On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein

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On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A comprehensive and lucid survey of the culture, conditions and situation of the Jewish people in Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846681806

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The introduction to On the Eve begins with the controversial statement, Nor is anti-Semitism, by itself, a satisfactory explanation of the Jew's predicament. The author has written a history of the post-war Jewry called the Vanishing Diaspora but this book examines the collective failure by the Jewish people before 1939 to attain at least some control over the threatening vagaries of fate. It examines their failure to establish cohesive social links, political parties, hospitals, newspapers and schools. Jewish culture and religious practice weakened during the very period when they advocated loyalty to the states where they were citizens; the USSR, Poland, Germany and France. Their population too was in decline. Wasserstein, who is a master at pointing out intriguing and surprising detail, explains that on the brink of annihilation, there were actually more Jews held in camps outside the Third Reich than within it.

It should, however, be clearly understood that Wasserstein is not denying that anti-Semitism is deeply entrenched in European consciousness. Like other forms of racism, past history shows this woefully to have been the case. He is concerned to show the extent to which Jewish civilisation had to some degree already collapsed. Yiddish and Judeo-Espagnol were fading just as secular assimilation separated from religious practice. Wasserstein refers to the panoply of cultural values such as dance, song, dress and diet. His project is to question just how cohesive this entity really was.

Economic pressures were to exacerbate the difficulties of established international agencies' relief assistance, such as ORT and the American Joint Jewish Agency, especially after the Wall Street Crash. Reading this it is not difficult to wonder how all kinds of exiles may bear the brunt of current financial problems. However, in the pre-war period the Jewish population included gilded plutocrats, sweat shop workers and the beggars, or schnorrers as they were known in Yiddish. Was the result a universal culture or rather a set of subcultures?

In this very clearly written but extensively detailed volume, Wasserstein is always fair-minded. He asserts that up until 1933 Germany had been a vigorous champion of individual rights. This was due to the many German minorities in Eastern Europe; after that date the nation was brought before the League of Nations to answer for its persecution of the Jewish population who were suddenly forced to become aware that they were a persecuted minority.

Shortly afterwards Germany withdrew from the League of Nations which was then to become an ineffective talking shop for the English and the French. Its Commissioner for Refugees received virtually no funding to handle protection and assistance for thousands of fleeing Jews. By 1935 Hitler introduced a decree which detailed divisions between Aryans, full Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews and laws that barred future marriages and sexual relations between non-Aryans and Aryans. Such legislation led to waves of suicides.

Spasms of rage found expression in Yiddish songs, such as those composed by the Polish Jew Mordkhe Gebirtig, Unser shtetl brent (Our town is burning). These expressions of outrage were a sad substitute for devising a coherent unified strategy against the anti-Semite tormentors. This becomes the reiterated thesis outlined in On the Eve. The greatest historical division, which of course still remains today, existed between the Ashkenazim, Jews of German origin and those expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the Fifteenth Century, the Sephardim. The former were subdivided between Litvaks, characterised as smart, analytical and sceptical and the Galitsyaner thought to be witty, sharp and crafty. This split was related to another between Hasidim and misnagdim and there were further divisions between Western Jews and the impoverished Ostjuden emigrating from pogroms further to the East. The great writer, Franz Kafka was amongst the few who expressed support and humility to the indigent immigrants from the Ghetto. Chagall, the magnificent painter derived magical inspiration from the wooden synagogues, buildings, people and their livestock. He and others created fabulous canvases based on the layers of memory, nostalgia and imagination.

So what does it actually mean to have been Jewish at this particularly crucial moment in history? Was it to belong to a particular racial group? Was it a religion? How is it connected to the various languages that were spoken? Not only does Wasserstein provide some detailed answers but his writing has great style, almost informal and capturing nuances that kept this reader fully engaged. There is a useful introductory glossary, which includes, taking just one example, a term like halutzim, Zionist pioneers in the Land of Israel. In this manner, he avoids needless repetition in the flowing narrative. There are 37 illuminating photographs and a useful map that shows the areas like Galacia and Bukovina, an area of intensive Jewish commercial ownership in Romania, and essential in developing a grasp of this dark passage in European history.

Not only is this a deeply engaging and affecting read but it also touches on some sensitive areas that deserve further examination. For instance, although we may know of the heroic Protestant Bonhoeffer and perhaps the brave Catholic Jägerstätter, but what about the irresponsibility of so many of the leaders of the Christian Churches before the war? And what about the condition of Jewish women denied access to the Torah? Who were the early feminists challenging their chains? Read Wasserstein's instructive replies and perceptive insights.

Very many thanks to Profile Publishers for furnishing the review copy.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy:

Escape from the Nazis: The Incredible and Inspiring Saga of Two Young Jews on the Run in World War II Poland by Benjamin Mandelkern

A Senseless Squalid War: Voices From Palestine 1890s - 1948 by Norman Rose

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Buy On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein at Amazon.com.


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