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In the Cage, Trying to Get Out’

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Slovenský Národný Archív
Adolf Hitler and the Slovak leader Jozef Tiso, Salzburg, Austria, July 1940

One of Wasserstein’s many achievements is to integrate Soviet Jewish experiences, with all of their radical differences, into a European history. Because the Soviet Union is an integral part of his history, concentration camps do not loom in the future but define the present. There were twice as many Jews in Soviet camps in 1938 as there were people in German camps. The Soviets killed about a hundred times more Jews in the 1930s than did the Germans. For the most part, this was not from any special anti-Jewish animus: Jews were sometimes killed in the USSR for political reasons associated with their being Jewish, as Wasserstein tends to stress, but much more often simply because they seemed to be standing in the way of some larger policy; for example, the deliberate famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1933. Thousands of Soviet Jews were shot by the Soviet secret police as Polish spies in 1938, unlikely though that might seem. This was part of what the Soviets called the “Polish Operation” of the Great Terror, which was particularly bloody in Minsk.

The large number of Jewish victims of Soviet power was mainly a function of the repressive character of the Soviet state at the time. Despite all the bloodletting, the Soviet Union was then the only officially anti-anti-Semitic state in the world, and it assimilated more Jews into its system than any other country had done. Wasserstein points to what he considers an unmistakable sign of this integration: many Jews in the Soviet Union forsook their God. Whereas most Christians in the USSR admitted to their beliefs in the 1937 census, only 10 percent of Jews did.

Wasserstein doesn’t know Polish or Russian. Perhaps as a result his account of the integration of Jews into the two major Slavic cultures can seem a bit more exotic than it actually was; but he does know, aside from German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and French, the languages of his other two “New Jerusalems”: Dutch for Amsterdam and Ladino for Salonika. Each city is presented in impressively credible detail, and the juxtaposition of all four illustrates, about as well as can be done, the multiplicity of the different Jewish cultures in Europe. Wasserstein himself clearly loves languages, and they give him an occasion for brief moments of erudite playfulness in a work whose tone is generally calm and earnest. His confident multilingualism permits an interesting European counterhistory of mass literacy and mass politics. Christian national elites were eager in the first third of the twentieth century to raise up the Christian masses to democracy, socialism, or nationalism by teaching them to read. Male Jews, for the most part, were already literate in a language or two or three. They were bemused or afraid or, sometimes, fascinated by the cultures around them.

The missing chapter is about the Jews who tend most to fascinate us, the writers and the scientists. Leaving them out is the most interesting, and perhaps the most un-Jewish, move that Wasserstein makes. Sigmund Freud figures not as the founder of psychoanalysis but as the author of a self-reflective note about his Jewish identity; Julian Tuwim appears not as the most-read Polish poet but as an example of ambivalent self-regard; György Lukács is not the leading Marxist philosopher of his time but only an admirer of the “foggy” Jewish nationalism of Martin Buber. In a kind of postmodern chivalrous gesture, only the achievements of Jewish feminists get close attention. There is no consideration of the “contributions,” as Wasserstein says with irony, of Jews to European culture. This choice denies the reader any vicarious sense of superiority (“we made the culture and they destroyed it”) or any redeeming access to the uses of adversity (“look what we did despite it all”). With a supple but irresistible force, this insistence on the typical experience and not on exceptional achievement holds the book squarely in the category of social history: a portrait of a people, a collective one.

Wasserstein restores, as well as anyone could, a moment of life. He even begins a kind of reclamation of life from death. The suicides that followed the tragedies of 1938—the Anschluss in Austria, the deportation of Jews from Germany to Poland, and Kristallnacht in Germany—were not only predictable consequences of oppression but rather attempts, at least in some cases, to preserve the shape of a life whose continuation, in the new circumstances, could only corrupt. Yet the suspense can only be maintained for so long; these tragedies, though presented again and again in human terms by Wasserstein, are also general turning points, beginnings of an ending. By the time Wasserstein reaches Grynszpan and his deed in late 1938, in a chapter entitled “In the Cage, Trying to Get Out,” the darkness is falling.

The absorption of Austria into the Third Reich in March 1938 led to a German-Polish-Jewish refugee crisis in October, which in turn led to Grynszpan’s assassination of Rath and to Kristallnacht in November. The Anschluss was also the beginning of the end of the European state system. Hitler, much encouraged by his unexpectedly rapid success, pressed onward toward Czechoslovakia. At Munich in September 1938, the French and British abandoned their Czechoslovak ally, allowing Germany to annex the rim of mountainous territory called the Sudetenland. Hitler, further emboldened, moved in March 1939 to destroy the remaining Czechoslovak state.

