Howard M. Sachar’s Diaspora: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Jewish World is a book long overdue: a popular exposition of the status of Jews living in countries other than Israel. The United States and Israel are excepted because their Jewish communities are too diverse and complex for omnibus review. In his work, Sachar covers Jewish communities as geographically separate and culturally diverse as those of India and Brazil, South Africa and Central Asia. His historical method is impressionistic: He visits, interviews some Jewish leaders, writes down their views. His central concern is the health of world Jewry; his constant preoccupation is its assessment. His most important theme is the intimate postwar and post-Holocaust connection between two events almost contiguous: the attempted revival of European Jewry after the end of World War II in 1945 and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. In fact, in the reciprocal relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, Sachar finds a subject well worth exploring. He explores this theme, not in isolation, but in connection with his role as a chronicler of the Jewish dispersion.
In this chronicle, there are contrasts of considerable interest. For example, there is the contrast between West Germany and Austria. After World War II, no country was more conscience-stricken than West Germany. With unblinking courage and straightforward generosity of spirit, it acknowledged its complicity in the criminal assault on the Jewish people. It saw making amends as the only avenue to full national acceptance in the world community. In every way Jews were compensated for the disruption of their lives, the alienation of their businesses: Fair financial payment was made, generous pensions awarded, belated promotions bestowed on those whose careers were interrupted. In neighboring Austria, on the other hand, a virulent anti-Semitism continued unabated.
Virulent and continuing anti-Semitism was by no means confined to Austria. In 1945, in Poland, out of a prewar population of more than three million, a scant remnant of eighty-five thousand Jews survived. Yet the survivors saw only a continuation of wartime persecution: In that year, 350 Jews were murdered, 41 in the town of Kielce alone. Shortly after this, 33 other Jews en route by train to Germany were pulled from their trains and beaten to death. Other examples of continuing national anti-Semitism abound. Romanian Jewry has all but been eliminated, and in Hungary, the author, having just left the synagogue, the traditional Jewish skullcap still inadvertently on his head, was gently reminded by his rabbi companion: “It might be advisable for you to take off the yarmulke.”
Still, continuing anti-Semitic persecution is by no means the fate of all European Jewry outside West Germany. In fact, in Denmark, on the day the Jews liberated from the concentration camp, Theresienstadt, returned, they received a joyous and demonstrative welcome from their fellow Danes. When a typical family, the Melchiors, unlocked the door of their Copenhagen apartment, they found that it had been freshly cleaned and painted. Moreover, two weeks earlier, the Danish government had warned that Jewish property must be returned without delay. There was no delay.
Mere freedom from anti-Semitism, however, has not been a sufficient cause of spiritual growth on the part of world Jewry. In Australia, Mexico, and Brazil, for example, it has led, at least in the opinion of Sachar, to wealthy, self-satisfied communities that have insulated themselves from genuine intellectual achievement and real fellow-feeling. In Australia, as contrasted with the United States, Jews have had little, if any, impact...
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