With the whole world watching

"The Swastika’s Darkening Shadow: Voices Before the Holocaust" by Monty Noam Penkower.

The Swastika’s Darkening Shadow: Voices Before the Holocaust By Monty Noam Penkower (photo credit: Palgrave MacMillan)
The Swastika’s Darkening Shadow: Voices Before the Holocaust By Monty Noam Penkower
(photo credit: Palgrave MacMillan)
Discussions about the plight of Jews in Europe during the 1930s naturally tend to focus on the Jews in Nazi Germany.
But as Monty Noam Penkower shows in his important new book, Jews elsewhere on the continent – especially in Poland, Romania and Hungary – were the targets of anti-Semitic attacks that were, until the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, even more lethal than those experienced under Hitler.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism was anchored in a carefully constructed racial ideology and implemented through a comprehensive system of legislation that stripped Jews of their rights and pushed them to the edge of society. The noose of economic strangulation and social ostracism gradually tightened around German Jewry’s neck during the early and mid-1930s. Anti-Semitism elsewhere in Europe, by contrast, erupted more spontaneously, fed by traditional religious hatred of Jews and economic competition in the midst of a worldwide depression.
In Poland, Jewish university students were humiliated daily by being forced to sit in the back of classrooms in an area known as the “ghetto benches.” If there were insufficient seats in the back, the Jewish students were made to stand, even if there were empty seats elsewhere in the room. Students who ignored the regulation were often assaulted, and students who boycotted classes in protest were severely penalized.
The Polish Ministry of Education at first opposed the practice, on the grounds that it violated the treaties Poland had signed after World War I to protect ethnic minorities.
But under pressure from anti-Semitic student organizations, the ministry ruled in 1937 that individual universities had the right to decide their own seating policies.
Discrimination often escalated into violence.
Penkower cites news reports documenting the murder of 118 Jews in Poland and the wounding of 1,350 others, during a single 18-month period from 1935 to 1937. In 1936, there were 21 full-scale pogroms and 348 “anti-Jewish outbreaks” in the Bialystok area alone.
“Ghetto benches” soon appeared in Romania as well, not only in some schools, but even for Jewish reporters covering parliament. Romania’s two largest anti-Semitic political parties formed a coalition government in 1937, which lasted just long enough to strip one-third of the country’s 750,000 Jews of their civil rights.
In Lithuania, extreme rightists came to power in 1934 and savaged the Jewish community through a “Lithuaniazation” program that pushed Jews out of jobs and universities. In Hungary, the pro-Nazi “Arrow Cross” movement gathered steam, boasting a membership between 200,000 and 300,000 by 1939. Meanwhile, Hungary’s parliament imposed strict quotas on Jews in numerous professions and economic enterprises, and created Jewish forced-labor brigades into which tens of thousands of Jewish men were drafted to dig ditches, clear forests and build roads.
Penkower ascribes “the rapid spread of violent Jew-hatred and the rise to power of the radical right in Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia, Danzig, Lithuania, and Latvia” to “the confluence of economic distress, Christian indoctrination, the triumph of chauvinism, xenophobia, anti-Bolshevism, and the great prestige of Nazi Germany.”
The last factor should not be underestimated.
German successes legitimized radical nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Extremists throughout Europe were inspired and emboldened to see Hitler brutalize Jews, remilitarize the Rhineland, absorb Austria, bully Latvia out of the Memel territory and dismember Czechoslovakia, all without any interference from the international community.
The Swastika’s Darkening Shadow emphasizes that the mistreatment of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s took place with the whole world watching.
The violence, boycotts, discrimination and incitement “received extensive coverage in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jewish organizational reports, diplomatic correspondence, and other venues,” Penkower points out. As a result, the plight of Polish and other Eastern European Jews joined that of German Jewry on the foreign policy agenda of American Jewish leaders.
Granted an audience with president Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1938, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the most prominent American Jewish leader of the era, spoke to the president about “the troubled Jewish position in Rumania, with Jugoslavia [sic] threatening to go the same way, and, of course, Germany and Poland.”
Roosevelt responded with an anecdote depicting Polish anti-Semitism as a reaction to unfair Jewish domination of the Polish economy. (FDR also advised Wise to find “some large areas as a second choice for the Jews,” since Palestine “does not have room for many more people – perhaps 100,000 or 150,000.”) The Swastika’s Darkening Shadow, like Penkower’s previous books, combines scrupulous scholarship, important new information and a compelling narrative.
It enriches our understanding of a tragic period, even as it reminds us of opportunities missed, mistakes made and lessons to be learned.  The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC.