17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Could it have been otherwise?,
This review is from: The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 (Paperback)
Is it possible to write history that doesn't anticipate its eventualities? If we were to write about Jews in Germany without knowing what happened after the stock market crash of 1929, would our understanding be quite different? The picture that Elon paints of assimilation, differentiation, and anti-Semitism can not avoid drawing judgments from anticipation of what eventually happened. And, of course, that is what the reader is interested in. How was the stage set for the Holocaust? With the Holocaust in mind our judgment of both Germans and Jews focuses on the fatal flaws that seem to lead to it. This magnifies what otherwise might be seen as mundane failings.
Elon's writing is both succinct and clear. He makes his points with literary skill. I am sure that technical historians have taken exception to almost every claim he made. Nonetheless he has drawn a picture of Jews in Germany which has given me insight into my own genealogy but also left me with many questions. Because of residential restrictions that allowed only wealthy Jews to live in German cities and the rapid increase in their economic success and assimilation into German kultur, Elon's history is bound to be tilted in the direction of this rich and creative strata. The names used to characterize different phases of German Jewish history are truly impressive: Mendelssohn, Haber (who improved poison gas during WWI making it a more effective weapon and while doing pesticide research invented Zyklon B later used in concentration camps to kills Jews), Rathenau (who organized the German economy in WWI which was otherwise totally unprepared and was assassinated while serving as foreign minister during Weimar), Einstein, Buber, Heine, etc. But what then of the lesser Jews. Their population grows from 100,000 in the early 19th century to 5 times as many by WWI. My great great grandfather came from Bavaria after 1848, a schuhmacher, maybe a fischermann. What were their experiences like as opposed to bankers, doctors then publishers, and scholars. Who were the poor Jews living in small towns and then cities when they were subsequently allowed to? Were there none? Elon says that in 1800 70% of Prussian Jew were paupers living as peddlers and beggars. By 1870 60% had "secure middle-class status," making German Jews the most upwardly mobile people in modern European history. As Germany became a state it lifted restrictions on Jewish occupations and education. By 1867 all Jewish fourteen year olds could read German and 15% of Berlin high school students were Jewish, quadruple their proportion in the population. Despite these openings, streams of anti-Semitism persisted, often embedded in German nationalism growing out of the romantically inspired idea of a German volk. Jewish financial and intellectual accomplishment kept Jews in the limelight.
It is fascinating to think that if we stopped motion at various points in Elon's narrative we would have very different ideas of the situation of Jews in Germany. The high points were Napoleon's emancipation, the late 19th century when it is claimed that Jews in Germany were the most free in Europe, the beginning of WWI when the Jew are both outspoken nationalists and increasingly acceptable as real Germans. With German military victories in the east commanders tried to get eastern Jews to rise up against the hated Russians who responded by deporting a half million Jews eastward. Nevertheless the Germans shipped a fifth that many Polish and Lithuanian Jews to Germany as forced laborers. German Jews did not protest this as they had paid for the transshipment through Germany in box cars of Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms, sealing them off from infecting German society and causing embarrassment to German Jews. Another highpoint was in the late 20's before the crash when the anti-Semitism of the post WWI collapse seemed to dwindle. Are we to say these eras blinded successful Jews to an intrinsic underlying German anti-Semitism which growing out of the crusades and the plague years, would erupt when there was a need for a scapegoat. After the defeat of Napoleon and the reaction in its wake, with de-emancipation and hard times, there were pogroms in Bavaria and elsewhere which caught the authorities by surprise. The offenders were both the underclasses and the bourgeoisie. Elon claims nothing like this had happened since the Dark Ages. As the century progressed Jews were assimilating rapidly. Yet after the stock market crash of 1873 there was another outburst of anti-Semitism blaming Jewish stockbrokers for the crash. Again after WWI anti-Semitism was rampant, blaming the Jews for defeat and the punitive Versailles treaty. This eased with economic improvement. Then the depression decimated the recovering society and brought Hitler to power. Somewhere behind anti-Semitism Elon finds lurking the German bureaucracy, the Junker gentry, the churches, and the educational system. Was it a fatal flaw for accomplished Jews to identify with being German? Were they kidding themselves all along? Certainly liberation from Ghetto religious narrowness is something I can identify with. And aside from Buber's romanticizing Hassid's there was little wish to replicate the Jewish madrasas of Poland and Russian. Elon gives us little information how much of this tradition existed among the not-so-rich Jews. With their literacy in German, did orthodox traditions fall away? I assume the use of Yiddish, so despised by the assimilated as an impoverished language, vanished.
