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The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, by Ezra Mendelsohn; From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish J

Vanished Worlds

The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars.
by Ezra Mendelsohn.
Indiana. 300 pp. $27.50.

From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry.
by Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin.
Schocken. 275 pp. $18.95.

Ezra Mendelsohn’s new study is a solid, intelligent analysis of a Jewish community which, on the eve of World War II, was the largest and most heterogeneous of any in the world.

The longest chapter in the book is quite rightly devoted to Poland, whose more than three million Jews accounted for 10 percent of the country’s population. Between the wars, Poland’s Jews formed a highly variegated community. Though the bulk of them still spoke Yiddish, Polish was making rapid inroads among the young, and a Polish-Jewish press was in the process of developing. Cultural institutions were also growing in importance and influence. Along with widespread linguistic acculturation, there was also some outright assimilation, to the point of actual conversion to Christianity.

Economically, Poland’s Jews spanned the entire range from the most destitute (of whom there were significant numbers) to the haute bourgeoisie, with the large majority in between made up of poor workers, artisans, and shopkeepers. With respect to education, too, Polish Jews ran the gamut from semi-illiterates to university-educated members of the free professions (though the latter were by and large barred from government service). Politically, the spectrum extended from the ultra-Orthodox religious parties that favored collaboration with the government through the full complement of Zionist movements of varying ideological hues to the anti-Zionist Jewish Labor Bund and the (illegal) Communist party.

But whether they were assimilated or Yiddish-speaking, religious or free-thinking, Zionists or Polish patriots, Poland’s Jews during the interwar period had one thing in common. They were all victims of anti-Semitic discrimination openly practiced by the authorities:

Jewish doctors were not hired in state hospitals, and Jewish lawyers were not employed by state institutions. Jewish professors in Polish universities were virtually unknown; even the great historian Szymon Askenazy, one of Poland’s most distinguished scholars, could not obtain a chair in Warsaw. There were hardly any Jewish officers (aside from doctors) in the Polish army. The number of Jewish students in Polish universities, which were here as elsewhere in Eastern Europe hotbeds of anti-Semitism, declined dramatically during the interwar years—from 24.6 percent in 1921-22 to 8.2 percent in 1938-39.

Nor was it only in the elite sectors of society that Jews were discriminated against. Of Poland’s 16,840 postal employees, a total of 21 were Jews, and of the 28,895 persons in the railroad system, Jews numbered 44.

Economic warfare against Poland’s Jews was not random, but a matter of government policy. In a slogan that later became famous, Prime Minister Slawoj-Skladkowski said in 1936, “Economic struggle [against the Jews], by all means—but without force.” Yet the official warning against violence often went unheeded: “[D]uring 1935-36,” Mendelsohn writes, “1,289 Jews were wounded in anti-Semitic attacks in over 150 towns and villages in Poland, a number based on reports in the Polish press and probably much too low.”

With all this, however, prewar Poland retained its status as the world’s leading center of Jewish culture and scholarship, whether religious or secular. As Mendelsohn aptly puts it, Poland may have been bad for the Jews, but it was definitely good for Judaism (the opposite was true of the USSR during the 1920′s).

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Bad as Poland was, however, it is Rumania that had the dubious distinction of being (along with Imperial Russia) Europe’s most anti-Semitic country both prior to World War I and during the inter-war period. In Rumania, traditional religious and economic grievances were reinforced by strong nationalist sentiments. In contrast to truncated Hungary, Rumania emerged from World War I with a territory and a population far greater than it had had in 1913. It so happened that many of the ex-Hungarian Jews now within Rumania’s borders still retained their strong Magyar ties and an attachment to the Hungarian language, even as the Jews of Czernowitz retained their German cultural orientation, and those of the Eastern border areas gravitated linguistically and culturally to Russia.

On account of these circumstances, relations between Rumania’s Jews and their Gentile compatriots ranged from distant to actively hostile. According to Mendelsohn, “[t]he overwhelming majority of Rumanian Jews felt very much apart from the ruling ethnic groups,” so that, in contrast to the situation in Hungary and the Czech lands, intermarriage and/or conversion were very unusual. In addition, the Rumanian Orthodox Church was anti-Semitic in the extreme, as was, of course, the Iron Guard, Rumania’s homegrown fascist movement which grew stronger as World War II approached and in the 1940′s embarked on a Nazi-style campaign of systematic extermination of Jews.

Unlike the case in Poland and Rumania, Hungary’s Jews prior to World War I regarded themselves as Magyars, and, more importantly, tended to be accepted as such by their Gentile neighbors and by Hungary’s political establishment. This was true even of those who still clung to religious Orthodoxy (to say nothing of the modernist “Neologs”).

