A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry.
by Mark Kurlansky.
Addison-Wesley. 410 pp. $24.00.
Before World War II, Europe was the cradle of Jewish life; today, Israel and the United States have become the two largest constellations in the Jewish universe. Yet despite the calamity of the Holocaust, some 1.8 million Jews continue to reside on the European continent. With its highly varied composition and even larger geographical stretch, postwar European Jewry remains a galaxy that richly deserves a close view. Mark Kurlansky, a journalist by trade, is to be commended for providing one, though regrettably his book only skims the surface of the subject, distorting some of its most important aspects and leaving others wholly unexplored.
A Chosen Few revolves around a single question Kurlansky posed to Jews whom he interviewed in his travels across Europe: “Why are you still here?” The question was not meant to imply skepticism but rather its opposite: a sense of wonder at the “strength and courage” of those who have chosen to “rebuild, remarry, and raise children” in the Holocaust’s aftermath. Indeed, throughout this highly readable narrative, Kurlansky’s deep sympathy shines forth for these “brave and tenacious people who . . . rebuilt their lives in the face of incomprehensible horror.”
The story that Kurlansky tells covers the period from 1945 to the present, and his geographical grasp takes in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Britain has been purposely excluded because it was not devastated by the Holocaust; but why such major countries as Italy, Austria, and Greece are left out, not to mention the states that comprised the former Soviet Union, is never made clear. Still, despite the unexplained blank spots on his map, Kurlansky introduces us to a wide mix of characters.
He sought out, he tells us, “Jews of any kind—the more varied, the better. I spoke with tailors, bakers, and butchers. I did not want only prominent people.” Accordingly, we meet here a hasidic Jew in Antwerp’s diamond district who is largely oblivious to his Belgian surroundings but fully informed about the smallest happenings in ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Jerusalem and New York; a bakery owner in Paris who has watched from his store as the “Pletzl,” the city’s East European Jewish quarter, is gradually transformed into a tony neighborhood of gay bars and high-priced restaurants; a Yiddish theater director in Warsaw who must rely on non-Jewish actors to mouth the Yiddish words of the plays he puts on; and a Gentile professor who for decades was Prague’s most knowledgeable authority on Jewish matters.
As the abundance of colorful anecdotes makes clear, Kurlansky’s overriding interest is in describing individual experience: “any Jew in Europe,” he asserts, “is a representative of European Jewry.” In accordance with this axiom, he spends little time attempting to draw conclusions about what he has learned from his interviews, or even explaining what the Jews he has spoken with do in fact represent. The only generalization Kurlansky comes close to offering is a non-generalization:
I found no single answer to the question [“why are you still here?”]. People stayed because, in spite of what anti-Semitic countrymen might claim, they were indeed Poles or Frenchmen or even Germans. Some stayed because they did not want to see the history of their Jewish community come to an end. Some stayed to build a new society. Some never intended to stay but couldn’t get their relatives to move. Some hated the thought of moving anywhere. Some always meant to move but could not get organized to leave, and some just got too involved with their careers.
Yet whatever their reasons for staying, Jews in Europe do, in Kurlansky’s judgment, have a future there. As he puts it, thanks to a combination of Jewish stubbornness and random luck, “Hitler, at last, has been defeated.”
While that statement may accurately reflect what his interviews yielded, Kurlansky’s effort to explain “the resurrection of European Jewry” (as his subtitle has it) is inevitably crippled from the start. For the plain fact is that those who matter most in this “resurrection” are not the haphazardly selected, engaging personalities one encounters in A Chosen Few, but the committed activists who have been busy with the unglamorous work of reweaving the destroyed fabric of their communities. These individuals concern themselves with synagogue life, Jewish education, cultural expression, defense efforts, fund-raising activity, summer camps, establishing museums, and so forth—all of which are completely marginal to Kurlansky’s discussion.
Kurlanksy’s lack of proper focus is particularly evident in his discussion of postwar France. While he takes note of the arrival of 300,000 North African Jews in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, one gains from A Chosen Few only the vaguest hint of the far-reaching transformation of French Jewish life wrought by these proud Sephardic immigrants. According to Dominique Schnapper, a leading authority on the subject, French Jews
no longer follow the old policy of assimilation, nor do they limit their expression of Judaism only to the private and family sphere. Since the 1970’s, new forms of Jewish identity have established themselves and found expression in a new religious and cultural life. Enrollment in Jewish primary and secondary schools and in university departments of Jewish studies is steadily increasing. . . . Over the past ten years there has been a startling return to Judaism as a religion. . . .
This process of “reverse acculturation,” as the historian Howard Sachar has dubbed it, is not satisfactorily elucidated in A Chosen Few.
Again: although a considerable section of the book is devoted to Polish Jewry, Kurlansky rarely attends to what is important there. A handful of Jewish pioneers has been laboring in Poland to replant the seeds of the world that was stamped out. Kurlansky, however, though he makes passing reference to such initiatives, is more interested in the tribulations of assorted Jewish Communists whose only link to their people is the lash of anti-Semitism, and who represent, historically speaking, a Jewish dead end.
As the example of Poland illustrates, in ensuring a future, the efforts of all Jews do not count equally. At the end of the day, only those who are struggling quietly and tenaciously to form the basic structures of organized Jewish existence are likely to prove decisive in determining whether the “chosen few” can ever again become the many.