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European Jewry Prior to 1939: Intellectual Roots of Cultural Conflict

It is the “unsettlement of Europe” that must be studied in order to understand the cultural origins of American Jewry as well as the European cataclysm of 1939-1945. Paul E. Grosser and Edwin G. Halperin in Anti Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice (1976), have written that “today there is a tendency to assume that the problem of Jewish security and the attitudes of Jews toward their survival grow from the experience of the Holocaust alone". Why? Simply because "the actions of the Nazis and their collaborators are of such a scale and horror as to obscure the long history of anti-Semitism." What has transpired is that "often lost in appraisals of anti-Semitism is the fact that the underlying spirit of the Holocaust is almost 2,000 years old. The genocide carried out by a civilized and cultured nation in the mid-twentieth century was an extreme manifestation of this spirit, but not an isolated one." 1 Jewish history before 1939 certainly attests to these assertions.

The migrations of Jews from Europe to America, and certainly within Europe itself, is dark tribute to the power of anti-Semitism. Jews have also moved voluntarily when motivated by new opportunities or hope for a fresh start and a better life:

The normal migratory behavior of populations, the refusal of Jews to convert or completely acculturate, outbursts of anti-Semitic violence and the condition of statelessness have combined to make Jews the most mobile people in history. . . .

However , . . . most of this migration was caused by Jews refusing to become non-Jews, their alien status, and anti-Semitism. . . . As outbursts of anti-Semitism occurred in a region or a country, Jews residing there sought refuge in other areas. Another cause of migration was the anti-Semitic practice of expulsion. 2

Anti-Semitism has had two ironic consequences that are worth noting: Firstly, some have argued that continuous persecution of the Jews has been one of the major forces that not only shaped the stance and content of Judaism, but made Jewish survival possible. "Without persecution Jews would have assimilated and disappeared as a people, a religion and an ethos." Secondly, anti-Semitism has a life of its own whereby "anti-Semitism causes anti-Semitism". Grosser and Halperin assert that Western history created and nurtured a symbiotic, interacting prejudice against the Jews. It was "deep-rooted, obsessive, cumulative, self-perpetuating, the old sustaining the new, and effect often becoming new cause." 3 This has meant that perpetual anti-Semitism has achieved the opposite aim: Jewish survival, whether it be by migration or as a cumulative human response.

Grosser and Halperin list the reactions of Jews to anti-Semitism, noting that during both ancient and modern times there were numerous reactions which "justified" or encouraged more anti-Semitism and which in turn caused more reaction, "setting in motion a vicious circle." They qualify that although these reactions are not "prime causes" of anti-Semitism, they are contributing factors. These reactions fall into three categories:

1. Defenses: (i) The attainment of success and position to counter insecurity resulting from persecution. (ii) A further strengthening of the family and community, inter-communal as well as local, "which caused more distrust and resentment which engendered more persecution, which further strengthened the family . . . ". (iii) The acceptance of stereotypes imposed by their Christian neighbours, "occasionally, as a result, they literally fled their original identity." (iv) Other Jews, out of fear and a desire to escape the stigma placed on them by society sought to respect and join that society. (v) Infrequently the Jews counter-attacked their persecutors physically. "They were then accused of being vicious, or clannish."

2. Attitudes: (i) Fear of Christianity owing to the villainous roles into which it had cast them and the offensive characteristics it had assigned to them. (ii) Resentment against the Christian for his persistent efforts to convert them..(iii) Over-reaction, over-sensitivity, and paranoia, which were encouraged by "persecutions, the Western tendency to minimize it, to attribute its cause to Jewish character, to ignore its danger signals and to fail to acknowledge it in history," and by "the subtle ubiquity of anti-Semitic attitudes in Western culture, seen even in its models and heroes, in its literature and saints."

3. Characteristics and Customs: Jewish "characteristics" and customs were affected to some degree by anti-Semitism, but these "were exaggerated by the non-Jew and many of them were presented as 'further' proof of the ancient theological slander that Jews hated Christians." 4

The reactions of Jews to anti-Semitism in the modern era were similar to those when they had been the victims of earlier persecutions, but at much greater cost. For a time it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular. But,

The new models for ordering and making sense of the world still needed an explanatory devil. Writers of such divergent persuasions as social Darwinism, capitalism, socialism, conservatism and philosophy of history in turn embraced the old Devil of Christianity--the Jew. A new term, a new justification for hating and persecuting Jews developed in the scientific and secular age of the 19th century--anti-Semitism. The term anti-Semitism was coined by the German, Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s to label anti-Jewish attitudes and behaviors based on racial and pseudo-scientific theories of history and economics. 5

