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Bialystock, Through a Different Lens

I write to respond to Allan Nadler’s discussion of my recent book, “Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora.” In his May 20 review, “Cities of Jewish Success, Crushed,” Nadler appears to have fallen into a classic trap: He measures my book not against its own ambitions but against the book he wishes I had written. As its title implies, my book is about new forms of Jewish community that emerged on multiple continents as a direct result of the mass dispersal of Jews from Eastern Europe — one of the largest human migrations in modern Jewish history. Nadler wishes my book had conveyed to English-language readers the riches of the yizker-bikher “devoted to eternalizing the legacies of the myriad cities and towns of Jewish Eastern Europe destroyed by the Holocaust.” This would indeed constitute a valuable project — but it is not the task I set myself. My goal was to explore the transformative havoc wrought by mass migration before the Holocaust and before it would have occurred to anyone to “memorialize.” I wish Nadler would have assessed what I did try to present (which no other scholar of Jewish history has yet to attempt): a transnational history of East European Jewish migration.

The historical overview of Bialystok presented in my first chapter does not seek to provide a comprehensive history of the city prior to 1914. Rather, it aims to highlight how Jewish overseas migration was part of a longer series of migrations which began with the move from shtetls to cities within the Russian empire. Nadler wishes I had discussed prominent alumnae of Bialystok’s “Novardoker” Yeshiva, such as Chaim Grade, Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky and Mikhoel Fisher. I did not do so because they neither identified themselves nor were identified by others as “Bialystokers.” This is hardly surprising: Grade, Kanievsky and Fisher each spent on average less than five years in Bialystok.

What is most troubling about Nadler’s critique, however, is its condescension toward my book’s protagonists. I employed the writing of migrants themselves to rethink the experience of the East European Jewish diaspora. This historical population shift has been rendered in mythic terms by most historians but was painted very differently by those who actually experienced it. Nadler’s dismissal of what he calls the “self-delusions” of a central figure in my book, David Sohn, executive director of the Bialystok Center in New York, tells us more about Nadler’s instinct to declare which Jews suffered from false consciousness and which didn’t, than about the lives and communal institutions fashioned by immigrants from Bialystok in New York, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, and Tel Aviv before the Second World War. The historian’s task is not to ridicule his or her subjects but to make sense of their actions and their place in history.

Rebecca Kobrin

Columbia University

New York, NY

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