The Life That Is No More
A hundred years ago, the majority of the world's Jews lived in Europe in the Polish provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the German Empire. To be sure, it was a world of poverty and hardship, of sacrifice and struggle, but it was also a world of scholars and poets, of impressionable matchmakers and philosophers. It was a world where each week men and women confronted new perils and hazards, and where each Sabbath they sat with their children around a table surrounded by song and joy. It was a world of synagogues and houses of study where young and old crowded together by the candle wick to study late into the night; where mothers and grandmothers rocked their loved ones to sleep with lullabies of hope and faith; where a neighbor's joy was a shtetl's day of rejoicing, and where hi's pain was its day of sorrow. It was a world where the price for respect was good deeds, but where the right to friendship had no prerequisites. Such a world were these 10,000 tiny dots on the map-Belz, where the Hasid hurried to be at hi's rebbe's table; Vilna, where the ordinary cobbler conversed I n the Talmud; Pinsk and Lodz, where vendors rose at the crack of dawn on Monday and Thursday to hurry their wares to the marketplace; there was Warsaw, where writers leisurely sipped tea, and interpreted the life of the times... Vienna, her parks and broad streets bustling with artists etching out moments of memory and violinists transforming cafes into symphonic halls...
Eastern European Jews Before World War 11
STEVEN M. LOWENSTEIN
Although there have been Jews in eastern Europe for about 1,000 years, the vast majority of the Jewish population there stems from the wave of central European migrants between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. At that time, Poland was by far the largest country in Europe. Because it was on the frontier of the Western Christian world, with an underdeveloped economy in need of merchants and farmers to help in its development, Poland welcomed foreign settlers. An especially large number of settlers came from Germany (both Jews and Christians). In addition to the economic opportunity that motivated many migrants, the Jews were also impelled by massacres and expulsions in German), to seek a new home in Poland. The Jewish migrants brought with them from Germany their Ashkenazic1 religious and communal traditions and their Yiddish language (which was based on Germanic dialects with Hebrew and Slavic admixtures). The peak of the Jewish immigration took place in the sixteenth century. By that time, the Jewish community of Poland had become far larger than the community remaining in Germany. By the eighteenth century, Poland would contain the majority of the world's Jews.
The Jews arriving in Poland found social and political conditions very different from those they had left in central Europe. Poland was a huge country with a weak central government that became progressively weaker. Unlike western and central Europe, Poland had a very weak native middle class which could do little to limit the commerce of the newcomers. The politics and economy of the country were dominated by the nobility, which owned the majority of the land in the realm and kept the peasants (the majority of the population) in a state of serfdom that often differed little from pure slavery. The nobles encouraged Jewish enterprise and settled Jews in private towns on their estates. In addition, they employed Jews to manage their estates as collectors of taxes, tolls, dues, and rents from the peasants and as concessionaires of the nobles' monopoly on liquor distilling and sales. Jews were also able to enter into all types of commerce and into many crafts (especially tailoring); they were not restricted to money lending, as they had been in the West.
Because of the weakness of the Polish government, the Jews were permitted wide powers of self-rule. Since the Polish crown had almost no bureaucracy, the only way it could raise taxes from the Jews was to assess a lump sum on the Jewish community and then leave it to the community to decide how much each individual should pay. The Jews were not only permitted to have self-governing communities in each town, but they were also allowed a council of communal representatives in each of the two sections of the Polish Commonwealth-the Council of Four Lands in the west and south and the Council of Lithuania in the northeast. These councils existed from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries until they were abolished in 1764. The Jewish communities and councils had powers that covered virtually all aspects of daily life-tax collecting, legal judgments in disputes between Jews, business regulations, upkeep of synagogues and religious schools- and the government permitted them to enforce their regulations with fines and excommunication. Most Jews, living in communities with large Jewish populations, had virtually no contact with the Polish government except through the intermediary of the Jewish community. just as did other social and national groups it? the huge amorphous Poland, the Jews lived lives of their own, differing from their neighbors in language, religion, and dress.
The weakness of the Polish government also had negative implications for the Jews. Although it allowed them autonomy, it also provided them with little security. The Polish nobleman whose word was law on his estate could favor Jews when it was in his interest and also, if he wished, treat them sadistically. In addition, the position of Jews as agents of the nobility exposed them to the hatred and violence of the peasants from whom they collected the dues and services owed to the landlord. The Jews' position was especially dangerous in the southeastern part of the Polish Commonwealth, the Ukraine. In this area, the Catholic Polish noblemen were lords of estates inhabited by Russian Orthodox Ukrainian peasants. The Poles sent in priests to spread Catholicism. Jewish settlements in the Ukraine grew tremendously in the eighty years preceding 1648. In that year, a tremendous revolt of the Cossacks and Ukrainians took place under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnitski. The rebels not only attacked Polish noblemen and Catholic priests, but they also singled out the Jews for harsh treatment. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred.
Poland never really recovered from the Chmielnitski uprising and the invasions of the Swedes and Russians that followed. The government was less and less able to govern, and Poland's neighbors interfered even more in its internal affairs. The Jews remained exposed to intermittent attacks from their neighbors, especially in the Ukraine. Finally, Poland's powerful neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, divided Poland into three partitions from 1772 to 1795, effectively eliminating it as a nation. After a brief interruption during the Napoleonic Wars, the division of Poland was confirmed in 1815. Most of Poland became a part of czarist Russia, with smaller sections going to the other two powers.
The fate of the Jews in the three successor states to Poland differed greatly. The Jews in Posen and West Prussia (the two provinces of Poland which went to Prussia) were at first subject to many restrictions, but by the second half of the nineteenth century they became Prussian (and later German) citizens. They soon began to adopt German culture and eventually were incorporated into German Jewry. In the late nineteenth century, they began to migrate to Berlin and other German cities; when Poland regained its independence in 1919, there were virtually no Jews still residing in the provinces of Posen and West Prussia.
Austrian Poland, known as Galicia, like Prussian Poland, initially restricted the rights of its Jewish inhabitants. In 1867, however, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted the Jews full legal equality. The multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire differed greatly from the more monolithic Germany. Since the ruling Germans in Austria were a minority of the empire's population, they were unable to impose their culture on the provinces. Most Jews in Galicia remained traditional in religious practice and Yiddish- speaking in language. The backward economic conditions allowed traditional life to continue with little challenge in the small towns where many Jews lived.
Galician Jews were the largest single group of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they were not the only ones. Jews also lived in the Austrian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (now western Czechoslovakia) and in western Hungary. (All of these groups resembled central European Jews as much or more than eastern European Jews.) In the course of the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Hungary increased greatly as Jews migrated there from the West (Bohemia and Moravia) and from Galicia. The eastern and northeastern provinces of Hungary were inhabited mainly by Hasidic Jews from Galicia, while central and western Hungary were settled by more Westernized Jews.
Jewish communal and religious life, which in the heyday of the Polish commonwealth had been rather uniform under the domination of the powerful communal structures, began to become more differentiated in the eighteenth century. The first religious movement to call for a new type of religious life was Hasidism, founded in the mid-eighteenth century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The Hasidic movement, with its emphasis on individual prayer, a charismatic religious leader (rebbe), and the possibility of religious greatness even for the unlearned, swept across the Ukraine and western Poland in the late eighteenth century. In the northeast (Lithuania), rabbinic opposition led by Elijah the Gaon of Vilna, who feared the Hasidic downgrading of learning and its minor liturgical changes, prevented the Hasidim from gaining the adherence of more than a minority of the Jewish population. The second challenge to traditional ways was the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Unlike Hasidism, which wished to make religious experience deeper and more personal, the Haskalah desired to bring the Jews closer to the secular culture, learning, and lifestyles of the non-Jewish world. Beginning in the late eighteenth century in Germany, the Haskalah affected a smaller group of Jewish intellectuals in eastern Europe who wished to see modernizing changes in Jewish education, dress, and religious life. The majority of rabbis opposed the Haskalah, and (at least until the late nineteenth century) so did the majority of the Jewish population of eastern Europe.
