Commentary Magazine

The History of the Jews, by Poul Borchsenius

The Pastor and the Jews

The History Of the Jews.
by Poul Borchsenius.
Simon and Schuster. Five volumes: 220, 242, 217, 236,216 pp. $12.95 boxed.

Poul Borchsenius, a Lutheran pastor in Randers, Danish Jutland, was called the “shooting priest” during World War II by the German occupants of his country because he blew up railroad lines connecting Germany and Norway. Thanks to him, all the twenty or so Jews of Randers, mostly doctors and civil servants, were safely transported to Sweden in 1943. At the end of 1943, when the Germans came too close to Borchsenius's trail, the Danish underground sent him and his family to safety in Sweden, where he lived with refugee Danish Jews until the end of the war. Later he visited Israel: his Protestant associations with the Holy Land were overlaid with fresh images of Israelis reconquering the desert. His disparate experiences with Jews before, during, and after the war must have intrigued him, and he plunged into a reading of Jewish history.

The product of his researches, a miniature five-volume history, was published in Denmark between 1954 and 1960 and subsequently translated and published in England. That edition, its English idiom and spelling intact, has now been reproduced here for the American market. The five books are a capsulized universal history, whose first volume, The Son of a Star, is an account of the Jewish wars of 66-70 C.E., the destruction of the Second Temple, and the fall of Jerusalem. The story then moves to the Golden Age in Spain in The Three Rings. The third book, Behind the Wall, describes the pre-Emancipation period in Central and Eastern Europe. The fourth, The Chains Are Broken, tells the story of the Jewish Emancipation and, for good measure, gives a kaleidoscopic account of European anti-Semitism from Wilhelm Marr to Alexander III, Jewish emigration to America, and the rise of the Zionist movement: The final volume, And It Was Morning, begins with a brief treatment of Nazi Germany and Soviet anti-Semitism, but is mostly devoted to a rhapsodic treatment of modern Israel.


Borchsenius is the latest addition to a long line of distinguished and not-so-distinguished Christian historians of Jews, going back to Jacques Basnage (1653-1725). Some, motivated theologically or teleologically, approached Jewish history as friends, Higher Critics, or outright foes (the Balaam among them, who came to curse but stayed to bless, was the Russian jurist Sergei Aleksandrovich Bershadsky). Others, eminent scholars, mastered Talmudic and rabbinic sources; among them were George Foot Moore, R. Travers Herford, James Parkes, and W. D. Davies. Still others were more dilettantish, like the Englishman Henry Hart Milman, a Dean of St. Paul's, whose sympathetic History of the Jews (1830) expressed his own liberal and rationalist theological views.

Borchsenius is in the Milman tradition. His is no academic history. He has neither scholarly pretensions nor appurtenances (not even an index). The most familiar chapters of Jewish history are retold so simply that at times the books read like a juvenile text. I feel it may be rather churlish to mention that there are errors aplenty—for how could he assimilate all that material? (He refers to a specific Passover: “. . . all the bells were ringing for service. . . .”) The historical narrative is interspersed with anecdotes, legends, and folklore, the intriguing myth often supplanting the duller reality. Borchsenius frequently intrudes himself into the historical account and transforms an exotic past into a tourist's commonplace:

Sitting on the hard, uncomfortable chair of a pavement cafe, sipping a diminutive cup of scalding-hot Turkish coffee, I have watched the same scenes that were enacted when Sabbatai Zevi grew up in these streets 300 years ago, and it was easy to evoke the past and see the events as they occurred.

Yet, despite the dilettantism, mistakes, and mistranslations (Maimonides's Moreh Nebukhim becomes a “Guide to the Deluded”), Borchsenius's history interests because it is such a personal record, a sort of alter ego of his wartime self. He does not shrink from confronting the superstition and cruelty of Christian anti-Semitism, nor is he content as a Lutheran to make the Catholic Church the scapegoat for Protestant anti-Semitism. He faces Luther's anti-Semitism candidly: “. . . to a member of the Church which bears his name it is deeply humiliating to reflect on its leader's fall on so vital an issue.” Elsewhere: “From Luther to Stöcker, the Court chaplain in Berlin, runs a direct line of Jewish hatred.” Nor is he self-gratulatory about his countrymen, though well he might be. He reminds his readers (Danes, to begin with), “lest there should be any self-satisfaction,” that Jews returning to Holland and Denmark after the liberation “met with opposition and ill-feeling from those who had taken over their businesses.”

Borchsenius is most personal and appealing in his attempt to understand the Jews, to discover unity in their perplexing diversity, to decipher a central meaning in conflicting currents of Jewish thought through the ages. Being liberal and rationalist in his own religion, he is uncomfortable with Jewish piety, for it nearly always appears to him excessive and embarrassing, Oriental and absurd. The great Jews whom he most admires are Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn, notable for their rationalism and their mastery of high culture. His favorite period is the Spanish-Moorish, when Jews were poets and philosophers, transmitters of the culture of other civilizations. These preferences doubtless reflect his own temperament; I suspect they may have been reinforced by Graetz.

Most of all, Borchsenius admires “the new Jew,” the fighter, the man of soil and action, the Israeli: “The old air of the ghetto and the habitual Jewish outlook are gone; the uncertain, obsequious, and fearful have given way to pride and confidence.” Many Jews feel that way too nowadays, as uncomfortable with the values of traditional Jewish society as Borchsenius. (Not only modern Jews about traditional Jews: Negroes, too, see nothing positive in Uncle Tom, though he was conceived as a heroic figure.) Which leaves Borchsenius in a dilemma. The Spanish Jews, whom he admires, converted and have almost vanished; Mendelssohn's family and friends abandoned Judaism in an epidemic of apostasy. In whom, then, resides the mystery of the Jews, the eternal and wandering people? In Spanish Jewry, or in Polish Jewry “locked within the ghetto”? How can he reconcile the flesh-and-blood assimilated Danish Jews of his acquaintance with the idea of the Jews in history, the people God chose and who survive forever because He chose them?

This enigma of the “eternal Jew” fascinates and mystifies Borchsenius and after each attempt at probing it, he retreats in bafflement: “What is a Jew? The problem is so complicated that no one can give an answer which can be put in a nutshell.” Or: “There is some secret hidden in this people which goes through fire and death, and always rises again like a phoenix from the ashes.” Or: “How is it that this people, of all others, is able to stand firm; what kind of constant will to live sustains it?”

His rationalism notwithstanding, Borchsenius discovers that the only solution to the riddle is the riddle itself. Finally, he turns the interrogative sentence into a declarative one and explains triumphantly: “The Jews alone remained Jews; that is their unique history.”

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