Rev­e­la­tions from the east

LawrenceJoffe ad­mires a com­pre­hen­sive history. Jen­nifer­Lip­man en­joys artis­tic li­cence

The Jewish Chronicle - - BOOKS -

THE AN­CES­TORS of most Jews to­day once lived be­tween Poland and Rus­sia and, from the 17th cen­tury, they formed the world’s largest Jewish com­mu­nity. Strange, then, that our knowl­edge of their history of­ten blends un­in­formed nos­tal­gia with in­her­ited fears, but few facts.

Hap­pily, Antony Polon­sky ad­dresses such com­plex­i­ties and sen­si­tiv­i­ties in The Jews in Poland and Rus­sia, an in­valu­ablere­searchre­source­withmaps,ta­bles, end­notes, sta­tis­tics, glos­sary and bib­li­og­ra­phy. It also de­liv­ers a com­pelling and cred­i­ble pic­ture of how Jews re­sponded to dra­matic change.

We learn that the Tevye-like shtetl was dy­ing even when Sholem Ale­ichem wrote­aboutit,whilee­man­ci­pat­e­dur­ban Jews greatly ben­e­fited east Euro­pean so­ci­ety. Two of Rus­sia’s four No­bel literary lau­re­ates, for in­stance, had Jewish ori­gins, and Jews helped found Poland’s nascent cin­ema and mass press.

True, the Holo­caust’s hor­rific legacy of­ten over­whelms all nar­ra­tives. The 1930sPol­is­handLithua­ni­an­boom­inYid­dish literature thus proved a false dawn. Fig­ures speak loud­est: In 1939, 3.5 mil­lion Jews resided in Poland and 3 mil­lion in Rus­sia; by 2007 there were 322,000 in the for­mer USSR and just 3,300 “core Jews” in Poland.

Nonethe­less, Polon­sky writes about

Jews ex­pelled from Rus­sia de­picted cross­ing a bor­der post in 1881 how his sub­jects lived rather than how they died. This “short history” sum­marises three pre­ced­ing, longer vol­umes, and re­veals that few Jews dwelt in Rus­sia un­til the 19th cen­tury. Sud­denly, borders shifted and a mil­lion Pol­ish Jews “be­came Rus­sian”, al­beit within a re­stricted Pale of Set­tle­ment. Mean­while, in­de­pen­dent Poland dis­ap­peared from the map for 120 years.

Con­di­tions var­ied widely through­out Rus­sia-Poland. While Cha­sidism com­forted re­li­gious Pol­ish and Ukrainian Jews, full civic in­te­gra­tion ap­pealed to sec­u­lar­ists in Gali­cia and Prus­sian Poland. Jews of the Pale en­joyed less choice; there, the Tsar or lo­cal prelate in­vari­ably had the last word. Be­fore 1881, Moscowwant­ed­toRus­si­fythemvi­as­tate schools or manda­tory 25-year army ser­vice; af­ter 1881, they were per­se­cuted as an alien threat. This forced many into the arms of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — or on to ships bound for the New World.

Polon­sky does well to fo­cus on Jewish women, whom pre­vi­ous his­to­ries of­ten ig­nore. Re­li­gious girls re­ceived a wider sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion than boys, he ex­plains. So they man­aged bet­ter in gen­eral so­ci­ety, which up­set pa­tri­ar­chal com­mu­ni­ties. Many Yid­dish plays fea­tured worldly women chaf­ing at hav­ing to marry un­so­phis­ti­cated yeshiva-bochers. Equally il­lu­mi­nat­ing is his de­scrip­tion of in­ter­war Cha­sidim join­ing sec­u­lar as­sim­i­la­tion­ists to com­bat Zion­ist, Marx­ist and Bundist Jews. For their part, Zion­ists­be­came­promi­nentinthePol­ish Sejm (Par­lia­ment).

Polon­sky re­veals how Rus­sian Jews joined the Bol­she­vik se­cret po­lice, which “con­firmed” re­ac­tionary charges of Jewish du­plic­ity; while Jewish Sec­tion cadres zeal­ously turned syn­a­gogues into “work­ers’ clubs” be­fore be­ing dis­solved them­selves in the 1920s. And Stalin, who died in 1953, elim­i­nated Jewish artists and po­lit­i­cal ri­vals as “cos­mopoli­tans”.

Sadly, fa­tal naivety seems a con­stant theme. Another is that Jews rarely speak with one voice. Poland’s post-war Jews al­ter­nately be­came Com­mu­nists or joined anti-Rus­sian na­tion­al­ists, un­til al­lies started tout­ing anti-Jewish tropes in 1968. Later, many joined Sol­i­dar­ity and helped end Com­mu­nism. But immigration to Is­rael has left weak­ened “care­taker com­mu­ni­ties”, and to­day Moscow has only five work­ing syn­a­gogues de­spite the re­mark­able cul­tural re­vival that Polon­sky de­scribes well.

Com­pre­hen­sive as the book is, more couldbe­madeof the18th-cen­tu­ryJewish coun­cils’ self-rule model, the ge­n­e­sis of Yid­dish, the non-Ashke­nazi Jews of Rus­sianCen­tralAsia,andtheim­mi­gra­tionto Amer­ica.And­did­noJewishvoiceop­pose the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact?

Such qualms aside, Polon­sky proves his sub­jects’ cre­ativ­ity and re­silience. He con­cludes that to­day’s Rus­sian and Pol­ish Jews de­fine them­selves as eth­nic notre­li­giousJews—which­con­found­sUS and Is­raeli Jews. Yet, af­ter the past be­tray­als,the­fact­thatcur­rentstate­lead­er­snow gingerly ad­mit their na­tions’ col­lab­o­ra­tionist past at least of­fers some hope.

Lawrence Joffe is a free­lance writer


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