I find myself cheering for my ancestors' reformation of Judaism. The reform temple of my youth had Sunday school but also Friday services. My stettl born mother and my yekes father managed a religious household tilted in the reform direction. And the Turkish looking dome on temple Isaiah Israel on the south side of Chicago looks exactly like one of the great German synagogues pictured in Elon's book. The Zionists counter claim that wanting to be German undermined something intrinsically Jewish in the heart of Jews and that German's would never really accept Jews seems proven by the Holocaust. Yet like Elon I wonder whether without the humiliating and economically destructive Versailles treaty and the depression the strain of rigidity in Germany would not have subsided and both the subsequent history of the world and Jewry would not have been totally different. As a residually sentimental Jew, I watch with horror human's blind self destruction from the Cold War through Vietnam, two Afganistans, India and Pakistan, Darfur, Israel and Palestine and American Republicans fiddling their conservative tunes while the US burns in its own greed and twisted international blundering. Standing in Berlin in 1898 or 1914 would I have been as optimistic as elite German Jews or as nationalistic. My Jewish acquaintances range from famous scientists to well known spiritual teachers. We are all very much Americans. While we might despise American involvement in Iraq and have mixed opinions about Israel we share the pre-Nazi lack of paranoia of German Jews. Many Zionists might say we are naïve. History proved German Jews misguided. But history is after the fact. It is easy to say, ah, they were blind. If I knew this morning what I know this evening about today's stock market, I would be a rich man. But it doesn't work that way. In addition to this unknowing, there is sometimes arrogance and self-satisfaction. Elite German Jews certainly were not exempt from these. In any case I, for all my "understanding" of history, could have been one of them. No one knows what comes next!
Charlie Fisher Emeritus professor and author of Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 18, 2009 12:43:47 PM PDT
R. M. Peterson says:
Only the second paragraph "reviews" THE PITY OF IT ALL. The rest is more in the nature of an essay. But what an essay. If only just a fraction of the postings on Amazon were of this quality.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2011 7:49:47 PM PDT
Frank D. Mayer, Jr. says:
i really liked your review.of the amos elon book.
frank d. mayer,jr.
Posted on May 9, 2011 11:26:02 AM PDT
Aristides James says:
Posted on Jun 20, 2012 2:43:53 AM PDT
Bernadette Starling says:
When I read the book, I assumed that the pity of it all was that German Jews sacrificed their Jewishness-both its love of God and love of their fellow Jews (see their embarrassment about Polish and Russian Jews)- to make the Germans love them.
Sadly the Germans were unworthy of this love.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 20, 2012 9:50:24 AM PDT
As were the Soviets unworthy turning on the Jews after their enthusiastic service during collectivization and the Great Terror or Anglo-Americans of koffee's faithful household service, and we can go on. The Germans, Americans, Israelis, etc. all have made less powerful peoples pay and their victims both hated them and wanted in. History is not kind.
Posted on Mar 7, 2015 1:00:27 PM PST
Edwin Rowe says:
There was quite a large community of "less accomplished" German Jews. Many of them lived in the smaller towns and villages from Frankfurt am/Main down through Bavaria. Many of them still practiced their traditional Jewish profession of small cattle trader. These communities were traditional and ritually observant. They spoke the regional German dialect, but among themselves they used a form of Judeo German with many Hebrew words. A teacher of Hebrew and Jewish studies made the rounds among the towns and villages to teach the children Jewish literacy. Both girls and boys could read Hebrew. These Jews referred to themselves in their language as "Landyidde", country Jews. The language continued among the survivors after the Holocaust, but now with very few left not many know it anymore. The history books have hardly a sentence about these "other" Jews of Germany, but they represented a vital part of the Jewish world for centuries.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 9, 2015 9:45:42 AM PDT
Thanks for the information. I know little about the Landyidden. Do you know of any books about them? I assumed when it became possible most Jews moved into cities. Landyidden were probably the people among whom my great great grandfather was born during the Napoleonic occupation of Munster in the early 1800s. Whether he advanced during the Napoleonic opening I do not know The family immigrated to the US after 1848. My great grandfather was a shoemaker in Albany NY. Whether the people who remained in Germany stayed as Landyidden as assimilation got underway, I also do not know.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 10, 2015 9:34:48 AM PDT
Edwin Rowe says:
In 1933 70% of the Jewish population lived in urban areas. The rest, country Jews, many of modest means, lived in the rural parts of Germany, in towns and villages with enough Jewish men to hold at least a minyan. Many raised animals, goats and chickens, and grew vegetables. They davenned daily. But they did not live in a shtetl. Most of their children went to public schools with crosses in the classrooms, but they also received tutoring in Hebrew. This community is not well known because they were not the people who wrote the books that defined German Jewry. So, the image of German Jews we have is that of a highly-educated, assimilated, Reform Jewish community. The reality for significant numbers of rural German Jews was very different. These country Jews maintained the special customs and usages of the original Ashkenaz that faded to dim memory in the cities. It was not a choice to remain on the land; it was the way they had always lived, and probably the vast majority could not have afforded to leave. In the urban areas there was a mix of eastern European and German Jews. For the Landyidde' with their dialect speech and traditional ways the Reform Jews of Berlin were a different type of Jew entirely. Many of these traditional German Jews, the ones who got out in time, settled in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in the 1930s where they began small prayer gatherings that turned into synagogues. A few settled in upstate NY to become farmers. Most continued their way of life to their best ability in the new urban setting. I will try to post more information.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 11, 2015 11:18:13 AM PDT
Thanks again Edwin for the information. My father was the president of the German Jewish congregation Isaiah Israel on 51rst street in the late 40's. I grew up in Chicago. I would love to know how his people lived in Germany in the post Napoleonic period.
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