Michael Brenner How Jewish are Europe’s Jews? FIRST DRAFT

In 1947, Samuel Gringauz, a leader of the She’erit Ha-pleitah (the surviving remnant of Jews in postwar Europe) summed up what Europe meant for him and many others who had barely escaped Nazi persecution. For these Jews, Gringauz stressed, Europe was not associated with Westminster Abbey or Versailles, nor with the Strasbourg Cathedral or the art treasures of Florence, but rather with the violence of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Russia, and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.i „Adieu, Europe“ was the title of a dramatic speech he gave to the Jewish survivors in the continent that had shaped Jewish life over the last millennium, a bloodstained continent, a huge cemetery.

The Jews whom he addressed were no longer Europeans or Poles or Germans but, in the language of the day, were now called „Displaced Persons“. Most of them expressed their desire to leave Europe for Israel or the Unites States, or even farther away, for South America or Australia. Europe, which had been a home and a hope for many generations of Jews, had become a horrible nightmare.

Fifty years after Gringauz’ speech, British historian Bernard Wasserstein wrote a book on post-war European Jewry which he entitled „A Vanishing Diaspora“. Just as the once flourishing Chinese diaspora would disappear, he argued, European Jewry would one day be but a vague memory. If we look only at the statistics Wasserstein might not be entirely wrong. In the mid-19th century almost 90% of all Jews lived in Europe, in the 1930s they constituted still two thirds of the entire Jewish community. And even in 1946, immediately after the catastrophe, every third Jew still lived on European soil: over two Millions in the Soviet Union, 400,000 in Romania, 200,000 in Hungary and in Poland respectively, even 50,000 in


Bulgaria. Today, in 2011, a marginal 10% or a total of just over one million Jews, perhaps a million and a half, remains in Europe. While Wasserstein’s comparison with China is farfetched it can hardly be denied that the European age of Jewish history has come to an end.

Judaism, as we know it today, is a composite of a diverse cultural heritage: its historic homeland Eretz Israel, where its earliest biblical foundations were built; Babylonia, home of the Talmudic corpus and the great Jewish academies of higher learning; and Europe, where Judaism has been developed most decisively over the last millenium. In Spain Judah Halevi wrote his acclaimed Hebrew poems, in France Rashi added the most widely acclaimed commentaries to Bible and Talmud, in Lithuania the Vilna Gaon became the respected halakhic autority of his time, in Poland and Ukraine Hasidism developed as an innovative spiritual movement in Judaism, in Germany modern Orthodox and Reform Judaism were born out of the spirit of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. And beyond the religious realm, secular expressions of Jewish identity were born in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. In Vienna, Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement, while the „godless Jew“ Sigmund Freud became the model for many „non-Jewish Jews.“ Secular Jewish identities of Eastern Europe were based on the Yiddish language, as expressed for example by Socialist Bundist traditions.

The Holocaust was certainly not the first European Jewish catastrophe but it was only after this utter destruction that they were thought of as „Displaced Persons“ in Europe. For centuries, European Jews had felt as part of Europe, of the cities and of the countries they lived in. When in the 16th century the Jewish adventurer David Reuveni tried to convince the Jewish banker Ishmael de Rieti from Siena to prepare himself for the messianic journey to Jerusalem, he received the answer that his only concern was about his hometown in Siena. Just as he replied: „Tov li kan be Siena“ we know of a tradition among German Jews who


replaced the traditional phrase of return to Jerusalem in the Passover Haggadah by the wish to remain next year as well in their hometown of Worms: „Ba-shanah haba’ah po be-Worms am Rhein“.

While many were patriots of their respective countries, others felt first and foremost as Europeans. When Theodor Herzl published his plan to create a Jewish state, the Austrian Jewish critic Karl Kraus caricatured the Zionist endeavor and asked rhetorically if he believed that the Jews were just staying on in Europe for over a thousand years to improve the tourist trade. German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote to his mother during World War One: „To be a German means to feel responsibility for the German people as a whole; not only to harmonize with Goethe and Schiller and Kant, but also with the others, and especially with the inferior and average, with the assessor, the little public servant, the fat-headed peasant, the stiff Oberlehrer. The real German must love them all or suffer for them all... just as we blush when the average Jew compromises us.... Cohen confounds what he finds as a European in Deutschtum with that what the German finds in it....In Cohen there is only Europäertum, he lacks genuine Deutschtum.”ii

