Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture

Samuel D. Kassow


Gathering the sources was a modern way of closing ranks, of reaffirming the essential unity of Jewish experience as one vale of tears through space and time. The harder the times, the more desperately intellectuals clung to a notion of historical continuity. The 1920s were a period of bitter disillusionment for many eastern European Jews. In an emotional essay, Simon Bernfeld explained the pathos of his present hour.1 Writing as a veteran of past struggles for emancipation, he declared that past struggles had failed to curb the hatred of the Jews. No sooner did they enter the life of nations than bloodshed began. Through all the centuries of persecution Jews had stifled their anger in the constant hope of peaceful coexistence, whether civil rights had been offered them or not. Now this self-imposed censorship had to be lifted, he argued, if they were to withstand the newest onslaught of history, the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. And so Bernfeld assembled The Book of Tears, a vast chronological survey of Jewish responses to suffering that was calculated to revive the flagging spirits of a people who had broken faith with God and with grand political solutions.

Bernfeld’s was by no means a majority view in the 1920s and 1930s. Zionists, for instance, read the failure of emancipation as a mandate for political sovereignty. Lord Balfour had offered the first real endorsement. When the Arab riots of 1936 seemed to threaten the very basis of this dream, the young Zionist historian Israel Halpern began work on a counteranthology, The Book of Valor, to chronicle not the suffering but the resistance to persecution.2 The first volume, From Masada to the Beginnings of Emancipation, appeared at the lowest ebb of Jewish history, in 1941. By the time volumes two and three were off the press, the battle for independence had been fought and won, vindicating Halpern’s agenda. The collection was then forgotten, until another period of despair set in. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, a group of Israeli academicians prevailed upon the publisher to put out a new edition. Now I, too, can own a set.

The pieces do fit together to form a continuum of Jewish response to catastrophe. The books on my shelf aren’t distorting the truth. The only caveat is this: whereas Jews have always seen that history has patterns, the codes were transhistorical, governed by God. The moderns elevated the patterns to the status of a tradition so that they might claim either that Thou shalt reconsecrate it (Bernfeld) or that Thou shalt recreate it (Halpern). The various anthologies, popular histories, translations, and studies were themselves the responses of Jewish intellectuals to the upheavals of their day, an attempt to make Torah out of history.

Although the response of Jewish intellectuals to historical traumas, be it scholarly or imaginative, is eminently worthy of study, to stop there would be to miss the dramatic interplay of history and culture, of memory and behavior, of the elite and the masses. During the past 150 years, as we shall see, history has conspired with literature to repeat the patterns of persecution—or so, at least, it appeared to the Jews of eastern Europe schooled in the exercises of collective memory. This sense of déjà vu has cut across all strata and all age groups, so that everyone—a Jewish mother protesting her son’s abduction in the synagogue of Minsk in the 1840s, a Russified officer fighting in World War I, a fourteen-year-old member of the Young Pioneers in the Vilna ghetto—could recognize the unprecedented horrors as something already experienced. The greater the catastrophe, the more the Jews have recalled the ancient archetypes.

The Holocaust was the most demonic of conspiracies between literature and life. Designed as such by the Nazis (one of Hitler’s professors had studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), it was perceived by the Jews as a return to the hoary past. This, of course, raises a host of painful questions as to the role that the memory of past destruction played and continues to play in the politics of Jewish survival. Would the Nazis have succeeded in deluding Jews into repeating past responses had it not been for a tradition that constantly rehearsed the destruction? Or shall we say that without a patterned, collective response to catastophe, all Jews might ultimately have perished? And is it possible to generate new responses in the postwar world when the enemy still chooses the holiest day of the calendar to launch its attack?

In reply, let me cite two openly programmatic anthologies of Jewish response to catastrophe, one put out by the Warsaw branch of the Zionist youth movement Dror in July–August 1940 and the other by a survivor some four decades later. The first Jewish book in Nazi-occupied Warsaw was a 101-page mimeographed anthology in Yiddish called Suffering and Heroism in the Jewish Past in Light of the Present. 3 Four hundred copies were distributed to the youth leaders of Dror by the underground press, under the joint editorship of Yitzhak Zuckerman and Eliyohu Gutkovsky, a translator of Maimonides into Polish and of Marx into Hebrew.4 Like Halpern in his Book of Valor, slated to appear a year later, the Warsaw editors emphasized the theme of self-defense and the Zionist revolution, but there were enough materials from the Crusades and the Khmelnitsky massacres to suggest that the Jewish people had been sorely tested before. Without this profound historical awareness, there could not have been a last stand in the ghetto.

From Abba Kovner, who issued the first and most passionate call for Jewish armed resistance and who later was party to the fierce battle for the Negev, has come a rallying cry for collective survival in the name of past martyrdoms. At the entrance to the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv, Kovner has prefaced his ultramodern exhibit with a richly illustrated book entitled Scrolls of Fire. 5 Despite the abstract artwork, everything in that book suggests a liturgical orientation: the title, taken from a work by Chaim Nachman Bialik; the division into fifty-two chapters, one for each week of the year; the careful selection of sources that cuts across the centuries and spans Jewries east and west. One begins with the Destruction of the Temple and ends with a prayer to commemorate all the freedom fighters down to the present day, only to begin the scroll all over again. And so, Jews come full circle: via Ponar and Auschwitz, back to the Bible and prayerbook; through the whirlwind, back to the word.


Simon Bernfeld, ed., Sefer hadema’ot [The Book of Tears], vol. 1 (Berlin: Eshkol, 1923), pp. 6–13.

Israel Halpern, ed., Sefer hagevurah: antologia historit-sifrutit [The Book of Valor: A Literary-Historical Anthology], 3rd ed., 3 vols. (1941–1950; rpt. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1977).

Dror, Payn un gvure in dem yidishn over in likht fun der kegnvart [Suffering and Heroism in the Jewish Past in the Light of the Present], 3rd ed. (Munich: Dror, 1947).

Joseph Kermish, ed., ‘Itonut-hamaḥteret hayehudit beVarshah [The Jewish Underground Press in Warsaw], vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979), pp. 44–45.

Abba Kovner, Scrolls of Fire: A Nation Fighting for Its Life, trans. Shirley Kaufman and Dan Laor, bilingual ed. (Jerusalem: Keter, 1981).


David G. Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 12–14. © 1984 David G. Roskies. Used with permission of the author.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 10.

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