Czarist policy in Russia towards the Jews differed both from the policies formerly carried out by independent Poland and from those of Prussia and Austria. Until the partitions of Poland, Russia had excluded virtually all Jews and, when faced with this unexpected (and unwelcome) by-product of its expansion, decided to limit the size of the new population. Jews were allowed to live in the territories captured from Poland and in a few other provinces of southern Russia, but not anywhere else in the country. The restriction on Jewish settlement (Pale of Settlement) created in the 1790s continued in effect until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Czarist Russia, unlike Poland, was a strong centralized state with a large (if corruptible) bureaucracy. It was not willing to allow the Jews to retain their wide powers of self-government, but on the other hand was not willing to compensate them for the loss of autonomy by granting them equal rights and participation in the Russian government.
The policy of Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century was one of assimilating the Jews into Russian society without granting equality in return. Czar Nicholas 1 (1825-1856) ordered the drafting of Jewish boys at the age of twelve for at least twenty-five years of military service; the forbidding of traditional Jewish dress; the abolition of the Jewish communal executive (kahal); and the creation of secular schools for Jews. The Jewish community, except for a small number of supporters of the Haskalah, resisted all of these decrees, including secular schools. When Nicholas died, his somewhat more liberal son, Alexander 11 (1856-1881), instituted some reforms in Russian society and also removed some of the restrictions on Jews. Certain classes of Jews (such as merchants, ex- soldiers, and university graduates) were permitted to live outside the Pale. Political liberalization and the beginnings of industrial development encouraged some Jews to be optimistic about their future in Russia. Larger numbers of Jews attended secular schools and some abandoned traditional religious practice.
The assassination of Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881 put an end to this brief liberal period. Pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) broke out in many parts of Russia. The reactionary government of Alexander III responded not by punishing the guilty, but by issuing new restrictions on the Jews. Residence restrictions were made stricter and quotas were enforced in institutions of higher learning and some professions. The last czar, Nicholas 11 (1894-1917), faced with growing unrest among the Russian people, turned to more and more explicitly anti-Jewish policies. The government supported organizations like the Black Hundreds, which incited pogroms and murdered Jews; the czarist secret police concocted the Nuernberg Laws, which charged that there was an international Jewish conspiracy; from 1911 to 1913, the government even staged a trial accusing the Jew Mendel Beilis of ritual murder.
The growing government hostility after 1881, coupled with growing economic distress, induced literally millions of Jews to leave eastern Europe, mainly for the United States. Many of those who had hoped that education would lead to the integration of the Jews into Russian society now came to feel that only the Jews themselves could solve their own problems. Although the majority of eastern European Jews were still traditional, the number of those who gained a secular education and abandoned traditional religion grew steadily. But those who gave up religious beliefs no longer looked for assimilation. Instead, a number of modern ideologies emerged, each claiming to have a solution for "the Jewish problem."
One of the new ideologies to emerge was early Zionism.2 The Zionists argued that no solution could be found for the Jews while they remained in eastern Europe. They would never be accepted as equal citizens by either the government or the non-Jewish population because they were a separate nation. Only by returning to their homeland would they be able to have normal relations with the peoples of the world. The early Zionists found the Hovevet Zion movement, which helped found the first modern Jewish settlements in the land of Israel. When Theodor HerzI founded the political Zionist movement in 1896, the majority of his supporters were Russian Jews.
In its early days, Zionism was a minority movement opposed by a number of other strong ideologies. A particularly powerful movement was socialism, which argued that all problems in society were the result of exploitation of the workers by capitalists and noblemen. The Socialists desired a revolution to overthrow the czar and capitalism. Many Jews turned to socialism for a number of reasons. First, the Jews-more than many other groups-saw the existing government as especially hostile to them. Secondly, there were many well-organized Jewish workers. Finally, there were many Jewish students in the universities, the hotbeds of revolution. The Socialists opposed Zionism because it supported Jewish cohesion without regard to class distinctions. They also accused the Zionists of running away from the problems of Russia by looking for solutions in the far-off Middle East. The Socialists themselves were divided. The main Social Democratic party (divided between its Menshevik and Bolshevik, later Communist, wings) claimed that there were no special Jewish issues and no need for a separate Jewish culture. The Jewish workers' Bund (the popular Socialist party active in the workers' trade union struggle), on the other hand, was interested not only in revolution, but also in equal rights for the Jews and in the flourishing of a secularist Jewish culture in Yiddish.
As a compromise between socialism and Zionism, the Poale Zion was founded. It tried to combine the two movements by supporting the class struggle of the workers against the employers while simultaneously working for the creation of a new Jewish society in Palestine. Eventually, Poale Zion split over the issue of which of these two tasks was more important. Poale Zion was not the only ideological subgroup within Zionism. Orthodox Jews, dissatisfied with the secular nature of the movement, created the Mizrachi (religious Zionist movement) to promote a Zionist ideology based on Torah (Jewish teachings) and Jewish traditions.
Not all Jews agreed with either the Zionists or the Socialists. Some wished to create a Jewish society somewhere, but not necessarily in Palestine. These Territorialists showed interest in territories as varied as Uganda and Argentina. Others agreed that Jews needed to protect their cultural and national rights in addition to their civil rights, but opposed leaving Russia; they promoted the idea of autonomism. They hoped that once democracy came to eastern Europe Jews would gain (besides civil rights) recognition of self-governing Jewish communities and the right to use their own languages in schools, courts, and cultural institutions.
The supporters of the various ideologies disagreed not only about social revolution, religion, and the proper homeland for the Jews, but even about the language of Jewish culture. Although most agreed that Jews should use their own language and not the Polish, Russian, or Ukram n Ian of their neighbors, the supporters of Hebrew clashed with those who favored Yiddish. The Zionists tended to favor Hebrew, while the Socialists preferred Yiddish (the language of the common people); some were willing to find a place for "both national languages." Both languages developed a sophisticated and prolific literature in the years after 1881. Often, leading writers (like I.L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, and Hayyim Nahman Bialik) wrote in both languages.
With the rapid growth of modern Jewish cultural activity after 1881, it no longer seemed necessary for those who left the Jewish traditional way of life to assimilate. Instead, they were able to create cultural or national alternatives which still stressed Jewish cohesion, even if on a secular basis.
Change was taking place not only in ideology, but also in daily life. However, in the 1880s, much of the traditional lifestyle still remained dominant. Jews made up about 10 percent of the population of the Pale of Settlement (and about the same percentage in Galicia), but they were not randomly spread in all settlements. In the mainly agricultural villages, the Jewish population was small or nonexistent. Many of the village Jews were innkeepers, and Russian government pressure tried to force them from the villages and from innkeeping. In the small commercial towns (shtetlakh), on the other hand, the Jewish population was large indeed, sometimes even comprising a majority of the inhabitants. The shtetl, with a population of 500 to several thousand, was usually centered around a marketplace. The Jews tended to live in the center of town, where commercial activity was concentrated; peasants from the surrounding villages would come to the shted on market days to buy and sell. The shtetl generally had a well-organized Jewish community with its own synagogue, houses of study, charity organizations, schools, and other institutions. Within the shtetl, Jews could live a Jewish cultural and religious life with relatively little interference. This is not to say that all shtetlakh were alike or that they were immune to change. The secular ideologies made their entrance into shtetl life in the period from 1881 to 1914, and especially affected the younger generation.
