Forty years after the Holocaust left a once thriving center of Jewish life depleted and in shambles, remnants of the European Jewish community are still fighting to keep their numbers from dwindling. But in the case of Europe, quality rather than quantity may present the best hope for the survival of Jewish religion and culture.
That Jewish communities in Europe are enjoying a new vitality even as their members are lost to emigration and assimilation, was the recurrent theme of European Jewish leaders who addressed the Council of Jewish Federations at its 54th General Assembly last week.
The Jewish population of Europe “is a community in decline, ” David Lewis, treasurer of the European Council of Jewish Community Services, observed in his address at a forum on European Jewry four decades after the Holocaust.
Lewis and others said that some 1.5 million Jews were left in Western Europe after World War II and that the number has continued to dwindle despite massive efforts to rebuild the Jewish communities.
Aside from the estimated 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union, which, because of their near complete isolation and repression by the government, are generally treated in a category of its own, European Jews today are believed to number between 1.3 million to 1.4 million, the overwhelming majority of whom — about 1 million — live in England and France. Excluding London and Paris, only 12 European cities have Jewish populations of more than 5,000.
THE MOST INSURMOUNTABLE PROBLEM
The most insurmountable problem of the remaining Jewish communities in Europe, according to the speakers, is precisely their declining numbers. One of the root causes can be seen as silver lined with a cloud: immigration to Israel. Although it is a source of pride, it has taken a great many of the young people, causing not only a reduction in the Jewish population but also a depletion of European Jewry’s most promising resources, the speakers pointed out. There are also many Jews who have left for France and the United States.
As a result, these communities are heavily weighted toward old people, Lewis said. The priority has gone from one of rebuilding to a struggle “not to disappear.”
The other nemesis, presenting an unremitting challenge to the survival of European Jewish life, is assimilation and intermarriage, according to speakers at the forum. In England, the outmarriage rate is between 25 and 40 percent, according to Jeffrey Greenwood, chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board, the largest Jewish social welfare agency in Europe. In France, one out of three marriages are mixed, according to Jean Levy, vice president of the Fonds Social Juif Unifie.
Confronted with the reality of its declining size, the Jewish communities have gone from the first phase of the post-Holocaust generation — that of breathing life back into the traumatized vestiges — to one of enriching the quality of Jewish life that remains.
“Today, as we pass this benchmark of forty years, we realize that our efforts are no longer tied to the past, but we are geared to the future in Western Europe, and the Holocaust — still a vivid and painful memory — is no longer a point of reference for our work,” said Heinz Eppler, president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Some of the smaller — and continually declining — Jewish populations of Europe will inevitably disappear, Lewis said later to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, he assessed, there would soon be no Jews at all, and within 20 years, assimilation and intermarriage would bring the same fate to small Western European communities such as that of Zurich.
A NEW VITALITY
But all is not gloomy, said Lewis and his colleagues at the forum. They spoke of a “new vitality” in what remains of Jewish life in Europe.
“This revitalization has gathered pace and accelerated over the last five years, ” Greenwood said of the community in England. He attributed the revival to Israeli investment in education, particularly through the dispatch of shlichim — Israeli representatives sent to convey the Zionist message to youth and adults. It is also, according to Greenwood, the result of recognition on the part of many in the post-Holocaust generation that “survival counts.” Beyond all this, he observed, there has been a “return to matters spiritual” by Jewish youth.
Greenwood said that members of the British Jewish community are looking into the possibility of introducing some form of Federation similar to the Jewish Federations across North America.
PRIDE IN DIVERSITY
The Jews of France, although fast losing numbers to emigration, are devoting a considerable part of their funds and energies to newcomers, according to Levy. He said that the community, which prides itself on its diversity — it has become about half Sephardic as a result of immigration from North Africa — is expecting and has already begun to experience, a massive inflow of the remaining Jewish population of Tunisia.
The Tunisian Jews, who number some 5,000 today, are growing increasingly concerned about their futures, as they anticipate the death of their aging President, Habib Bourguiba, Levy said. He said that some 40 percent of his organization’s budget was currently being allocated to the absorption of Tunisian Jews.
A VITAL LINK
One organization that has worked to sustain what is left of European Jewry is the European Council of Jewish Community Services. Established in 1960, with the help of the JDC, it now has some 19 official member countries, including Eastern Europeans such as Hungary and Rumania. Representatives from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and other East European countries participate in the Council as observers.
The organization, which establishes educational, social welfare and leadership training programs across the continent, provides, according to Lewis, a vital link between the miniscule Jewish populations of Budapest, Salonika and other Eastern European cities, and Jewish life in Europe as a whole. Lewis urged American Jews to visit these isolated communities, to help revitalize what remains of Jewish life and to demonstrate that they haven’t been forgotten.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.