Rebecca Kobrin, Nils Roemer: Reviews — Bialystock, Worms Cities of Jewish Success, Crushed

Cities of Jewish Success, Crushed

Source: The Forward, 5-25-11 — Published May 25, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.


Unemployed Workers: Alter Kacyzne,
the Forward’s renowned photographer,
captioned this image from Bialystok
circa 1920, ‘Standing on the corner, looking
for a little work.’

Forward association / Yivo
Unemployed Workers: Alter Kacyzne, the Forward’s renowned photographer, captioned this image from Bialystok circa 1920, ‘Standing on the corner, looking for a little work.’

By Rebecca Kobrin
Indiana University Press, 380 pages, $24.95
By Nils Roemer
Brandeis University Press, 328 pages, $35

A vast, heartbreaking and, to English readers, inaccessible Yiddish and Hebrew library — of some 1,000 volumes, studded with unique memoirs and rare photographs — known as yizker-bikher, or memorial books, is devoted to eternalizing the legacies of the myriad cities and towns of Jewish Eastern Europe destroyed by the Holocaust. These books were collaboratively produced, mostly in the late 1950s through the early ’70s, by the survivors of those Jewish communities. But with the exception of a half-dozen or so, they are not the product of critical historical scholarship, and only three have been fully translated into English.

Thankfully, new scholarly English books that focus on particular European Jewish communities have recently been appearing at a steady pace. Still, not entirely unlike the memorial books, the varied approaches taken by today’s historians have produced uneven results, as exemplified by two new studies — of the cities of Bialystok, Poland, and Worms, Germany.

“The Jews of Bialystok and Its Diaspora” by Rebecca Kobrin is the more problematic of the two, as it fails to provide anything approaching an adequate history of one of the most remarkable Jewish communities to emerge in the modern era in Eastern Europe. A cursory — largely demographic and economic — overview, documenting the rapid expansion and productivity of Bialystok Jewry, provides little more than bare-bones statistical information.

To be sure, these raw statistics are most impressive, testifying to a Jewish population that burgeoned to almost 50,000 by 1900 from 4,000 in 1808, at which point Bialystok was more than three-quarters Jewish. The astonishing economic successes of these newly arrived Jews are evidenced by their rapid domination of Bialystok’s main industry: textile manufacturing. By 1898, more than 80% of the city’s weaving mills were owned by Jewish industrialists. As for the inner, religious and intellectual life of this Jewish boomtown, however, Kobrin imparts no information, beyond simplistically dividing Jews into two political camps: Zionists and socialists.

Kobrin situates her study within the emerging discipline of Diaspora studies, and after this short introduction about Jews in Bialystok proper, she focuses almost entirely on the ways in which those who had left Bialystok labored to preserve the memory and legacy of their beloved hometown, even to establish a “Bialystok empire” in the New World. In doing so, Kobrin repeatedly contrasts their “real” homeland — Bialystok, where, despite their majority and prosperity, or perhaps on account of them, Jews were victims of particularly brutal violence during the wave of 1905 pogroms that spread across Russia — with their “imagined” religious one. This deep identification with the Land of Israel is something that Kobrin discounts too readily and too completely. One of the reasons for this, as I note below, is her disregard for the enduring religious elements of modern Eastern European Jewish societies….

Worms’s long and exceedingly complex historical legacy is deftly recovered and expertly analyzed by Niels Roemer in his erudite new book, “German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms.” The oldest of the three great medieval communities (Speier, Worms and Mainz are fondly referred to by the acronym “SHU’M” — literally meaning “garlic”) is the repository of the richest history, literature and geographical artifacts. After wonderfully summarizing the medieval days of devotion to Torah, pietism and unprecedented acts of martyrdom during the First Crusade of 1096, Roemer turns his attention to the long and shifting history of how the community of Worms became a central, if largely symbolic, element in German-Jewish collective memory.

Roemer’s book is the most original work I have yet to read on German-Jewish intellectual history. It is especially enlightening in exploring how the memory of Worms and its physical remnants waned and then were revived. Holy relics, such as the ancient cemetery, the synagogue, the legendary chair of Rashi (who studied in Worms) and the tombs of her many scholars, such as Eleazar ben Judah — a founder of the medieval pietistic movement known as Hasidut Ashkenaz — regained currency first with the advent of printing, which produced popular accounts of Worms’s heroic martyrs, then with the advent of Reform Judaism and finally by the modern era of tourism, during which Worms became a major pilgrimage site for both Christians and Jews.

A wonderfully sensitive thinker and gracious writer, Roemer has produced an utterly original study in the uses, and misuses, less of history than of memory; for beyond his thorough assessment of earlier historians’ treatments of Jewish Worms, he examines a wide array of less conventional sources….READ MORE

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