The twentieth century may be dubbed "the century of anti-Semitism". Grosser and Halperin maintain that anti-Semitism correlates in its incidents and savagery with social dislocation, tension and change. The economic, social, and political patterns of the world were wrecked and swept away. Crown, church, and family were replaced by nationalism, science, and psychology. The works of Freud, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, Lenin, and Nietzsche, "undercut virtually all that had previously passed as natural, the truth or civilization". Thus was born the century of nationalism and total war. The two are symbiotic, feeding and nourishing each other. "The two world wars drew and redrew the political geography of the globe. Nationalism continues the job of cartography." 6


The readjustments and changes that followed World War I created tremendous insecurity and anxiety. One of the attractions of fascism is its promise of order and stability within a revolutionary framework. Fascist movements thrived and succeeded during this period and, its most insane manifestation, Nazism, came to dominate as the Nazis gained control of Germany and later most of Europe either by alliance or conquest. While all fascism includes romantic blood and soil and racial myths, for Nazism this was the dominant feature. The concept of the Aryan uber mensche ... Nazi anti-Semitism combined pell-mell the religious and racial varieties and came to overshadow all other features, policies and goals of the Third Reich. This is evidenced by the sacrifice of rational military needs, while losing a major war, to the requirements of the Final Solution.

The twelve-year period of Nazi power, especially the last six years of their regime, was the most precarious period in Jewish history. In contrast to other periods of anti-Semitic excesses, such as the Crusades and the Black Death, no havens were available and virtually no escape was possible for Jews under Nazi control. The very survival of Jews was never more seriously threatened than during this period. If the Axis powers had been successful in their push for world domination, as appeared quite likely in 1942, the Final Solution would have been more final and horrible than it was." 7

The origin of Hitler's "war against the Jews" during 1939-1945 is traced by Lucy S. Davidowicz. Starting with the Jews in Hitler's "mental world", Davidowicz asks if the idea of the Final Solution originated in passages of Mein Kampf, germinating in Hitler's subconscious for some fifteen years before it was to sprout into practical reality. Those fifteen years were in turn connected to a two thousand year legacy of antipathy to Jews. What is of concern to us, is Davidowicz's grappling with the bridge between idea and act:

The idea of a mass annihilation of the Jews had already been adumbrated by apocalyptic-minded anti-Semites during the nineteenth century. . . . Hitler . . . succeeded in transforming the apocalyptic idea into concrete political action. The mass murder of the Jews was the consummation of his fundamental beliefs and ideological conviction. 8

Thus, the "nexus between idea and act has seldom been so evident in human history with such manifest consistency as in the history of anti-Semitism". It was Hitler's ideas about the Jews that would be a "starting place for the elaboration of a monstrous racial ideology that would justify mass murder whose like history had not seen before." 9

What of the Jews' "mental world"? What of Hitler and anti-Semitism in the mental world of the Jew? How did Jewish thinkers interpret the "nexus" between the idea and act of anti-Semitism? How did Jewish scholars deal with the challenges of the modern era? If we are to gain a meaningful insight into the "habits of mind" of the thinkers and educators of Orthodox Jewry, we must appreciate their attitudes and reactions to secularity in general, and the modern Enlightenment in particular.

Bruria Hutner David, in "The Dual Role of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes: Traditionalist and Maskil" (1971), states that the end of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a new era in European history. European Jewry was directly affected by contemporary events. Jewish history often paralleled European history. In the political realm the authority of absolute monarchs was crushed with governmental control passing to the people. Similarly, "the Jewish world, too, was swept by the revolutionary quake which shook western Europe. The new motto of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' spelled the downfall of economic and social barriers between Jew and non-Jew. . . ghetto walls came tumbling down it became the life ambition of many Jews to be accepted by the 'outside' world." 10 It was within this framework that the haskalah movement was born and nurtured. The literature of the period called for "change and enlightenment" in Jewish life. David quotes Salo W. Baron who defines haskalah as "a pre-emancipation rapprochement with the environment". Rapprochement, and a union, with the outside world constituted the core of the movement. 11

The seeds of the successes gained in Jewish education after the Second World War were already sown in Europe two hundred years earlier by the leading Rabbinic and Talmudic figures. Haskalah had called for a "drastic change in the curriculum of the Jewish school in Germany and Eastern Europe, where secular studies were completely disregarded." In striving to "normalize" Jewish life, it proclaimed "the ideal of . . . agricultural pursuit . . . as..... cure for the sorely tired Ghetto Jewry". It "sought..... to shatter ancient forms and patterns of thought and behavior. In short, Haskala aspired to reform Jewish life socially, religiously and aesthetically." 12

