Europe's Jews were a sitting target

By Bernard Wasserstein, April 27, 2012

Was the Holocaust predictable? That was the question asked in 1975 by the Israeli historian Jacob Katz. His answer was a clear negative. And he argued that even those Jewish leaders in the 1930s who spoke in doom-laden, semi-apocalyptic language, notably Vladimir Jabotinsky, head of the Revisionist Zionist movement, were thinking merely in terms of "the aggravation of economic, social, and political measures against the Jewish community in Poland" rather than of the mass murder of the Jewish people.

But then, it is often asked, how could the Shoah have been foreseen? How could any person with an iota of faith in humanity foresee the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto or predict mass executions such as Babi Yar, let alone the gas chambers of Auschwitz?

For a long time after the Second World War, it was assumed that the genocide of the Jews was the result of a long-planned process that began with antisemitic laws and then proceeded by successive stages to the violence of the Kristallnacht, the concentration of Jews in camps and ghettos, and the "final solution" of industrialised killing. Katz noted that many people therefore asked: "How could people have been so foolish as not to have seen what was in store for them at the hands of Adolf Hitler?"

Yet most historians now agree that the Nazi decision for mass murder was taken only in the second half of 1941. So how could anyone foresee a crime that the criminals themselves had not yet resolved upon?

But there is a different question that a historian may properly ask: not, could the Shoah have been foreseen, but was it foreseen? Historians, after all, are uncomfortable dealing with hypotheticals: trained in the assembly and analysis of data, they prefer to stay close to their evidence.

How could anyone forsee a crime that the criminals themselves had not yet resolved upon?

The generally accepted answer to that question is that, before the outbreak of war, the European Jewish community was blithely insouciant about the gathering forces of hatred that were about to consume it. Yet the evidence shows that, contrary to this received version, there was a widespread, dawning recognition by Jews in Europe in the 1930s that they stood on the edge of an abyss.

As early as the spring of 1933, a matter of weeks after Hitler's assumption of power, Rabbi Leo Baeck, who emerged as German Jewry's leader and spokesman in its final decade, declared: "The thousand-year history of German Jewry has come to an end."

About the same time, one of the most acute contemporary analysts of European Jewish politics and society, Jacob Lestchinsky, wrote unequivocally in a dispatch to the New York Times from Berlin that the Nazis aimed at "a mass slaughter of Jews".

The problem was not just Germany. The Nazis were the vanguard of a wider European phenomenon of stigmatisation, expropriation, extrusion, and bloodshed. Antisemitism, almost everywhere on the continent that Jews lived, had risen to unprecedented heights and was directed against every section of Jewish society, even children, the elderly, and the disabled. Christian morality, which in the past had set some limits to the worst excesses of Jew-hatred, showed no capacity (nor, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, much readiness) to restrain racist brutality.

None of this was news to contemporaries. "The struggle for existence" was one of the characteristic and most often heard phrases of the period among the Jewish masses of east-central Europe. Even if nobody could foresee the horrors of Auschwitz, no serious observer of European Jewry could be anything but deeply pessimistic about its future.

As for the young, theirs was a generation, wrote a journalist in the Warsaw Yiddish paper, Literarishe bleter, in January 1939, that was "naked and barefoot, a generation of fed up, poor little menshelekh, with no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow".

The air of intense gloom in the Jewish world was reflected in debate in the late 1930s about a "return to the ghetto". In the face of the hostility of their neighbours, some Jewish thinkers advocated such a voluntary withdrawal from surrounding society.

In April 1938, after the horrors of the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria), the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatshteyn published his "Goodnight, world", a savage, unsparing, petulant cry of rage:

A gute nakht, brayte velt.

Good night, wide world.

groyse, shtinkendike velt.

Big, stinking world.

oyf mayn aygenem gebot -

At my own behest -

gey ikh tsurik in geto.

I return to the ghetto.

As sometimes happens when an idea is already in the air, publication of the poem fanned smouldering embers into a fiery controversy.

Many repudiated the idea of such resignation from the world. Roman Zilbershtayn, a Warsaw city councillor, told a meeting of the Jewish Merchants' Association: "We must burn out with a red-hot iron every kind of nonsensical thought of going back to the ghetto. We may perish but we will not perish in a ghetto."

The acerbic Warsaw literary critic Yoshue Rapoport wrote that, for several weeks, he could "neither swallow nor spit out" Glatshteyn's poem. "So Glatshteyn goes willingly into the ghetto? Not me," he thundered.

And if the day should come that he (Rapoport) was confined in a ghetto, he declared, he would go not with misplaced pride but shouting out loud that he was being shoved in by force and creating a great commotion in order to let in a breath of the wider world.

