On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

by Bernard Wasserstein
     
 

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On the Eve is the portrait of a world on the brink of annihilation. In this provocative book, Bernard Wasserstein presents a new and disturbing interpretation of the collapse of European Jewish civilization even before the Nazi onslaught.

In the 1930s, as Europe spiraled toward the Second World War, the continent’s Jews faced an existential crisisSee more details below

Overview

On the Eve is the portrait of a world on the brink of annihilation. In this provocative book, Bernard Wasserstein presents a new and disturbing interpretation of the collapse of European Jewish civilization even before the Nazi onslaught.

In the 1930s, as Europe spiraled toward the Second World War, the continent’s Jews faced an existential crisis. The harsh realities of the age—anti-Semitic persecution, economic discrimination, and an ominous climate of violence—devastated Jewish communities and shattered the lives of individuals.

The Jewish crisis was as much the result of internal decay as of external attack. Demographic collapse, social disintegration, and cultural dissolution were all taking their toll. The problem was not just Nazism: In the summer of 1939 more Jews were behind barbed wire outside the Third Reich than within it, and not only in police states but even in the liberal democracies of the West. The greater part of Europe was being transformed into a giant concentration

camp for Jews. Unlike most previous accounts, On the Eve focuses not on the anti-Semites but on the Jews. Wasserstein refutes the common misconception that they were unaware of the gathering forces of their enemies. He demonstrates that there was a growing and widespread recognition among Jews that they stood on the edge of an abyss.

On the Eve recaptures the agonizing sorrows and the effervescent cultural glories of this last phase in the history of the European Jews. It explores their hopes, anxieties, and ambitions, their family ties, social relations, and intellectual creativity—everything that made life meaningful and bearable for them.

Wasserstein introduces a diverse array of characters: holy men and hucksters, beggars and bankers, politicians and poets, housewives and harlots, and, in an especially poignant chapter, children without a future. The geographical range also is vast: from Vilna (the “Jerusalem of the North”) to Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, and Paris, from the Judeo-Espagnol-speaking stevedores of Salonica to the Yiddish-language collective farms of Soviet Ukraine and Crimea.

Wasserstein’s aim is to “breathe life into dry bones.” Based on comprehensive research, rendered with compassion and empathy, and brought alive by telling anecdotes and dry wit, On the Eve offers a vivid and enlightening picture of the European Jews in their final hour.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
On the Eve is a superb book, but a complex and deeply disturbing one. It is sometimes confusing, but then it should be, since Jewish culture does not lend itself to simplistic generalization. The book, with its incredible detail, is nevertheless testimony to the fact that meticulous research and deep analytical insight are not the enemies of engaging and entertaining prose…Great books are those that stay with the reader, abrading consciousness for years afterward. On the Eve is such a book.
—Gerard DeGroot
Publishers Weekly
Ten million Jews lived in Europe in the late 1930s, and University of Chicago history professor Wasserstein (Barbarism and Civilization) seeks to restore both the successes and conundrums of the lives of their multifaceted communities that flourished in the face of the fact that whether they remained openly Jewish or tried to assimilate, they were rejected by most other Europeans. Still, Europe’s Jews felt a deep sense of rootedness in cities like Amsterdam, Vilna, Minsk, and Salonica, and were often the most literate section of the population. The Jewish press, with at least 854 different publications, was a vibrant, multilingual reflection of the lives of its readers. In the performing arts hundreds of Jewish playwrights, actors, critics, and directors transformed the European stage, and audiences were predominantly Jewish, too. Jewish politics were highly factionalized, raucous, and uncompromising between the wars; Jewish women also played a disproportionate role in the feminist movements all over the continent. Wasserstein even acknowledges the sporting lives of Europe’s Jews—particularly at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where 13 Jews won medals (though their triumph was tinged with irony in a Nazi-ruled Germany). A substantive, perceptive, and highly valuable kaddish for lost lives and lost worlds. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps. Agent: Emma Sweeney, Emma Sweeney Agency. (May)
From the Publisher
“A bright, hard glimpse at the final thriving days of European Jewry…[s]traightforward, scholarly and tidily organized…[a] wide-ranging, marvelously complete overview of a diverse, teeming civilization poised for ruin."

