"A remarkable achievement. Bartal presents the broad contours of nineteenth-century East European Jewish history even as he reworks them into a nontraditional narrative."—David Engel, New York University
2005 | 216 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $26.50
History | Religion
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Table of Contents
1. The Jews of the Kingdom
2. The Partitions of Poland: The End of the Old Order, 1772-1795
3. Towns and Cities: Society and Economy, 1795-1863
4. Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and Maskilim
5. Russia and the Jews
6. Austria and the Jews of Galicia, 1772-1848
7. "Brotherhood" and Disillusionment: Jews and Poles in the Nineteenth Century
8. "My Heart Is in the West": The Haskalah Movement in Eastern Europe
9. "The Days of Springtime": Czar Alexander II and the Era of Reform
10. Between Two Extremes: Radicalism and Orthodoxy
11. The Conservative Alliance: Galicia under Emperor Franz Josef
12. The Jew Is Coming! Anti-Semitism from Right and from Left
13. "Storms in the South," 1881-1882
Conclusion: Jews as an Ethnic Minority in Eastern Europe
The following chapters relate the history of East European Jewry from the time of the Polish partitions at the end of the eighteenth century to the pogroms that broke out in the southern regions of the Russian empire in the early 1880s. In the summer of 1772, the three neighbors of the Polish state tore off large chunks of her territory, embarking on a process that, within a little less than two decades, led to Poland's demise as an independent political entity. The first partition of Poland was also the beginning of the triple encounter of the Jews of the Polish Commonwealth with the Austrian bureaucracy (in Galicia), the Russian officialdom (in White Russia) and the Prussian administration (in western Prussia). This encounter between a populous Jewish community, with an age-old cultural tradition, and the apparatus of the centralized state was, for the Polish Jew, the commencement of the modern era. And since the Jews residing in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom formed an absolute majority of European Jewry The first partition of Poland can actually be viewed as the commencement of the modern era in Jewish history as a whole. Moreover, from then on, a mass immigration movement began that greatly increased the number of Polish Jews in other parts of Europe.
From 1772, a complex and multifaceted process of integration and acculturation started in the regions severed from the Polish state. The Polish-Lithuanian Jew became a "Russian Jew," a "German Jew," or an "Austrian Jew." This was not a rapid process. Most of the Jews in the areas annexed from Poland to the neighboring states continued to maintain their old way of life for decades after they were no longer subjects of the Polish king. They regarded themselves as "Polish Jews," and that is how they were seen by German, Austrian and Russian writers and bureaucrats. As far back as the 1860s, the Yiddish writer Isaac Yoel Linetzky called the protagonist of his anti-Hasidic satire "Dos Poylishe Yingl" (The Polish Lad), although he depicted him as a Jew living in Ukraine, deep inside the territory of the Russian empire. Jewish socialists who published a Yiddish newspaper in London intended for the masses of poor immigrants from the Russian empire, called it (in 1884!) Der Poylisher Yidl (The Polish Kike). According to one of the editors, they chose this name because they wanted to voice the immigrants' protest against the disdainful attitude adopted towards them by the English Jews, who were panic-stricken by the idea that "the Poles are coming!" In those very same years, the German historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, in a polemic with the Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz, expressed his fear that the German Reich would be inundated by masses of Polish Jewish immigrants. In Treitschke's view, the fact that these immigrants clung to their national identity was antithetical to the equal political rights they had recently been granted. Moreover, it constituted a real threat to the German character of his country. More than one hundred years, then, after the first Polish partition, the Jews of Eastern Europe were still seen by many as a community that had preserved its "Polishness." And deep into the modern era, they maintained what Gershon Hundert recently described as a positive sense of Jewish "identity."
However, what began as the invasions by Poland's enemies in the last decades of the eighteenth century nonetheless changed the political base of the traditional society's life. Although the masses of Jews underwent only partial integration, some segments of the population were considerably influenced by it. The processes of acculturation did not cause the old Jewish culture to disappear, but they did augment it with cultural traits previously unknown to the Jews of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. The changes that affected East European Jewry in the nineteenth century also gave rise to a new type of antagonism between them and the various ethnic groups in the empires. The old religious conflict, between Catholics and Jews as well as between the Eastern Orthodox and the Jews, took the form of a radical anti-Semitism, in which the influence of national Romanticism merged with messianic revolutionism In March 1881, 111 years after the Russian army entered the towns of White Russia, Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by assassins belonging to the revolutionary movement. Six weeks after the Tsar's murder, the southern provinces of the Russian empire were swept by waves of pogroms against the Jews, unparalleled in their duration and geographical spread. In their wake, many Jews, during the pogroms or in the years soon after, began to abandon the option of integration and acculturation in favor of more radical solutions to the problems of their economic, social and spiritual existence. "The Russian Jew," like his brethren on the Austrian side of the border, began to exchange the incomplete imperial identity, which had taken shape after the Polish partitions, for alternative identities, either by emigrating to new lands or by seeking new Jewish identities unprecedented in the history of East European Jewry.
