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On The Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 2 November 2014
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This is an illuminating insight of the last successful years of European Jewry at its limits before the Second World War.

This is Forthright, studious account and, which takes into account a historical segment by author Wasserstein that looks at many faceted look at the very diverse Jewish society through; philosophy, linguistic, cultural outlook, demographics, and spiritual and dogmatic sects. Ashkenazi Jews looked down on Sephardic Jews. Liberals despised Zionists, who in turn mistrusted Hasidim. Jewish Marxists were ridiculed as defectors to their faith, so much so that Rabbi Jehiel Weinberg of Berlin praised Hitler's attacks on socialism and atheism. The idea of a united Jewish mass was a bogus premise touted by those who loathed Jews. Approximately 9 to 10 million Jews peopled Europe, contained in what the author outlines as quartet of regions appreciating more or less generous status among communities of Gentiles - none the less there was already the feeling of the impacting of the host communities trends that encompassed well established anti-Semitism -- across both Europe and the Russia and its satellite states. In terms of health, Jewish peoples mostly lived longer and have lower threshold rates of inebriation and pre-schooler mortality; while another aspect, showed net migration and marriage outside of the faith. While birth rates were declining within Jewish communities.
The ugly spectre of Anti-Semitism was fuelled by paranoia, nationalism and conspiracy theories such as in France and the Dreyfus affair. In succinct chapters, the author teases out one facet after another of Jewish identity for a surprising big picture: politics, Zionism, life from shtetl (A Yiddish word - Shtetls were small towns with large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust) to the shtot (city).

With the infamy that was Kristallnacht, the event, which illustrated that assimilation, made Jews a defenceless group to the harassments that lay ahead. As the venom of loathing seeped into Nazi-occupied Europe, and seemed at times to be taken up by the occupied peoples with very little persuasion and in some cases enthusiasm. In earnest, there was a program of dehumanisation and murder of Jews, which was also made into a virtue. Never before had a European government planned the annihilation of an entire people with such industrial finesse.

However, with all his meticulous research, the author is wrong to say that Italian Fascism was not initially anti-Semitic. A codified timetable of events illustrated the tension that always occurred between Fascism and Italian Jews. For Mussolini begrudged the assertion that his anti-Jewish statutes of 1938 were merely a copy of Hitler's program. Mussolini's anti-Semitism dated back the 1920s, before Hitler rose to standing. As he said
"I've been a racist since 1921," the dictator told his mistress Clara Petacci in 1938. With Hitler's complicity, Mussolini helped to expatriate more than 67,800 Italian Jews to Auschwitz and other camps within the Greater Reich.

This is a truly wide-ranging study, and a most complete overview of a diverse community, whose presence in mainland Europe was to change forever.

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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 13 July 2012
This is a very detailed history of Continental Jewry between the wars.The statistics are supported and explained along with the names of the movers and shakers of Europe including the USSR. The decline in the use of Yiddish is illustrated by the absorbtion of Jews into the mainstream of the nations. It is hard to avoid the fact that if the Nazis had been patient, they could have made Europe almost 'Judenrein' within 2 or 3 generations without the need for death camps or economic measures against the Jews. It reveals many little known antipathies which occurred between different Jewish religious and political movements at the time. A really interesting read, especially for those who are involved in political activities.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 February 2013
This portrait of the Jews of Europe in the period between the First and the Second World War of necessity covers much ground that will be familiar to people who have a good general knowledge of the subject; but there is an enormous amount that is not easily found elsewhere: Wasserstein's list of sources runs to 27 pages. In particular, in the early chapter he describes the life of the Jews in Amsterdam ("Jerusalem of the West") and gives detailed accounts of the Jews of Vilna ("Jerusalem of the North"), of Minsk ("Red New Jerusalem") and of Salonika ("The Jerusalem of the Balkans"). The atmosphere in the Jewish quarters of these places are all vividly described, and we are introduced to the names and deeds of the leading personalities in those communities of whom most readers will never have heard.

We learn in great detail of all the different religious groups and their schools in Eastern Europe; and about the position of women inside Jewish communities; about various kinds of Jewish delinquents. There is even a section about Jewish deaf-mutes and the institutions that cared for them. Jewish sporting achievements are recorded, and we learn that in table tennis "all the Polish national champions in the inter-war period were Jews".