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A substantive, perceptive, and highly valuable kaddish for lost lives and lost worlds.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Wasserstein chronicles European Jewry in the decade before the war, boldly exploring problems within the community as well as the external pressures of anti-Semitism…I suspect that we think we know all there is to know about this subject, but we don’t; Wasserstein should have us covered. Important.”

—Library Journal

"Meticulous, closely researched, movingly evocative....As an encyclopaedic record of Jewish life before the second world war, Wasserstein's book is nothing less than a marvel. Nothing escapes his gaze....As he shows, Jewish society had a cultural richness and diversity to match any in Europe….Wasserstein's great achievement is to show just how far Jewish life in Europe was embattled even before war broke out in 1939. This was not some lost golden age.”

—Sunday Times of London

“Enthralling, heartbreaking… Wasserstein commands an intensive and incisive knowledge of the Jewish subculture …and, as may be seen, the ability to write about it evocatively.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle
“Enthralling, heartbreaking… Wasserstein commands an intensive and incisive knowledge of the Jewish subculture …and, as may be seen, the ability to write about it evocatively.”
Sunday Times of London
"Meticulous, closely researched, movingly evocative....As an encyclopaedic record of Jewish life before the second world war, Wasserstein's book is nothing less than a marvel. Nothing escapes his gaze....As he shows, Jewish society had a cultural richness and diversity to match any in Europe….Wasserstein's great achievement is to show just how far Jewish life in Europe was embattled even before war broke out in 1939. This was not some lost golden age.”
Andrew Nagorski
"At last, we have a comprehensive, richly textured account of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. Bernard Wasserstein is unsparingly honest in his portrayal of a highly diverse, highly accomplished community, weakened by internal divisions and demographic decline as a much larger disaster loomed. On the Eve is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the world that was about to disappear."
Michael Goldfarb
“The Holocaust lingers in the memory not just because of the scale of the terror visited on Europe's Jews but because of the many, many questions the event has raised that remain unanswered. Wasserstein creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of the many different ways Jews lived from France into Russia. An important study with an important message.”
Yad Vashem International Book Prize citation
"Takes the reader step by step through the history of the Jews of Europe between the two world wars and provides a comprehensive survey of their situation throughout the continent. It is a rare and excellent introduction, an evaluation that furnishes a deeper understanding of the events of the Holocaust."
Christian Science Monitor
“Wasserstein . . . is not only an expert about his subject matter but also a lucid writer. . . . superb”
HistoryBookClub.com
“Judicious and comprehensive . . . in the process of covering such a wide chronological and geographic scope, Wasserstein frequently brings in the lives and experiences of specific individuals, thereby offering the reader a sense of life as it was lived.”
The Jewish Chronicle
“An enlightening and moving evocation of the richness and heterogeneity, both vast and under-documented, of Jewish life in pre-war Europe.”
Kirkus Reviews
A bright, hard glimpse at the final thriving days of European Jewry and the first edges of its unraveling. Straightforward, scholarly and tidily organized, this historical snapshot by Wasserstein (Modern European Jewish History/Univ. of Chicago; Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time, 2007, etc.) encompasses myriad aspects of Jewish society, culture, language, health, demographics and religious and political sects. Nearly 10 million Jews were inhabiting Europe, contained in what the author delineates as four zones enjoying more or less benevolent status among communities of non-Jews but already feeling the lashing of secular currents as well as anti-Semitism—across both Europe and the Soviet Union. On one hand, Jews tended to live longer and have lower rates of alcoholism and infant mortality; on the other, they were migrating, "marrying out" and quarreling among themselves, while birth rates were declining. Anti-Semitism, stoked by paranoia, nationalism and conspiracy theories such as in France, became "part of the perfume of the age." Jews, writes Wasserstein, essentially became victims of their own success. In concise chapters, the author examines one facet of Jewish identity after another for a staggering big picture: politics, Zionism, life from shtetl to shtot (city), cultural centers like Minsk and Salonica, the press, the theater, the status of women, converts, vernacular languages like Yiddish and Judeo-Espanol, and much more. A wide-ranging, marvelously complete overview of a diverse, teeming civilization poised for ruin.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439101698
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
05/01/2012
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
576
Sales rank:
815,720
File size:
13 MB
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This product may take a few minutes to download.

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