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  • The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe by Joshua M. Karlip
  • Jeffrey Veidlinger
The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe, by Joshua M. Karlip. Cambridge, and London, Harvard University Press, 2013. xii, 378 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Among the dizzying array of political ideologies that circulated among Russian and Eastern European Jews in the early years of the twentieth-century, diaspora nationalism is often overshadowed by the more influential ideologies of Zionism and Marxism. Recent works by Simon Rabinovitch, Kenneth Moss, Adam Rovner and others have sought to correct this imbalance, by turning our attention as well to the diaspora nationalists, Territorialists, and others who sought Jewish national autonomy outside of Palestine. In this, his first book, Joshua Karlip tells the tragic story of a trio of diaspora nationalists — Elias Tcherikower, Yisroel Efroikin, and Zelig Hirsh Kalmanovitch — each of whose career and ideological trajectories followed a similar path from idealism to despair.

All three were born in the 1880s in the western provinces of Russia, to which Jewish residence was largely restricted. Tcherikower and Efroikin came from middle-class families, whereas Kalmanovitch had more modest roots. Yet all three managed to receive university educations, a difficult feat given restrictions on Jewish movement and quotas against Jewish students. In the university environment of the Russian fin-de-siecle and immediate aftermath of the 1905 revolution, all three became active in political opposition to the tsarist regime — Tcherikower as a Menshevik, Efroikin in the Jewish Socialist Labor Party (serp), and Kalmanovitch as a Socialist Zionist. Within a few years, though, they became disillusioned with the possibilities of parliamentary politics in Russia, and instead turned to cultural activity, believing that a return to Jewish traditions, particularly as manifested in secular Yiddish culture, could help save Russian Jewry. Tcherikower first became involved with the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia and then moved to the United States to write for the Yiddish press; Efroikin put his faith in the cooperative [End Page 591] movement in Russia; and Kalmanovitch became co-editor of the influential Kletskin press. By the time war broke out, all three were united in their belief in secular Jewish cultural autonomy.

Like most Russian Jews, they greeted the fall of the tsar and the February Revolution of 1917 with euphoria, convinced that Jewish cultural autonomy was about to be fulfilled, only to be crestfallen with the Bolshevik takeover. They were once again disappointed when the pogroms destroyed any hopes for Jewish autonomy in Ukraine. Tcherikower now devoted himself to collecting documentation of the pogroms that plagued the region, encompassing a massive archive of testimonies. Efroikin, too, despaired of the shrinking opportunities for autonomy in the new states of Europe, and advocated for the establishment of a type of world Jewish congress. Together with Kalmanovitch, he rejected both the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the Soviet view of territorial autonomy, preferring to maintain his hope in the prospects for extraterritorial cultural autonomy.

By the 1930s, the dream of Jewish national autonomy in the remains of the Russian Empire was dead. Instead, Tcherikower, Efroikin, and Kalmanovitch turned their attention to other locales. Efroikin focused his energies on resettling Russian Jews in the Americas and established his own travel agency. Kalmanovitch joined the Frayland organization, which sought to establish a Jewish territorial homeland in the Diaspora. Tcherikower was one of the founders of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (yivo), an organization that soon attracted Kalmanovitch and Efroikin as well. As the situation in Europe deteriorated throughout the 1930s, all three urged a retreat inward, “back to the ghetto.” Tcherikower came to regret that his forbearers had accepted emancipation of the individual, Kalmanovitch turned to Zionism, and Efroikin continued communal activism.

The war found the three separated geographically and ideologically. Tcherikower was in New York, where he died in 1943, working as a historian and writing about pogroms until the end. Efroikin was in the south of France when the war began but found refuge in 1942 in Uruguay, from where he condemned the western democracies for their failure...


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