Opposed to this tendency towards "reform" were the rabbis and traditional leaders of European Jewry. Haskalah was confronted with the representatives of halachah. The halachah had literally been "the way" in which Jews had lived, and haskalah was its antithesis. In Western Europe the Enlightenment prevailed, in Eastern Europe its Hebraized progeny, haskalah, met a formidable foe: halachah. David's description of the confrontation between Orthodoxy (as the embodiment of halachah, and haskalah in Europe, touches at the root struggle between Orthodoxy and its opponents not only in Europe, but in the re-established Jewish communities of America:

The tendency to turn towards the outside world and the resultant attempt to reform Jewish life led the Orthodox camp to a bitter battle against haskalah. Hasidim and mitnagdim, although opposed to each other, joined hands and closed ranks against their common maskilim enemies. The essence of the Jewish spirit would be jeopardized by the assimilatory tendencies of haskalah. The inner urge to be accepted by the non-Jewish world would wreak havoc in Jewish life. The unique nature of Judaism as a religious entity of its own and its structure of communal life would be challenged. Thus the translation of the Pentateuch into German by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the first fruit of haskalah in Germany, was banned by the leading rabbinic figures of the age. The battle extended from Germany and Austria, where it was headed by Rabbis Pinhas Horowitz and Ezekiel Landau, to Hungary, under the leadership of Rabbi Moses Schreiber, and eastwards to Russia. It was indeed an age of storm and strife with far-reaching effects on the course of Jewish history. 13

The "storm and strife" was no mere gentlemanly encounter between opposing camps. Jewish maskilim working in tandem with anti-Semitic governments conspired to impose their notions of Jewish education by force. The best known example of this trend in the history of yeshivah education is the forced closing of the Volozhin Yeshivah in 1892 by the Russian authorities. Volozhin, known as the "mother of yeshivas" had been founded by Reb Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) a close talmid (student) and disciple of Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, "The Vilner Gaon", (1720-1797). It was the prototype of the Lithuanian style yeshivahs of the modern era. The main issue involved the compulsory introduction of secular studies into the yeshivah curriculum. Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, "The Netziv", (1816-1893), as the rosh yeshiva (dean) of Volozhin refused to accept the government's demands, which resulted in closure.

Aharon Surasky in Giants of Jewry (1982), states that the Jewish maskilim in Russia constantly sought ways to close down the yeshivah. They attempted to destroy it internally by seducing small numbers of students away from their talmudic learning and undertake university studies. External assaults on the yeshivah included informing government circles about the yeshivah's opposition to secular studies. In 1858 the yeshivah was officially closed but remained functionally open as Rabbi Berlin attempted to negotiate with government authorities. 14


By 1880, writes Surasky, the situation had grown worse:

The maskilim grew more persistent, and an editorial in Hameilitz openly demanded changes. Netziv, as Rosh Yeshiva, remained firm in his position to guard at all costs the purity of his sacred trust. In a private letter to the editor of Hameilitz, Netziv writes, "you must understand that we appreciate the value of our sacred Talmud more than you, and we know that just as undefiled chulin defiles kodesh through contact, so do secular studies, even when there is no impurity in them, disturb the sanctity of the Talmud and the success of its study when they come together.” 15

The struggle grew more vicious as the Tsarist education ministry, egged on by the petitions of maskilim, began to attack the yeshivah in new ways. There were decrees that the number of students be reduced, and orders that special courses in the study of Russian language and literature be included in the curriculum. It was insisted that all students be taught secular studies no fewer than two hours per day. The coup de grace came on January 22, 1892, when the yeshivah was surrounded by "hundreds of peasants commanded by dozens of policemen . . . . Some government officials stepped into the beis hamidrosh and ordered the students to stop learning, while a police captain read out to Netziv the government order closing the yeshivah. . . . The officials demanded that the students leave the building immediately. Their job was not only to close the institution but also to lock the building and seal its doors." 16

In a general overview of Europe, David has stated that although the haskalah campaign ranged over the entire European front throughout the nineteenth century, the form it assumed varied from country to country. "In this respect, too, Jewish development echoed and followed the pattern of the general enlightenment." Quoting Carlton J. H. Hayes' A Political and Social History of Modern Europe (1929), David says that as a general rule, "'the further west one went . . . the larger proportion of liberals one found, and conversely, the further east one went . . . the larger proportion of conservatives one encountered.' The same holds true for the haskalah movement, except that Germany should be substituted for France." 17

David observes that it was in Germany that the greatest number of Jews were swayed by the forceful trends of haskalah, only to be followed by the greatest number of conversions. The haskalah ideology gradually moved across Europe. At first to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then to Lithuania, and finally to Russia. However, "when it did penetrate the more eastern sections, it did not receive as hearty a welcome as in western Europe. It encountered strong resistance of the traditional orthodox masses of Jewry."

