On The Eve: The Jews Of Europe Before The Second World War, By Bernard Wasserstein

This moving and scrupulous history recreates a world on the edge of its extinction.

Brick Lane, east London's most mythologised street, was once a labyrinth of Jewish immigrant culture and Hasidic custom. Orthodox Hasidim had settled in the area during the 1880s after fleeing the pogroms in anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia.

They set up as watchmakers or tailors in the cramped streets. Many of them changed their names and even their accents. The trappings of orthodoxy – Old Testament beards and sidelocks – left them exposed to anti-Semitic abuse. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish presence in Brick Lane had diminished greatly.

Elsewhere in Europe, it was the same: from the shtetls of Lithuania to the salons of Vienna, Jewish culture was on the road to extinction. A turning-point came on the night of 9-10 November 1938, when synagogues across Germany were set ablaze. Jews were murdered, thousands carried off to the camps, their properties destroyed. The devastation inspired the Nazis to name the outrage Kristallnacht, "night of the broken glass", a term chosen to belittle the damage done and mock the victims. Until Hitler's anti-Semitic onslaught, German Jews had been almost indistinguishable from the non-Jewish majority. Their integration was surely a guarantee of safety. Now shattered glass lay strewn across the "Aryanised" streets of Berlin.

Dreadfully, Kristallnacht showed that assimilation made Jews more vulnerable to the persecutions that lay ahead. As the poison of hatred seeped into Nazi-occupied Europe, the humiliation and murder of Jews was made a virtue. Never before had a European government planned the annihilation of an entire people. The country that gave us Bach and Goethe departed from the community of civilised human beings. Aided by the indifference of most Germans, Hitler and his race-engineers were able to flush the Stinkjuden from Europe.

In this grimly absorbing account of European Jewry in the decades up to the war, Bernard Wasserstein chronicles a culture on the path to extinction even before Nazism. When Napoleon invaded northern Italy in 1796, the ghettoes of Turin were dismantled in the name of the Rights of Man and new opportunities opened up for Italian Jews. Old ghetto trades such as loan-banking and goldsmithery were rejected in favour of engineering, publishing and medicine. Assimilation promised an escape from the sorrows of the past; yet it also led to an erosion of Jewish consciousness.

Soviet Communism reaffirmed the French Revolutionary principles of "equality" and "liberty of conscience". A disproportionate number of Jews leant their support to the uprising against the Romanov monarchy in 1917. Communism provided them with a weapon against oppression and a vindication for the persecution their parents had suffered. Young Russian men and women trained in the rigours of the Torah found a congenial secular orthodoxy in Marxism. At the same time, Soviet Jewry was subjected to an "intense campaign of antireligious propaganda"; the secularisation of Russia's Jewish community greatly hastened its demise.

Though most Jews were not Communist and most Communists were not Jews, Hitler encouraged a belief that Bolshevism was a Jewish scourge. Schoenberg, Freud, Einstein and other Jewish hate-figures were accused of "destroying western morality". Jews were beyond civilisation because civilisation was based on Christianity. But, as Wasserstein points out, anti-Semitism arose out of failure of European Christendom to live up to its fundamental precept of "love thy neighbour as thyself". Germans under Hitler were encouraged to scorn the Christian morality of compassion. By embracing the new ethics of totalitarian dominance, an entire generation was dehumanised.

In poignant detail, Wasserstein chronicles the salons, publishing houses and film studios of Jewish communities in Lithuania, Poland and Austria. The book is brocaded with scenes of a people and a culture in their final hour. For all his scrupulous research, Wasserstein is wrong to assert that Italian Fascism was not initially anti-Semitic. A latent tension always existed between Fascism and Italian Jews. Indeed, Mussolini resented the imputation that his anti-Jewish legislations of 1938 were merely a copy of Hitler's policy. Mussolini's anti-Semitism dated back the 1920s, before Hitler rose to prominence.

"I've been a racist since 1921," the dictator told his mistress Clara Petacci in 1938. With Hitler's collusion, Mussolini helped to deport more than 67,800 Italian Jews to Auschwitz and other camps within the Greater Reich. At a stroke, an ancient European people was obliterated.

Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage