Revelations from the east
LawrenceJoffe admires a comprehensive history. JenniferLipman enjoys artistic licence
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