Profile, £25

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent