The Power of Jewish History

Masei Mattot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 10, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov’s last words were, “Jews, write it down.” And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the many terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history.

Dubnov died as he had lived, devoted to the power of historical consciousness. Fifty years before, living in Odessa and entirely self-educated, he issued a ringing call to Russian Jews both in Russian and in Hebrew to set about gathering up the rapidly vanishing documentary fragments of their thousand-year history. To their lasting shame and detriment, he said, Russian Jews shared with the primitive, illiterate peoples of the world a pervasive indifference to their own history. The death that year [1891] in Germany of Heinrich Graetz, the first impassioned national historian of the Jews, had inspired Dubnov to mobilize a national archival effort which one day would culminate in an expanded national history far fairer to the vital role of Eastern European Jewry than Graetz’s German bias and ignorance allowed.

In truth, it was the mandate of this original vision that steeled the brave archivists of the Holocaust, because Dubnov had succeeded in making collecting the diverse records of the Jewish experience a force in reconfiguring Jewish identity. Under his enormous influence, S. Ansky, the author of the Dybbuk, launched the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1912 into Ukraine which over two years yielded a treasure trove of photos, folktales, music, manuscripts and art objects, only to be embargoed by the Soviets for 75 years. In 1914, with the outbreak of the war, Ansky finagled his way into Galicia to alleviate and record the untold suffering of the nearly one million Jews trapped between the Russian and Austrian armies. After the war and before he died in 1920, he turned his diaries into a searing four-volume narrative, written in Yiddish, which David G. Roskies called “a work unique in the annals of war (S. Ansky, The Dybbuk and Other Writings, ed. by Roskies, p. 35 of introd.)”

No less inspired by Dubnov was his student, Elias Tcherikover, who in 1919 undertook to document with eyewitness accounts the waves of pogroms that were decimating Ukrainian Jewry in the wake of the Russian Revolution. His subsequent research not only established the scope of the tragedy but also served to acquit the murderer of S.V. Petlura, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalists, in a French court in 1926. Finally, one year before in Vilna, a cluster of Yiddishist intellectuals founded the Yiddish Scientific Institute (better known by its English acronym, YIVO), conceived by Dubnov and other Russian Jewish emigrés in Berlin after the war. Like Dubnov back in the 1890s, YIVO drafted an army of collectors [zamlers] to track down multiple primary sources for its archives without which no serious academic history could ever be done. It is the culture and persona of this remarkable embodiment of Dubnov’s craft that the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who did research there in 1938-39, depicted in her evocative memoir From That Place and Time [1989].

During the interwar years, Dubnov himself lived in Berlin, where he completed his highly readable ten-volume comprehensive Jewish history which he entitled The World History of the Jewish People. The title meant to convey the global nature of the Jewish odyssey. What other nation had ever settled in the four corners of the world without losing its identity and unity? The key to Jewish survival, Dubnov would argue, was an uncanny ability to form self-governing communities in exile that perpetuated a distinctive religious culture. The task of the historian was to track that unfailing achievement of group discipline, political savvy and spiritual creativity. No way station was to slip into oblivion. Singlehandedly, Dubnov had transformed many Eastern European Jews into amateur historians.

This record of historical recovery is brought to mind by way of comment on an historical archive embedded in the final parasha of the book of Numbers (33:1-49), which brings the trek through the wilderness to a close. Before Moses turns the reins of leadership over to Joshua, he swiftly recapitulates the itinerary taken since the exodus from Egypt by naming each one of 42 sites at which the nation encamped. The formulaic style is almost totally bare of narrative detail, yet each name is repeated twice as if to reinforce retention. On occasion, the descriptive nature of a particular name elicits a faint memory of what happened there. Still, all are precious, for all contributed to shaping the national character of Israel. The list is the product of a historical sensibility.

In a wonderfully humanistic comment, Rashi (as quoted by Nachmanides) stresses what is evident in the text, that God never commanded Moses to compile this list. The initiative was entirely his own, triggered by a divine hint that the end was near. A bit earlier God had instructed Moses: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin (Numbers 31:2).” Having accomplished that military victory with but 12,000 troops, Moses awaited his death by assembling the outline of a memoir. Ibn Ezra strengthens Rashi’s emphasis. The phrase “as directed by God” in the verse “Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by God (33:2),” should be understood to modify the marches (that is, they always marched at God’s command) and not the act of recording by Moses. In short, like many humans, Moses faced his own demise, by exerting himself one more time to leave a well ordered account of the journey taken.

The point of the list, according to Rashi, is to show that in retrospect God had never abandoned Israel. How else could they have come through such an inhospitable clime, roadless terrain and hostile environment? Indeed, many of the stops provided long interludes of great tranquility. For me, the list is a harbinger of lists yet to come. As wilderness fades into exile, the number of stops keeps growing and the journey goes on without end or interruption till it encircles the globe. As master of the lists, the historian peers into the mystery of Jewish survival. Ultimate meaning resides in the uniqueness of the whole rather than in the brilliance of any of its individual parts. In a profusion of infinite detail, Jewish history unfolds into the teeming canvas of Israel’s chosenness (see Exodus 33:16).

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Warshauer’s commentary on Parashat Mattot-Mase’ei have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.