Economic change affected both the 1ife of the shtetl itself and the flow of migration from it. By the late nineteenth century, the trend of migration included not only the millions going overseas, but also the hundreds of thousands of Jews moving to the great cities of eastern Europe. Warsaw Jewry grew from 15,600 in 1816 to 130,000 in 1882 and 337,000 in 1914; Lodz grew from 2,775 in 1856 to 98,700 in 1897. By 1897, Odessa had 139,000 Jews, Kiev had 51,000, Vilna had 64,000, and Minsk had 47,500. Life in the cities was more varied and anonymous than in the shtetlakh. All the different trends in ideologies and tradition and the widest range of economic standing were to be found there.
The economic structure of eastern European Jewry was heavily influenced by the growth of railroads and industry after about 1880. A small number of bankers, manufacturers, and great merchants benefited from the changes, but the majority became even poorer than before. Changes in transport and trade routes took business from some of the shtetlakh; the many Jewish wagon-drivers were hurt by the competition of the railroad. Another common Jewish pursuitcrafts-was also affected. Small Jewish tailors, weavers, and other craftsmen could not compete effectively with factories. Many lost their independence and became workers in textile factories and other light industries. Numerous Jewish small businessmen saw their businesses decline; many lived from occasional work or business (they were known as Luftmenshen-literally, people living on air). The Jewish charity rolls grew. This trend of economic decline continued for the bulk of eastern European Jews until their destruction in World War II.
World War 1, which broke out in 1914, led to tremendous changes in eastern Europe. At first, Jews tended to favor the German and Austrian forces who treated them better than the czarist government. This changed when the revolution of March, 1917, put a democratic government in place of the czar. The new government gave the Jews equal rights but was unable to maintain its power in the face of the continuing war and ongoing internal revolution. After eight months, it was overthrown by a Communist revolution whose leaders included many (highly assimilated) Jews. The Communist revolution led to a prolonged civil war between the Reds and the Whites (anti-Communists), much of it fought in areas heavily inhabited by Jews. Because the White armies in the Ukraine massacred tens of thousands of Jews in the towns they occupied, Jews were forced into the Communist camp.
The position of the Jews after the Communist victory was peculiar. On the one hand, the Red leadership contained many persons of Jewish origin, and Jews as a group had been supporters of the new regime. On the other hand, much of the policy of the Communists was bound to work against the Jews. First of all, the new regime took a stongly antireligious stand. Jewish religious activities were met by a barrage of obstacles and antireligious propaganda. Secondly, the regime could tolerate no rivals for power; it therefore forbade Zionism, the Bund, and all independent Jewish communal life. Finally, the Communists abolished private businesses and limited the civil rights of former business owners. A disproportionate number of Jews were affected by these measures.
Although the Communist regime had no room for businessmen, Zionism, or independent communities, it did have room, at least in theory, for minority national cultures. It claimed that communism would reverse czarist discrimination against non-Russian cultures and grant each nationality its own language, culture, and even its own provinces. After some debate, it was decided to recognize the Jews as a national group, even though they lacked their own territory. The Hebrew language was virtually forbidden, since it was associated with religion and Zionism, but Yiddish was permitted and even cultivated. It was to be used in theaters, schools, and even courts of law. Of course, by Soviet definition, all national cultures in the Soviet Union were to be "Socialist in content, national in form." This meant that the only thing it could express was Communist ideology, although it could use Yiddish or Jewish holidays to do so. The Jewish section of the Communist party (Yevsektsia) worked both to build up a "proletarian Jewish" culture and to destroy the forces of religion, Zionism, and "bourgeois nationalism" among the Jews. NonCommunist forms of Judaism were driven underground.
With the growth of Stalin's power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, even the legal Yiddish culture began to arouse suspicion. The Yevsektsia was abolished, in part because the government thought it was hampering assimilation by a too-strong defense of Jewish culture. The anomalous position of the Jewish nationality without a land led Stalin in 1928 to create the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan, deep in Soviet Asia. The expected Jewish migration to this "Jewish" area did not materialize. Rather, there was a steady stream of Jewish population from the former Pale to big cities like Moscow and Leningrad. Meanwhile, Stalin began to purge and kill all his rivals for power. Many of the most prominent victims, including Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, were Jews. The Jewish element in the Soviet leadership was radically reduced. Stalin also began to close many of the Jewish cultural and educational institutions. He became more and more distrustful of the Jews. (This was manifested openly during the period of liquidation of Jewish culture from 1948 to 1953.)
The situation in non-Soviet eastern Europe was very different, but hardly better. The treaties that ended World War I created a number of newly independent nations on territory formerly belonging to Austro-Hungarian and czarist Russia. The new nations included Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; the boundaries of the existing Austria, Hungary, and Rumania were adjusted to follow nationality divisions. All these nations, created on the basis of national self-determination, were to be democratically ruled and were treaty-bound to respect the cultural and political rights of minorities, including the Jews. Each of the new nations, however, having finally achieved national independence, wished to dominate the minorities. Slogans like "Poland for the Poles" became widespread, and every effort was made to evade the guarantees to the minorities.
Poland, with approximately three million Jews, was the best example of the way the new nations (except for Czechoslovakia) treated the Jews.3 In contrast to Russia, Jewish communal life was left relatively free, but great economic and political pressure was put on the Jews. The Poles found it intolerable that the majority of merchants in Poland were Jews, and to change the situation they implemented tax policies and created monopolies which excluded Jews. Poland and most other countries in the area soon turned from democracy to dictatorship. Although the dictatorship of Marshall Pilsudski (1926-1935) treated the Jews better than most other Polish governments, his successors accentuated the anti-Jewish line. Rightwing parties like the Endeks (National Democrats), with much support from students and others, agitated against the Jews with calls for boycotts and violence. There were a number of pogroms in the 1930s, and in 1937 Polish universities bowed to student pressure and instituted segregated seating for Jewish students. Meanwhile, the economic situation of Polish Jews worsened; as many as one in three Polish Jews received their Passover matzot (unleavened bread eaten during the Passover holiday) from relief. Many depended on money from relatives in America.
Despite the ceaseless outside pressure, the Jews of non-Soviet eastern Europe developed a flourishing cultural life. The Jewish community was ruled by boards chosen democratically in elections, in which the ideological parties-from the Orthodox to the Zionists and Bund-ran candidates. Despite their deep divisions on principles, they were usually able to work together. A ramified system of modern Jewish schools was created in Poland and other countries. Besides government schools that closed on Saturday (Szabatowka), there were the Hebrew Tarbut, the Yiddish Cyszo, and the Orthodox Horeb and Beth Jacob schools. Yiddish theater, newspapers, and magazines flourished; there was even a Yiddish institute for advanced research (YIVO). Although a considerable portion of the Jewish population remained traditional in dress, religion, and habits, modern Jewish institutions grew as never before and tackled problems (modern health care, school texts, etc.) that had never been faced before.
On the eve of World War 11 eastern European Jews were already in the midst of a deep crisis. In the Soviet Union, Jewish cultural life was slowly being eliminated. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, there was a bustling, thriving Jewish cultural life, but the community faced economic disaster and physical threats. Yet, no one could have imagined that within a few years eastern European Jewish culture and communities would be virtually wiped out.
Although little remains of eastern European Jewry in its original location, its impact on Jews throughout the world continues to be immense. Most of the world's Jews are of eastern European background. Our ideas (especially in America) of what are typically Jewish foods, music, dress, and attitudes refer mainly to eastern European Jewish traits. Many of the ideological movements and religious trends still active in modern Jewry (Hasidism, Zionism, concern for social Justice) owe much to their eastern European origins. The face of Jewish life would be hard to imagine without the imprint of the now destroyed communities that lived for a thousand years in the cold and often inhospitable climate of eastern Europe.
1. Ashkenaz was the medieval Hebrew name for Germany.
2. Zionism, as a movement committed to the return of Jews to their ancient homeland, already existed in rudimentary form before Herzl formulated it as a political movement in 1896.
