Jewish Life in Western Europe Before the Holocaust
Throughout history, the Jews have always been a minority group in Europe. Yet, before world war II, there were more than nine million Jews throughout Europe, thriving in numerous communities and cultures. Most Jews, however, dominated the Eastern region of Europe in an area known as Pale of Settlement, the only part that Jews were formally allowed to settle. These regions included Poland, Soviet Union, Romania, and Hungary. The Eastern Jews lived a predominantly religious and traditional lifestyle in small towns known as shtetls. They spoke their language, Yiddish, which was a blend between Jewish and Germany. They read Yiddish books, and culture was central to their daily lives. Most of them, except the youths who had begun adopting the western lifestyle, dressed traditionally, men in hats and caps and women covering their hair in wigs and cloths.
The Western Jews, on the other hand, occupied western countries, including France, Italy, Belgium, and Denmark, and differed significantly from those in Eastern Europe. The western Jews were less concentrated and were more assimilated in western culture. They dressed and spoke the language of their Jewish neighbors, and the Jewish traditions and culture played a less significant role in their lives. The majority of them choose the formal education system practiced by their Jewish countrymen.
The Western Jews struggled to balance their values and cultures with those of their non-Jewish countrymen regarding what to assimilate from their neighbors and what to retain from their culture. The western Jews were also found in virtually all walks of life. They were farmers, factory workers, tailors, and seamstresses. The wealthy Jews allowed their children to pursue their education up to the university level to became doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses, and business businesspersons. Most, however, ground in poverty because their children dropped out of school to work in crafts and trade.
The freedom to express one’s opinions, particularly religious faith and political viewpoints, was highly valued in the Jewish culture, as seen in the Talmud and the Old Testament. Despite the differences, to the Nazis, all the Jews were the same. They were considered cultural pathogens seeking to overturn the culture and political systems of the countries they lived in. After the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, all Jews would become victims, and their lives changed forever. The holocaust saw the annihilation of more than half of the Jews, along with their rich cultural heritage.