If we could use one word to characterize the political, social and economic situation of Jews in Europe between the world wars that word would be “turmoil.” It is hard for people who live in a politically stable society to imagine what it is like to live in an unstable society, one that is so dangerous that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. That, in effect, is a description of the Jewish world in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
The destruction of European Jewry really began with the First World War: the uprooting of millions of Jews, the destruction of old communities, the breakdown of religious infrastructure, habits and social observances, etc. All of that was accelerated by what happened after the war.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 changed all the foundations upon which Jewish Russia was built. In fact, the revolution proved to be one of the great disasters in Jewish history, even though the full impact of the disaster did not become apparent until decades later, and is perhaps still not fully known.
The Bolsheviks – the Russian communists – were disproportionately Jewish by birth. Jews were committed to the revolution because they thought it would solve all the problems of humanity, as well as all the problems of the Jews. Although they dropped and vehemently repudiated their Judaism in actuality they transmuted a latent religious fervor into fervor for communist ideals. Centuries of energy and genius that had been funneled into the study of Torah and the Jewish religion was now transferred to and infused into pursuit of the communist utopia.
A civil war between Communist Russians (the Red army) and anti-Bolshevik Russians (the White army) raged for four years between 1917 and 1921. The average Jew was caught in between. To the Reds he was “White” and to the Whites he was “Red.” The anti-Bolsheviks saw communism as the Judaization of their country. It was taking holy mother Russian – Russian Orthodoxy – and making it Jewish. Therefore, the White army perpetrated terrible atrocities upon the Jewish communities they encountered. It is estimated that 75,000-100,000 Jews were slaughtered by them. Jewish villages were decimated, Jewish property taken and hundreds of thousands of Jews became refugees.
It was little better when the Red army regained the territory. Its policy was that anyone who was around where the Whites had been was automatically assumed to be infected by their anti-revolutionary ideas. And the best way to deal with such hopelessly deluded people was to kill them.
Jews quickly had to choose sides. Most chose the side of the Reds. If they could have really chosen sides they probably would have left. But they couldn’t leave. Neither side would let them, and there was no place to go to. They were trapped.
When the Reds finally gained the upper hand they set about with a vengeance to make sure the surviving Jews were going to be Bolsheviks like them. To do so they established a bureau of the Communist Party devoted to Jewish affairs. This section became known as Yevsektsia (alternative spelling: Yevsektsiya — the acronym of the department name in Russian) and was run by Jews.
These Jewish communists were incredibly ruthless in stamping out any type of religious activity by fellow Jews. They killed rabbis, closed the yeshivos and synagogues, banned all religious practices, and enforced it by getting friends to turn in neighbors, children to turn in parents and send them to Siberia for observing the religion. It was the Yevsektsia more than anything else that destroyed the Jewish community in Russia.
At the same time, the Jewish socialists in Russia, especially those members of the Bund, came to a sad and appropriate end. The Yevsektsia said they did not need a second organization to help them in their “sacred” task and forced the Bund into the communist party. Then, to insure that it would not continue, they killed its leaders, thereby guaranteeing the subservience of the Jewish people to the Soviet regime.
As time went on, Jewish communists themselves were slowly crowded out of all of the offices in the communist party and Russian government. The infamous purges of Stalin tended to target Jews more than others. Therefore, from the time of the Second World War onward, with few exceptions, there were no Jews in any sort of influential position in the Soviet Union. This represented a major shift, because at the beginning of the movement, during Lenin’s time and the beginning of Stalin’s, Jews occupied positions of high influence and power.
Jews invested an incredible religious-like fervor in the communist revolution, and would get nothing in return.
In Poland, the Jews counted between 10-12% of the population, the largest proportion of Jews to non-Jews in any European country. This visibility did not bode well for them.