Rosenzweig directed these words against Hermann Cohen, whose war-time essays tried to construct a theory of German-Jewish symbiosis. Rosenzweig was more inclined to see himself as a European and thus criticized the German chauvinism of his fellow Jews during the First World War. Standing in the footsteps of the medieval mediators between Christian and Muslim cultures, during the first World War, some Jews went further and felt it their historic mission to mediate between the war-faring nations of Europe. Thus, Eduard Bernstein, one of the foremost leaders of German Social Democracy, wrote an essay, "The Jews as Mediators", which constituted a powerful and courageous attempt by a German Jew to take the Jewish historical experience as a counterweight to contemporary chauvinism. Drawing on the


partially idealized role of medieval Jews as interpreters of different languages and cultures, he credited the Jews with a specific role in international conflicts. Bernstein demanded that Jews don’t try to be „more German than the Germans, more English than the English etc.“

In a similar spirit, the German-Jewish writer Arnold Zweig argued after the war that, Jews could have played a crucial role of peacemakers: „Had they not been too weak, isolated, left totally alone: peace could have originated from them.“ Ernst Toller, another German-Jewish writer and political activist, who wrote in his autobiography, a few years later: „I was born by a Jewish mother, Germany nourished me, Europe educated me, the earth is my home, the world my fatherland.“

This kind of cosmopolitanism, of course, served also the cause of the antisemites. Jews and cosmopolitans often became synonyms, as no one knows better than Zygmunt Bauman. In the age between the wars, this accusation was already far developed. The name Rothschild sufficed to satisfy the antisemitic stereotypes of international Jewry. Henry Wickem Steed, the foreign editor of The Times and Lord Northcliff, the proprietor of the paper called Rothschild’s appeal for peace “a dirty German-Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality.” It did not help that Rothschild’s great-grandfather had already settled in England, that he himself was a member of the House of Lords, but for “true Englishman” he remained a “dirty German Jew.” Albert Einstein grasped this notion of being always perceived as a foreigner, when he claimed: “If my research proves successful, I will be a European for the French and a German for the Germans. If I fail, I will be a German for the French and a Jew for the Germans.”

While some Jews were more German or French than European and others felt more European than German or French, they all were part of Europe. And European culture for many


generations was shaped by the presence of Jews. In an ironic twist of history, one might argue that today’s European culture is shaped precisely by their absence.

After decades of silence, the absence of Jews, the void created by their mass murder, brought about a new, a different Jewish culture – a Jewish culture without Jews. This process culminated in the years before and after the turn of the millennium. The establishment of Jewish Studies as an academic discipline at European universities - an objective for which Jewish scholars had fought in vain for many decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - has been achieved despite the fact that there are hardly any Jews left to study or teach it. Jewish book stores are flourishing, with their book shelves carrying hundreds of new publications on Jewish history, literature and religion each year. Spectacular Jewish museums have opened everywhere between Copenhagen and Bologna, Berlin and Warsaw. Only last month, the city of Cologne, decided to fund another big Jewish museum project. There are klezmer bands and synagogue choirs organizing festivals of Yiddish and Hebrew liturgical songs. Every year there are Jewish Culture Weeks or Jewish Film Festivals in all major cities. There are the Fans of Tottenham Hotspurs who call themselves the “Yids”, and the fans of Ajax Amsterdam who proudly display the Star of David. There is the Jewish kitsch, the little Hasidim with their fiddles on display in the Kasimierz section of Cracow, the golems in the old Jewish quarter of Prague, the Murano glass Mezuzot in the Venice Ghetto. Even places which expelled the Jews over 500 years ago re-discover them as a tourist attraction: the Hebrew street names in the medieval quarter of Palermo, the sculpture of Maimonides in Cordoba, the Nachmanides pubs in Gerona and so on.

Maybe, Europe will simply settle for the solution which Ruth Gruber called Virtually Jewish: a rich Jewish culture without Jews. Jews can be seen in movies, studied in university courses, admired in museums, bought as little statues. In this respect, Europe certainly would not be


like China. The Jewish presence left a long-lasting imprint, and continues to haunt and fascinate Europeans.