3. The Jewish population in the various eastern European countries around 1930 was: Poland, 3,114,000; Czechoslovakia, 357,000; Hungary, 445,000; Yugoslavia, 68,000; Rumania, 757,000; Bulgaria, 48,000; Lithuania, 154,000; Latvia, 93,000; Estonia, 4,000; and the Soviet Union, 2,672,000.
For Further Reading
Baron, Salo W. The Russian Jew under Tzars and Soviets. New York: Macmillan Co., 1976.
Dawidowicz, Lucy S., ed. The Goldern Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.
Howe, Irving, and Greenberg, Eliezer, eds. Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs & Diaries. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. (See especially Abraham Ain, "Swislocz, Portrait of a Shied," pp. 87-108.)
Roskies, Diane K., and Roskies, David G. The Shtetl Book: An Introduction to East European Jewish Life and Lore. New York: Ktav, 1975.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. In My Father's Court. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.
Weinryb, Bernard D. The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1973.
Western European Jews Before World War 11
STEVEN M. LOWENSTEIN
Jewish settlement in western Europe dates back about two thousand years to the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans conquered all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Judea (Israel), and Jews soon spread to almost all parts of the empire. A substantial number of Jews settled in the city of Rome and in other parts of western Europe bordering on the Mediterranean, but some settled even further north in areas which would later be part of France and Germany. Although there were occasional persecutions, the Romans generally recognized the Jewish religion as legal and exempted the Jews from worshipping the emperor. Judaism made many converts, and a large proportion of the Roman population (one estimate is as high as 10 percent) was Jewish.1
Tremendous changes took place in western Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries because of two new factors-the conversion of the majority of the Roman population to Christianity and the invasion of Rome by barbarian tribes from the north. The invasions and fall of Rome seem to have put an end to Jewish settlement in northern Europe. The Christianization of Rome changed the position of the Jews tremendously. Judaism and Christianity were not only closely related, but the), had become bitter rivals with diametrically opposed interpretations of their shared traditions. The new Christian rulers of the states that succeeded Rome usually allowed Jews (unlike pagans) to continue to live in their states, but they often imposed various restrictions and humiliations on them as punishment for their rejection of Christianity. Soon the Jews became virtually the only non-Catholic group in western Europe, a position which became increasingly dangerous.
The Jews in both the Roman and post-Roman (Middle Ages) era were recognized both as a separate religious group and as a separate nationality. They were granted a considerable amount of internal self- government in most of the places where they were permitted to live. The medieval social system, which granted different legal status to different social groups (nobles, merchants, craftsmen, peasants), was especially suited to giving the Jews a separate status, in which they were both treated as unequal to the other groups and granted the right to rule their own affairs.
In the course of the early Middle Ages, Jews from the Mediterranean area reestablished communities in northern France. From there (and also from Italy), Jews settled in England and in Germany. The settlement in Germany, which was quite small and insignificant when it was founded in the tenth century, became the ancestor of the Ashkenazic (of German descent) Jewish group (the name Ashkenaz comes from the medieval Jewish name for Germany). Ashkenazic Jews became the majority of the world's Jews by the seventeenth century and have remained so ever since.
In contrast to the Jews in Asia, North Africa, and Spain (which were conquered by the Moslems), who had broad intellectual interests (philosophy, poetry, Bible, Jewish law), the Jews of northern Europe concentrated almost exclusively on Jewish texts (especially the Talmud, the major work of rabbinic law and lore compiled between the third and fifth centuries C.E.*). Ashkenazic Jews in the Middle Ages developed an especially intense religious culture for which many were willing even to sacrifice their lives. Unlike Jews in the Moslem countries, who followed a broad range of occupations, almost all the Jews in northern Europe were merchants. As the non-Jewish merchant class grew and as legal restrictions against Jewish economic activity increased, northern European Jews were pushed more and more exclusively into money lending as an occupation. In some places this was virtually the only occupation that Jews were legally permitted to follow.2 It was not an occupation that made their popularity or physical safety any greater.
The position of Jews in northern Europe worsened between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Beginning with the First Crusade (1096), the Jews of northern Europe were subject to recurring massacres and religious persecutions. Various new accusations were made against the Jews in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including charges of ritual murder, of desecration of the host (communion wafer), and of causing the bubonic plague by poisoning the wells. Hundreds of Jewish communities were massacred. The survivors were subject to growing government restrictions in occupation, to laws ordering them to wear special badges and live separately from Christians, and to special heavy taxation. Beginning in the late thirteenth century, Jews were expelled from one country after another (England- 1290, France- 1306, Spain- 1492). Because Germany was not a united country, the Jews were not expelled from all sections of it. Nevertheless, many Jews left Germany for eastern Europe. After the sixteenth century, the center of world Jewry shifted to the East.
The relatively small numbers of Jews who still lived in western Europe after the sixteenth century suffered under a host of legal restrictions. Germany and Italy (neither of them united politically) were virtually the only places that still had Jewish communities. Although massacres were relatively uncommon after the fifteenth century, the position of the Jews was unenviable. Although Italian Jews did participate in some common cultural activities with their Christian neighbors during the Renaissance, they were restricted in many ways and, from the sixteenth century on, were strictly segregated in walled ghettos. The German Jews (perhaps 200,000 in number in the eighteenth century) were expelled from many of the major cities in the late Middle Ages and thereafter lived in small towns and villages, where they earned precarious livings as peddlers or agricultural middlemen. Although laws concerning Jews differed in various parts of German-speaking Europe, most states agreed to treat the Jews as outsiders whose permission to settle was a revocable privilege. Most Jews had to pay for their residence permits and often were not allowed to pass these permits on to their children. They were subject to special taxes, limited in their occupations, and they had little social contact or intellectual relations with the non-Jewish population. A considerable proportion of the German Jewish population consisted of beggars and wanderers who could not secure residence permits.
Despite the many restrictions, German Jews were permitted religious freedom in most places where they were allowed to settle, and the Jewish community had considerable power in regulating internal Jewish affairs. Most Jewish individuals had little to do with the government, since taxation, most judicial affairs, commercial regulations, and religious life were all controlled by the Jewish community. The community also cared for the Jewish poor, Although Yiddish-speaking Jews and German-speaking Christians could understand each other's language and did business with each other, they differed widely in manners, dress, occupations, and type of education. The overwhelming proportion of Jews was religiously traditional; their educational system still relied almost exclusively on Jewish religious texts and left very little room for secular knowledge.
In the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the trend of migration to the East began to reverse itself. Jewish communities were established (or reestablished) in England, the Netherlands, and parts of France. The Jewish settlement in the Netherlands, developing with fewer governmental restrictions than elsewhere, manifested traits that later would herald a major change in Jewish life in western Europe. Dutch Jewry, like the other new settlements, was made up of two population elements: Marannos, fleeing Spain and Portugal; and Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and Poland. The Marannos, who had masqueraded as Christians for generations,3 were among the first Jews to know Christian culture, dress like non-Jews, speak and read their languages, and have far closer cultural ties with them than were found among Ashkenazic Jews. The influence of these Spanish and Portuguese Jews affected the Ashkenazim as well, although to a lesser extent.
A more widespread change in western European Jewry did not take place until after the attitude of European leaders towards the Jews began to change. First, the economic doctrine of mercantilism, in which the primary duty of governments was said to be the amassing of money, induced even some anti-Jewish rulers to favor those wealthy Jews who were economically useful to the state. Sometimes, the same ruler would favor wealthy Jews while expelling or restricting poor and "economically useless" ones. Slowly, in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a small class of wealthy "Court Jews" grew up, some of whom began to adopt the lifestyle of Christian society. A second factor which became important by the middle of the eighteenth century was the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which spread through the educated classes of Europe.This world view downgraded the role of the Church and of traditional Christian doctrines and proclaimed the idea that all human beings were created equal and had natural rights that no one could take from them. Although not all Enlightenment thinkers were favorable to the Jews, the doctrines themselves helped to undermine the legitimacy of treating one group as inferior to another. In Germ any, the Enlightenment even affected some of the Jewish elite,4 especially in Berlin. One Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, even achieved recognition among German Intellectuals as a leading Enlightened thinker, although he remained a practicing Jew.
