Remembering the Forgotten
ON THE EVE: THE JEWS OF EUROPE
BEFORE THE SECOND WORLD WAR
by Bernard Wasserstein
Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $32.50
Sholem Asch was, as Bernard Wasserstein tells us, the most popular Yiddish writer of the interwar period and the only one who sold enough books "to buy a villa on the French Riviera (named Villa Shalom), where, clad in his flowered dressing gown, he would greet morning visitors in his garden overlooking the sea." Even when he was ensconced in luxury, however, he never lost what Wasserstein calls his "deep sympathy for amkho (the common [Jewish] people)." Wasserstein's own career has been as thoroughly intercontinental as that of Asch (who spent the war years in the United States and later moved to Israel), and he has published many well-received books. Although the British-born professor at the University of Chicago is unlikely to have anything resembling a Villa Bernard on the shores of Lake Michigan, he does match Asch in his affection for the lost amkho of Eastern Europe.
On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War contains numerous and lengthy quotations from Yiddish poems and songs, usually chosen to give voice to the yearnings and fears of the masses. The Jewish socialist Bund, Wasserstein tells us, had the best tunes, and he provides the lyrics to the chorus of the party's anthem, composed by S. An-Sky, as well as those of "the stirring anthem of the Bundist children's organization." We also hear, among many other things, "folk doggerel" about the status of ordinary Jewish women; the song of a prostitute bewailing her fate; a long jailhouse lament; the pioneering song of Soviet-Jewish farmers, newly transplanted in the Crimea ("Yesterday distant neighbors, today so close, Ukrainian farmers, Jewish peasants"); and the "wretched" and "despicable" verses composed by supposed representatives of "the ‘folk'" during the years of Stalin's rule. These lyrical interludes supply the soundtrack for Wasserstein's vivid and comprehensive (if somewhat repetitious) overview of the political, social, economic, and cultural lives of Eastern European Jewry in the years leading up to World War II.
On the Eve isn't only about Yiddish speakers; it reports extensively on more assimilated Polish—and Russian—speaking Jews in the east, and also the Jews of Germany, France, and even the Sephardim in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe. But we don't hear their songs and poems, apart from a token selection from the Judeo-Espagnol (the term Wasserstein prefers to Ladino) repertoire.
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