Fifty Years After the Horror (part 1 of 2): European Jews Shed the Past to Bring Forth a Brighter Fu

For the battered remnant of European Jewry that survived the Holocaust, the post-World War II future was neither easy nor assured.

Of Europe’s prewar Jewish population of 9 million — half of world Jewry at the time — 6 million were annihilated.

Most of the survivors had lost family, friends, homes, possessions, jobs and health.

In parts of Europe, the synagogues, cemeteries, yeshivas, books, Torah scrolls and ritual objects that had formed the physical nexus of centuries-old European Jewish culture had been destroyed or desecrated.

“There is no life on the face of this desert,” wrote Jewish author Jacob Pat after visiting Warsaw, once home to more than 300,000 Jews, right after the end of the war.

“I see no man, no bird, no car or dog on this vast stretch of land. Only the spirit of God blows freely over the graveyard of the Jewish people.”

Today, half a century after the Holocaust and five years after the collapse of communism broke down the barriers that divided East and West for more than four decades, Jewish communities flourish in almost all European countries.

About 4 million Jews live in Europe, less than half the prewar European Jewish population.

The end of communism and the institution of religious freedom has prompted a renaissance of Jewish life in communities large and small throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

Amid the uncertainty that followed the war’s destruction, such a renaissance was unthinkable.

Anti-Semitism still ran deep in a number of countries devastated by the war. From France to Poland, from the Netherlands to the Soviet Union, local citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis abounded.

Western nations, including the United States and Canada, at least initially, had restrictive immigration policies.

Hundreds of thousands of European Jewish survivors eventually immigrated to the new State Of Israel, as well as to the United States and other countries outside Europe.

But hundreds of thousands chose or were forced to remain in Europe.

For them, the following decades involved years of rebuilding.

And for the Jews who lived in the half of Europe that soon fell under the control of oppressive, often anti-Semitic, communist regimes, simply surviving as Jews was considered a triumph.

Today, France has Central Europe’s largest Jewish community, with an estimated 550,000 to 600,000 Jews, more than three times the number at the end of World War II.

France’s large Jewish population is the result of the tens of thousands of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe who immigrated to France after the war, and to the more than 200,000 Jews who moved to France from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.

This influx changed the character of the community so much that by 1970, more than half of French Jews were Sephardim.

Russia alone has some 400,000 Jews, depleted in recent years by mass immigration to Israel. But Jewish life is burgeoning in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

There are organized Jewish communities in almost every European country, and Jewish life runs the gamut from Chasidic and Orthodox to Liberal and secular.

The rebirth of Jewish life is evident by the many Jewish schools, clubs and radio stations as well as the publication of scores of Jewish newspapers and periodicals.

Jews take an active part in mainstream public life as well. For example, Britain’s Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind is Jewish; Rabbi Tamas Raj was elected to the Hungarian Parliament; and Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Rita Levi- Montalcini are two of Italy’s most honored women.

In his book, “A Chosen People: The Resurrection Of European Jewry,” Mark Kurlansky describes Jewish rebirth in Europe as “the story of brave and tenacious people who have rebuilt their lives in the face of incomprehensible horror and refused to be pushed out of their homes by bigots.”

Today, he wrote, “it can be said with some confidence that European Jewry will continue, that the remaining Jews of Europe will not all move to the United States or Israel, as had often been suggested.”

Indeed, most European Jews feel that they are a part of Europe and feel increasingly that their future is linked to the future to Europe.

Still, after surviving Nazism and communism, Jews now face other dangers: Jews and Jewish institutions have been targets of Arab terrorist attacks in France, Italy, Belgium, England and elsewhere.

In Rome and many other European cities, heavy police security still stands guard at the main synagogues and other Jewish sites.

But aside from lingering anti-Semitism, many of the problems and challengers facing European Jews are problems and challenges that face all Europeans: the rise of nationalism and right-wing extremism; the integration of East and West Europe in the post-Cold War era; the development of a new, more open Europe; and social problems involving the elderly, the poor and the homeless.

Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and vice president of Rome’s Jewish community, said the collapse of communism and end of the Cold War was important in fostering a stronger European identity among Jews.

“Jews felt the same fate as [other] Europeans,” he said. “The energies are freed. They are waking up from a big slumber, asking what is our meaning here.

“In a way, this movement toward greater European integration signals a new development of European Jewry, a new European vision that didn’t exist for 50 years.”

European Jews “start to think in common terms,” he said. “We are moving beyond the shock of the fact that the only think that made Jews European is Auschwitz.”

At the same time they are thinking more like other Europeans, Jews across the continent are continuing to build their Jewish lives.

During the past few years, Jewish organizations have arranged conferences and seminars and initiated programs aimed at liking individual European Jewish communities to help them confront their common needs and problems.

Among these, for example, is a Europeanwide union of Jewish students, and association of Jewish communities on a regional basis sponsored by the European Council of Jewish Communities.

One such association, founded in 1993, brings together leaders of Jewish communities from Mediterranean countries — from France and Italy to Greece and Morocco — to discuss common issues and promote events ranging such as international Jewish singles get-togethers and workshops for lay leaders, teachers and youth leaders.

Another similar association groups Jewish communities from seven cities in Central European countries. A major pan-European conference, “Planning for the Future Of European Jewry,” will be held in early July in Prague.

The conference will focus on such issues as racism and anti-Semitism, religious and cultural identity and relations with other minority communities.

“Nothing that happens in Jewish communities in Europe can be separated from what is happening in Europe as a whole,” Anthony Lerman, executive director of the London-based Institute Of Jewish Affairs, said in a telephone interview.

The institute is sponsoring the conference along with the American Jewish Committee, the European Council Of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It will be held under the auspices of the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

Lerman said that looking toward the future must go beyond concerns of Jewish continuity and related questions of intermarriage, issues that plague European Jewry as much as they do American Jews. These may be important, he said, but “you have to look more broadly than just Jewish continuity, to develop ideas for strategies for development.”

One increasingly important challenge as European Jews plot their own future in Europe, he said, involves changing relations between European Jewry and Israel.

“It is quite a natural development,” Lerman said. “Israel is developing as a state with its own interests that don’t always fit with the European Jewish community’s.”

It is not a question of weaker ties with Israel, Lerman said, “but reconsidered ties.”

“European Jewish communities need greater concentration on European problems,” Lerman said.

Pavoncello of Rome’s Jewish community agreed. “In a way, Israel is becoming an old message,” he said. “For the young generations of Jews, you can’t keep talking about Israel. Their problems are the problems of Europeans, not Israelis. If you don’t give them answers, they will leave the Jewish community.”

“Everyone feels the need to know what Jewish contribution to Europe can be. We’re Jews,” he said. “We have a place in Israel but what about Jews as part of the European nation?”

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