The Jews of western Czechoslovakia were absorbed into the Reich along with a “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.” The Jews of the farthest reaches of eastern Czechoslovakia, the region known as Subcarpathian Ruthenia, found themselves under Hungarian rule after Berlin granted Budapest this territory in the First Vienna Arbitrage of 1940. The destruction of Czechoslovakia left these Jews stateless, and Hungary refused to recognize about 20,000 of them as its own citizens. Hungary would expel these people in 1941, and they would become the victims of the first large-scale shooting action of the Holocaust.

In Hitler’s disposition of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia became an independent state, subordinate to the Reich but formally sovereign. As James Mace Ward shows in his finely researched biography, the Slovak leader Monsignor Jozef Tiso understood this new beginning as a chance for Christian, national, and social revolution. The end of Czechoslovakia deprived the Jews of their previous civil status; the new Slovak state denied them equal citizenship and deprived them of property rights. Tiso wanted Slovaks to seize Jewish property and take up Jewish professions, and thus expand the national middle class. The Jews, suitably impoverished, could then be deported to the Reich as laborers, as was arranged in October 1941. Slovak leaders asked, that December, for assurances that Jews sent to Germany would never return. This was superfluous: the endpoint of the deportations was Auschwitz.

In March 1938 the Warsaw government expressed no objection to the annexation of Austria, and in September 1938 it actively supported the partition of Czechoslovakia. After these two easy triumphs, though, Hitler turned again to Poland, and now his tone was far less cordial. The German proposals to the Polish government in late 1938 and early 1939 remained incoherent. There was some vague assurance that Poland could share in the spoils of a German-Polish war against the Soviet Union, as well as some incomprehensible hints of a common solution to the Jewish problem. Far more precise were German demands: that Danzig, then a free city in which Poland had important interests, be ceded to the Reich; and that Poland allow an extraterritorial highway to connect Germany with East Prussia.

Polish leaders understood that even a victory against the Soviet Union alongside Germany would be a defeat, since Poland would surely become a German satellite the moment it became a German place d’armes. For Polish public opinion and to Polish leaders, the German plans for Danzig and the highway were themselves intolerable violations of sovereignty. Poland decided to resist such German demands and risk war. Great Britain and France then endorsed Poland’s independence and offered security guarantees. When the Polish foreign minister visited London in April 1939, he still was hoping to persuade the British to allow Jewish settlement in Palestine. In May the Polish army was still training the Irgun.

Hitler wanted war in 1939, and was not choosy about allies. Although his ultimate goal was, as he had been telling the Poles for years, an attack on the USSR, he was perfectly willing to make an arrangement with Stalin if it served his immediate aims. Thus in the summer of 1939 Hitler changed his basic conception from that of an attack on the Soviet Union with Polish help to an attack on Poland with Soviet help (with the Soviets, of course, to be betrayed later on).

This is where Wasserstein, quite understandably, ends his study: with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, the de facto German-Soviet alliance that doomed Poland. We are shown a photograph of the forlorn delegates at the World Zionist Congress as they hear the news of the arrangement between Hitler and Stalin. As they immediately understood, this meant a German war on Poland and Nazi domination over millions of Jews. It also opened the way to a German attack on the Western European nations of many of the delegates. The session ended early so that the delegates could hurry home; Chaim Weizmann closed the meetings with his prayer that “we shall meet again, alive.”

Poland was quickly defeated by the joint German and Soviet invasions of September 1939. Britain and France provided no meaningful assistance to Poland but did declare war on Hitler’s Germany. Herschel Grynszpan, then still in a French jail awaiting a trial, asked to be able to join the French army. In June 1940 France fell almost as quickly as had Poland. Grynszpan was now hastily evacuated to the south. The French often allowed people in his situation to escape, but Grynszpan, fearing the Germans, wanted to remain in French captivity. He wandered through the south of France, the territories that came to be governed by the collaborationist Vichy regime, searching for a French prison that would take him. Meanwhile German diplomats filed a formal request for his extradition, which the new Vichy authorities quickly granted.

Grynszpan’s position, here as throughout his short life, was both glaringly unusual and yet highly representative. Vichy was eager to rid itself of foreign Jews. Grynszpan was in the worst possible legal position for a Jew in France, lacking both French citizenship and foreign citizenship, since Poland, according to the Germans, had ceased to exist as a state. After his deportation to Germany, where the Nazis failed to arrange a show trial, he was killed, although the precise circumstances of his death, according to Kirsch, are unknown.

We know a good deal, thanks to the careful chronicle of Annette Wieviorka and Michel Laffitte, of the fate of Polish and stateless Jews in Vichy France in general. They were rounded up, often with the help of the French police, dispatched to the holding camp at Drancy outside Paris, and deported to Auschwitz. So despite everything, Grynszpan was in one way typical. He belonged to the largest group of victims. Polish Jews were well over half of those murdered in the Holocaust overall. And Polish Jews were also the largest group of Holocaust victims in France itself. More Polish Jews residing in France were killed than were French Jews. In this sense, the Holocaust in France was a chapter of the Holocaust in Poland, and in the history of statelessness.

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