It is well known that many Jews tried to escape being regarded as Jews by changing their names or by conversion - here documented with many individual stories. (There is also the story of an entire community of 80 Italian "primitive and illiterate" peasants converting TO Judaism in the early 1930s, persevering in the faith even after the fascists introduced anti-Jewish laws in 1938). There are striking portraits of Jews who publicly lambasted Jews as a group, and of a handful who wanted to be followers of Hitler - but this section is one of several that made me feel that, in his desire to be as comprehensive as possible, Wasserstein sometimes gives as much weight in his accounts to comparatively unrepresentative groups of Jews as he does to more representative ones. At other times he illustrates his general theme with innumerable instances, some vivid, others more of a catalogue.

As the Nazis led in the persecution of the Jews, many other countries, some, like Poland and Romania with their own antisemitic traditions and even Italy where Jews had been fully accepted stepped up their own anti-Jewish measures. A harrowing chapter goes into detail about the dilemma of Jews who desperately wanted to emigrate from these countries, and of Jews, like those of Polish origin, who were expelled from Nazi Germany and Nazi Austria, but were not admitted to Poland. Many of those who managed to get out of Germany were in refugee camps: "Indeed, in the summer of 1939, more Jews were being held in camps outside the Third Reich than within it."

In the face of all this, the Jews were deeply divided among themselves: the religious against the secular; the various socialist groups against each other and against the Jewish bourgeoisie; the Zionists, themselves divided between the General Zionists and the Revisionists.

But long before Wasserstein came to the mounting horror of the thirties, he showed the pressure which Jewish culture was experiencing, and which was not the direct result of persecution. There is, for example, a discussion of the decline of the several Jewish languages spoken in Europe, seen by Wasserstein as sign of the decline of the vitality of Jewish culture. Several times, from the opening to the closing pages, he shows how by 1939, before the Holocaust, "European Jewry was close to terminal collapse" (p.xvii), were indeed "far advanced on a road towards what one of their most perceptive and sympathetic observers called `race suicide'." (p. 434) This is shown many times over as he catalogues the diminishing fortunes of Yiddish plays, films, music, novels, libraries, newspapers, schools etc. The Holocaust of course speeded up the process, and it continued when that nightmare was over and has been chronicled in Wasserstein's earlier book, Vanishing Diaspora (1996).
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"On the Eve: the Jews of Europe before the Second World War" is a highly readable, yet thoroughly researched and scholarly account of the period starting roughly in the 1880s and taking the story up to the Holocaust. The book offers a comprehensive overview of Jewish life and culture ranging geographically from Spain to Russia and down into Central Europe and Greece. As I say, it is readable but of course the story is far from palatable and Wasserstein does not spare the reader from the extent of the outrage and hatred to which Jews were subject throughout the period. At the same time appropriate attention is given to the richness and diversity of Jewish religious and social life across Europe. Highly recommended.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 1 August 2013
So well written and interesting. This book will remain on my bookshelf and not passed on. A very useful reference book.
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on 23 August 2015
Excellent.well documented.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2013
This is a superb volume which shows the precarious situation in which Jewish communities found themselves on the eve of the greatest tragedy to hit the Jewish people. This is not to diminish the impact or importance of the Holocaust, but to provide us with an insight into a people already on the verge of extinction due to a variety of social, economic and cultural circumstances and against a backdrop of antisemitism.
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 19 July 2013
I didn't do enough research about what this book is about before I bought it. It is very specialised and detailed. Those particularly interested in the topic will value it, but for the 'general reader' it is a difficult read. Thus is not to detract from the quality of the research or the importance of the subject, it simply wasn't one for me.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 July 2013
Excellent. Well researched and full of new, interesting and often very moving information.
Particulary interesting on the political splits amongst European Jewry.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 15 October 2013
I knew I'd be reading about a lost world - the gap in the Europe left by the Shoah.

What I didn't expect was a description of so many different communities with different priorities.
Different factions, different ways of being Jewish.

Some trying to bridge the gap between shtetl & city.
Some succeeding.
Some failing.

Traditional Jewish life was unravelling.

Communities thought they embedded in the countries they called home.
But those countries didn't want them.
Nobody wanted to them to live among them.
And the Nazis didn't want them to live.

Wasserstein doesn't delve into counterfactual - what would be the point?

According to the Division of Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2009 statistics) there might be as many as 32 million Jews in the world now, if the Shoah hadn't happened.
In plain language, a generation was murdered.
And their children & grandchildren.

This isn't a memoir about martyrs v. bad guys.
Or weakness v. strength.

It's more subtle than that - it's social history about trying to find a place in the world.
And not finding it.
And dying because you can't find a place.

Read it more than once.
Read it whether you're Jewish or not.
Read it especially if your Jew-ish.
Read it.
Remember it.
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