On the Eve

Can anything new be written about an old, old subject? I think author Bernard Wasserstein has done so, with his elegant and dryly witty new book about the real lives of the European Jews whose deaths were imminent in the 1930s.

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War details his interpretation of the enemies without and within faced by the European Jews of multiple countries. His compassionate and moving history of the thirties explores the culture, the paradoxes, the social disintegration, and the dawning knowledge that there was no way out, no way to avoid dropping into the abyss.

Wasserstein, a prizewinning author, historian, and professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago, was born in London and Oxford-educated.

An aspect of his creativity is the surprisingly beguiling way he names section heads. They're often an engaging quote, but never unduly lighthearted, such as "The Torah Forbids Anything New," "Living on Air," "Tongues Holy and Unholy," "The Doghouse," "Exporting Children," and "An Excess of Old Furniture." Such headings serve not only to break up what could be a forbidding mass of historical detail, but invite us to read the history as a series of all-too-human anecdotes.

The "Epilogue of Fates Known and Unknown" is heartbreaking in its long litany of hairbreadth escapes and overwhelming doom. There's a generous section of black and white photos.

Here are the final summary paragraphs in the book, but which could as justifiably be at the start:

The Jews of Europe did not react to their predicament passively. They were actors in their own history. They sought by every possible means, individually and collectively, to confront the threats that loomed on every side. They tried emigration, but the exits were blocked. They tried persuasion, but few would listen, and anyway the barking loudspeakers of Nazi propaganda deafened ears. They tried political organization of every kind, but they were politically weightless. A handful, even before the war, tried violent resistance, but their enemies could wreak vengeance a thousandfold – as the Nazis demonstrated on Kristallnacht. Some tried prayer, but their God betrayed them.

They might be captains of their souls but they were not masters of their fate. Theirs was, for the most part, the agitated ineffectuality of flies sealed in a bottle, slowly suffocating.

Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians.


 Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

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