A third factor leading to new policies towards the Jews was the general transformation in the European state, which began in the eighteenth century and carried over into the nineteenth. The old society, made up of different legal classes, each with their own different legal status, was being replaced by a society of national citizens with equal rights and duties. This new way of organizing society was desired by governments not so much because they believed in the Enlightenment principles of equality, but because it was more efficient to have one set of rules rather than a crazy-quilt of different regulations for each province, religion, and social group. Impetus for moving towards a more un I form state came both from rulers and bureaucrats in central European monarchies, like Prussia and Austria ("Enlightened Despotisms"), and from the revolutionaries in France, who overthrew the old regime and began a thorough change of all French institutions from 1789 on.
The French Revolution had an especially great impact, because revolutionary France began territorial expansion in a series of wars that lasted over twenty years. Under Napoleon, French troops dominated almost all of continental Europe and had great influence on policies well beyond the borders of France.
Although the French Revolution at first hesitated giving Emancipation (legal equality) to the unassimilated Ashkenazic Jews in the eastern French province of Alsace, it finally granted full rights to all Jews in 1791. In granting equality, one parliamentary leader stated that France would grant "to the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation nothing."5 Equality, thus, had two sides to it. Jews would be admitted into the French nation, but in return they were to give up the corporate status they had previously had. In exchange for the right to live where they wished, engage in all occupations, and hold government positions, the Jews were expected to cease being a separate group. Jewish communal courts were abolished; Jews were required to attend government schools, serve in the army, and identify with the nation in which they held citizenship. The old government policies of keeping the Jews separate were completely reversed. Now the governments hoped that all social and economic differences between Jews and Christians would disappear and that Jews would no longer feel national solidarity with Jews in other countries.
The emancipating governments were expecting a total transformation in Jewish life. They thought that eliminating the restrictions on Jews would make it possible for Jews to become like everyone else (except for religion) with little difficulty. In fact, the changes in occupation, education, and national identification, which would be required for the Jews to become so well integrated, were much more complex than the governments realized. For many Jews of the first generation after the Emancipation, the changing of government expectations must have been confusing. Often the governments were troubled at the slowness of the social transformation of the Jews and tried to intervene to speed up the changes. In 1806, Napoleon called an assembly of Jewish leaders and demanded to know if there was something in the Jewish religion which stood in the way of integration. Among other things, he asked whether Judaism permitted intermarriage, whether Jews considered France their homeland, and whether they considered French Christians to be their brothers. Although the Jews gave Napoleon the answers he desired, he nevertheless suspended some of their rights for a period of ten years. Despite Napoleon's ambiguous attitude, the French armies brought increased rights for the Jews in most of the countries they conquered. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, some of the German states revoked some of the rights they had granted. In some cases they made rights conditional on changes in the Jewish social structure. They hoped (unrealistically) to produce a wholesale transformation of Jewish peddlers and middlemen into farmers and craftsmen. Those who did not change their occupations were subject to a host of restrictions. The final restrictions on Jews in Germany were lifted in 1871, when they finally achieved full legal equality.
Although the transformation of Jewish life in western and central Europe was neither as fast as the governments had expected nor of the type they wished, it was nevertheless quite thorough. Not only did Jewish political status change, but there were also important changes in Jewish economic life and in the very intellectual and religious definitions of what it meant to be a Jew. Exposure to secular culture in the schools that Jewish children now had to attend led to a new attitude towards traditional Jewish culture. Jews were quick to adjust to the new schools, and by the second half of the nineteenth century they were disproportionately represented in higher education. Jews began to participate in and contribute to the general culture as writers, musicians, and scholars. Often there was little specifically Jewish about their work. Many Jews wished to drop all features of traditional Jewish life that stood in the way of their integration into the larger society. Whereas Judaism had previously combined national and religious elements in an inseparable mixture, it now seemed necessary to many western European Jews to separate the two, eliminating the national Jewish and retaining only the purely religious. Even many Jewish religious practices, such as the dietary laws and the observance of the Sabbath, which seemed to many to stand in the way of social mixing or of economic advancement, were dropped by some Jews. Previously unknown religious problems, such as observing Jewish dietary laws in the army and compulsory school attendance on Saturday, troubled even the traditionalists.
For many of the educated and well-to-do, the traditional synagogue seemed too foreign and too old-fashioned to be of any value. Some Jewish leaders, especially in Germany, felt that the only way to prevent these people from being totally lost to the Jewish community was to make changes in Jewish liturgy and ritual. By introducing prayer in the vernacular and insisting on Western-style decorum and organ music, these Reformers hoped to make the synagogue more palatable to Westernized Jews and to their non-Jewish neighbors. By removing references in the liturgy to a return to the Promised Land and a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, they hoped to eliminate Jewish nationalism, which could conflict with hard-won citizenship rights. Whereas the early Reformers were more interested in specific changes than in an overall rationale for them, the university-trained Reform rabbis, who became prominent in the 1840s and thereafter, endeavored to create a Reform theology. Reform leaders, such as Abraham Geiger, argued that Judaism was a religion which had undergone historical evolution and would continue to do so. They argued that Judaism had progressed since the time of the original revelation and that some biblical and rabbinic laws relating to ritual had become outmoded. In creating their theory, many Reform leaders relied heavily on new methods of studying Jewish sources based on modern university research methods (Science of Judaism). Most Reformers in the nineteenth century argued that Judaism was purely a religious doctrine (ethical monotheism) and that its national elements were a thing of the past.
Not all German Jews accepted the arguments of the Reformers. The Orthodox theorist Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that the Torah (the Law) was eternal and divine and could be changed neither by human will nor by the "Spirit of the Times." Even Hirsch's followers, however, accepted the Emancipation and felt that Jews should participate in the life of the general society around them, providing they observed all the laws of the Torah. Although the Orthodox continued to have followers, Reform Judaism (in a fairly mild form) gained the adherence of the majority of German Jews by the 1870s. In most other western European countries there was no strong Reform movement, but there was still a decline in traditional religious observance. Although the synagogues in France and England remained rather traditional, there was a decrease in attendance.
Reform Judaism and the decline in traditional observance could be seen as direct consequences of the new Jewish education and the attempt by many Jews to fit into a society that now seemed to accept them. Economic changes, which were equally striking, were the result of a combination of the opportunities given by the Emancipation and those that came from the Industrial Revolution, which swept through western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The governments' hopes of Jews becoming farmers and craftsmen were frustrated, because industrial and commercial development provided greater opportunities for business pursuits in which had traditionally been involved. Within commerce, the economic position of Jews improved substantially. By the late nineteenth century, Jewish beggars had virtually disappeared from western and central Europe; Jewish peddlers mostly had become shopkeepers or wholesalers, and many had built substantial businesses. Some, especially the children of those who had been successful in business, went into the professions, especially medicine and law. Western and central European Jews had become overwhelmingly middle class. These changes helped create a tremendous chasm between the Jews of western Europe (who constituted less than I percent of the population there) and those of eastern Europe (who were closer to 10 percent). Whereas the Emancipation and industrialization created Jewish communities in the West which were culturally integrated, often nontraditional in religious practice, and economically prosperous, eastern European Jews remained culturally selfAntisemitismsufficient and isolated, religiously traditional, and overwhelmingly poor.
