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BEFORE THE DELUGE: THE JEWS OF THE PRE-HOLOCAUST WORLDThe stories in this essay are translations from an old German-language book, and I think it useful to state at the outset how that book came into my possession.

A number of years ago, when I lived in Boston, I helped clean and clear out the apartment of an elderly Jew who’d recently passed away. Among the old man’s possessions were a number of German-language books. He must have been born in Germany and somehow got out before World War II, taking these books with him. My fascination with the language must have been apparent to his relatives, who asked me if I’d like to have the books.

Every volume was a jewel. But the book that most caught my eye was one with the title Die Juden in der Welt which, translated literally, means The Jews in the World. The full title is Die Juden in der Welt/Gegenwart und Geschichte des Juentums in allen Ländern (The Jews of the World/Present and (Past) History of Judaism in All Lands). Its author was Mark Wischnitzer.

Before I go any further, I need to state a few things about this book. It was published by the Erich Reiss Verlag (Publishing Company) in Berlin – Nazi-ruled Berlin – in 1935. This was not, however, a Nazi publishing house but rather a struggling Jewish one. On the inside cover there is an advertisement for a biography of the Rambam, and a Google search for Erich Reiss Verlag yields references to a fair number of books written by Jews, for Jews, on Jewish topics, between the end of World War I and 1936.

There are no Internet references for anything after 1936. I think it safe to say that the Nazi government closed down Erich Reiss permanently that year.

This book does a simple thing. It examines the history of the Jews in every country of the world, as those countries existed in 1935. Every country has its own chapter. The fact that it’s old may well be advantageous, since it is that much closer to the subjects and events contained therein.

There is fine print on the inside cover which reads, “Erstes bis viertes Tausand,” which means, “[The] First through [the] fourth thousand.” I take it to mean the publisher planned to print up to 4,000 copies, but reserved the right to publish fewer. There could even have been a French edition, since Erich Reiss seems to have had a working relationship with Payot Verlag of Paris.

It’s anybody’s guess how many copies still exist. It’s unlikely that any German library stocked this book at the time of its printing and the German-language edition was published solely in Germany.

While this is not a Nazi-inspired book, it is fair to say the specter of Nazism does influence the way certain things are said. For example, while the book details tragic events of Jewish history such as the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648, there is no mention of any German atrocities against the Jews at any time in history. And the chapter about the Jews of Germany is only three pages long. By comparison, the chapter on the Jews of China is about twice that length, though surely the history of German Jews is far more extensive than that of Chinese Jews.