In the first week of the course I experienced on the Holocaust, the historical center of the lectures of Dr. Peter Kenez focused on the Jews of Europe pre-war, interwar, and postwar Germany. We got a really good historical background, with some daunting questions to counter the propaganda being put forth by the German political machine; the propaganda that would eventually make deportation and extermination of the Jewry of Germany, and of Europe itself not only possible, but realized.
This is by no means meant to infer that no other population demographic was involved with, or a victim of deportation by the Nazis. The first week already introduced us to the concentration, and eventual deportation of political dissidents and opponents, the Polish and German Jewish elite, Gypsies, "mentally deficient", and those "whose lives were not worth living."
In this second week, Dr. Kenez takes us on a journey through the realities, from a historical perspective, of the lives of the Soviet/Russian Jewry, and the roles they played in the event that would become forever known as the Holocaust.
From a literary point of view, Dr. Murray Baumgarten introduces us, via literature, to life in a shtetl, and what being a Jew speaking a Jewish language means for and to European and Soviet Jews--and to the people who hate them. Through the books, writings and film offerings of this week, we come to know a lot about a people some think no longer exist.
Please follow me just below the
squggledoodlethingey fold, and let me tell you what I learned from these discussions.
Dr. Kenez begins his journey by making a definitive distinction between the Jews of the Russian Empire, and Russian Jews. Approximately 5.2 million Jews lived within the boundaries of the Russian Empire prior to the Holocaust. This would indicate that, to a very large extent, those Jews exterminated came from this area in particular.
Many of the ideas that would be realized by the Nazis would come from this area, and their history. The Nazis would, in fact, point to these people and their history as a proof for the propaganda they would come to foment upon the German people, and all of Europe. It is provable that many of the Nazi propagandists (Rosenberg) actually originated in Soviet Russia, where they learned and would successfully apply their tradecraft of national antisemitism propaganda. This is worthy of study.
Russian antisemitism was perhaps at the strongest level in 19th Century Russia. Kenez clearly points out that antisemitism can exist, and grow without the reality of having Jewish people present. This was the case during this time. Kenez, a Soviet History specialist told us some wonderful facts, and stories that took us from the early 19th century of Russia to the time of immediate pre-war Germany. 80% of the world's Jews lived in the Kingdom of Poland in the 18th century. Poland showed some degree of tolerance for Jews greater than other European States. When Russia defeated the Poles, those Jews were assimilated into the Russian population. 18th Century Russia was considered to be the most prolific, antisemitic nation-state in the world.
Not only did their culture come to Russia with them, but so did their language: Yiddish. This language had been growing since the conquest of the Roman Empire, when the Jews slowly moved across Europe. "Their" language, a fusion language, includes many other languages together, allowing the Jews to express Jewish life at the time. Written in Hebrew, using words from several languages, Yiddish was the language of families, and of daily life. This will come into play within short order. Women ran the businesses, and ran the daily life of the family. The men studied the religious and other texts, and had a high level of competence in Hebrew, the written language. While the women made the living, the men promulgated education of themselves and their children.
At one point, Kenez asks us to consider the fact that ONLY in Hebrew does a Jewish child become an adult. In order to advance, the supplicant must prove their educational prowess! In what other group of people is this the case? Kenez rightly points out the answer: NONE! This was just one of many "suspicious" characteristics of which the Jews would be found guilty. They blabbered in their own language, which only they could understand. They forced their kin to education, to become a part of the world-wide financial conspiracy; after all, that IS why they were so educated! Yiddish was known as "The Mother Tongue" for Jews.
Jews were not agriculturists. They were urban or small community-minded people, with their own self government (Kahal: "community") or Parliament (Va'ad, originally a combination of leaders from four Polish communities, including the home of Nechama Tec, Lublin, Poland.), which really assimilated from 18th century Poland. It didn't last through the disintegration of the Polish Kingdom, but such notions DID maintain through the Pogroms and into the remaining definitions of Russian and Polish small communities, the shtetl.
From 1650 through 1930, European and Soviet/Russian Jews were creating, even in their own diaspora, through the killing of millions of Jews in the Southern Ukraine (for instance) there was a core of the cultural and religious Jew which remained, was constantly re-established, and became vital and vibrant no matter the particular circumstance the Jewry of Soviet Russia, or Europe might have found themselves.
