On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein, is a compelling and intense study of the European Jews before their massive obliteration during World War II.
The non-fictional account spans every corner of Jewry, from the basic beggar to the wealthy, from the Orthodox to the non-practicing, from the intermarriages to the pure marriages, and from the varied social structures, both eastern and western. The influential individuals and their sacrifices are not unique to them. Jews are defined in every aspect, and defined in every location in Europe and Eastern Europe.
Many influential individuals are mentioned by name within the pages, and their dynamics within the confines of the arduous situations . Their lives and contributions are written about, whether they were industrial magnates, authors, journalists, engineers, etc. Their fates are mentioned at the end of the book “Fates Known and Unknown“.
Ignorance is presented to be otherwise, according to Wasserstein’s extensive research and documentation. Many Jews did have an inkling as to what was occurring under their noses. They did understand the seriousness of the events unfolding in the social stratum of their lives.
But, understanding and removing one’s self from precarious and dangerous situations are not necessarily possible. Social structures, religious beliefs, family ties, homelands, separations, financial aspects, and the forces imposed on the Jews by the Nazis don’t always allow for escape. The influences were more than immense.
Wasserstein is brilliant in depicting the lives of the Jews, their family ties, friendships, joys, lows, fears, and all of their daily living arrangements. The revelations are intense and filled with sorrow and, yet, a sense of meaningfulness and purpose of life unfolds within the pages.
You may ask “Why”. But, before you do, try to consider the adverse and horrific situations thrust on the Jews. Try to analyze things with an open mind, not rose-colored lenses. It is not as simple as many try to make it. Knowing and leaving are two different issues. Knowing doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to move forward. In fact, knowing can make it more difficult for a person. They might choose to deal with it by suppressing their knowledge, and by trying to live life with what they have and with what is not foreign to them. They also might try to save others, or try to save remnants of their lives, no matter the cost.
No stone is left unturned within the harrowing accounts presented by Wasserstein in On the Eve. It is almost 500 pages long, and not an easy read. Yet, the impressions, presentations and word visuals are told with sensitivity to the situations and even with a bit of humor here and there. He is not harsh toward the Jews in his revelations, but, in my opinion, tries to state the truth, the facts, with clarifying seriousness. He writes with an awareness of others, and his responses reflect prose that demonstrates his insight. The historical factor is incredible, and opened this reader’s eyes to varying degrees on the perspectives focused on.
Wasserstein is brilliant in his prose, his magnificent rendering of the European Jews is masterful in so many aspects. We, who have had ancestors from Europe will gain insight into the mindsets of those who encountered the horrific events of pre World War II and the Holocaust. The book is a work of humaneness and a work of art. It is a work of historical necessity.
I highly recommend On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, by Bernard Wasserstein to every one. I feel it belongs in every library, whether public, university, high school or personal library. It is a book with extreme historical value.
May 14, 2012 – 22 Iyyar, 5772
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