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Memorial Address: Simon Dubnow 1

Dr. A. Steinberg

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Memorial Addresses (i) SIMON DUBNOW, THE MAN 1 By Aaron Steinberg, Dr. of Law The task allotted to me at this gathering dedicated to the blessed memory of Shimon ben Mordecai Dubnow is to convey the living image of the man to those who know him only through the medium of his great books?an image as it impressed itself on the mind of one who for more than twenty years of close collaboration was privileged to enjoy his personal friendship. To Dubnow, the historian, even the most modest attempt of preserving and presenting a close-up of his own personality would appear as a contribution to Jewish history. At the time when he was putting the finishing touches to the tenth and last volume of his World History of the Jewish People, how often have I heard this half-humorous, half-wistful reference to his personal recollections : " Here I have to rely entirely on the archives stored in my memory." He looked upon his own past as on a repository of one long series of eye-witness accounts relating to the history of his time. He displayed this characteristic attitude of mind in particular where contemporaries were concerned, with whom he was at one period or another inti? mately connected, and to whom he reserved a niche in the gallery of his " History ". Does not this peculiar trait in Simon Dubnow's countenance present us with a clue to his unique personality, indicating at the same time the approach to it which would accord with his own standards ? The initial and decisive impulse of his life was the endeavour to serve the cause of Jewish history. Not " history 55 in the meaning of res gestae, but of a real process which is always in the making, and in the shaping of which one participates, be it knowingly or unknowingly, by virtue of belonging to a historically relevant social group. That history to which the young Simon Dubnow made his vow had revealed itself to him in the guise of a Historia rerum gestarum, of recorded, written history, or more precisely, of one to be rewritten and continued with the march of events, as long as his own life would last. Thus he was resolved to participate in real life solely as its recorder or chronicler, to accompany it as an impartial witness bound in duty to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. History as a discipline became to him the quintessence of historical life, its finest and noblest product, and whatever he had to suggest regarding the topical problems of the day was invariably some lesson derived from historical studies. True, before he reached the stage, at the turn of the century, when he thought fit to give a final interpretation of the lessons provided by Jewish history as a whole (an interpretation commonly known in old Russia under the name " Dubnowism " or " Autonomism ") he had for many years been doubtful regarding their intrinsic meaning ; but even then he was firmly convinced that a correct presentation of the historical facts must implicitly contain an itinerary for the future, to the end of time. For there existed for him no philosophy other than " philosophy of history ", as he understood it, and any attack on this article of his credo, the belief in the " eternal laws of historical evolution was dismissed by him as " German sophistry ", as something " remote from common sense To him the names of Hegel or Schelling or even of Kant were anathema. Whenever these names Delivered before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 3rd February, 1944. 229 x</page><page sequence="2">230 MEMORIAL ADDRESSES were cited by an opponent, even if the conversation was conducted in Russian, he would exclain in pure Aramaic : " Rakhmana litzlan m'hai daita ! " (" God preserve us from such views "). In contrast he felt a deep admiration throughout his life for English thought and English habits of thinking. Herbert Spencer was to him the highest authority on all things concerning the theory of evolution, and John Stuart Mill the most reliable guide through the political perplexities of modern time. Like Shelley, who acquired the knowledge of German in order to be able to read Goethe's Faust, Simon Dubnow studied English, prompted by the ardent desire to absorb John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, without the intermediacy of a translator. England remained for him to the end the classical land of political liberalism, implicit trustworthiness, and historical broadmindedness, and, therefore, the natural ally of the Jewish people. His almost boundless admiration for England determined also his sympathetic attitude towards all trends of Russian opinion with a similar orientation. In his mid-life the Jewish historian became a typical representative of Russian Anglophile Westernism. It is not easy to say what was cause and what effect, whether the philosophical and political predilections of Simon Dubnow were the reflection of his own character or vice versa. To one to whom he was a paternal friend, and whose 44 Archives stored in memory " are consequently limited in scope, it always appeared that this was a coincidence best described as pre-established harmony. Harmony, peace of mind, a natural equipoise and unperturbed self-reliance, combined with a profound modesty, these were the most striking features of Simon Dubnow's face. Not that he was devoid of emotion. Together with him I went through the experience of the two revolutions against the liberal idea of individual freedom, one from the left in Russia after 1917, and the other from the right in Germany in 1933. In both cases he lived in a state of constant indignation. And yet even then the emotional agitation remained subdued. Even then one could see beneath the ruffled surface the basic serenity of his unshakable mind. His stirred up feelings were entrusted to his diary. This vessel of his exasperation was kept in a secret compartment of his cabinet, whilst his stern time-table was adhered to as strictly as usual. We may be sure that even in the Ghetto of Riga, in the ninth decade of his venerable life, if only there was the slightest chance to do so under the eyes of the fiendish enemy, he was keeping his diary with customary regularity. To the historian the record of his experience was under all circumstances not less important than the recorded facts themselves. Where lay the deepest roots of this stalwart character of truly ancient greatness ? Had we been able to submit this question to Dubnow himself, his answer would, no doubt, refer us once again to the lessons of history, in particular of our own Jewish history. Despite all the relapses suffered by the human race on the highway of universal history, its progress towards the final goal, as defined by Israel's Prophets, remained, according to Dubnow's conception of historical evolution, essentially unimpaired. As a historian and a Jew he would have committed a sin against the very spirit of History were he to betray the faith in human progress. 44 Historism is optimism," he told me in the spring of 1933 on the eve of his departure from Germany, 44 no devoted student of history will ever succumb to downheartedness." Let us hope that his personal creed maintained him to the end. Akin to his unwavering optimism was his broad tolerance towards the various trends in contemporary Jewish life. 44 Historism and fanaticism, historism and partisanship," he used to say, 44 exclude each other." Therefore he avoided taking</page><page sequence="3">SIMON DUBNOW 231 sides in any of the stormy conflicts which during his long life agitated Russian and World Jewry. In the sphere of Jewish literature and education he welcomed the Hebraic renaissance not less warmly than the cultivation of Yiddish, and he applied himself to writing in " both Jewish languages " with the same zest as to the creation of his monumental works in Russian. Similarly, he never belonged either to a Zionist or to an anti-Zionist group. Eretz Israel and the Galuth were equally near to his heart. Whatever appeared to have a rightful claim to a place in an all-embracing " History of the Jewish People " was by this reason alone vindicated in his eyes. As a Jewish historian he was truly catholic. In opposing the older school of Jewish historiography, as represented by Heinrich Graetz, Simon Dubnow repeatedly emphasized that it was wrong to conceive Jewish history merely as a record of spiritual effort and of self-sacrifice (" Geistes? und Leidens-geschichte "). According to his own conception the subject-matter of Jewish history was the autonomous existence of a peculiar collective entity which in the course of its evolution extended its activities to every sphere of social life, just like any " nation " in the proper sense of this term. Whatever we may think of Dubnow's rejection of the central conception of his predecessors, it is a striking fact that in his own individual life and death it was the pattern outlined by them which attained full realization. His life was one unrelenting effort of the undaunted spirit, and its culmination?the crown of martyrdom. A truly Jewish life. May his blessed memory be an everlasting source of inspiration to us all !</page></plain_text>