Off the Shelf: Two books examine European Jewry between the wars

When the narrator of Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s classic novel “A Guest for the Night” returns from Jerusalem to his native town in Ukraine, he finds that his once-vibrant community has been utterly destroyed by war, disease, and spiritual decay.  What surprises many readers is that Agnon composed his book in the 1930s, before the cataclysm of the Holocaust.

Agnon’s bleak representation of East European Jewry in a tailspin after World War I is echoed in Bernard Wasserstein’s new work, “On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War.”  For Wasserstein, a British historian who now teaches at the University of Chicago, Jewish life in Europe was in mortal decline even without the Nazi threat.

But Wasserstein’s book is less a thesis-driven argument than it is the recreation of a lost world, spanning the continent from France to Russia.  It offers a far broader and richer account of Jewish life in interwar Europe than any I’ve encountered, including dimensions of everyday life (such as sports, criminal activity, and, to my delight, library use) that are often neglected in historical surveys.  And it is quite readable, with the author’s points often illustrated by brief anecdotes or literary excerpts that help evoke the cultural milieu.  My sole gripe is that it is occasionally unsatisfying to have a provocative point illustrated by an anecdote, rather than argued more extensively.

Wasserstein traces many factors leading to the decline of European Jewry.  One is the increasingly fractious nature of Jewish life, far more exaggerated than in our day.  The conflicts — between Hasidim and Misnagdim, Orthodox and Liberal Jews, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Germans and East Europeans, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, etc. —weakened the fabric of the Jewish community at a time when it could ill afford it.

Another issue was the great poverty that enveloped so many lives, particularly once the Depression took hold.  In particular, many shtetls, which had served as a sort of spiritual epicenter for East European Jewry, lost their economic viability, and residents moved to cities in search of a living.

But the largest factor in the Jewish demise is the most ironic.  For the first time, European Jews were free citizens in every nation. The new opportunities to participate in society led many Jews to abandon their traditions, language and identity in order to assimilate. Yet, in Wasserstein’s words, “the more they took advantage of their newfound legal equality and embraced the national life of their countries of residence, the more they evoked a jealous, exclusionist hostility.”  The societies in which they lived were not prepared to accept them, regardless of how much of their Jewishness they were willing to shed.

I’m not generally drawn to political biographies.  But I was interested to read Shulamit Volkov’s “Walther Rathenau: Weimar’s Fallen Statesman” in the aftermath of reading “On the Eve,” as a number of Wasserstein’s themes — including the limits of assimilation — are reflected in Rathenau’s life.

Rathenau was born to a bourgeois Berlin Jewish family in 1867, just four years before the emancipation of German Jews.  He eventually succeeded his father (who had his initial success after obtaining the German rights to Edison’s incandescent light bulb) as the head of AEG, one of Germany’s largest corporations. But Rathenau was also an artist and essayist, and, being a passionate German nationalist, he eventually entered politics. It was less than half a year into his tenure as Weimar Republic’s foreign minister — a post nearly inconceivable for a Jew to occupy — that he was assassinated by radical German rightists in 1922.

Volkov, a historian at Tel Aviv University, has written a succinct biography that focuses not on the notorious murder, but on Rathenau’s varied career and many internal contradictions. She is particularly adept in bringing out his ambivalence about his Jewishness. As she puts it, “As a Jew, Rathenau moved between self-loathing and intense inner pride.”

In 1897, Rathenau wrote an invective titled “Hear O Israel,” in which he took German Jews to task for failing to enter German society.  Referring to them as “an Asiatic horde” on German soil, he lambasted his fellow Jews for everything from their clothing to their inadequate physical build, holding them responsible for their own failure to integrate successfully into German society.

Rathenau was not religiously observant, and did not subscribe to conventional Jewish beliefs. However, unlike many German Jewish strivers, he opposed conversion to Christianity as a means to gain acceptance. And his assimilationist stance softened somewhat as his romantic vision of Germany ebbed in the course of his brief political life.  But the arc of his own evolution, interrupted by bullets, remains an unfinished story.

Volkov’s book is part of Yale University Press’ recent “Jewish Lives” series, which has included excellent biographies of figures as varied as Sarah Bernhardt, King Solomon, Emma Goldman and Moshe Dayan.


Many literary events are scheduled in the Bay Area this week. There will be a free conference on Soviet Yiddish literature at the Magnes this Sunday, Nov. 4. That evening, Rabbi Harold Kushner will be presenting his new released, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person” at the Marin JCC; and on Nov. 7, Matti Friedman will speak on his fascinating book “The Aleppo Codex” at the San Francisco JCC.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. 

All books mentioned in this column may beborrowed from the library.

“On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” by Bernard Wasserstein (576 pages, Simon & Schuster, $32.50)

“Walther Rathenau: The Life of Weimar’s Fallen Statesman”
by Shulamit Volkov (256 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.