On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War
On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein. (Simon & Schuster, 553 pp. $32.50)
The “eve” in Bernard Wasserstein’s study refers both to the outbreak of World War II and the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, many of whom, systematically stripped of citizenship, had become wandering refugees. Throughout, his focus is on the Jews, in all their fractious diversity. Wasserstein—fluent in perhaps a dozen European languages, including Dutch—writes not only with the sure-footedness of a scholar in enviable command of his material but with notable subtlety and sympathetic power.
His design is synoptic, gliding effortlessly from a discussion of what is wryly labeled Europe’s “Christian Problem” to an account of irreconcilable East and Central European Jewish political passions—i.e., General Zionists vs. Revisionists vs. Bundists—to chapters that explore the baleful effects of urbanization on the Jewish masses and the varieties of Jewish religious experience. (“Holy Men” segues gracefully into a chapter labeled “Unholy Women.”)
Among the dozen or more cultural forms and social phenomena Wasserstein sifts through are luftmentchen, popular entertainment, the Yiddish and Hebrew press; he also observes Jewish children. The effect is of a collage whose discrete parts register as an organic and aesthetic whole: European Jewish civilization. Near the end, the time frame foreshortens, dipping to intimations of annihilation.
The texture of On the Eve is drenched in specificity, data and felicitous citation. Here, for example, is a passage from a chapter that portrays the unique flavor of four diverse centers of Yiddishkeit: Minsk, Vilna, Salonika and Amsterdam.
The heart of Jewish Amsterdam was in and around the Waterloopen flea market, a large proportion of whose traders were Jewish. Heet is te gèèf (‘I’m giving it away!’) was a characteristic stall-keeper’s cry. Jews were conspicuous among the sellers of old clothes, bric-a-brac, fruit, fish, flowers, vegetables and ice. From here ragpickers, itinerants, barrowmen, and peddlers radiated out to the rest of the city.
The particulars may vary, but each city tells the same tale: “the future looked very grim.”
One wonders whether Wasserstein might have done better by appropriating for this study the highly charged title that Walter Benjamin, the remarkable German-Jewish literary critic, affixed to his book, One-Way Street. Wasserstein’s concluding chapter alludes to it:
Acculturation and assimilation, of course, were neither one-way streets nor linear processes. The European Jews gave at least as much as they took from surrounding societies and cultures. Their ‘contributions’ to European culture earned them admiration and congratulation—particularly after they were gone.
Wasserstein himself earns these very plaudits for actualizing Benjamin’s observation that true history is what “lays embedded in cracks and fissures” with such dedication and finesse.