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September 10: Simon Dubnow

September 9, 2015

blog-Dubnow-102810Simon Dubnow, one of the founders of modern Jewish historical scholarship and a prolific memoirist and essayist about secular Jewish life and politics in Eastern Europe, was murdered at age 81 by the Nazis during the liquidation of the Riga Ghetto on this date in 1941. Dubnow was an advocate the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, and of diaspora nationalism, which saw the Yiddish language and Jewish historical and cultural self-awareness as obviating the need for a national territory. His thinking influenced the Jewish Bund — his son-in-law was Henryk Erlich, a Bund leader — but Dubnow was not a Marxist, as he saw anti-Semitism and other forms of racism as transcending class politics. Active in shaping the politics of the Russian Jewish community following the failed 1905 revolution, he was an editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia and chaired the historical section of YIVO, the founders of which had mostly been his students. Dubnow also wrote a ten-volume World History of the Jewish people, a culmination of many years of his expanding written works about Jewish history, first published in German translation in 1925-1929. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Dubnow moved to Riga, where he began to publish his autobiography, in three volumes. Granted a visa to move to Sweden in the summer of 1940, he never used it, and when the Nazis took over Riga, he lost his great library and was transferred to the ghetto.

“He rejoiced in the overthrow of the tsarist regime in 1917 but was adamantly hostile to the Bolshevik takeover and its destruction of independent cultural institutions and personal freedom.... Dubnow’s call for minority cultural rights for Jews and other nationalities resonated with the minority-rights provisions of the Versailles treaty.” —YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe