Historian looks at Europe’s Jews ‘On the Eve’ of war

‘On the Eve, The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War’

By Burton A. Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Numerous books have been written about Europe in the 1930s prior to the holocaust.   In Bernard Wasserstein’s provoking book, “On the Eve, The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” (Simon and Schuster, 552 pages; $32.50), the author, a Professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago since 2003, has taken a different approach.  

Unlike most authors whose focus has been on the anti-Semites who were the perpetrators of the extermination of more than six million Jews, Wasserstein focuses on the Jews themselves.  He carefully proceeds to disprove the commonly held belief that the Jews were totally unaware of the fate that was to befall them. Through painstaking careful and comprehensive research, Wasserstein tells the tragic story of the European Jews prior to their annihilation during World War II.  He emphasizes that the majority of the Jews knew the seriousness of the events surrounding them.

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Wasserstein begins his book by stating that the 10 million Jews residing in Europe in the late 1930s were distributed among four zones, each with a different history, different conditions of life, and “on the face of things, varying prospects for the future.”  He carefully examines each of these broadly defined zones:  the liberal democracies of Western Europe, where the Jews had been emancipated for many generations and enjoyed a civic equality that protected them; Germany and those adjacent states already absorbed into the Third Reich, where the Jews were in the process of being stripped of their citizenship, subjected to discriminatory laws, dispossessed of their possessions, and under pressure to emigrate; all the states of east-central Europe, where anti- Jewish laws were extensive and anti- Semitism was rampant; and the Soviet Union, where the Jews had been liberated in 1917, and had enjoyed dramatic upward social mobility in the period between the two World Wars, even though Joseph Stalin had always subjected them to harsh restrictions.  

While each of these zones possessed individual and distinct features, Wasserstein maintains that they shared a common characteristic — Jewish life in all four zones was crumbling because of numerous factors.  There was a decline in the Jewish birth rate, anti-Semitism was increasing in all four zones, Jews were excluded from public life, and even though an economic crisis was spreading over Europe, and Jews lacked political power, intra-Jewish squabbles were prominent.

In the decade preceding World War II, European Jews attempted to assimilate and embrace the national life of the of their countries of residence.  In response to this effort, Wasserstein wrote, “In a continent that in the 1930s was overwhelmed by economic depression and racial resentment, the Jews found that assimilation and acculturation, rather than easing their path to acceptance, aroused still more hatred against them.”

Wasserstein has attempted to answer the oft-asked question of why, knowing the severity of the events taking place around them, did the Jews not make an effort to leave their dangerous situations and seek refuge elsewhere.  Wasserstein maintains that understanding the situation is one thing, but being able to escape from it is another.  Many extenuating factors made escape difficult or simply impossible — religious beliefs, family ties, lacking the means to escape, and financial considerations were but a few.

Wasserstein makes it clear that many prominent people did manage to leave Germany prior to Kristallnacht.  To name a few, Alexander Altmann, rabbi and scholar, who wrote the standard biography of Moses Mendelsohn; Sholom Asch, Yiddish writer; Erich Fromm, psychologist; Fritz Kreisler, violinist; Max Warburg, banker; and Arnold Zweig, writer, who returned to Berlin after many years and became president of the East German Academy of Arts.  But the fate of the vast majority of Jews living in Europe prior to 1939 was obvious.

Any glimmer for the salvation of European Jews faded when the Soviet Union, which once appeared to be the most determined foe of Nazism, suddenly became a puppet of Adolph Hitler in August 1939.  Wasserstein’s terse reaction to this Nazi-Soviet pact concludes this absorbing and gripping book: “Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians.”