For years I have wondered about hidden Jews. There may or must be millions of them, people whose Jewishness was weakened by assimilation until there was nothing left of their Jewish identity and they no longer regarded themselves as Jews. For them or more likely their offspring, their background and heritage have been obliterated. In pre-Holocaust Europe there were many who through apostasy or the quick surrender of Jewish identity deliberately eradicated any memory of a Jewish past. Madeleine Albright’s family fits this profile.
There are other hidden Jews. During the Holocaust, some parents facing the likelihood of death gave their children to Christians for safekeeping. In an indeterminate number of situations, the outcome was that Jewish identity was permanently lost.
In a sociological sense, hidden Jews are not Jewish. They may be Jewish according to religious law, as Mrs. Albright is, but no one really regards them as Jews. Their history has been lost. Is it possible to figure out how many hidden Jews there have been over the past several generations?
In an essay published in 2001 in Tradition, I suggested that “it is likely that we have lost far more people via [abandonment] than the harsher route of persecution and extermination.” I argued further that:
“We can appreciate the toll taken by Judaic abandonment via the passive route of surrender of Jewish identity by examining Jewish life in the two centuries prior to the Holocaust. The world Jewish population at the eve of the destruction of European Jewry is said to have been between sixteen to eighteen million, hardly an impressive figure. From roughly the mid-eighteenth century until the Holocaust, Jews experienced relatively little loss from persecution. There was visible anti-Semitism in abundance and pogroms, yet the contribution of pogroms to Jewish population loss was negligible. In the same period, there were great improvements in public health, so that the infant mortality rate declined significantly and there were comparable increases in life expectancy.
“In view of these factors and what I am certain was the high Jewish fertility rate, the world Jewish population in 1933 should have been considerably above what it was. The reason why it wasn’t is that we had experienced much loss through one form or another of voluntary Judaic abandonment.”
This was speculative writing. The key point is that there is an issue to be addressed. Much of what we know is anecdotal, Mrs. Albright’s story and now John Kerry’s and over the years quite a few tidbits about celebrities and other notables, as well as family recollections about events that transpired a long time ago when a relative converted out or walked entirely away. Being Jewish is in today and nothing is more certain to out fragments of Jewish identity than our tribe being respected. This is in sharp contrast to our experience during the dark night of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, when being Jewish carried burdens and offered only spiritual rewards.
Can we retrace our history and determine whether the losses were as pronounced as I believe them to have been? We obviously cannot get anything close to a precise demographic picture of what was lost through apostasy and more positive forms of abandonment. After all, demographers cannot agree on how many Jews there are today in the U.S.
The disclosure of information regarding John Kerry’s background suggests that there is much that can be learned. His grandfather’s Jewishness and apostasy were uncovered by a genealogist at the Institute for History Family Research in Vienna and there must be a treasure trove of information there, as well as in archives located in the Czech city of Opava where the relevant documents were found. I imagine that there is much that can be gleaned from other sources and archives throughout Europe, including in the Former Soviet Union where there was a significant incidence of abandonment and therefore also a significant number of hidden Jews.
Important sources have been destroyed or lost over the years and the information they contained cannot be retrieved. Time is also running out on what can be recovered because the few experts who deal comfortably with this material are not going to be around much longer. Given the Jewish penchant for historical research – not here but certainly in Europe – there must be published material going back many years that sheds light on Jewish population trends prior to the Holocaust. Much information may be already available and what is needed is a coherent effort to put the pieces together. What is also needed are resources, human and financial, to permit an extensive scholarly investigation of the subject.
Apart from history having its claims – shouldn’t we have a better picture of Jewish life during the past 250 years? – such an enterprise could shed light on the American Jewish experience, resulting perhaps in a reinterpretation of this history. It has been assumed for decades that while immigrant Jews and their offspring experienced assimilation during the first half of the twenty-first century, the process was retarded somewhat by an adherence to tradition and an aversion to intermarriage. Thus, the first great leap in intermarriage came after 1970 and even then the rate was far below what it was for other ethnic groups and far below the shocking statistics of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
It may be that we now know more about intermarriage and other acts of Jewish abandonment because in recent years many Jews who have experienced advanced assimilation and/or have intermarried want to remain somehow in the fold. They can do so because being Jewish has become popular and there are no longer social pressures to walk away if one marries out. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier period when conversion and hiding one’s religious identity usually conveyed social and economic benefits. Intermarriage invariably meant being cut off from Jewish identity.
Accordingly, early estimates of intermarriage or other forms of Judaic abandonment may be too low, while evidence of recent losses may reflect less of a disconnect with what happened on these shores in the first two generations after the massive migration of European Jews to the U.S.