The boundaries of historical periods are clearly determined by subjective considerations. On the basis of their ideologies, political interests, a certain geographical link or ethnic identity, people are liable to draw totally disparate time lines. The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel states that:
There are many alternative ways to cut up the past, none of which are more natural and hence more valid then others. Any system of periodization is thus inevitably social, since our ability to envision the historical watersheds separating one conventional "period" from another is basically a product of being socialized in specific traditions of carving up the past. In other words, we need to be mnemonically socialized to regard certain historical events as significant "turning points."
There has been no more dramatic period in Jewish history than the years between 1881 and 1948—a relatively short span of time when measured against the annals of a nation. During those years the Jewish people underwent enormous changes and agonizing tribulations. Yet, at the same time, manifested an extraordinary vitality. [ . . . ] In contrast to the lengthy tradition developed during the Middle Ages to divert the resentment of alien rule and the sufferings of the Diaspora into the inner world of the spirit and abstain from political activism [ . . . ] mighty forces now awoke in the people. These forces, operating at a social and political level, transformed a scattered, divided, and mortally wounded people from a passive entity into an active and independent political and social force.
In his groundbreaking research, Benjamin Nathans adopted a Tocquevillian reenvisioning that "seeks not to deny the profound upheaval that occurred in Russian Jewry (just as Tocqueville never denied that a revolution occurred in France in 1789) but rather to reveal the subtle forms of change as well as continuities that bridge the moment of crisis."
In this book, I tend to concur with some of these reservations about the view that the events of 1881 caused a revolutionary "leap" from a premodern phase in the history of East European Jewry to a totally new phase. Thus, for example, I stress the fact that some Jewish intellectuals in the Russian empire were already becoming disillusioned with the policy of the imperial government towards Jews quite a few years before the pogroms, and this suggests that there was not a sudden shift in the attitude of the members of the Haskalah movement towards the Russian government. Moreover, in this book, I assert that the disintegration of the feudal system, which preceded the pogroms of the eighties, was a decisive factor in the profound upheaval that Jewish society underwent. The pogroms in the Pale of Settlement were, in a certain sense, a byproduct of political, economic and social processes rather than a major cause of these processes.
Nevertheless, I believe the 1881 pogroms can be viewed as a significant milestone in the history of East European Jewry. The Jews' tendency to isolate themselves from the milieu in which they had lived for centuries was then significantly intensified and took on massive proportions. Anti-Semitism became an official policy in the Russian empire and Jewish nationalism moved from its cultural phase to the phase of political organization. Although the massive immigration from Eastern Europe to the West began back in the seventies because of the famine that struck the northern provinces of the Pale of Settlement, it became associated with the new anti-Semitism. From then on, it was also linked to the emergence of a nationalist movement that sought to direct the huge stream of immigrants into different ideological channels.
