War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream.
A quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be an odd manner in which to commence a book about Europe’s Jews in the inter-war years, yet the use of Shakespeare to depict the ethereal quality of that time and that place is all too apt. It was in Europe that Jews dreamed of what could be. It was in Europe that those dreams were snuffed out along with their initiators in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Howard Sachar, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, has written many excellent books on modern Jewish history including an informative history of Israel, and this book lives up to that high standard.
This work traces the incredible contribution to culture, politics and society of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe – with Germany and France thrown in for good measure. The sheer number of actors in this Jewish drama that stride across Sachar’s stage, from Franz Kafka to Rosa Luxemburg, from Karl Kraus to Marcel Proust, is breathtaking. Yet it is also a story about persecution and discrimination on a scale mainly forgotten by the world today.
Each chapter is devoted to a particular country. The book begins with the trial of Sholem Schwarzbard for killing Simon Petliura whom he considered responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews in the Ukraine in 1919/1920.
In a letter to his wife, Schwarzbard wrote “I am performing a duty for our poor people. I am going to avenge all the pogroms, the blood, the hatred of the Jews.”
Schwarzbard confronted Petliura on a Paris street and fired five bullets into him at point-blank range, exclaiming “For my brethren.” When the gendarmes arrived, he told them “I have killed a great murderer.” The jury agreed and found him not guilty amidst cries of “Vive La France.”
In previous years there had been some measure of understanding between Jews and Ukrainians. There had been a Jewish minister of labor in the first independent administration. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader, had always shown a keen interest in Ukrainian nationalism and contributed to their journals. Yet up until World War II, the Ukrainian pogroms were the worst case of mass killings of Jews in modern times.
Petliura always hoped for Western support in his struggle against the Bolsheviks. General Anton Denikin’s White Army of Russian reactionaries was unabashed in its equation of Jews, Bolsheviks and Christ-killers. They murdered – at a conservative estimate – some 80,000 Jews. Denikin left Russia early and ended his days quietly as a respected pensioner in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947.
The Poles in their campaign against Bolshevik Russia killed only 400 to 500 Jews. Marshal Jozef Pilsudski viewed this as a stain on the country’s honor, as the West saw the new Poland as the symbol of regenerated nationhood within the new Europe.
Yet when the Red Army retaliated, reaching the very doorstep of Warsaw, General Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” committed further atrocities against the Jews. This 50,000- strong force consisted of expatriate American Poles from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and other American industrial centers.
Dreamland also looks at Jewish involvement in the early communist movement. Bela Kun, Tibor Szamuely, Otto Korvin-Klein and many other Jews led the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Jews served disproportionately as judges and prosecutors in the revolutionary courts and as functionaries of the regime. All this fell on fertile ground despite the fact that a sizable proportion of those condemned to death or imprisoned in the Red Terror were also Jews.
When Bela Kun was finally ousted, his successor, Admiral Mikl—s Horthy, regent of Hungary, spoke of “the Bolshevik traitors.” This did not need interpretation or clarification by some sections of the populace. In Siofok, 140 Jews were rounded up and killed in the local forest. In Kacement, another 200 were executed in an all-pervading White Terror. Ironically, Bela Kun himself was shot in the basement of the Butyrki in Moscow in 1939 during the Great Purge. His Hungarian colleagues Gero, Revai, Peter, Farkas and Rakosi – all Jews – survived and returned to Hungary in 1945, once more indifferent to the needs of their fellow Jews, to run a Stalinist regime.
In Catholic Bavaria, Kurt Eisner’s socialist regime was initially popular and supported by the main political parties. But a socialist regime was not wanted by the new German Republic. Rumors abounded that Eisner was in fact Salomon Kuchinsky, Lenin’s agent and in league with the “Elders of Zion.” As Eisner was walking to tender his resignation, following an ineffectual period of government, Anton von Arco pumped several bullets into his back. Arco had applied for membership in the Thule Gesellschaft whose members included Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg and sported the swastika as its emblem. Von Arco had been rejected as a JŸdling as his mother was Jewish. Killing Eisner allowed him to prove himself. In 1924, he was released from prison to make way for another prisoner, one Adolf Hitler. In 1941, the Nazis made him an “honorary Aryan.”
Another German patriot was Franz Haber whom every schoolboy knows as the originator of the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. He was also responsible for devising new ways of synthesizing the components of explosives – without which Germany’s war effort would have been seriously impaired. His research had made the production of poison gas possible and his name was initially on an Allied list of war criminals. As a Nobel prize winner, he continued to lead the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute after WWI. It was here too that Zyklon B was developed – its future use unimaginable. All Haber’s endeavours for Germany meant nothing when Hitler came to power and he was dismissed as a “non-Aryan” even though he had nominally converted to Protestantism. Albert Einstein wrote to him, “I can conceive of your inner conflicts. It is something like having to give up a theory on which one has worked one’s whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed in it at the outset.”
Sachar also has his heroes. One is Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founder of the modern Czech state. The son of a coachman, he was the intellectual embodiment of the national movement. Yet he was a demagogue when it came to condemning the death sentence passed on Leopold Hilsner, an unemployed shoemaker, for a ritual killing of a 19-year-old seamstress on the eve of Pessah 1900. He published a damning exposure of the blood libel – “the whole trial and its exploitation from clerical and anti-Semitic quarters is an outrage against the healthy mind of humanity.”
The press and the Church came down upon him like a ton of bricks. And, at the start of a new term at Karl- Ferdinand University, Masaryk was greeted by students urging a boycott of the professor “who had taken up the cause of a Jew.”
The book concludes with the story of Leon Blum, who told Chaim Weizmann that he was proud to participate in the Zionist cause “as a Jew in a venture that merits the admiration not only of Judaism but of all humanity.” When Blum was elected prime minister as head of the Popular Front, the French chief rabbi wrote to him asking him to forgo the premiership. If he agreed, then a group of communal grandees would ensure that he received a munificent pension for the rest of his life. Blum didn’t reply and instead called for a 40-hour week, free compulsory schooling, paid holidays and the retrieval of the Bank of France from the grip of some 200 powerful families.
Blum was famously brought to trial during the Vichy years. At 70, he defended himself with an impassioned fury – to the extent that the Petain government eventually suspended the proceedings under pressure from the Nazis. Blum was transported from camp to camp, through Buchenwald and Dachau. Blum survived – unlike the many Jews who were delivered into the hands of the SS by the French police. In August 1945, Blum stood to receive an emotional, tumultuous applause of 3,000 delegates at his party conference, perhaps the last of the Jewish dreamers who dreamed of a better future for all Europe.
This is an excellent book for those who wish to gain an insight into the way we were.