Meanwhile, the editor of Paris Yiddish daily paper, Parizer haynt, observed that the disasters befalling the Jewish people had left many fearful that entire Jewish communities would be annihilated and wiped off the face of the earth.

The controversy rumbled on until the final word was uttered by a grand old man of yiddishkeit. On August 25 1939, six days before the Nazi invasion of Poland, 79-year-old Simon Dubnow, the leading Jewish historian of the age, wrote in an open letter published in the Warsaw Yiddish daily, Haynt: "The last two Hitler-years, 1938-1939, have left many people with the impression that we are at the beginning of the destruction [khurbn] of European Jewry."

Hitler's "extermination-system" (oysrotungs-sistem), he maintained, was a straightforward recreation of Haman's plan "to destroy, to massacre, and exterminate all the Jews", with the difference that, in Haman's case, it had remained merely a plan.

Of course, not all Jews subscribed to such grim prognostications. In late 1938, the parents of the young German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias, who had emigrated to England, visited him there from their home in Breslau. He begged them not to return.

His father replied. "All our friends are in Breslau, and in London we don't know anyone." He added: "Ich habe nie etwas Unrechtes getan. Was können sie mir tuen?" (I have never done anything wrong. What can they do to me?).

In some countries, such as Italy, Jews comforted themselves that the torrent of hostility would bypass them and leave them unscathed. When Mussolini, aping Hitler, promulgated antisemitic laws in 1938, Italian Jews reacted with a mixture of disbelief and despair.

Angelo Fortunato Formiggini, who had produced the monthly literary review, L'Italia che scrive, since 1918, was ordered by the government to remove his name from that of his publishing firm: he jumped to his death from the Ghirlandina bell-tower of Modena cathedral.

But most Jews sought refuge neither in illusions nor in suicide. Instead they spoke eloquently in support of the pessimists - with their feet. More than a million Jews left Europe between 1918 and 1939, 10 per cent of the Jewish population of the continent.

More than half the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria fled between 1933 and 1939. Many more would have done so if countries of refuge had opened their doors a little wider.

The exodus was not only from those areas of Europe already under Nazi control. At least 400,000 Jews left Poland in the inter-war period. In Romania in May 1938 a Jewish diarist, Emil Dorian, noted: "All the Jews endlessly chew over the one preoccupation: leaving Romania. But this is merely an obsession, a neurotic symptom of powerlessness and despair. For in actuality, nobody moves - since there is nowhere to go and no salvation in sight!… There is no way out. We scream, we groan, blood mixes with earth, and a whole generation is destroyed."

The problem was indeed that there was nowhere to go. Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States afforded asylum to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, mainly German and Austrian Jews. Even the Soviet Union admitted a few. But no government was willing to contemplate the immigration of the much larger numbers threatened with expulsion from countries like Poland and Romania.

Liberalism and socialism failed in this period in the case of the Jews, as in so much else, to live up to the universalist, enlightenment principles on which they were founded. Allies to whom the Jews had looked with assurance in the past now had other priorities.

In Britain, the policy of support for the Jewish National Home had been replaced by an overriding concern for national and imperial security, held to be incompatible with continued support for Zionism or for large-scale reception of Jewish refugees, whether in Palestine or anywhere in the British Empire.

The Soviet Union had posed as the most determined foe of Nazism; with the signature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Stalin turned suddenly in August 1939 into Hitler's catspaw.

On the eve of the war, in consequence, more and more Jews in Europe were joining the horde of refugees. Growing numbers were confined in concentration or internment camps - not just in Germany or the police states of eastern Europe but all over the continent. Indeed, in the summer of 1939, more Jews were confined behind barbed wire in camps outside the Third Reich than within it, even in democracies such as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Already the Jews were in the process of transformation into a "camp people", without the right to a home anywhere and consequently with rights almost nowhere

The Jews of Europe did not react to their predicament passively. They were actors in their own history. They sought by every possible means, individually and collectively, to confront the threats that loomed on every side. They tried emigration: but all the exits were blocked. They tried persuasion: but few would listen and anyway the blaring loud-speakers of the Nazi propaganda machine deafened ears.

They tried political organisation of every kind: but they were politically weightless. A handful, even before the war, tried violent resistance: but their enemies could wreak vengeance a thousandfold - as the Nazis demonstrated on Kristallnacht. Some tried prayer: but their God betrayed them.

They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Wholly defenceless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians.

Bernard Wasserstein is professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago. His book, 'On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War' (Profile Books) will be published on May 1. It is reviewed in this week's JC (Books, page 31)

Last updated: 3:36pm, April 27 2012