The significance of the "unsettlement" of Jewish life in Europe cannot be over-emphasized. The tenor of Jewish life in America was set by the cultural wars in Europe between haskalah and halachah, modernity and tradition. At the centre of this struggle lay the domain of education. Each side conducted deliberate, systematic, and sustained efforts to transmit, acquire, or evoke its point of view. We have already noted that haskalah called for a drastic change in the curriculum of the Jewish school. This call varied in content from country to country, but its aim was always the same: rapprochement with the secular environment.

Western and eastern European Jewry reacted differently to enlightenment reforms. Educational reform was a reliable litmus test of how far enlightenment had penetrated Jewish minds. Thus, when in 1782, Emperor Joseph II of Austria issued the Patent of Tolerance, ordering the abolition of an offensive body tax, and granted permission to Jews to engage in commerce and send their children to public schools, there were two main responses:

The Jews of Trieste, then under Austrian rule, responded with joy to the revolution in education introduced by the law. In Galicia, on the other hand, there was anger and consternation. This section was geographically part of Poland, a center of pulsating orthodox life. While the Partitions of Poland brought the greater part of that country under Russian rule, Galicia was annexed by Austria. These Polish Jews reacted with fury at the mere thought of abandoning the traditional setup of hadarim. The abolition of this system was the dream of the maskilim, but was viewed as a great catastrophe by the masses of Galician Jews. 19

Thus, an image of Europe at peace with itself as it marched towards two world wars is as fallacious as that of European Jewry sitting idly as catastrophe beckoned. Jewry was afflicted by internal resistance against those who would change its traditional character. Externally there arose particularly vengeful and anti-Semitic European regimes that threatened Jews throughout Europe. The relationship between internal turmoil and external threats was complicated and not easy to define. The scholar and observer had to reach into his philosophy of life and weltanschauung to define the "nexus between idea and act", between body and mind or between the metaphysical and the tangible. The traditional Jewish thinkers, chazal or the talmidei chachomim, the Talmudic sages, did not shirk from interpreting, however cautiously, the unfolding patterns of history.

One such personality was Rabbi Elchonon Bunim Wasserman (1874-1941), one of Jewry's greatest scholars and leaders before his execution by Nazi forces in Lithuania. Popularly known as "Reb Elchonon", he was an active force among the millions of Jews in eastern Europe and was among those "who achieved first rank in the Torah empire of Poland and Lithuania." 20

In an essay entitled "An Analysis of the Jewish Tragedy--Its Causes and Solution", Rabbi Wasserman writes that "in our approach to a solution of the Jewish problem we must attempt to discover the cause which, in so short a period of time, has brought upon the great majority of world Jewry untold miseries which have not had their like since the destruction of the Temple." He states openly that to seek natural causes for this phenomenon would be futile because "all the events of contemporary Jewish history are beyond the laws of the natural course of human history." As proof of this, he points out that "Hitler's phenomenal rise from paperhanger to the position of the all powerful master of the destinies of nations is inexplicable by the normal course of human history." His conclusion is that "our only recourse is to turn to the Torah. There we shall find both the explanation of and the cure for our malady." 21 At the heart of this "cure" lay the domain of Jewish education.

Jewish Education and Jewish Survival at the Edge of the Abyss

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, reflecting rabbinic thinking, draws on Talmudic and Rabbinical sources when he states that:

Whenever, in the course of history the Jew loses consciousness of his heritage and mission in life, it becomes necessary that his enemies rouse him and restore him to the possession of his faculties. The magnitude of his enemies and the severity of the methods they employ in awakening the Jew depend entirely on the intensity of the latter's lethargy. 22

According to Rabbi Wasserman then, the upshot of haskalah and the enlightenment movement was to bring about a national "lethargy" amongst Jews. This brought them face to face with myriads of enemies. "When the Jew completely ignores the covenant which God made with his ancestors and desires to live like other peoples of the earth, then hordes of beastly anti-Semites swoop down upon him with terrific force and fury, as is the case in our own day." The major problem, as perceived by Rabbi Wasserman, was the denial of faith, and it was impossible to reach faith except through the study of Torah.


