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.
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.”
So, the Jews faced a common threat. But, as Wasserstein explains over and over, with plenty of interesting detail, “they were far from a unified monolith.” A small percentage had accumulated huge wealth. Others qualified as impoverished by any standard. Those residing in east-central Europe often remained orthodox in their religious observance. But in western Europe and the Soviet Union, many had become “thoroughly secularized.” Quite a few hoped for a Jewish homeland to escape hostility, but that seemed unlikely circa 1939. As a result, more and more “were being reduced to wandering refugees,” confined to camps not only in Germany but also in the so-called democracies of the Netherlands and France.
History should never rely on hindsight. From the vantage point of 2012, it might seem that mass murder of Jews numbering in the millions was inevitable given Hitler’s mental illness and devoted followers. Wasserstein says the mass murder was not inevitable. “…The impending genocide was unforeseeable to those I am writing about – though … there were surprisingly frequent and anguished intimations of doom.” In a final section, titled “Gateway to Annihilation,” Wasserstein closes the book with these resonating, depressing words: “Wholly defenseless, largely friendless, and more and more hopeless, the European Jews, on the eve of their destruction, waited for the barbarians.”
When Wasserstein mentions those he is “writing about,” the number is large. A large number of characters can doom an attempt at compelling narrative. Wasserstein deals with the large cast well, however. An Epilogue running 22 pages gives brief details of what happened to many of the characters during and after World War Two. Wasserstein’s book does not extend deeply into the war years, stopping at September 1939. (A previous book by him, “Vanishing Diaspora,” spotlights postwar European Jewry.) The current book is also limited by Wasserstein’s decision to exclude Britain and Turkey, which escaped occupation by the Nazis and Nazi allies. (Yet another previous book by Wasserstein, “Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945,” fills some of that gap.)
For readers who can escape the specter of death while moving through the thick book, the material about Jewish communities will quite likely offer fascination. Wasserstein shares his research about Jews’ “hopes and beliefs, anxieties and ambitions, family ties, internal and external relations, their cultural creativity, amusements, songs, fads and fancies, dress, diet, and insofar as they can be grasped, the things that made existence meaningful and bearable for them.”
Wasserstein knows something about history told from the bottom up instead of the top down.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer based in Columbia, Mo.