The period 1772-1881 constitutes a vastly significant chapter in the history of the largest Jewish collective in the world in modern times. During those years, a society, immense in its demographic dimensions, spread over a large geographical area on the eastern fringes of Europe, underwent processes of change that uprooted and shattered centuries-old social and cultural structures and practices, exposing the Jews to the transformative power of modernity. In the one hundred years described in the following chapters, historical circumstances arose that engendered the development of large Jewish movements, which later determined the nature of contemporary Jewish society, left their imprint on contemporary Jewish collectives, and also played a decisive role in shaping Israeli society. From 1772-1881, the founders of the Haskalah movement in Lithuania and Ukraine made their appearance; the first buds of secular Hebrew literature emerged; the first modern works in Yiddish, the spoken language of the Jewish masses, were written; Jewish literature in Polish and Russian was created; and the Jewish press in various languages flourished. Also, during that period, the founders of the Jewish national movement; the early leaders of East European Orthodoxy, and the pioneers of the Jewish labor movement, were galvanized into action. All of these movements bore the hallmark of Eastern Europe: a blend of an ethnic Jewish identity, deeply rooted in a large, widespread community, with a profound consciousness of modernity. Even the opponents of modernity, including the rabbis of Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century, were greatly influenced by it. They understood all too well that the kahal with its rabbis and laymen leaders, had ceased to exist, and they adjusted to modern politics and to concepts such as public opinion, equal rights, and nationalism. The radical revolutionaries and the early nationalists, on the other hand, while they cherished the vision of revolution and change, still felt part of that large community of Jews rooted in their culture. They rediscovered this community, felt connected to it and wanted to preserve some parts of its culture. The history of the two large Jewish centers in the world—Israel and the United States—is not linked only due to the simple demographic fact that several million Jews in the Middle East and in North America are the offspring of East European immigrants. In my view, it is impossible to understand political and social processes and to delve deeply into cultural phenomena in the State of Israel without a profound knowledge of what took place in Eastern Europe in the decades prior to the period of the First Aliya. We usually seek historical explanations for what was created in the Land of Israel in the last 120 years in the Middle Eastern reality, but we still lack, for example, a thorough study of the link between the Israeli political culture and its East European roots.
In the following pages, I relate the historical narrative of a large ethnic minority, unique in its culture and separate in its social institutions, which was confronted by the power of the centralized state. While that state succeeded in changing the social structure that premodern Jewish society had maintained, it was not able to erase the ethnic differentness of the Jews. This ethnic differentness continued to exist in social and cultural spheres that were not under state control or which the state showed no interest in changing. The premodern autonomous community that was the axis of Jewish society's traditional life in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom did come to an end in the wake of the reforms. But as the old formal organizations were abolished or integrated into the state's administrative systems, new social forms were born that led to the emergence of a modern national identity.
It is no simple task to describe the major trends and processes that occurred in East European Jewish society in the hundred years between the partitions and the pogroms. There are several reasons for the difficulties that confront the historian. First, he must grapple with the question—did the large Jewish community in Eastern Europe continue to exist as one entity, when its various parts were within the political boundaries of several states? To what extent, if at all, did the Ashkenazi diaspora continue to maintain its unity after the partitions of Poland? The question of the unity of East European Jewry is linked to and dependent on another question: Whose history is it? Is the history of the Jews in White Russia (Byelorussia) part of the chronicles of Poland, or is it a chapter in the history of Russia, a paragraph in the history of Lithuania or a few lines in the annals of Byelorussia? The various stages of Jewish historiography in Eastern Europe attest to the fact that there is more than one answer to these questions. The historian, Simon Dubnow, who held manifestly nationalist views, wrote the modern history of the Jews with an imperial Russian keynote. A contemporary of his, Majer Balaban, wrote his books and articles in a Polish vein. Geopolitics changes the historical perspective. These two historians wrote about the past of their nation (the Jewish nation) as a reaction to the Germanocentric point of view that saw Eastern Europe as a semi-Asiatic periphery, which they often termed "Halb Asien," in the wake of the stories by the Jewish author, Karl Emil Franzos, a native of Galicia. In any case, where is the boundary between Europe and Eastern Europe? Isn't Eastern Europe no more than an invention fabricated by Western intellectuals?
Second, I have previously alluded to the fact that the writing of the history of East European Jewry emerged directly from ideological and political movements that evolved in this part of the world in the nineteenth century. The Jews of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom did not write history books. Chronicles of pogroms, poems in Yiddish about expulsions, epidemics and conflagrations; prayers for the dead, in memory of the victims of the trials of Jews accused of using Christian blood to bake Passover matzos—these were some of the traditional genres by means of which segments of memory were passed down from generation to generation. Memory of the past was a cardinal element in the world picture of the East European Jew, but it was not a memory centered on "history." One exception was Nathan Hanover's book, Yeven Metsula (Miry Pit), about the Cossack revolt in 1648, when the inhabitants of several Ukrainian communities were massacred. In this small book, one can perhaps discern the first sign, the only one of its kind, of Jewish historical writing in the early modern period. History as a scientific discipline and a focus for the consciousness of a collective identity, was not part of the spiritual world of East European Jewry before the Polish partitions. A methodical study of the past, and certainly the establishment of societies to deal with the past and disseminate knowledge about it, or the writing of historical works—were all part of the process of modernization that Jewish society underwent. Even the conservative parts of this society, both in the Russian empire and in the Habsburg empire, began writing historical works in light of the heightened historical consciousness of their co-religionists who were inclined to join the Haskalah movement. It is no wonder, then, that many of those who attempted to redefine their identity in an era in which the traditional frameworks of life had been undermined, turned to history, to the past, to seek answers to the questions of the present. And in doing so, they often turned their backs on the traditional collective memory, and sometimes challenged it. This memory, as well developed as it was, seemed to its critics, the maskilim, the nationalists and the socialists, "unhistorical." Thus, for example, the young radical maskil, Simon Dubnow (1880-1940) who had recently discovered the national link to the past, could describe his people in Eastern Europe as a tribe of nomads lacking in "historical feeling":
[ . . . ] whose lives are entirely in the present and who have neither a future, nor a past. And the few, select ones so inclined to know the shape of the past actually recognize merely fragments of things and scattered incidents.
