Saturday, December 13, 2014

"On the Eve"

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein is a magnificent book but almost unbearable to read. Organized in a fascinating way, the book documents the disintegration of Jewish life in Europe. Each topic is handled brilliantly, in my opinion. The sketches of life in cities with important Jewish populations, the description of the lives of the religious and the assimilated, of luftmenchen, of women, of young people, of various political sides, of scholarly organizations and secular organizations, of social life and work life, and of many other trends are all fascinating. But in each case, the promises of belonging to the greater European society, the promises that Jews had believed in earlier in the twentieth century, were all betrayed as antisemitism took over European thought -- and not solely in Germany.

The Jews' growing consciousness of what was coming, and their ineffective efforts to escape, as well as of the efforts of Jews elsewhere (and the indifference and hostility of so many non-Jews) are harrowing. Wasserstein quotes a number of poems and statements showing how aware and desperate the Jewish people became. For example, a 1938 poem titled "Unser shtetl brent" -- Our town is burning." He quotes both the Yiddish and the translation:
"Everything around is on fire!
And you stand and stare
with folded arms,
and you stand and stare.
Our town is burning."
-- Mordkhe Gebirtig (p. 50)
The last two paragraphs of the book -- unbearable:

"They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Theirs was, for the most part, the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating. 
"Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the even of their destruction, waited for the barbarians." (p. 436)
I knew the outlines of this horrific part of history. But the details are important, if you can stand to learn about them.

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