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The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, 1943: The Holocaust is less immediate to Jews of Shore’s generation

The latest book by Yale cultural historian Professor Marci Shore will fascinate some, disturb and sadden others. At times confusing and episodic, it is nonetheless gripping. The author personifies a new generation of Jewish intellectuals who reject the truths and the loyalties of their mothers and fathers. In the process of her search for meaning, she raises important issues about Central and Eastern European politics and contested interpretations of its tragic 20th-century history. 

The book is a contemporary version of the story of the daughters of Tevye the Milkman, the wry hero of Fiddler on the Roof. The Yiddish writer Scholom Aleichem portrayed girls stifled by "Tradition, Tradition" in the late 19th-century stetl. (Shore is the author of a previous article titled "Tevye's Daughters: Jews and European Modernity".) The heroine of The Taste of Ashes — Shore herself — is the daughter of a Jewish doctor in rebellion against the Conservative synagogue in the small American city of Allentown, 50 miles from Philadelphia and 90 miles from New York City. She characterises herself as a "person prone by nature to feel alienated". Aged ten, she already questions the simplistic Zionist doctrines taught at Temple Beth El's Hebrew classes. It is the 1980s. She is in revolt against Ronald Reagan too. Her homegrown Jewish models are radical poets such as Allen Ginsberg. 

The breach of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union give her the opportunity to travel to Central Europe — especially to Czechoslovakia, to the Central European University established in Budapest by the financier George Soros, and to Poland. From her time as undergraduate student to post-doctoral researcher and then professor at Stanford, Toronto, Columbia, Indiana and Yale, she is drawn back constantly to the former Soviet satellites. What intrigues her and makes her feel more alive than in her home environment is the opportunity to meet a range of persons affected by their years under Communism. She is particularly keen to meet elderly Jewish intellectuals — "non-Jewish Jews" in her favoured mould. She immerses herself in their former world. In order to read their publications and archival correspondence, she masters an impressive series of Central European languages. In the early- and mid-20th century, Poland's leading Jewish intellectuals and poets had been left-wing rebels. She seems envious that they had been fated to live in far more tragic circumstances and at a much more dangerous time than her own. By studying and thus experiencing their lives, by mixing with their surviving children and grandchildren in Poland, she can add drama to her existence.   

Now in her early forties, secure in her academic career and accepting with stated satisfaction a role as perpetual outsider, Shore has published a collage of nearly 200 fragments adapted from her notes of encounters during two decades in post-Communist countries. The literary device of the book has been deployed with success in the past, for instance in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. The publisher's blurb states that Shore's work is in the tradition of Timothy Garton Ash's The File. The formula: political turmoil in little-known countries is portrayed through the eyes of a Western observer, a young person whose personal life and development is revealed to the reader. Friends, train journeys, jazz, suicide, politics, history, religion — all are in The Taste of Ashes; but the author is driven primarily by the age-old question of Jewish identity.  

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Denis MacShane
June 5th, 2013
11:06 AM
A fascinating discussion but I don't think Michael P-D is right to say that it is left liberal who are trying to make an equivalence between Hitler and Stalin or to downplay the Holocaust. It is true that there are modish New York based intellectuals who are anti-Israel but in my experience both as a former Council of Europe delegate and a politician who spent decades patrolling European ideological outposts, it has been the right and many mainstream conservatives who have pushed and keep pushing for the so-called 'double genocide' thesis, for the moral equivalence of Hitler and Stalin and for tolerance for those on the nationalist right in East Europe and the Baltic states to commemorate the Waffen SS and gloss over what happened to Jews after July 1941. In the immortal words of Michael Kaminksi, a Polish right-wing MEP who chaired the breakaway Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament when it was set up by David Cameron:'I will apologise to the Jews for what happened to them in Poland when the apologise for what they did to Poles." Frankly I don't think anything written in the NYRB influences anything any more but the rise and rise of antisemitism and hate of Israel, fuelled mainly by Islamist ideologues and their lapdogs on the left, but also by the reassertion of nationalist identity politics, is now quite serious. And if Michael P-D thinks Tim Garton Ash is a European federalist we are not using the same lexicon. TGA like others he mentions are pro-European which is an almost extinct species in England but having read and listened to Tim over many years, a Euro-federalist he isn't.

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