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A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry

Anti-Semitism has proven to be one of the most enduring concepts in European civilization. In a 1927 book called The Wandering Jew, about the struggles of poor eastern European Jews, Viennese Jewish novelist Joseph Roth concluded that anti-Semitism would vanish from the world, ended by the Soviet Union. He wrote of anti-Semitism, "In the new Russia, it remains a disgrace. What will ultimately kill it off is public shame." He noted virulent outbursts in Russia but dismissed them as the death struggles of dinosaurs resisting the inevitable future.

Roth even speculated that "If this process continues, the age of Zionism will have passed, along with the age of anti-Semitism-- and perhaps even that of Judaism itself."

Today the Soviet Union has been gone for a decade but anti-Semitism is still here. So for that matter, is Judaism. "The Jewish question"--I have never been certain what the question is--that Roth predicted would be put to rest with Russian leadership, has endured.

The lesson to be learned from Roth, aside from a warning to writers not to publish predictions in books, is that both Judaism and anti-Semitism have deep and permanent roots in Europe. Though Judaism is a less European idea than anti-Semitism, for many Jews, Jewish culture is European--or was.

Because of the Holocaust, Europe is no longer the most Jewish continent. It may have remained the most anti-Semitic, though Africa and Asia, with their Muslim populations are certainly vying for the title. It is difficult to be certain because anti-Semitism is more difficult to quantify than Judaism. As the nations of the former Soviet bloc struggle for acceptance in the West--admission into Western clubs such as NATO and the European Union-- Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress have urged that progress towards democracy in these nations be measured by the way they are treating their Jews. This is not as skewed a perspective as it at first sounds. Anti-Semitism, whether in Hungary, Germany, or France, has usually been tied to undemocratic movements. The growth of anti-Semitism in France, from the Dreyfus case to World War II collaboration, was tied to monarchists, fascists, and other groups that did not support republican-ism. The Soviet Union was in principle opposed to anti-Semitism, and even outlawed its outward manifestations. But as that nation grew increasingly repressive, it also became increasingly anti-Semitic. The "anti-zionist campaign" in Poland in the late 1960s was the precursor to general repression.

But a more subtle anti-Semitism is allowed to breathe and grow even in the setting of democracy. Now in the early twenty-first century when so much urgency is given to fighting international terrorism, it is useful to remember that in the late twentieth century Jews feared Arab gunmen and bombs in Paris, Antwerp, Munich--much of western Europe. No European Jew went to a Jewish restaurant or a synagogue without calculating the risk of attack. These attacks against social organizations, restaurants, schools and synagogues were met with official statements of outrage and very little else. Almost no effort was made to capture or punish the perpetrators, even when Israeli intelligence offered information that could lead to their capture. Today when wondering how international Arab terrorism could have become so brazen, we should note that twenty years ago they were allowed to kill Jews in western Europe with impunity.

In the decade that has passed since I researched A Chosen Few, the standing in Europe of both Judaism and anti-Semitism has barely changed. This is not surprising, but what is surprising is that none of the countries about which I wrote in this book has moved one step further away from World War II. Europe, sixty years after the Holocaust, has achieved no more closure than had Europe fifty years after. Dariusz Stola, a historian of the twentieth century at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said in a lecture delivered in June 2001 at the University of Warsaw, "The Holocaust is not a problem of the past. It is a problem of the present. I can hardly find a European country without a World War II problem from Germany, French collaboration, Swiss banks, the role of the Vatican. If you do not have problems with World War II, you are not European."

The World War II problem, the Jewish question--these are distinctly European debates. It would have been logical to imagine that these issues had to be resolved, before the Jews would return. But in fact they returned before there was any resolution and now children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren of survivors, live their lives half citizen and half metaphor.

The Jews have an irrefutable claim on what all Europeans want--standing as World War II victims. Everyone was either-- in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg--a victim, a bystander, or a perpetrator. The worst fate has become the best status. Just as Jews have always been envied and resented for whatever they had, they are envied today for their victim status. Europeans need to show that they too, not just Jews, were the victims of World War II. The French and Dutch accomplish this with some difficulty. The Poles stubbornly fight for their victim status. Even the Germans hope that somehow Dresden gives them a chance for victim status.

The Jews of Dresden in the former East Germany have recently found their real life in Germany and their metaphorical one at cross purposes. Across the wide and curving Elbe, in the Baroque historic city center, where blackened sandstone fairies cavort from ancient rooftops, workers waddle by, clearing debris with wheel-barrows. The city is finally digging out from the famous Febru-ary 13, 1945, British RAF bombing run followed the next morning with an attack by the U.S. Army Air Force. Initially, the German police claimed 18,000 dead. But in subsequent years the count has wavered between 30,000 and 130,000.

Germany fell, and with little chance for recrimination against the rest of the world, Germans have, for a half century, denounced the bombing of Dresden as cruel and unnecessary.

Before it was bombed into a ruin, Dresden, the capital of Saxony, had been one of the prized centers of Germany. The old walled medieval town reached its golden age in the eighteenth century. A Protestant church with a huge dome defining the city skyline, the Frauenkirche, became the symbol of Dresden--like an Eiffel Tower or an Empire State building. Bach gave the Frauenkirche's first organ concert.

But for forty-five years after the 1945 bombing, the view across the Elbe was of the piles of stone, staircases overgrown with bushes, wall fragments silhouetted against the sky, the skeleton of one burned-out dome sticking out above overgrown rubble piles amid a huge vacant lot that had been cleared with bulldozers.

In 1949, when the Cold War began with Germany splitting into West and East, East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, found a perfect convergence of political rhetoric and economic reality. They did not have the money to completely rebuild their cities, but in leaving central Berlin with bullet holes and crumbling walls and Dresden with its charred remains, they were creat-ing monuments to the horror the fascists had brought on the German people. Fascists were the perpetrators and Germans were the victims.

Excerpted fromA Chosen Few © Copyright 2002 by Mark Kurlansky. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.

A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry
by by Mark Kurlansky

  • paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345448146
  • ISBN-13: 9780345448149