Goodbye Eastern Europe

Review of Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land

By Jacob Mikanowski, published by Oneworld, London 2023, pp.380


‘The twentieth century will be the century of the Jews and revolutions’ — so wrote the Hungarian painter, Béla Zombory-Moldaván on hearing about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. No wonder that Stefan Zweig later described the period before as ‘a golden age of security’.

This book by the American writer, Jacob Mikanowski, is indeed, as the title suggests, ‘an intimate history of a divided land’ which traverses two millennia — from the wars of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius in 170 to the founding of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1387 to Hitler’s killing fields during World War II. It is also the story of Mikanowski’s own antecedents, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The early Jewish migrants were welcomed as a means of counterbalancing invaders from the East. It was a land to be filled by Armenian traders, Dutch farmers, Italian musicians — and Jews who referred to it as ‘Canaan’. Even so, the Jews were later caught in the murderous crossfire between a plethora of hostile ethnic groups and violent Christians of different denominations. Jews perished in unimaginable numbers at the hands of Cossack brigands who posed as patriotic Ukrainians during the Khmelnytsky massacres of 1648.

Mikanowski is highly adept at capturing the milieu of each period though diaries and writings — and indeed life in the shtetls of the wunder-rebbes. He also follows the approach of the Israeli academic, Moshe Rosman, who debunked the romantic mythology, created by later generations of hassidim about the Ba’al Shem Tov. Rosman was able to access newly opened archives, following the fall of the USSR in 1991.

Mikanowski’s grandfather lived in Zambrów where half the town’s population were Jewish. The grandfather aligned his Jewish year with the fruit of the annual loom. Rosh Hashanah brought forth ‘Apples of Sodom’ and there were ‘Yom Kippur pears’ by the Day of Atonement. Mikanowski writes that the juice of his grandfather’s blackberries, ‘little Diaspora apples’ were used to write Torah scrolls. It was also a time of ‘black weddings’ when the deprived and the depraved were quickly married off in the belief that it would avert a major disaster.

Jews later found another deity to worship. The author writes that while many Jews went to shul in Berdychiv to hear the leyning from the Torah, others gathered to hear public readings of Marx’s Das Kapital read aloud.

The chapter on the Shoah is the most moving and painful to read — and notably the burial of writings intentionally to be discovered after their authors’ destruction. Mikanowski remarks that it was not simply a question of nameless populations that disappeared, but of remarkable individuals who lived and loved.

Another chapter is devoted to the cesspit of Stalinism — into which many Communist Jews, were thrown as demonstrated by the antisemitic Slánský trial in Prague in 1952. While the blind worship of ‘the little Stalins’ in Eastern Europe after 1945 is well described, the Jewish origin of many of the new rulers such as Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary is not mentioned in this book.

The author quotes Eugene Ionesco’s wonderful term, ‘rhinocerization’, to describe how people are easily sucked into sharing a herd mentality, exemplified by both Nazism and Stalinism — and applicable in our own time.

Today Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary declare themselves to be part of Central Europe, the Baltic States see themselves as part of a Nordic zone while others define themselves in terms of the Adriatic and the Black Sea. This articulate overview conveys an important, broader description of the societies with which millions of Jews once coexisted. This is a well-written and enlightening read.

Jewish Chronicle 30 June 2023

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