Civilisation that declined only partly through Nazism

By Natasha Lehrer, April 27, 2012

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War Bernard Wasserstein Profile Books, £25

Passing moment: Market day in pre-First World War Jewish Warsaw

Passing moment: Market day in pre-First World War Jewish Warsaw

Bernard Wasserstein's new book takes a hard look at the situation of Jews in Europe in the years preceding the outbreak of the Second World War. In a series of often melancholic and even elegiac snapshots, Wasserstein sets out to show what life was like before the Holocaust destroyed Europe's many and varied Jewish communities. He vividly describes Jewish cultural realities, from religious practice, Yiddish theatre, feminist activism and education, to sport, beauty pageants, drug-running and horse-thieving, as practised by Jews across the continent, from Paris to Moscow via Vienna and Salonika.

According to Wasserstein, European Jews in the 1920s appeared to be "a vibrant, dynamic and flourishing people" but this was a chimera, and the antisemitism that was to destroy the large majority of European Jewry by 1945 was only half the reason why Jewish culture was in retreat by the 1930s. Jews were "the victims of their own success" as the large-scale embrace of post-Enlightenment secular Jewish identity was leading in turn to increasing assimilation into the cultures of countries where they were newly afforded citizenship.

On a continent riven by deep economic depression and the rise of fascism, this assimilation and acculturation proved not to be a shield against antisemitism. In spite of their embrace of modernity, Jews found that they were still victims of hatred. They faced an impossible dilemma, in varying degrees rejecting and embracing cultural and religious particularity, and simultaneously seeking acceptance in wider society, all the while ignorant of the horrors that were waiting in the wings.

Wasserstein's approach, addressing the subject by theme rather than geographically, has the advantage of showing sociological tendencies across Europe (Jews across the continent were significantly more literate, for example, than the wider population.) More significantly, it enables him to draw out the central point of his thesis to show how the normalisation of Jewish identity in Europe was creating schisms that might well have been fatal to Jewish life across the continent even without the cataclysm of the Holocaust.

He describes, for example, how a once vibrant Jewish press - both Hebrew and Yiddish - was stuttering to a halt by the late 1930s, victim on the one hand of the success of Jewish integration in Warsaw, Salonika and Paris, where Jews now spoke Polish, Greek and French, and on the other hand of Nazi racial laws in Germany. Wasserstein argues that a declining birth-rate, high rates of marriage to non-Jews, the loosening of cultural bonds both linguistic and religious, and schisms between different forms of Orthodoxy, between religious and secular Jews, between Zionists and Bundists, and the "collective sum of millions of individual decisions by Jews themselves over the previous two or three generations had weakened the ligaments of their society" to the degree that Jews were on course for what was called by one contemporary observer "race suicide".

His contention that European Jewry was by the 1930s in an irreversible spiral of decline that was at least partly of its own creation will shock and upset many readers. But the extensively researched On the Eve is an enlightening and moving evocation of the richness and heterogeneity, both vast and under-documented, of Jewish life in pre-war Europe.

Last updated: 4:31pm, April 27 2012