Since the Torah is forsaken by a great portion of our people, faith is also weakened accordingly. It becomes apparent in the final analysis, that the reason for our present plight, unparalleled in Jewish history, must be attributed to the abandonment of the study of Torah. . . . If this prime cause of all our ills shall be removed, we shall, of ourselves, become cured . . . . It is but for us to seek this salvation, by attempting to spread Torah in Israel . . . . No other method can, therefore, avail us. 23

What emerges is that Torah study is viewed, as the raison d’etre of Jewish survival and existence. Abandonment of Torah by Jewry becomes an invitation to anti-Semitic reprisal, claimed the rabbis. The sharper the turn away from Torah, the deeper the potential backlash against Jews. The thinking of the traditional Jewish sages was that only by strengthening Torah study as the primary element of Jewish education, can Jews feel secure about their existence. There is no other way to ensure Jewish survival. There was a clear sense of "unsettlement" and there was alarm that a catastrophe was approaching. Once the catastrophe arrived, there were those who believed that they knew why it was the latest in a long chain of persecutions.

Irving J. Rosenbaum in The Holocaust and Halakhah (1976) declares that the mistaken assumption that the Holocaust was without precedent in Jewish experience has not only spawned an entire literature of "Holocaust theology", but also has been responsible "for an almost total unawareness of the role played by the Halakhah in the lives and deaths of the Holocaust's victims." No matter how great the inroads of haskalah, when the executioners appeared, the Jews were still able to draw on the legacy of Torah and halachic education. Indeed, "it has been estimated that more than half of the millions of Jews caught up in the Holocaust observed the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, in their daily lives prior to the advent of the Nazis." 24

Rosenbaum asks whether this commitment to halachah crumbled and disintegrated under the pressures of the "final solution". or, did it continue to bring not only some semblance of order, but of meaning, sanity, and even sanctity into the lives of the victims? Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) has stated that the reaction pattern of the Jews was characterized by almost complete lack of resistance. "In marked contrast to German propaganda, the documentary evidence of Jewish resistance, overt or submerged is very slight. On a European-wide scale the Jews had no resistance organization, no blueprint for armed action, no plan even for psychological warfare. They were completely unprepared." Hilberg lists compliance as one of five ways a group can react when confronted by force. In a tone of wonderment he notes that the supreme test of the compliance reaction came in front of the grave "yet here, too, the Jews managed to console themselves." 25

What kind of paideia was it that helped Jews to cushion the blows against them and placed events into a framework of acceptance? Where lay the strength of the teachings that brought scholars and children alike to accept the horrifying decree with a faith that "all will not be in vain"?

Rosenbaum asserts that "long, long before the Holocaust, the Halakhah had developed its theoretical 'theology' and its practical course of action when confronted with such tragic events." The conclusion is that the halachah was uniquely equipped to adjust to death and suffering: “… In the face of events which would make Job's trials seem trivial, Jews retained their confident belief in a just creator, whose secret purposes they might not be able to fathom, but whose revealed and clear dictates in the Halakhah they were bound to observe." 26

When Rabbi Wasserman made his call for strengthening the study of Torah he was in fact calling for the direct strengthening of the observance of halachah. For Rabbi Wasserman, the greater the threat of holocaust, the greater the need for a more vigorous Torah education. It would undo the dangers to Judaism which threaten destruction of Jewry. Thus, he declared that whoever works in the cause of spreading and propagating Torah "promotes the salvation of Israel". Those who seek to stand from afar should bear in mind the precept "Thou shalt not be indifferent to the blood of thy fellow Jew." In sum: "Those who are engaged in spreading a denial of Torah in Israel must be considered fully responsible for the Jewish blood being shed in our day." 27

Rabbi Wasserman asks: "How must this sacred work of spreading Torah be organized?" He then provides an educational outline for what he fervently believes to be the "salvation of Israel":

The Renaissance of Torah must start with the small child, for youth is the foundation of a nation, particularly in these days, when parents are influenced by their children, rather than children being influenced by their parents. . . . It is essential that we organize elementary schools to instruct the young in the study of Chumash and the commentary of Rashi which brilliantly links the Written Law with the Oral Law of the Talmud. Such a course cannot fail to instill in their hearts faith in the knowledge of the rudiments and fundamentals of Torah, and an adequate preparation for the study of Mishna and Talmud.

The prime prerequisite in such schools is that the teachers in these schools be God fearing and that they practice and live that which they preach.

. . . A good competent staff will attract a great number of pupils for in the innermost recesses of every Jewish heart there is an inextinguishable spark of love for Torah. It needs only to be blown into a bright flame. 28

Rabbi Wasserman's confidence in the "inextinguishable spark of love for Torah" in the heart of every Jew was not unique, it was shared by those who survived and rebuilt the Torah way of life in America.

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