Aug 1, 2006

Book Review: The History of the Jews in Russia and Poland


History of the Jews in Russia and PolandDubnow, Simon N. (translated by Israel Friedlaender)

Dubnow was a Belarus-born Jewish historian, writer and activist whose formal education was cut short due to the imposition by Tsar Alexander III of the May Laws, which banned Jews from all rural areas and towns containing fewer than ten thousand people in imperial Russia. Much of the material from this three-volume set – first published in 1916 – was incorporated into his magnum opus, the ten-volume History of the Jewish People, which was published in Germany in 1929. Dubnow moved to Latvia after the ascension to power of Hitler in 1933, and he was transferred with thousands of other Jews to the Riga ghetto after Nazi troops invaded Latvia. Dubnow was among thousands of Jews massacred in the Rumbula forest on December 8, 1941.

The first volume of The History of the Jews in Russia and Poland covers the longest historical period, beginning with the formation of Jewish communities on the north coast of the Black Sea in the Hellenic era and continuing through the death of Russian tsar Alexander I in 1825. Volume II continues the narrative through the death of Tsar Alexander III in 1894, and Volume III covers the reign of Nicholas II into the outbreak of World War I. The set was ironically published during 1916, and Dubnow’s views on the Bolshevik Revolution are not contained in this collection.

Dubnow followed a strict chronological approach to the material, and divided the chapters along thematic lines based upon political events and personages. This text, however, encompasses a great deal more than traditional political and military history, and Dubnow was surprisingly far ahead of his time with his inclusion of social, religious, and economic history. This likely reflects the fact that the author was largely self-taught, and perhaps Dubnow – as a scholar less influenced by the mainstream historians of his age – developed an unconventional approach that coincidentally shared some of the ambitions of the Annales School and l'histoire totale.

One of the recurrent themes throughout Dubnow’s work – and that of the Jewish peoples in general – is recurrent anti-Semitism. The author traced the rise of intolerance toward Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia to the growth of trade and immigration during the Crusades. While far from being a Judaic paradise, relations between Poles and Jews were among the most favorable in Europe prior to the eleventh century, and Dubnow argued that anti-Semitism crept into Poland after the severe persecutions of Jews in Germany during the mid-twelfth century. The efforts of Polish princes in the thirteenth century to promote German merchant immigration into Poland, argued Dubnow, ensured that Germans and Jews would be economic competitors, while the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland brought with it the “implacable hatred against the adherents of Judaism” embraced by the western Church.

Partitions of PolandLeft: 13th century image of Crusaders killing Jews

Writing in the early 20th century, Dubnow could not have forseen the horrors of the Holocaust, and yet his careful documentation of medieval and early modern pogroms and massacres strikes this reader as almost prophetic. The “highest ecclesiastic dignitaries of Poland” attended a church council in 1279, ratifying a clause dealing with “the Jewish sign”:
The Jews of both sexes shall be obligated to wear a ring of red cloth sewed onto their upper garment, on the left side of the chest. The Jew appearing on the street without this sign shall be accounted a vagrant, and no Christian shall have the right to do business with him.
Ritual murder was an additional response ocasionally used by commoners to a perceived Jewish “menace” in this period. Rumors began to develop in 1556 in the town of Sokachev that Jewish “infidels” obtained a communion wafer from a destitute woman. The purported sacrilege involved the stabbing of the wafer by three Jews until it started to bleed. Dubnow maintained that the men may have enraged the clergy and populace with their protestations of innocence:
We have never stabbed the host, because we do not believe that the host is the Divine body…knowing that God has no body or blood…we also know from experience that there can be no blood in flour.
The executioner, according to Dubnow, “stopped ‘the mouths of the criminals with burning torches;’” these ritual killings came despite the orders of Polish king Sigismund Augustus.

Ukranian hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky Left: Ukranian hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky

Dubnow’s descriptions of the anti-Semitic foundations of the 1648-58 Khmelnytsky Uprising are especially harrowing. Venting their anger largely at merchant Jews, Cossacks led by Ukranian hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky engaged in a period of rampant slaughter. As many as 500,000 Jews were killed, and hundreds of entire Jewish communities were obliterated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In thefollowing passage Dubnow atempted to summarize the scale of the horror:
Nearly all of the Jewish communities in the province of Posen, excepting the city of Posen, and those in the provinces of Kalish, Cracow, and Piotrkov, were destroyed by the saviors of the Polish fatherland…they tortured and murdered the rabbis, violated the women, killed the Jews by the hundreds, sparing only those who were willing to become Catholics.
The first and second partitions of Poland (1772, 1793) created a new dilemma for both Russians and Jews. Tsarist Russia traditionally strove to keep Jews out of the country, an intolerance that Dubnow traced to the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The newly acquired territories brought with them millions of Jews to imperial Russia, and thus began an era of conflict in Eastern Europe between Jews and an authoritarian regime that considered them to be “enemies of Christ.”

Partitions of PolandLeft: Map of the partitions of Poland

The most overt anti-Semitic legislation began with the Pale of Settlement in 1791, which Catherine II designed as a territory for Russian Jews to live. The Pale of Settlement included the territory of present-day Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus. Within the designated territories, Jews paid double taxes, were forbidden to own or lease land, operate saloons, or participate in higher education. The Pale underwent numerous revisions between 1791 and the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in 1917, with a few periods of liberalization (especially, argued Dubnow, under Alexander II ), but the presence and application of the law created one of the most onerous anti-Jewish bureaucratic systems of oppression; arguably, one might make a case that the administrators of the German Schutzstaffel (SS) learned well from their history lessons.

Dubnow’s accomplishments in the three-volume History of the Jews in Russia and Poland are more than impressive, as he combined an encyclopedic collection of raw history with thoughtful analysis. Readers are provided with a 30-page bibliography of his archival and secondary sources, as well as a 203-page index that covers nearly every conceivable search criteria. Perhaps the book’s greatest strength, though, is the beauty of the author’s prose, which makes for an informative as well as entertaining read. Choosing a definitive example of Dubnow’s writing style is a Sisyphean challenge, but one might consider the following summation of the era of Alexander III that the author penned after a discussion on the expulsion of hundreds of Jewish families from Yalta in 1893:
Such was the symbolic finale of the reign of Alexander III, which lasted fourteen years. Having begun with pogroms, it ended with expulsions. The martyred nation stood at the threshold of the new reign with a silent question on its lip: “What next?”
Unfortunately for Dubnow and his Jewish compatriots, the repressive regime of Nicholas II was merely a warmup for the atrocities unleashed during the 1930s by a failed Austrian painter and World War I Gefreiter named Adolf Hitler.


Kate said...

I'll most definitely read this book Mike. I think he probably was greatly influenced by being self taught.

Thanks for the review!

Hooda Thunkit said...

I find the Polish history particularly interesting, for not so obvious reasons.

On this one, I'm quite tempted (if I ever get caught up on a hundred or so other reading projects).