ge­o­graph­i­cally, has the ad­van­tage of show­ing so­ci­o­log­i­cal ten­den­cies across Europe (Jews across the con­ti­nent were sig­nif­i­cantly more lit­er­ate, for ex­am­ple, than the wider pop­u­la­tion, though more prone to men­dac­ity). More sig­nif­i­cantly, it en­ables him to draw out the cen­tral point of his the­sis to show how the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of Jewish iden­tity in Europe was cre­at­ing schisms that might well have been fa­tal to Jewish life across the con­ti­nent even with­out the cat­a­clysm of the Holo­caust.

He de­scribes, for ex­am­ple, how a once vi­brant Jewish press — both He­brew and Yid­dish — was stut­ter­ing to a halt by the late 1930s, vic­tim on the one hand of the suc­cess of Jewish in­te­gra­tion in War­saw, Salonika and Paris, where Jews now spoke Pol­ish, Greek and French, and on the other hand of Nazi racial laws in Ger­many. Wasser­stein ar­gues that a de­clin­ing birth-rate, high rates of mar­riage to non-jews,th­eloos­eningof cul­tur­al­bonds both­lin­guis­ti­can­dreli­gious,and­schisms be­tween dif­fer­ent forms of Or­tho­doxy, be­tween re­li­gious and sec­u­lar Jews, be­tween Zion­ists and Bundists, and the “col­lec­tive sum of mil­lions of in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions by Jews them­selves over the pre­vi­ous two or three gen­er­a­tions had weak­ened the lig­a­ments of their so­ci­ety” tothede­greethat­jew­swere­on­course­for what was called by one con­tem­po­rary ob­server “race sui­cide”.

His con­tention that Euro­pean Jewry was by the 1930s in an ir­re­versible spi­ral of de­cline that was at least partly of its own­cre­ation­will­shockandupset­many readers. But the ex­ten­sively re­searched On­theeve isa­nen­light­eningand­mov­ing evo­ca­tion of the rich­ness and het­ero­gene­ity, both vast and un­der-doc­u­mented, of Jewish life in pre-war Europe.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer and re­searcher


Pass­ing mo­ment: Mar­ket day in pre-first World War Jewish War­saw

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