Review: The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volumes 1 and 2

By Tony Kushner, October 24, 2011
Entrance to the old synagogue at Lvov, which would later be a ghetto site

Entrance to the old synagogue at Lvov, which would later be a ghetto site

By Antony Polonsky
The Littman Library, £39.50 each

For several decades now, Antony Polonsky has been at the forefront of Polish Jewish studies. He has edited the yearbook Polin, which has provided the forum for scholars of Polish Jewry from around the world since 1993. It is thus fitting that Polonsky, who has nurtured young scholars, especially in Poland itself and north America, should bring together old and new work into this remarkable multi-volume synthesis of Jewish history and culture.

The agenda Polonsky has set himself is formidable. Not only is the chronology huge (a third, eagerly awaited volume, which is due out early in 2012, will take the story from the First World War to the present), but the scope is all-embracing. The chapters include religious and secular history; Jewish internal politics and responses to Jews from state and populace. Furthermore, Polonsky follows the complex geo-politics of eastern Europe and the differing experiences of Jews under the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and, following partitions, the Tsarist Empire as well as those who found themselves under Prussian and Austrian control.

At the start of this astonishing undertaking, Polonsky states that his objective is to follow recent historiography. He wants to avoid the earlier tendencies to either dismiss the eastern European Jewish experience as backward (the approach of the great German Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz) and ultimately doomed to extinction or, alternatively, to view it nostalgically post-Holocaust as an unchanging and harmonious lost world.

He more than succeeds in this task, although it is perhaps only in chapters where there is a synthesis over time and place, such as mini-studies of "Jewish Places", "Jewish Literature" and "Women", that the study really comes alive. Polonsky provides short conclusions to all his chapters but at times these are tantalising and a deeper analysis might have been provided.

Absence of sources, even with the vast amount of material now available through the former Soviet archives, will always be a problem in this field, but it remains that this is largely a "top-down" history with little on everyday life represented in these monumental volumes. More attention could have been devoted to internal and external Jewish migration and to the extraordinary demographics of east European Jewry which, even with increased out movement, tripled in size from 1825 to 1900, exceeding 7 million by the turn of the century.

Polonsky writes clearly and integrates beautifully chosen primary sources from both the religious and secular realms. As ever, the quality of production and editing from the Littman Library is first class, although it is a shame that, alongside the plentiful tables of statistics, illustrations could not also have been provided to add even further to the distinguished nature of these volumes.

These, however, are minor quibbles: to summarise so much history and scholarship is a lifetime's achievement. These volumes will provide the first port of call for any student of east European Jewry.

Tony Kushner's 'Anglo-Jewry since 1066' was published by Manchester University Press in 2009

Last updated: 11:08am, October 24 2011