On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War
Simon & Schuster
Bernard Wasserstein, a professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago, has written a comprehensive and richly textured history of Europe’s Jews during the decades between the end of World War I in 1918 and the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. During this period, European Jewry faced both an internal as well as external crisis. Wasserstein's kaleidoscopic portrait of how Jews lived from France to the Soviet Union during the inter-war years also describes their fragmentation along political, social, cultural, and religious lines. Although anti-Semites tended to view Jews as a monolithic entity, the truth was that Jews not only lacked unity but were totally divided in the face of the external crisis which they faced on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland.
The external crisis facing the Jews of Europe was the emergence of a vitriolic anti-Semitism that threatened their existence in the form of economic and political discrimination, quotas, as well as the growth of violent anti-Semitic military organizations that were reminiscent of the Nazi SA. In light of their precarious position throughout Europe, Jews were ill-prepared to effectively counter their enemies, to a large extent because of their inability to overcome their divisions, such as the bitter acrimony which existed between the Jewish Social Bund and the Zionists in the Soviet Union and Poland, and the hostile attitudes of Western Jewry towards the Ostjuden, to name only a few examples that Wasserstein describes in this thoughtful book.
Wasserstein refutes the common misconception that Jews were unaware of the gathering force of their enemies. Rather, states Wasserstein, there was a growing recognition that the promises of the Enlightenment, which led to the legal equality of Jews in many European countries, was now being threatened by forces beyond its control.
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