Editorial and Foreword
Impulses for the Present
(Special Issue, pp. 5)
Anyone who talks about Jewish life and the Jewish heritage cannot ignore Eastern Europe. The East European Jews are a paragon of frontier crossings, transnational-ism, and the transfer of religion, tradition, language, and culture. From the 18th cen-tury onwards, most of the world’s Jewish population lived in Eastern Europe. Be-tween 1870 and the First World War, some 3.5 million Jewish emigrants left their homelands, predominantly the Russian Empire and Habsburg-ruled Galicia. This emigration was the starting point for the founding of new Jewish communities in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, and Palestine. The majority of American Jews are descended from East European Jewry. In Israel, this is the case for more than half of the Jewish population. Some 80 per cent of Jews living in the world today have roots in Eastern Europe.
Despite this mass emigration, Eastern Europe remained the centre of Jewish life. Be-fore the Second World War, Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. The lives of 3.5 million Jewish Poles were closely intertwined with those of their non-Jewish neighbours in the areas of economics, society, and culture. In the Soviet census of 1939, over 3 million people classified themselves as being of “Jewish nationality”. Lithuania was at the time a lively centre of religious and secular Jewish culture. This rich Jewish culture in Eastern Europe was almost completely wiped out in the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis and their accomplices. To this day, the Hol-ocaust continues to shape our view of Jewish history. In Germany, East European Jews were for decades seen only as “dead Jews”. François Guesnet has formulated this perspective in the strongest of terms. He argues that this way of looking at history implicitly amounts to a continuation of the totalitarian perspective of the German master race. All that is perceived, he writes, is the genocide, and this ignores the indi-vidual lives, hopes, and aspirations that were extinguished.
It is precisely this deficit that the volume at hand seeks to correct by drawing atten-tion to the Jewish heritage in Europe’s present. The history of the East European Jews is not the history of an exotic, isolated minority. Jews and non-Jews influenced one another’s lives. East European Jewish history is inextricably intertwined with the his-tory of Europe, but it is not a closed chapter of that history. The thoughts and actions of East European Jews continue to affect the world around us. They provide impulses for music, art, philosophy, political thought, and international law. This thought is sometimes extremely relevant to contemporary issues. For example, Simon Dubnov’s reflections on diaspora nationalism from the early 20th century have insights to offer multicultural societies today.
This volume deals with more than heritage. It challenges widespread topoi and clichés about East European Jews. It asks what place the Jews have in national memory cultures. Despite resistance, there is a growing willingness to integrate Jewish life and the impact it had into national memory cultures in Eastern Europe as well. And final-ly, the country studies to be found here address the Jews still living in Eastern Europe and the signs of re-emerging Jewish life.
Manfred Sapper, Volker Weichsel, Anna Lipphardt