Although western and central European Jews were very different by the 1870s from what they had been three generations earlier, they had not disappeared as a recognizable social group, nor had their organized communal life disintegrated. Most Jews still married other Jews, lived in neighborhoods near other Jews, had many Jewish friends, and supported Jewish charities; they still tended to concentrate in certain occupations (although not necessarily the same as those they had followed earlier). Often, because conservatives and supporters of Church control had opposed equality for the Jews, the Jews tended to support liberal causes. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Emancipation and social change had not eliminated Jews as a recognizable entity. Because the Jews now participated much more fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of the nations in which they lived, they now appeared more conspicuous and (in the eyes of those who distrusted them) more powerful than they had been before the Emancipation. When a period of economic slump followed the boom of the 1850s and 1860s, organized anti-Jewish feeling began to reemerge, arguing that the Emancipation had been a mistake, since it made the Jews stronger and more dangerous but had failed to cause them to merge and disappear into society as a whole.
The anti-Jewish forces were of two main types. The milder (and larger) of the two trends was Christian Antisemitism. Followers of this trend wished to return society to its older Christian roots, in which each class knew its place and the rich helped the poor. They blamed capitalism and the secularized state (which they identified with the Jews) for eliminating all values except money. They saw the Jews as foreign to their Christian society and as a group which stuck together in order to dominate. This anti- Jewish feeling was directed not only against those unassimilated Jews who remained recognizably Jewish, but also against those who tried to fit in. This latter group, it was argued, was merely trying to penetrate European society in order to undermine it. Christian antisemites usually called for various types of restrictions to limit the political influence and economic activities of the Jews.
The second group was far more extreme. It claimed that Jews had not integrated (and could never do so) because they were racially different. The term "antisemite" was coined to show that the objection was not to the Jewish religion (since they wished to avoid being considered religious bigots) but to the morally inferior semitic race. Relying on pseudoscientific racist, anthropological, and linguistic ideas, they created complex theories showing the eternal opposition between the semitic and Aryan (a vague racist term which could mean blond northern European or be a mere code word for non-Jewish) races. Some of the extreme racial antisemites even opposed Christianity because of its Jewish origin.
The new antisemitic movement spread in a number of countries, especially Germany, France, and Austria. Although it did not succeed in limiting the rights of the Jews, it did spread anti-Jewish ideas in the press, the universities, and in many political groups. Antisemitism became respectable in "patriotic" and conservative circles in all three countries. In France, the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), in which a Jewish army officer was accused of spying on behalf of Germany, divided the country and led to intense anti-Jewish agitation. In some countries, even the medieval accusations of ritual murder were revived.
Jews reacted to antisemitic attacks in two main ways. The majority of western European Jews felt that Jews should defend their legal rights as citizens and should disprove the charges made against them through pamphlets and other types of literature. They resented accusations that they were not full-fledged and fully integrated Germans (or Frenchmen, etc.). Some Jews disagreed with this approach. The revival of Antisemitism convinced them that Jews would never be accepted in the countries where they lived no matter how hard they tried to fit in. In their view, this was because the Jews were a nationality in exile from their homeland. They could never live a normal life in exile and would only be accepted when they again became an independent nation. This idea was promulgated by Theodor Herzl in his epoch-making book The Jewish State in 1896; the book helped lay the groundwork for the Zionist movement. Most of the western European Zionists were acculturated Jews who had once hoped for acceptance and now despaired of its achievement. They felt that the Emancipation had been based on false hopes and that assimilation was a mistake. Zionists called on Jews to look to their own culture and their own people rather than try to enter cultures in which they were not wanted. Zionism, in a way, represented the opposite of classical Reform Judaism. Whereas the Reformers wished to see Judaism as pure religion with no nationalist elements, the Zionists saw Judaism as primarily national. Although the Zionists remained a minority of western European Jewry (and were resented by many Jews as undermining the hard-won Emancipation), they slowly gained strength as Antisemitism continued and Jewish settlement in Israel grew.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by great migratory waves affecting western European Jews. From about 1820 through the 1860s there was a wave of emigration, especially from Germany to the United States. Within each country there was a continuous migration of Jews from the small towns to the cities. Around 1815, less than 2 percent of the Jews of Germany lived in Berlin; by 1925 over 30 percent of German Jews lived there. By the twentieth century most western and central European Jews were residents of the big cities, where they played an important and conspicuous role in economic, social, artistic, and cultural life.
Another wave of migration, which became especially important after 1880, brought increasing numbers of eastern European Jews to the cities of Germany, France, Holland, and England. In France and England, the new immigrants eventually outnumbered the older community, while in Germany their numbers finally reached about 25 percent of the total Jewish population. The new immigrants brought a more conspicuous Jewish life and more outspoken political views than were prevalent among the older residents. Often the "natives," who had a purely religious view of Judaism, were embarrassed about the Yiddish- speaking, Orthodox, or Socialist newcomers and feared that their presence would undermine the position of all Jews in the country. World War I and the upheavals that followed it created an even more threatening political situation for western European Jews than had existed previously. Economic difficulties, frustrated nationalism, fear of communism, and dissatisfaction with democracy characterized the political attitude of many, especially young people. Often they turned to Fascist movements, some of which were blatantly antisemitic. In Germany, the Nazis were able to come to power by legal means, because the population had little respect for a democratic government that seemed to bring only economic disaster. In many countries the wave of hostility seemed to be mounting dangerously.
On the eve of the Holocaust, Jews represented only a small proportion of the population of western and central Europe. The largest community, Germany, had fewer than 600,000 Jews. France and Austria each had about 200,000. Other Jewish communities were even smaller (Netherlands-115,000, Belgium-50,000, Italy-45,000). Despite their relatively small numbers and their relative conspicuousness, many of these communities were the objects of intense hostility.
The Jews of western and central Europe were the first to face the challenge of modernity. It was in those countries (and especially in Germany), that Jews tried to find intellectual answers to the dilemma of participating in general society while retaining some kind of Jewish identity. Western European Jews experienced tremendous economic and cultural changes, which helped make them some of the most prosperous and culturally integrated Jews in the world. The Cultural contribution of persons of Jewish origin in western and central Europe is immense. One need only mention the names of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, or Heinrich Heine to demonstrate this fact. In most cases, there was little specifically Jewish about these men beyond their ancestry. Yet, despite the seeming integration and adjustment of western European Jews to their environment, they were not accepted. The disaster which would destroy much of European Jewry began not in eastern Europe, where Jews remained clearly and openly distinct, but in Germany, where Jewishness was rarely shown publicly. The tragedy of western European Jews was that they attempted to make the adjustments to European life that the Emancipation seemed to demand, but their very success in living within European society intensified hostility to such an extent that it led ultimately to their destruction.
1. Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), pp. 170-171: "Every tenth Roman was a Jew." Baron estimates that four million Jews lived in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine and that Jews made up 20 percent of the population in the eastern Mediterranean.
In contrast to more recent Jewish practice, Judaism was an actively proselytizing religion in Roman times. Several Latin writers refer to the conversion to Judaism of many Romans. At the time of the late Roman Empire, the decline in belief in the old Roman, Greek, and local gods, and the search for a spiritual way of life seemingly absent in the traditional religions, led many to turn to "Eastern" religions, including Judaism. Judaism made great inroads, but was eventually outstripped by Christianity, which did not require the observance of Jewish ritual (including circumcision) from its converts.
2. The restriction of Jews to money lending resulted in part, ironically, from the shared Jewish and Christian tradition that it was sinful to take interest from "your brother" but permissible to charge interest from "the stranger." Since Christians were forbidden by Church law to lend to other Christians on interest, the Jews became the natural source of potential credit. This fostered Antisemitism in the following ways: 1) the Jews were accused of engaging in antisocial behavior by being in a business that was morally prohibited to Christians and 2) the high interest rates of the time gave rise to "normal" antipathy of those who owe to those who lend. Finally, the Jews also faced the problem of being coerced by local authorities to make high-risk loans. Often these went unpaid, and the Jews were expelled, empty-handed, from their homes.
