Editor’s note: This is a part of a series of excerpts from GlobalPost correspondent Michael Goldfarb’s book “Emancipation: How liberating Europe’s Jews from the ghetto led to revolution and renaissance.”
The Holocaust is a black barrier that shuts us off from the past. Not just Jews, but everyone connected to what is called “The West.” It makes it nearly impossible to interpret and analyze history because it overshadows so much of what went before. If all the civilizing progress of centuries could still lead to a world where millions of people were exterminated, what was the meaning of the Enlightenment? For Jews it is particularly difficult for obvious reasons. What was so great about coming out of the ghetto after the French Revolution if after 150 years it meant a one-way ticket to Auschwitz or Treblinka? I wrote “Emancipation” to both honor the dead and recover their history. That 150 years is a pretty glorious story and it is beginning to find echoes all over the world today in different immigrant groups — because emancipation is an immmigrant story.
Once the ghettos were opened and restrictions on where they could live were ended, Europe’s Jews became immigrants in their own countries. They may have traveled no farther than the other side of the village or 20 miles up the road to a larger town, but their own psychological journeys were every bit as foreign and intense as the journeys made by their brothers and sisters who went down into the bowels of ships in Hamburg and Rotterdam and emerged on the other side of the Atlantic in New York.
Their lives mirrored the lives familiar to Americans: the struggle of the first generation out of the ghetto to put together a little money to start a small business, the drive to educate the second generation so they could qualify for the professions and not have to work as hard as their parents. It was already an old joke in Germany by the middle of the 1830s that “Doctor” was a Jewish first name. When it came to learning, gender was no barrier. By the 1860s an astonishing 40 percent of Jewish women were graduates of high school. The push for education was not just in book learning but in social learning as well. They had to acquire the skills to fit in. Like Lot, Europe’s emancipated Jews were always looking forward, afraid to look back from where they came.
They were helped because the tide of history for once was running in their favor. In the middle of the 19th century, as Europe industrialized and the cities and towns grew, the skills for success in these harsh, bricked-in environments belonged to those who had for centuries been forbidden to work the land, kept confined behind walls and forced into small trade.
Years later Eduard Silbermann remembered, “Clothmakers became dry goods merchants, tailors became clothing manufacturers, shoe makers became dealers in footwear.” Silbermann lived the story. In the early 1860s, when Jews were finally given the right to live anywhere they wanted to in Bavaria, Silbermann’s father moved his small dry goods business 20 miles from a tiny village to a large town called Bamberg. The father’s business did well and he was able to support Eduard’s education. He was a brilliant student, went to college, studied law. At 28 he was named a state prosecuting attorney, the first Jew in Germany to achieve that status.
Silbermann is only one example. Others his age growing up in the same time and in the same way include Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Gustav Mahler. Geniuses, of course, but think of them first as immigrant kids pushed to excel. Think of them as immigrant kids who see more clearly than their parents that there is a high price for assimilation. You have to give up a lot of your heritage and you will still never be part of the majority. The hurt spurs them on with greater force to achieve something, to make a place in society where they can be accepted and be safe.
The post-ghetto Jews were the first minority in modern history to go through this. They were not the last. While the Nazis were murdering Europe’s Jews, those who had left the Pale of Settlement (the areas in Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to live) behind and managed to get to America were living out the same process. An example: a young Orthodox Jewish woman from Lemberg — today Lvov, Ukraine — arrives in New York in 1908. She drops out of school at the age of 14 to work in a sweatshop. Her son becomes a doctor. His son becomes a writer. Along the way, religious observance diminishes, the identity of Jew does not. That happens to be my family’s story but in broad outlines it is like millions of others.
I am writing this last adapted extract of “Emancipation” in San Francisco. In the streets around me I see the same story being played out. On the bus and in Starbucks, children of immigrants from all over Asia and Latin America, born in the U.S., are studying with astonishing concentration, shutting out the hustle of the city. An immigrant middle class that didn’t exist when I lived out here exactly 40 autumns ago doesn’t stay self-ghettoized in their own communities as they did then. They mingle in the public spaces, shop in elegant stores. Each group’s story has its own specific quality but it has much in common with what went on in Western Europe’s Jewish community from 1789 until the Nazis put an end to that life. In Europe, where I live, the same story is playing out. And on both sides of the Atlantic these immigrants face the same struggles faced by Jews coming out of the ghetto. Always the same push for acceptance, the resistance from the majority, the surrender of centuries of tradition in the name of assimilation, the question between generations — “Is it worth it?” — and the resulting identity question — “Who am I?”
There is no simple answer to that question. But recovering the story of emancipation from the dark shadow of the Holocaust can at least point the way.