After the 3 partitions of Poland, the Russian assimilation of Bessarabia, and then Moldova, the Soviet Russian Empire greatly expanded. So did it's Jewish population at an even larger proportion. Severe restrictions would be imposed upon the Jews due to fear of competition by the Russian merchant class. Living requirements were established, which allowed Jews to live only in particular areas. This would become known as "The Pale of Settlement" that would only change after World War I.
This forced settlement or occupation created a continuing economic difficulty for the Jews of the Soviet Empire, resulting in increasing poverty everywhere the Jews lived. Increasing and more draconian restrictions would only add to the misery and poverty of the Soviet Jews. The Tsarist State of Russia was completely hostile to the Jew, considering them as "inassimulable, hostile, and unworthy of becoming Russian.
This is an empire having only 44% native (Russian) population. Of the minorities, the Jews were a significant majority. Yet the Soviet Jewry would have no access to, or opportunity for assimilation. The Jews were considered both poor and backward, therefore not worthy of assimilation. This circular argument created a conundrum for the Soviet Jews which they would not escape, except through the introduction by Soviet ruler Tsar Nicholas I, which obliged Jewish boys as young as 12 to be conscripted into the Russian Army. (This generally meant that, as a minimum 25 year conscription, the boy would be forced into the Russian standing Army for life.) The hope was that the Jewish population would eventually disappear.
Thus, it is rather easy to see that, at least since the reign of Tsarina Katherine the Great, the Russian Empire was openly antisemitic toward the Jews, and especially the Ashkinazi Jewry. Pogroms usually took place during times of great social upheaval (such as change of leadership in Soviet Russia, for instance) which were particularly pointed at, and destructive to the Soviet Jewry. The most general attitude of the Soviet leadership for Jews throughout the Soviet Empire was that they (the Jews) should just leave. If they did not/could not, they were simply removed with propaganda to fuel the process.
Through the review of the history of the Soviet Jew, and of the Jew in Russia, I got a strong background of "what was". Were these conditions unknown to the world at the time? No. I think not. They certainly were widely known, and even accepted within Europe. The power of Soviet Russia had a large part to play in the realities and coming events, to be certain.
Did they not learn?
That, I believe, depends upon what it is one intends to learn. Some learned to fear for their lives. Some learned that the Soviets were not playing around in their quest to assimilate all of Europe into their Empire, as subsequent wars would sadly prove. Some would learn that the hatred of a particular class, or minority had become legitimate, acceptable, and perhaps even preferred. This brought this important history lesson home to me and my today.
Beginning with an "anti" view toward one population, no matter how you define it, has some definable traits which make that view at the very least understandable. What later happens to that population can become acceptable, expected, or legitimate in the eyes of those who believe the propaganda. Remember what propaganda actually IS. It is not hypocrisy. It is the clearest understanding possible of what one population believes, and intends toward another population.
That is every bit as true today as it has been throughout the history of Europe and the Soviet Empire; we just get to use them as a lens to peek through. So, pick your population, and consider objectively the propaganda used in hatred against them in, say, the United States of America today. Is the propaganda working? How.
These are the thoughts that made me continue the course on the Holocaust, because so much of what I learned has direct application to my world, my beliefs, and my country today. Even as I see the hatred play itself out in our federal congress, I get a beginning understanding that perhaps some would rather I (or you) not have.
Such is not an option! What you understand to be the truth will, if in fact true, inform your beliefs, your words, and your actions. If propaganda is what is fueling you, then I would strongly suggest you understand that your truth may very well not be held within it. But, in the final analysis, YOU get to choose to believe either the truth OR a lie. But it is you who has the obligation to determine, know and act on the truth as the truth is, and not what someone (anyone) else, including me, would want you to believe.
Wednesday, we will look at shtetl life, and how the small community plays into the role of the Soviet Jewry (and the Jewry in America, too). I hope you will join me then.
I believe this course really matters for me. I hope you will find something within this series that makes sense to, or really matters for you.
The series begins here.
The previous installment of the series is here.