Poland had been recreated after the war as an independent republic. But it soon turned into a dictatorship. Marshal Pilsudski, the military leader who won the wars for them, became the political leader. He was a nationalistic, right wing, Roman Catholic anti-Semite who had a false vision about the greatness of Poland. This false vision pervaded the Polish army for a long time. Based on their victory of Lithuania the Poles really thought that they could hold off Hitler in 1939.
Poland was living in a bubble on many levels. The president of Poland was a renowned pianist. As such, arguably more than anything else, he symbolized Poland’s flight from reality. Poland did not need piano music. It needed sober leadership. It had a sick economy and was surrounded by very powerful enemies who would not long suffer its existence. Instead of dealing with their problems the Poles they were convinced that their problems were because of the Jews, and as time went on anti-Semitism grew.
The Jews were prominent in three industries: liquor, textile and tobacco. All of those industries were taken away from the Jews by the government with little or no compensation. They did so in many ways, including passing laws forbidding retail establishments from being open on Sunday or Christian holidays, which in effect decimated the Jewish shops, most of which were closed on Saturday. Thousands and thousands of Jews found themselves on the streets unemployed.
The laws legislated by the Polish government to destroy Jewish economic life grew itself laws against the Jewish religion. For instance, the Polish government passed a law against kosher meat. The attack against kosher laws is one of the oldest anti-Semitic attacks in history. It is the foot in the door to anti-Semitism.
And it did not stop with kosher meat. They levied special taxes against Jews. Similarly, there were all sorts of laws meant to stunt the Jewish religion, including one that made it forbidden to build a sukkah (booth for the festival of Sukkos). They levied special taxes and/or fines on lulavs and esrogs, the species needed for the festival of Sukkos. These and other laws were passed expressly to diminish Jewish life.
Worse than the laws themselves was the climate of anti-Semitism they bred. When Hitler came he found a ready climate of anti-Semitism that made it easy for the Nazis to disenfranchise the Jews.
Jews in Western Europe
Jews in Germany between the wars were in turmoil. A great section of the German people refused to admit that they had been defeated in the First World War. They said the only reason they lost was because someone sold them out. The “someone” who sold them out was of course the Jews. One of the men who signed the armistice was a Jew and he was soon assassinated. Even though his assassins were known they were never arrested.
The Weimar Republic, which was the new democratic government set up after the war, was very weak and ineffective. Germany was wracked by tremendous inflation. There are famous photographs of Germans going to shop with wheelbarrows full of cash. A person needed millions and millions of marks just to buy a loaf of bread.
The general German culture in the 1920s was strongly anti-Semitic, but the Jews nevertheless lived there with a false sense of security, believing that nothing would ever come of it. They did not realize the potential for disaster that was just under the surface.
During the 1920s, until the time of Hitler, intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews reached new heights. Combined with Jewish deaths in the First World War and a steep decline in the Jewish birth rate, Jewish life weakened markedly.
There was also a large defection of Jews from the Jewish religion. It is hard to know why it happened. On one hand, it could have been because of persecution and anti-Semitism, and on the other hand it was because of assimilation. But, whatever the cause, there was a flood of defections.
The Closing Door
It would be incorrect to say that the Jews did not want to leave Europe. They did. However, there was virtually nowhere to go and no way to get there.
From 1920 to 1926 almost a million Jews left Europe. About 60% came to the United States, 25% went to Palestine and the rest to various places all over the world. In 1926, the United States closed its doors and made it much more difficult for Jews from Eastern Europe to enter. As a result the percentages flip-flopped. From 1926 to 1929 about two out of every three Jews who emigrated went to Palestine (about 350,000, compared to 185,000 to the United States).
By 1929, Jews could not get into Palestine either. Then from 1933 onward, when Jews really needed a place to go, their access to places of refuge was almost completely cut off. There was no place to go.
The frustration of the European Jew was quickly reaching a boiling point. He could not stay but he could not go. He had very little hope that his personal goals would be realized or that the goals of the Jewish people, religiously or nationally, would be realized. He was besieged from all sides.
At the same time, he couldn’t see clearly what was coming; he wouldn’t let himself believe it.