Hungary’s Jewish community was in many ways reminiscent of its counterparts in Germany and France. Eschewing purely Jewish political activity, whether of the Zionist or Bundist type, the majority of Hungary’s Jews participated in Hungarian political life, fought in Hungary’s wars, and used the Hungarian language exclusively. Economically prosperous, on excellent terms with the landed gentry, and largely ignored by the peasants as well as the Catholic and Calvinist churches, Hungary’s Jews were among Europe’s most privileged.

Nevertheless, in the wake of Hungary’s defeat and subsequent partitioning after World War I, and following the demise of the short-lived Communist regime of Béla Kun in 1919 (which was widely regarded as a Jewish conspiracy), the status of Hungarian Jews began to deteriorate rapidly, to the point where a reign of physical terror was unleashed against them.

According to Mendelsohn, the one country which, “from a Jewish point of view,” provided the most favorable environment in Eastern Europe was Czechoslovakia. This was so despite the fact that the Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia gravitated linguistically and culturally toward Germany, and that their economic position was not very different from that of the more prosperous Jews of Hungary, whom they also resembled in their high level of acculturation and rather lax religious observance (the rate of intermarriage exceeded 30 percent, which was considered a very high figure for the period).

There are a number of reasons why, in Mendelsohn’s words, “Czech politics on the whole remained relatively free of anti-Semitism.” For one thing, Czech politicians “made great efforts to gain backing for their national causes,” and hence were careful not to alienate the Jews. But the decisive factors appear to have been political idealism and genuine democratic convictions. Thomas Masaryk, the founding father of modern Czechoslovakia, was not only a proponent of complete Jewish equality within his country, but also a consistent advocate of the Zionist cause.

Perhaps the boldest thesis advanced by Mendelsohn in this book is that throughout the pre-Hitler period and beyond, “the strength or weakness of anti-Semitism [was] not related to the degree of acculturation or assimilation of the Jewry in question.” Assimilated Hungarian Jews had to contend with strong anti-Jewish prejudice, while in Lithuania, where the Jews were least acculturated (few Jews, in fact, even understood the Lithuanian language), relatively benign conditions prevailed. Nor did the intensity of anti-Semitism appear to be significantly affected by the economic position of the Jewish community, its relative numerical size, its degree of religious observance, or its Zionist orientation or lack of one. Jewish politics, too, ultimately proved irrelevant. In Poland, where Jewish political life was most highly developed, the Jewish Labor Bund could not enlist the help of its socialist allies, who failed to come to the rescue of the Jews during the war. Nor were the Zionists any more effective: all their international connections notwithstanding, they proved unable to persuade the British to open the gates of Palestine to Jewish refugees attempting to escape.

Ironically, a higher percentage of Jews survived the Hitler era in the more anti-Semitic countries of Rumania and Hungary than in Poland and Czechoslovakia, apparently because “native” fascists in the first two countries were less doctrinaire and less efficient (and more corrupt) when it came to murdering Jews than the sincere and “idealistic” Nazis who occupied the other lands. Curiously, in one of the few lapses in his admirable study, Mendelsohn underestimates the importance of this paradox.

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One outcome of the devastation of World War II has been the effort by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to memorialize their old towns and villages. To this end, they have gathered together photographs, eyewitness accounts, and other memorabilia that may somehow preserve for posterity what would otherwise go unrecorded. These memorial books (in Yiddish, yizker-bikher, a term inevitably associated with religious services for the dead) comprise a relatively new genre of written folklore, one which relies primarily on the accuracy of human memory. This is not the work of scholarly historians, economists, or sociologists, but first-person narratives, often by uneducated and “naive” informants, attempting to recreate the day-to-day existence of their prewar communities.

In From a Ruined Garden Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin, two anthropologists associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, have now brought together material from some sixty such memorial books, selected from a larger group of several hundred devoted to Poland’s Jewish communities alone. Skillfully organized and translated, the book provides the English reader with an opportunity to sample the contents of these otherwise inaccessible sources, written, as they were, mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish.

These are no sentimentalized tales of the kind made famous by Fiddler on the Roof. Rather, they are matter-of-fact descriptions of Jewish institutions ranging from girls’ religious schools to burial societies, and a portrait gallery of such familiar types as the village fool and the town beggar, as well as assortments of Jewish peddlers, stevedores, porters, and the like. Nor is the advent of modernity overlooked. There are accounts of newly formed Jewish sports clubs, self-defense leagues, and societies of political radicals challenging the traditional establishment. Yet its very matter-of-factness, the way it takes for granted a world now irrevocably shattered, is what makes this material so poignant. The book is altogether a most welcome addition to the still modest library of sources devoted to Jewish life in Eastern Europe and, indeed, to East European history generally.

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