However, while Jewish intellectuals were combing the sources of the past to find materials with which to weave the threads of continuity, they also found in the recent past the roots of crisis and severance. Several generations of Jewish historians assigned a key role to the Haskalah movement in the historical narrative. Scholars of Jewish history in Eastern Europe from the inception of the Wissenschaft des Judentums in the Russian language up to the research in the spirit of Socialist Zionism that flourished in Israeli universities only one generation ago, exaggerated in attributing power and decisive influence to this movement. They regarded it, first and foremost, as a movement whose essence was one of change and displacement. The Haskalah was in fact the first modern stream to emerge in Jewish society, and all the new movements in the modern era grew out of the Haskalah, or carried on its legacy in one form or another. Jewish nationalism, which rebelled against some of the more fundamental ideas of East European maskilim, adhered and still adheres to some of the Haskalah's underlying principles. Orthodoxy, a traditionalist stream, also adopted many elements of the legacy of the maskilim, whom it had fought against. However, basically the Haskalah movement was but one of the diverse reactions to the dramatic changes engendered in Jewish society by external forces. The Haskalah movement was accused by its adversaries of having destroyed the heritage and hastening the assimilation of the Jews into the surrounding societies. Nationalistic radicals and revolutionary socialists said similar things, but in praise of the Haskalah. From the perspective of two hundred years, the Haskalah, the movement whose spiritual world was closely bound to the Bible and the Hebrew language, seems to have been a quite conservative stream. Hence, the anachronistic statements that came from the radical wing of Jewish politics in Eastern Europe are no longer accepted in the new scholarship, but their traces are still very evident in the images of organizations, institutions, views and values from the past. Even decisions about periodization are still influenced by the legacy of the Haskalah movement. Traces of the influence of the Enlightenment are palpable in the definitions that serve the writers of history. Hence, in determining what is "central" in the processes that took place in the society we are dealing with, or what was a "major trend," we have to be particularly cognizant of the ideological baggage and the social background of the researchers of the past.
Third, in the decade that has passed since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the opening of archives in East European states to researchers, the documentary base has greatly expanded. Today we know far more about nineteenth-century Jewish society than we knew in 1990. Research is being updated, old generalizations are turning out to be wrong, and perspectives are changing. These days, a scholar of East European Jewry has access to the same archival treasures that were studied by several generations of historians from the end of the nineteenth century. However, he can ask questions about those historical sources that never occurred to his predecessors. He is not constrained by the apologetic needs that affected historians who lived under the rule of the Tsar or the Kaiser. He is not compelled to work under ideological and political restrictions of the sort that hampered the historians who visited those archives during the time of Soviet rule. Today historians know far more about what happened in Eastern Europe in recent generations than the scholars who preceded them. But can the historical reconstruction of what happened influence, even slightly, the way the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Jews of Polish and Lithuanian towns "remember" the old country? Can the historian contend with the collective memory of the offspring of the East European immigrants?