But it seems that this fascination with Judaism will not last forever. In a recent speech historian Diana Pinto, once the foremost proponent of a European Jewish voice as the third pillar next to American Jewry and Israel, struck a much more sober tone. “The years of Jewish centrality are over”, she claims. “For a quarter of a century, a solemn kippah-clad repentant Europe stood silently in remembrance inside synagogues and Holocaust memorials, at Jewish cemeteries and in the continent’s symbolic squares and parks. It paid tribute to the missing millions in political shrines, returned spoliated belongings and art, erected monuments in honor of the murdered Jews, and with some external nudging, restored community properties throughout eastern Europe… Thus after commemorating the Holocaust, honoring the Jews and their centrality, Europeans, to paraphrase Genesis, looked back on their work and said, ‘this was good (and right).’ In the eyes of non-Jewish Europeans, after all the memorials, all the museums, all the Jewish studies programs had been created, and provisions for the teaching of the Holocaust had been taken, not much else could be done to honor the Jewish past. As for the Jewish present, strong anti-racist laws and a firm commitment to combat antisemitism wherever it would arise seemed sufficient guarantees for the full-fledged ‘belonging’ of Europe’s living Jews inside a new democratic and pluralist Europe. Unlike the Supreme Deity, however, on the seventh day, Europeans did not rest, but were obliged to turn to other problems and other priorities, in a world that had changed markedly with the new millennium.” Pinto calls the period we are facing neither antisemitic nor philosemitic but asemitic.

If this is right, if we live in a period of asemitism, where Jews are neither persecuted nor idealized, this might also contain an enormous chance. The chance to revitalize European


Jewry, to turn it once again into a creative community, a community active in the dialogue between majority and minority populations, a group that helps to redefine the religious and ethnic landscape of Europe, a group out of which will once again grow mediators between the nations and religions of the continent they have inhabited in its totality from East to West and from North to South for so many centuries. There are no better ambassadors for the idea of Europe than the Jews, no one knows better about its dangers and its possibilities.

But let us also not forget the proportions, today’s realities. There are just as many Jews in Europe today as Estonians – and one might ask indeed why do Jews have to make a stronger impact than any other small nation, why do they have to have more Nobel prize winners, more philosophers and writers, doctors, and lawyers. And maybe the answer is that Jews have no longer to prove themselves as Europeans, they have no longer to show the world that they are better educated and integrated, that they are more German than the Germans and more European than the Europeans.

Today, we do not only face a Europe without Jews but a Judaism without Europe. Many religious and secular Jewish traditions in Israel and America have simply been transplanted from Europe: from the Polish dress-code and the language of the haredim to Kafkas’s influence on modern American-Jewish literature, from gefilte Fish to klezmer music. As these traditions fade away, European Jewry may become but a distant and blurred memory for American and Israeli Jews.

While Israeli and American Jews adopted European traditions, European Jews today imitate Israeli and American practices. In religious life, Chabad on the one hand and the Reform movement on the other hand – both based in the United States - make considerable inroads in Europe. Modern orthodoxy is increasingly looking to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate as source for


its own authority. With a few exceptions, like France and Great Britain, most rabbis in Europe today come from Israel or America. Not so long ago, European Judaism was characterized by a myriad of local and regional traditions, the customs of Alsatian Jews, the liturgy of the Jews in Galicia, the ancient Italian rituals, the local traditions of Jewish recipes, melodies, and dress codes. All these are almost entirely forgotten, as Jews have been uprooted in many European Jewish communities, and often, the communities of today have nothing in common, not even the memory, of the prewar communities.

European Jewry of today lacks also creativity in Jewish spirituality and secular thought. Imagine European culture between the wars without Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka or Arnold Schoenberg, without Osip Mandelstam, Henri Bergson, Italo Svevo or Bruno Schulz. Jewish thinkers like Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Leo Baeck – to mention only the Germanspeaking world - have no successors in today’s Europe.

Without a renewed Jewish literacy and a strengthened creativity European Jewry will become an insignificant branch of Israeli or American Judaism. There are signs of hope, though. Paideia is certainly one of them. An innovative and creative institution where Jewish culture is promoted within Europe. The Heidelberg College of Jewish Studies is another one. It was followed by rabbinical seminaries in Berlin and Potsdam. Limmud, which started in England and is now a worldwide phenomenon, or the more modest Tarbut conferences for Germanspeaking Jews are all signs that there is a need among European Jews not only to remain Jews but to know what it means to be Jewish.

If Diana Pinto is right and we live indeed in an age of asemitism, if we don’t have to fight antisemites every day and don’t have to be objects of philosemitism either, it might be time to turn inwards in a constructive sense. This does not mean a rejection of the outside world. Jews


are no longer Displaced Persons in Europe. They are truly part of the societies they live in but today they may be displaced within their Judaism. This might be the hour in which European Jews – as reduced as their number is - may have the chance to become both: Europeans and Jews.



Quoted in Brenne: After the Holocaust, 66. . Rosenzweig, Briefe, pp. 444-445.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful