February 22, 2020

The lessons of Europe

To walk through the great cities of Europe is to consort with ghosts. Where once the great homes and businesses were in Jewish hands, where within blocks there was a constellation of Jewish genius, now one visits museums commemorating the loss. 

It is too much — too much beauty, too much betrayal. Too much music, too many death marches. Too much faith, too much waste. Too much art and literature and charm, too much cruelty and hatred and pain. Vienna, that glorious city, sparkling and self-assured, had some hundred synagogues before the second world war, and one survives. Fortuitously built beneath an archive, it could not be burned by the Nazis. For the others, you can visit a museum with an imaginative reconstruction of their location and design.

There is something heartening about the Jewish cemetery of Prague, the famous old burial ground where more than 100,000 Jews are interred, going back 600 years, sometimes as much as 12 layers deep. At least there, most of the deaths were “normal” deaths. Of course, there was persecution and hatred for a thousand years in the city, but at least in that sacred ground the dates of death differ. Unlike the burial ground outside the synagogue in Budapest, where one after another, no matter the birthdate, you can be sure the second date on the tombstone, after the year of birth, will be 1944 or 1945.  

I was in Vienna and Budapest with the Joint Distribution Committee, that marvelous organization that continues to look after poor and needy Jews throughout the world and helps foster Jewish life where seeds still sprout. 

First, we visited families in need, whether they lacked basic necessities or medicine or a guiding hand to enable them to live decently. In Budapest, we also visited a Moishe House. That is a sort of post-college dorm where Jewish young professionals live together in a subsidized place and periodically host Jewish events for the community. It was filled with the energy of rediscovery in the small community. In Hungary, it is not unusual for people to learn of their Judaism in their teens or 20s. Their parents, or even grandparents, having suffered so much, simply never told them. 

The charismatic director of the Jewish theater in Hungary, Andras Borgula, who later served four years in the Israel Defense Forces, discovered he was Jewish in his teens when a long-lost relative called from Israel. After repeatedly insisting the man had the wrong number, his grandmother asked who it was on the phone. When Andras told her the name, she turned white: “That’s your grandfather’s brother. We haven’t seen him since the war. By the way, you’re Jewish.” 

Hungary was exceptional because the Jews survived for most of World War II and it was only in the last year of the conflict that the Jews were rounded up and sent to camps. It also is exceptional, even in that brutal time, for the ferocity and glee with which, according to the Nazis’ own testimony, Hungarians cooperated with the German troops. Adolf Eichmann used to say he took Hungary with some 100 SS men. The result was that fewer than a third of Hungary’s Jews survived, mostly because the Nazis ran out of time. Budapest, once nearly 10 percent Jewish, is perhaps 0.5 percent Jewish today.  

For a Jew, nothing in Europe can evoke uncomplicated love. We took a night cruise on the Danube, that fabled waterway so integral to Western civilization. The lights of Budapest sparkled. The next day, we stood on the bank of that same river before the metal shoe memorial, bronzed shoes of children and adults scattered along the pavement rimming the river, recalling the day the Jews of Budapest were lined up along the Danube and shot en masse. 

Prague celebrates Franz Kafka on every corner. The city is immeasurably enriched by the fact that the Kafka family moved a great deal, so there are lots of opportunities for “Kafka slept here” tourist snares. But while promoting the surreal nightmares of his fiction, it is little noted how “fortunate” he was to die young. Kafka’s three sisters died in the camps, a fate he surely would have shared had he lived. 

There is a special poignancy to visiting the cultural capitals of Europe. These are not backwaters where prejudice reigned out of ignorance, or even Germany, where military defeat was turned into imperial fantasies and the Jews were spun into the simultaneously subhuman and superhuman monsters of history. This is where Beethoven composed and Schubert is revered and Mozart premiered his greatest works. This is the cafe, right on the corner in Vienna, where Freud and Mahler and Schoenberg sipped coffee. 

In other words, this is where it was proven, forever and beyond any doubt, that no level of cultural accomplishment inoculates you against the basest hatred and its vicious results. There are a thousand villages and small cities across Eastern and Western Europe that prove the durability and savagery of anti-Semitism. But here is the proof that sophistication is no shield, that intellect is no arbiter of decency. As critic George Steiner noted soon after the war, this is where the idea that art makes us better went to die.

It will not do to draw facile comparisons with the United States. There is anti-Semitism here for sure, and lately there have been disturbing eruptions. But part of the story of Europe is that the Jew was practically the only outsider — there were Hungarians and Jews, Czechs and Jews, Austrians and Jews. The U.S. is a quilt, and in the proliferation of many groups is part of the protection of each. But there is this lesson: Decency, goodness, is not commensurate with anything else. Professors are not more ethical than farmers, and artists are not necessarily any more kind than engineers. Goodness is goodness is goodness. Jews across Europe were saved by diplomats and by nuns, by schoolteachers and by soldiers. Only kindness and daring mattered. 

The small museum in Terezin in the Czech Republic holds the art, music and some of the literature that survived the war, although it is only a fraction of what was created in the camp. Those who survived went on to be leading artists and composers in their native lands, and in Israel and the U.S. A short walk from the museum is a small river where the ashes of 22,000 Jews murdered there were dumped during the war. And you wonder not only at the unfathomable pain and suffering, but the deep self-inflicted wound from which Europe has never recovered. 

Throughout Europe, where so many churches, once seats of prayer, have become concert halls, the lesson is reinforced: Neither piety nor artistry really matter when souls are tested. Then and now, character and courage are everything.

DAVID WOLPE is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).