On The Eve by Bernard Wasserstein

Wasserstein is a distinguished professor of modern history (at Oxford until 2000, but now at Chicago) and his latest book is a model of scholarship. I read in an online review that his style is ‘long-winded and dry’, which is actually something I value, because if you are going to write about the terrible history of the 20th century, it’s important not to get choked by emotion.

His subject is ‘the sorrows and glories of the last phase of the European Jews’ 2,000-year history’. About two-thirds would die in the Holocaust. They were an almost wholly urban people, better educated than their neighbours, scattered through many lands and by no means all alike. Some were orthodox, some secular; a minority Zionists, another minority Christian converts.

Many were brilliant people who made huge contributions, including Einstein, Schoenberg and Chagall, who survived, and Babel, who did not. In Germany, they considered themselves loyal Germans; they also did quite well in the Soviet Union before Stalin turned against them in the late 1930s.

As the skies darkened a great many tried to get out, but most countries refused to receive them. One story haunts me: of a woman who was chased with dogs into ‘the Polish-German no-man’s-land’. “She had set out with two children, one that she carried and another who fell behind. She was not allowed to go back for it (sic), and the little thing perished in the swamp.”

This was in 1939, before the war started. The nameless child, sex unknown, could stand for all the victims of nationalism and prejudice in our own time, because we are still suspicious of the stranger.