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On the Eve

The focus in this book about the approach of the Holocaust is not Adolf Hitler and the Nazis but the European Jews themselves.

By Steve Weinberg / May 22, 2012

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War By Bernard Wasserstein Simon & Schuster 576 pp.

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Some academics seem ridiculously specialized at first glance. Consider Bernard Wasserstein, at the University of Chicago. He is the Ulrich and Harriet Meyer professor of modern European Jewish history there. Not just history. Not just Jewish history. Not just modern European history – rather “modern European Jewish” history. Sometimes, however, the expertise that comes with specialization can yield superb books. On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War is such a book.

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Part of the reason is Alice Mayhew. Like most editors at large New York City publishing enterprises, Mayhew is unknown to almost all non-author readers. Among authors, though, she seems like a miracle worker. Her famous authors include Bob Woodward, Sylvia Nasar, Walter Isaacson and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Mayhew seems especially adept at transforming little-known academic historians into big-selling authors – think of Stephen Ambrose, now deceased.

Also think of Wasserstein, who is not only an expert about his subject matter but also a lucid writer, unlike way too many academics.

The focus in “On the Eve” is not Adolf Hitler and the Nazis or other murderers of Jews. Rather, the focus is on European Jews themselves. Although often lumped together as “the Jews,” they inhabited a variety of cultures in a variety of nations, and even within geographically limited communities the variations within Jewry could be vast. Some of the nations had been somewhat welcoming to Jews before the 1930s, despite the ever-present currents of anti-Semitism.

The dramatic tension within the book derives heavily from the shift of tolerance to hatred. As Wasserstein explains within the “Introduction,” during the 1930s economic depression and racist resentment spread like cancers. Quite suddenly, “the Jews found that [the previous] assimilation and acculturation, rather than easing their path to acceptance, aroused still more hatred against them. The book therefore examines the position of a people confronted with an impossible dilemma.”

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