Sunday, April 11, 2010

Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe

Whenever I travel somewhere I create a reading list to prepare for my travels. My current focus is Eastern Europe, especially Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Cracow, specifically the Jewish experience. I thought this would be a good place to share some recommended reading for others who may be interested in similar travels or a similar emphasis.

One of the books that I would highly recommend is A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe by Jonathan Kaufman. Kaufman is a journalist by training and used to be a page one feature editor for the Wall Street Journal. He tells the story of five Jews living in Prague, Budapest, Poland and East and West Berlin. While he touches on their experience during the war, the primary focus is on the period after the war under Soviet control and the difficult compromises that people had to make to survive. While most books on Eastern European Jews end with the Holocaust, Kaufman’s book pursues how one reconstructs one’s life in the midst of countries which often contain the very people who either actively or passively supported your extermination. While the book is a powerful history lesson, it is also personalized by the focus on the real experiences of its five protagonists. Because the stories span several generations he captures the ebb and flow of Jewish consciousness throughout generations. While many people of the post-war era had to suppress their religious and cultural identity, their children and grandchildren are finding their way back to their heritage.

In writing about the pre-war period he underscores the fact that the poor shtetl Jew who has entered the public’s consciousness through productions such as “Fiddler on the Roof” was not representative of the broader Jewish experience in the cities. A recent article in the New York Times on the photos of Roman Vishniac also addresses the often misleading image that was created of the Eastern European Jew (see links).

In the larger cities of Eastern Europe one often found wealth and sophistication within the Jewish community. Jews edited the newspapers, owned the department stores and in 1933 75% of plays in Berlin were written or directed by Jews. Before the Nazis, Germans were the most frequent recipient of the Nobel Prize. After 1933 a quarter of those receiving the Nobel prize in medicine were German-Jewish. None of them lived in Germany. In many ways the loss of the Jews robbed these cities of an energy and vibrancy that had existed in earlier times and furthered the growth and vitality of the city.

I was surprised at the level of pre-war assimilation and intermarriage, trends that I tend to associate with the United States. Post-war many Eastern European Jews backed away from Judaism both because of the pressures of Soviet control as well as the harm which they experienced because of being Jewish. Ironically the very fact of the Holocaust deepened the sense of Jewish identity for many American Jews.

Kaufman follows the stories through the Soviet occupation to the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. He reports the rise of anti-Semitism after the fall and then the stabilization and rediscovery of Jewish roots among the next generation and those that remained. This book was first published in 1997 and closes with the resurgence of the Jewish community within Eastern Europe.

The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley was published in 1999 and focuses upon Budapest, Prague, Cracow and Warsaw. While it does not address the period of Soviet control, it reports on the Jewish communities and institutions as they existed in 1999 and provides important back story on the Jewish communities from those cities, dating back many centuries to their origin. Valley also shares Jewish legends that had developed within these communities. History book, folk stories and travel guide, this book is an insider’s view of the Jewish communities within these cities. The book is written in a very readable style and would be of interest to anyone with an interest in Jewish history even if not traveling to these regions.

Valley's history of the Jewish people reminds us that the Holocaust, while on a scale previously unknown, was an extension of a long tradition of anti-Semitism often fostered by the church or economic competition. Kaufman in turn reminds us that it did not end with the Holocaust and continues to rear its head whenever economic distress or nationalistic tendencies develop.

Eli Valley is the son of a New York rabbi and clearly steeped in Jewish history and folklore. He also was a travel guide in Prague, having moved there soon after the fall of communism.

Valley also writes of the resurgence of interest in Jewish roots and the role historic Jewish buildings play in coalescing a community as it develops a new identity.

I found this book at the library and quickly decided it would be an invaluable addition to my personal library. Its only drawback is that it is over 500 pages which makes it cumbersome to take on one's travels. I can only hope that Amazon will come out with a Kindle version prior to our departure.

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