3. Since the expulsions of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), the practice of Judaism had been illegal in those countries.
4. Many wealthy Berlin Jews began to adopt the Cultured lifestyle of bourgeois Christians, attending the theater and opera, going to coffeehouses, and giving up Jewish costume. They gave their children a secular education, often with a rationalist slant; some also began to abandon Jewish religious practice.
5. This statement by Clermont-Tonerre is quoted innumerous histories. One example is Raphael Mahler, A History of Modern Jewry, 1780-1815 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 32,where it is translated: "Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted them as individuals."
For Further Reading
Abrahams, Beth-Zion, ed. and trans. Gluckel of Hameln Written by Herself. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1963.
Duker, Abraham G., and Ben-Horin, Meir, eds. Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation. New York: Ktav, 1974.
Hyman, Paula. From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. New York: The Free Press, 1961.
Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: Union, of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938.
Massing, Paul W. Rehearsal for Destruction: A Study of Political Antisemitism In Imperial Germany. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R., and Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew In the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Meyer, Michael A. The Origin of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749-1824. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.
Mosse, George L. Germans & Jews. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970.
Pulzer, Peter. The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. New York: Wiley, 1964.
Reichman, Eva G. Hostages of Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951.
Reinharz, Jehuda. Fatherland or Promised Land?: The Dilemma of the German Jew, 1893-1914. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.
The Life and Culture of Sephardic Jews Before World War 11
One of the main components of the Jewish people is the Sephardim, or Jews who trace their origin to medieval Spain. Living under Christian and Muslim overlords for over 1,000 years in Spain, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula developed a unique culture, both secular and religious, and an articulated sense of a proud and brilliant history. Sephardic Jews in Spain, despite their many centuries of persecution, experienced periods of economic efflorescence and social integration, feeling quite at home in their Jewish culture as well as in the broader culture of the wider non-Jewish society. Open to philosophical concepts, receptive to Arab scientific and geographic discoveries, and enamored of the Hebrew language and its abilities to express lofty as well as mundane notions, Sephardic Jews developed an outlook and civilization unique in the annals of the Jewish people. This civilization was violently uprooted with the pogroms of 1391, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the expulsion from Portugal in 1497. Thousands of Spanish Jews sought refuge wherever possible, while smaller numbers chose to remain in Spain as clandestine Jews until escape was more propitious. But the doors of Europe were almost entirely shut to practicing Jews. Thus, the Jewish community of Spain was forced to flee to distant lands, bringing with them their cultural baggage and fierce nativist loyalties of a dispossessed people.
Sephardic Jews were warmly welcomed in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Indeed, the Ottoman sultan is reported to have been incredulous that the king of Spain had ousted such a talented population element. From the 1490s, and in increasing numbers throughout the first quarter of the sixteenth century, boatload after boatload of Sephardic Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire: Sephardi in came to Rhodes after it was conquered by the Turks in 1523; the first documents attesting to a Jewish presence in Sarajevo date from 1565 and relate to Sephardic Jews; Sephardim quickly overwhelmed and dominated the old Ashkenazic and Romaniot (Greek- speaking) Jews of Bulgaria, so that the separate Jewish communities joined into a single Sephardic enclave in the sixteenth century. With the conquest of Belgrade by the Turks in 1521, older Jewish settlements in the city were revivified by Sephardic refugees. By far, the greatest concentration of Sephardic Jewish life and culture in Europe soon after the Spanish expulsion was in the city of Salonica in Greece (then part of Ottoman Turkish suzerainty).
For hundreds of years, Jewish culture in the Balkans emanated from the Sephardic cultural center of Salonica. On the eve of World War 11, Salonica, with its 60,000 Jews, its printing presses and newspapers, its schools and scholars, its craftsmen and merchants, was the greatest Sephardic Jewish center in Europe. This premier place of Salonica had been established in the early sixteenth century, as waves of refugees settled there and dynasties of great rabbinic scholars and personalities issued legal decrees from its academies. While to the outside world these refugees were simply "Sephardim," internally they were divided by geographic origin, their synagogues bearing the names of Saragossa, Barcelona, Gerona, Gerush Portugal, Castille, Aragon, and a score of other Iberian place names. Each of the separate congregations boasted its own nexus of self-help institutions, such as alms chests, burial societies, sick care, and chests for orphans and widows. In addition, each congregation took pride in its academy of learning. Sixteenth-century Salonica was a center of learning of the Talmud that attracted students from abroad, its luminaries including such Jewish personalities as Solomon Alkabez and Samuel da Medina. It was also famed as a center of Jewish mysticism and provided instruction to Jews in medicine, natural sciences, liturgical poetry, and song. Although the city was weakened by successive plagues and conflagrations in the seventeenth century, its Jewish population still comprised half the population of the town throughout this period.
Salonican Jews were severely traumatized by the false messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi in the seventeenth century, particularly as the impostor had preached in the city and had a strong personal following there. After Zevi's conversion to Islam and death, 300 Jewish families in the city converted to Islam, severely weakening the unity of the Salonican Jews. In general, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire began to decline as the empire grew more anarchic.
The spread of European influence and consular protection of Jews in the Balkans ushered in a new era for Sephardic Jews. The nineteenth century witnessed many signs of Westernization among the Jews, the introduction of secular subjects in the newly founded schools of the French Alliance Israelite Universelle, and a quickening of Jewish political life, as Zionism captured the imagination of Sephardic Jews in Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. So vital was the Jewish community to the economy of the city of Salonica that the whole town and its port were closed on the Sabbath at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It is interesting to note that fishermen, sailors, and stevedores of Salonica played a conspicuous role in the development of maritime life in Haifa and Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 1930s, encouraged to emigrate by Palestinian leaders Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Abba Khoushi.)
Sephardic Jews had not labored under the same restrictive economic system as their Ashkenazic coreligionists. While they distinguished themselves in commerce, utilizing their widely dispersed family connections to their commercial advantage, the Sephardim were an economically variegated community in Europe, equally distributed among rich and poor, modest blacksmiths and bankers or textile magnates. They were not housed in ghettos, but rather shared in the modernization and incipient industrialization of their states.
The cultural and communal life of Sephardic Jews, up until, the eve of the Nazi onslaught, was richly textured and colorful. Despite differences among them, the Sephardim of the Balkan nations shared an underlying cultural unity. A lively Ladino and Hebrew press could be found in Sephardic lands, frequently tracing its origins back to the great Sephardic printing houses of Lisbon via Italy. Romances or ballads conveying vibrant, lyrical, and frequently courtly and sensual Iberian traditions could be heard at family and communal gatherings in Rhodes or Greece, Sarajevo or Sofia. Music and poetry were staples of community life.
Religious institutions and edifices were sources of pride I n the Jewish communities. New and majestic synagogues dotted the communities, such as the great Sephardic synagogue built in Sarajevo in the late 1920s, and benevolent societies flourished. Zionist politics added lively debates to community discussions. The Sephardim of Sarajevo could even boast of a Jewish Workers' Union and a Jewish choir (Lyra Sociedad de Cantar de los JudiosEspanoles). The great cemetery of Salonica's half-million graves was a living archeological treasure house of Jewish history in the area. This cemetery was desecrated and destroyed by the Nazis in the general pillaging of all the Jewish historical and cultural treasures of the city.
How does the historian measure the cultural and human loss when a community is wiped out? How does one comprehend the measure of destruction of communities that date their beginnings back to approximately 140 B.C.E.,(Before the Common Era; equals B.C.) as was the case in Salonica? In the mosaic of Jewish communities, the dazzling jewels of the Sephardic Jews added a special luster to the whole. All that remains today are the oral traditions and ballads laboriously collected by anthropologists and folklorists among emigres in Israel, Paris, and New York as literary testimony of the fidelity of Sephardic Jews to then- Spanish heritage and Jewish patrimony.
