The life of the historian and political thinker Simon Dubnow illustrates the creativity and tragic fate of Jewish intellectuals in Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Dubnow was born in Mstsislaw, a small Belarusian town in the Pale of the Settlement, the area where Jews in the Russian Empire were confined to. His family and early education were religious but in his teenage years Dubnow became (and would remain) a determined secularist.
Dubnow moved frequently over the course of his life. As a young man, he wandered Eastern Europe unsuccessfully seeking university education. In 1880, he used forged documents and settled in St. Petersburg – off-limits to most Jews – and began his writing career. After Jews were expelled from the city, he moved to Odessa in 1890 and Vilnius in 1905 before returning to St. Petersburg in 1906. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 eventually drove him and many other Jewish intellectuals to Berlin until the rise of Hitler scattered this émigré community. In 1933, Dubnow found refuge in Riga, the capital of independent Latvia, where he remained until his death.
Throughout these years, Dubnow wrote ground-breaking, widely published, histories of the Jewish people. He was also a major figure in the Jewish autonomist movement which had a wide-ranging and powerful influence on Jews in the early twentieth century and which presented itself as an alternative to Zionism, religion, Marxism, or assimilation. It held that the Jews of Europe were already a nation and had no need to create a homeland in Palestine. They should instead modernize their existing communal institutions, and, above all, speak their own national language – Yiddish. They should be a culturally autonomous, officially recognized, minority groupnation in the states in which they dwelled.
Fascist (and communist) hostility doomed the Jewish autonomist movement and many of its leaders. In July 1941, the Germans occupied Riga. Dubnow was sent to the city’s ghetto and his superb library was destroyed. In the ghetto, he repeatedly demanded that “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt” (“Jews, write and record what is happening to you”). Too sick to be transferred to the Rumbula Forest where thousands of Jews were being murdered, he remained in Riga where he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer on December 8, 1941.