Floating in the air, suspended above the shtetl, visible but powerless, buffeted hither and thither by gusts from all directions, Marc Chagall’s luftmensh [sic] becomes an archetype for Jewish weightlessness in this period [the period leading up to the Second World War]. He is, at the same time, a convenient catch-all for the deviants, marginals, and outcasts who constituted a minor but revealing part of Jewish society. Chagall’s was the archetypal “fiddler on the roof” (171). This for me is the passage from Bernard Wasserstein’s On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War that resonates most strongly, calling to mind as it does Chagall’s dreamlike images of people floating above villages and snowscapes, caught somewhere between joy and nightmare. Wassertstein suggests, “it might almost be said that the Jew, almost any Jew, was by definition a luftmensh, since, virtually alone among the peoples of Europe, he and his kind were not rooted in the land but operated in an ethereal, commercial stratosphere” (171).
Sometime in 1970 three young women went together to the West End Production of Fiddler on the Roof. One a provincial English girl living on her own in London for the first time was the daughter, grand-daughter, and great grand-daughter of English clergymen; one, Swiss finishing school and Paris educated, was the descendent of Portuguese Sephardim who had left Amsterdam in the seventeenth century for ultimate wealth and status in the West Indies, and the other was a defector from Poland, an Ashkenazi born in Warsaw to parents who had somehow survived the Holocaust and were now enduring life in Communist Poland.
Five years later, the Polish girl had married and settled in London, and the other two were together for a brief visit, some of which they spent in the dark auditorium of a Vancouver college watching the full version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. They came out of both experiences weeping: weeping for a past neither had been called upon to experience, protected as they were by coming after, and, in the one case, too, by race and background.
I found myself remembering those experiences with friends of over forty years ago as I read Bernard Wasserstein’s 2012 book On The Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War. I also found myself remembering the exhibition I’d seen somewhere on my various travels of Life in the Shtetls of Europe, remembering the Marian Marzynski documentary Shtetl for PBS’s Frontline I watched several years ago (still available via pbs.org), and the Chagall exhibition in Liverpool only three years ago.
Unlike the stories by Sholem Aleichem on which it is based, Fiddler on the Roof ends on a relatively hopeful note, even as Tevye the milkman’s family must leave their little town. Given our ability to engage in hindsight, Aleichem’s stories seem prophetic. The world of the shtetl has gone for ever except as artifacts and in family anecdotes and mythologies as children and grandchildren attempt to hold on to the parents’ and grandparents’ memories. In his introduction to his book, Wasserstein explains his “fundamental objective has been to try to restore forgotten men, women, and children to the historical record, to breathe renewed life momentarily into those who were soon to be dry bones” (xxi).
This he does beginning by explaining the four zones of Europe—the democracies of Western Europe, Germany and areas such as Austria in Central Europe that had already fallen under Nazi control, Eastern Europe especially Poland, and the Soviet Union—in which Jews were living prior to 1939. The living conditions for Jews in these zones were very different, and even within individual communities there was not necessarily homogeneity of opinion or practice. The book is divided into nineteen chapters with titles such as “The Christian Problem,” “New Jerusalems,” “Holy Men,” “Unholy Women,” and “Masques of Modernity” most of which focus on a particular aspect Jewish experience in Europe during the 1930s. As one moves through the chapters, one realises that Wasserstein has also to a certain extent subtly organized his book on a chronological basis so that the last chapter “Existential Crisis” brings us to 1939.
On the Eve is a moving and disturbing book, but Wasserstein’s empathy for his subject matter leads him into neither sentimentality nor superficiality. This is a fully documented academic work: the list of sources encompasses twenty-eight of the book’s total 552 pages, and the detailed notes to his chapters take another thirty-two. He also includes informative maps, photographs, and a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms as well as an Epilogue in which he lists the “Fates Known and Unknown” of individuals, some famous and some not. His tone and diction express a certain resigned cynicism—“liberalism and socialism failed in this period in the case of the Jews, as in so much else, to live up the universalist, Enlightenment principles on which they were founded” (435), for example—but never anger or hysteria.
Wasserstein holds a mirror to a section of the world that was facing erasure, and his hand does not shake even when the mirror shows individuals and communities not at their best. As I said earlier, there was little homogeneity either among or within the various European communities. There were rifts between orthodox, conservative, and reform theologies, between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, between secular and religious Jews. Jews from the western democracies and the cities tended to look down on Jews from the east and the country. Politically, too, Jews were divided: should they or should they not participate in the political life of the countries where they lived and had citizenship or should they hope for a place of their own, and if so, should that be in Palestine where the British were rethinking their commitments in the Balfour Declaration, or should it be somewhere else such as Madagascar? Jews disagreed over whether Yiddish should be fostered as “their” language or preference given to the vernacular of the states where they lived. Wasserstein tells us, “In the interwar period European Jewry . . . found itself at a delicate point of transition between sustaining its own culture and embracing that of others” (242).
In fact, “by the 1930s the center of gravity in the Yiddish cultural world was moving rapidly toward New York, which had a Jewish population five times that of Warsaw” (228). What we discover, then, is that the years immediately preceding the actual outbreak of war saw a diminishing of the Jewish presence in Europe resulting from emigration, and from the pressures to assimilate such as exogamy. Further, Wasserstein comments, “the more European Jews became like their neighbours in other ways, the less they resembled them in their demographic patterns. Jewish fertility, infant mortality, and death rates all declined faster than non-Jewish, the average age of marriage climbed higher, and the average size of family became smaller than those of non-Jews” (14). He quotes Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: “To a statistician Nazi persecution and extermination would look like a senseless acceleration of a process which would probably have come about in any case” (qtd. Wasserstein 12).
Nevertheless, this decline was hastened by anti-Jewish legislation and regulation in many countries in Europe, not only in Germany, and “by January 1939 the Jews of Europe were being transformed into a people without fixed abode” and more and more Jews were already finding themselves in some kind of camp whether a refugee camp [in countries such as France, Poland or the Netherlands] or something more ominous. Whether the internees were perceived as “refugees, illegal immigrants, or political undesirables,” they were all affected by “the notion that the camp dwellers did not belong in normal society (387).
The main narrative of the book ends with a short paragraph: “Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians” (436). Unlike them, we know what is to come. To a certain extent, the Epilogue listing as it does the “Fates Known and Unknown” of some individuals provides a kind of coda to the book. There were some survivors.
As its title says, Wasserstein’s book focuses only on those Jews who were living in continental Europe. He does not deal with how Jews in Britain fared in the pre-war period. He has written another work Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945 originally published in 1979, which I would be very interested in reading. For me, I think one of the main impacts of reading On the Eve is to wonder just how things have and have not changed since the end of the war. The Jewish population in Europe has not rebounded and in some areas continues to shrink. More details are easily accessible http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/09/europes-jewish-population/. What effect do Israeli politics have on people’s attitudes towards their Jewish neighbours in Europe and elsewhere? How do we respond to today’s new “camp people”?
Those three young women who went over four decades ago to Fiddler on the Roof are now approaching their seventies. They were friends in a free, safe country, in a world that seems from this distance to have been much safer than is our world today, and yet I’m afraid when they remember the past and confront the future, they still have cause to weep.