The children and grandchildren of the founding fathers of the State of Israel are no longer directly linked to the experience of the East European shtetl. The hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who, in recent decades, have found an old-new homeland in Israel are also light-years away from the way of life that existed in previous generations. Many of the early immigrants from Poland and Russia brought with them to the old-new land memories of fear, violence and hatred. Their ideology served as a sensitive sieve that did not allow memories of another kind to pass through it. Native Israelis absorbed the spirit of the shtetl from the militant Hebrew literature that their teachers from Eastern Europe crammed into their lessons in the new Zionist schools. Descriptions of the ugliness of Jewish society in the Pale of Settlement, depicted by Mendele Mokher Sefarim, as well as by Peretz in his neoromantic stories, imparted to several generations of Israeli pupils a store of images very far removed from the real life of Eastern Europe. Stereotypic images, which originated in the maskilim's criticism of the life of Jews in the cities and towns of Lithuania and Ukraine, were planted in the soil of the evolving Israeli culture. Hebrew books that native Israelis read during the time of the British mandate and in the first decades of the state, were a bridge of consciousness between what had existed (or was perpetuated as having existed) in the Old World and what had been born under the Mediterranean skies. From the complex and multicolored reality in which their parents grew up, in the collective Israeli memory only black and white pictures remained: pogroms, blood libels, poverty and want. The Holocaust, which swallowed up everything and changed everything, reinforced the negative image of the diaspora. A change did take place, however, in their attitude to the Jews of that diaspora—no longer contempt for those who had not partaken of the purifying experience of Zionism but rather compassion for and identification with the victims of the horrifying massacre, as well as a sense of guilt for having failed them when they were in such dire distress. The image of the past, however, is still as monochromatic as ever. What remains today in the Israeli collective memory is made up of a blend of anachronistic ideologies, literary discussion, and the last vestiges of a shallow folklore. In the United States, too, the memory of the Old World has been transformed, becoming, as Zipperstein put it, "an American, not a Russian, story." As they did in Israel, the immigrants from Europe to the United States, wanted to connect to a new reality, and tended to remember mainly what was bad and violent in the old. Only a few decades after the mass immigration from Eastern Europe began, a change took place in the way the Jews of the United States remembered the places they had come from. The memory of the violence did not vanish, but after World War II, the continent the Jews had wanted to flee in order to build a new life in the land of freedom and equality became a site of yearning. Yearning for innocence, for family values and religious faith. Jewish nationalism in Israel and the alienation in the American capitalist society ended by shaping a memory of the past that had very little to do with history. In the following pages, I try to challenge the collective memory of the Jews on both sides of the ocean. This memory is not a product of the manipulative use of the materials of the past, nor was it imposed by an oppressive establishment that forced it upon the rememberers. Rather, it was shaped by the circumstances of the time and of the place. The historian's act of reconstructing the past is also, as I noted previously, an outcome of time and place. The Russian empire vanished from the world more than eighty years ago; very few are alive today that can still recall childhood experiences in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Why, then, shouldn't we look at the recent past in a way that will enable us to see it in its totality and stop clinging obstinately to some contour lines drawn in times so distant and alien to us? The Jews of Eastern Europe were at one and the same time maskilim and Hasidim, conservatives and radicals, heroes and cowards. They were Jews: Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Polish-Russian Jews. They lived in large cities and in godforsaken towns. They hated their country, they loved their country. Their historical story contains pogroms, but yearnings for the Russian homeland too. The Jewish history of Eastern Europe is not a one-dimensional collective memory, but a congeries of many memories.
Once subjects of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, the Jews, the heroes of this book, became "Russians," "Austrians" or "Germans." Indeed, it was the power of the centralized state that dissolved the autonomy the Jews enjoyed until the modern era. The decline of the feudal economy and the growth of a capitalist economy undermined the foundations of the old socioeconomic order. But here I have chosen to tell the story of East European Jews not as the story of a passive element, but rather to describe them as an active element, one with a consciousness of continuity and strong ties to their brethren in the different parts of the split commonwealth. I have not adopted the approach accepted until now in historiography; I have not told the story from the standpoint of the empires that affected the life of Eastern Europe Jewry from the outside. It is not the discourse of one of the imperial cultures, be it Russian, German or Austrian, that underpins the writing of the story, nor, indeed, one of the versions of the national history that competed with the imperial histories. I have chosen instead a combined view, which underscores the continuity and identifies the background and the causes for the preservation of the East European identity shared by the subjects of the centralized kingdoms. This continuity, whose ancient roots lie in the social, cultural and religious unity of the Ashkenazi diaspora, surely also is the basis for the growth of modern Jewish nationalism, which reunited what the economic and social processes of the modern age dismantled. In this book, I have tried to draw contour lines for the history of a society with a unique cultural heritage that, in a little more than one hundred years, cast off old forms and took on new ones. A society that within a hundred years was transformed from a religious corporation, an integral part of a feudal system, into an ethnic nation in a multinational empire. When the Jewish identity as a premodern corporation was lost, the Jews of Eastern Europe began to see themselves as a modern political "nation."