Spurning Old Truths

The Taste of Ashes by Marci Shore is a history typical of a modern, intellectual “non-Jewish” Jew, which downplays the impact of the Holocaust

Books Communism History
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.  

Like many Jews of her generation, she resents the use of the Holocaust and creation of the State of Israel as moral blackmail against the attractions of assimilation or against questioning old certainties. Schemes such as the March of the Living evidently strike her as manipulative. These are subsidised tours mainly for Jewish teenagers who visit Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day and then proceed to Israel. A Polish Jewish friend of the author who went on the March of the Living felt humiliated that the scheme ignored the small surviving Jewish community in Poland itself. In fact, the scheme has subsequently extended its programme specifically to include the present-day Polish Jewry.  Shore makes considerable efforts to understand those surviving Polish Jews who, after the Second World War, served in the brutal Communist security apparatus, feeling that they are a disturbing part of modern history which conveniently tends to be underplayed in Jewish versions. If Jews are proud that Sigmund Freud was a member of the tribe, they should face up to the fact that so too was Jakub Berman, head of Poland’s postwar Communist security apparatus. A contrasting interpretation is that the importance and prevalence of the Jewish Bolshevik tends to be exaggerated by many in Central Europe. 

Though Shore is untypical in the depth of her knowledge of Central Europe, she expresses concerns which are fairly widespread among younger Jews for whom the Holocaust is less immediate. She needs to be taken seriously and sympathetically. This is particularly because she describes her travels and expresses her feelings so openly and engagingly. 

In order fully to understand the author’s position, readers should also look at her journalism. For instance, it was in Sh’ma in 2011, after the birth of her first child, that she expressed most forcefully her dissatisfaction with Jewish communal life. (“Growing up, I’d always felt an aversion toward the suburban Jewish community my parents belonged to; the community felt bourgeois less in Marx’s sense than in Rousseau’s: the bourgeoisie as superficiality, snobbery, pretentiousness.”) Her article in the New York Times on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising attracted considerable ire for its criticism of the Israeli establishment which, she argues, had written the      anti-Zionist, Bundist resistance leader Marek Edelman out of the historical script. Her comments were partly justified but were exaggerated. Whereas Edelman received an honorary doctorate in 1989 from Yale, no similar honour was forthcoming from any Israeli university. Edelman became a champion of Palestinian rights though he opposed anti-Israeli terrorism. Nevertheless, though denied within Israel the honour they greatly merited, Edelman and other Bundist members of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising have been by no means “forgotten” there, as Shore suggests. The websites of Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighters’ House contradict her contention. 

Shore has become a member of a powerful group of public intellectuals associated with a set of interlocking, mainly European institutions. The book needs to be seen in this context. She and her husband Timothy Snyder (another Yale history professor and author of the bestselling Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) move in the circle of the New York Review of Books and bodies associated with George Soros such as the Vienna-based and Austrian government-funded Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Shore has held appointments there, her husband is a permanent fellow and their first child was born in Vienna. Snyder took his doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and later co-authored a work with the dying anti-Zionist writer Tony Judt. Former Polish Communists who rebelled in 1968 against the Party — disciples of Leszek Kolakowski such as Aleksander Smolar — are active members of the group (Garton Ash, Smolar and Soros are all board members of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen as well as members of the Council of the pro-EU and Soros-funded European Council on Foreign Relations.)  

Two of the core doctrines of the circle are anti-Communism and belief in a federal Europe as the basis of a liberal and open society. Anti-Zionism is a further feature of some of their writings and activities. Grounded mainly in the left-wing revolt against Communism, the network’s public intellectuals tend to pay less attention to the Nazi era. When the Holocaust is covered at all, there is a tendency implicitly to balance the evils of Hitler with those of Stalin. It may be no coincidence that Shore’s book is subtitled The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. As the Oxford scholar Zbygniew Pelczynski (my revered undergraduate tutor) has long argued, “totalitarianism” is an unhelpful term. It ignores the gradual, albeit partial changes within the Soviet satellites after Stalin’s death in 1953. It also implies a morally and historically bogus Hitler/Stalin equivalence. As the Vilnius-based US academic Dovid Katz argues on his website, recent European Union initiatives have given official patronage to the idea of a Nazi-Communist parallel. Together with prevailing anti-Zionism (and, arguably, underlying anti-Semitic tendencies) so fashionable in Europe, these developments have consequences for the study and understanding of the Holocaust and of recent European history which are a cause for considerable concern.