For Further Reading
Angel, Marc D. The Jews of Rhodes. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1978.
Benardete, Mair. Hispanic Culture and Character of the
Sephardic Jews. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1952, 1982.
Molho, Michael. Usos y Costumbres de los Sefardies de Salonica.
Madrid: Conejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Instituto Arias Monto, 1950.
Rosanes, Solomon. Korot ha-Yehudim be-Turkiyah ve-Artsot
Ha-Kedem. 6 vols. Tel Aviv: Sofia, 1930, 1948.
Tamir, Vicki. Bulgaria and Her Jews: The History of a Dubious
Symbiosis. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979.
And Under Every Roof They Would Sing DAVID G. ROSKIES
I cannot presume to speak for a civilization I know only secondhand through books and brief encounters. My time is discontinuous with theirs. Like the events recorded in the Scriptures forever closed in the biblical canon, to be opened only with the rote repetition of the story as aided by the standard interpretive guides I/we live outside the time scheme of 1939, minus all the years that came before, and most certainly outside 1939 and the six years that came after. Only through the study of its texts, or through attuning one's ears to its echoes, can the barrier of time be broken, revealing that part of ourselves which is lost forever.
A poet named Mani Leib anticipated our dilemma. He was from Nyezhin, the Ukraine, originally, but lived in New York most of his life. This is the sonnet he wrote sometime in his later years as he strained his fine- tuned ears for that echo.
There they were many, 0 God, so many
Such vital ones and unafraid,
Such noble ones, with beard and braid-
And talking in a marvelous strange way.
Zey zenen dort, oy, Got, geven a sakh, a sakh,
Azelkhe lebedike un azelkhe brave,
Azelkhe shtaltne, berdike un kutsherave
Un mit a vunderlekher oysterlisher shprakh.
Their strength, they thought, lay in numbers. They always felt safer in towns and cities, crowded into the central business districts, in walking distance of each other. Village Jews, who lived among the peasants, came to town for the major festivals or during the periodic expulsions. Later, when the centers were no longer safe, when the towns were left empty on account of the trains, and poverty seeped through every crack of every home-such poverty that even statistics and the most compassionate reporting cannot begin to convey when every Jew who could (and many peasants, too) sought every possible means of escape-to America, Palestine, the bigger cities, to the West, to social revolution-then, even then, the vast majority sought out groups of the like-minded, and these groups eventually grew into movements.
Once organized, there was no stopping them. Indeed, the Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland was the first Socialist movement In eastern Europe with a real constituency. Zionists of every persuasion mobilized the scant financial resources and the vast reservoir of talent to make that impossible dream come true; there were those who fought for civil liberties and Cultural autonomy on the spot, regardless of economic policy.
Every traveler from the West was struck by the sheer number of Jews that could be seen in the streets of the Eastern cities. Under closer inspection, the traveler might observe the vast network of interlocking agencies that kept the Jews going even against incredible odds-the religious and educational network of synagogues; study house s; Hasidic shtiblekh (houses of prayer); adult study groups; private and community- supported elementary schools and yeshivot (talmudic acadmies), which later competed with secular Jewish schools where Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, or Polish was the language of instruction; social and charitable services offering free loans, dowries for poor brides, hospitalization, visitation of the sick and burial; and the organization of Jewish trades into professional guilds that later evolved into effective unions. And if this traveler returned after World War 1, he would also find Jewish libraries; theater groups; clubhouses; soccer teams; orchestras; and a dizzying array of political parties covering the entire spectrum-from the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel to communism.
Much of this activity was conducted in Yiddish, the language created by Ashkenazic Jews in their millennial history. Yiddish was, itself, a fusion of past and present, with a Hebrew-Aramaic base, and a repository of tradition, melding first with Germanic and then Slavic cultures. It was through Yiddish that Hebrew stayed alive, for Jewish vernaculars were always the vehicle for preserving and translating the classical heritage; it was the proximity of Yiddish to German that helped the teachings of the Enlightenment spread in eastern Europe; and it was in Yiddish that a new and modern idiom evolved for the writing of fiction, poetry, and scholarship; manifestos, editorials, and cookbooks. Above all, it was the language of the folk.
And Linder every roof they would sing-
With Torah chant and Scripture cymbals-
Such rare songs, proud and boastful:
Of the golden peacock and Elimelekh the king.
Un zingen flegn zey fun unter yedn dakh
Azelkhe hoferdike lider un tshikave:
Fun meylekh Elimeylekh un der sheyner Pave,
Mit mayver-sedre-trop un tsimblen fun tanakh.
The folk tradition was exceedingly rich, drawing freely and unselfconsciously from the Torah-not as the dead letter of the law, but as a living lesson, chanted each week and proclaimed anew each season; the Torah-as reinterpreted and revitalized by Hasidism, the greatest mass movement Judaism had produced in 1,700 years. With Torah as its foundation, there was nothing the folk could not assimilate: peasant proverbs and shepherds' tunes; marching songs and satires on the rabbis; expressions of erotic love and appreciations of nature. The modern poets, like Mani Leib, tried to forge a new language, using folksong as their source of inspiration, and hailed the Golden Peacock, di goldene pave, as the mascot of their trade. And all this flowed right back to the source, so that when Moyshe Nadir, who frequented the same writers' cafe on Second Avenue as Mani Leib, recast "Ol' King Cole" into the "Rebbe Elimelekh," the folk accepted the song as authentic in every way! Between Hasidic ecstasy and mournful love laments, they sang of work ("This is how a tailor stitches, this is how he sews and sews, making other people's britches"); of play ("Have you seen my honey bears, honey bears, sitting up on wooden chairs?"); of childhood ("Afn pripetshik brent a fayerl"); of marriage ("I will dance with you, my dear, and you will dance with me. You can have the son-in-law, the daughter-in-law's for me!"); of protest ("Brothers and sisters, let's do it together. Let's bury Tsar Nicky along with his mother!"); and of warning ("Fire, brothers, fire! Our poor town is on fire!").
Modernity erupted in eastern Europe with explosive force, but the experience of modernity was channeled back into the popular culture, competing with and complementing the older forms of expression. Hasidim and market women rubbed shoulders with pickpockets and union organizers. Two women set out for Warsaw from the same town: one to get an abortion and the other to ask the Wonder Rabbi to bless her womb with male progeny. Anyone who has read a Yiddish family saga (The Brothers Ashkenazi; The Family Moscat; Zelmenyaner) remembers how radically the generation of the fathers was challenged by the sons. The grandchildren were already on their way back, to complete the cycle.
But above their heads only the sun and its stare
Saw the raw fury, the killer's cold blade,
How with wild force it descended,
And what massacres were there.
Now they are but a trace of that fury:
An axed forest, a couple of trees.
Nor iber zeyer kop-di zun hot nor gezen
Di roye gvald, dem kaltn meser baym rotseyekh,
Vi er iz iber zey arop, mit vildn koyekh,
Un sara merderay iz dort geven!
Itst zenen zey a zeykher nokh fun yener gvald:
A tsvey-dray beymer fun an oysgehaktn vald.
Those who were left were but a trace, not of the marvelous multitudes, but of the raw fury that descended upon them. There is no forest for lack of trees. So it is up to the rest of us to carry the echo and transform it back into song.
For Further Reading
Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.
Dobroszycki, Lucjan, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864- 1939. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.
Howe, Irving, and Greenberg, Eliezer, eds. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
---.A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
Mlotek, Eleanor Gordon. Mir trogn a gezang. The New Book of Yiddish Songs. New York: The Workmen's Circle Education Department, 1977.
Roskies, Diane K., and Roskies, David G. The Shtetl Book: An Introduction to East European Life and Lore. New York: Ktav, 1979.