Choices in a Modern World | Facing History & Ourselves

Choices in a Modern World

Get insight into how the Jewish Enlightenment affected Jewish women in this memoir excerpt from Pauline Wengeroff.
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English — US


  • Social Studies
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

The autobiography of Pauline Wengeroff offers some clues to the ways the Enlightenment affected Jewish women. It is the first memoir to look at the Haskalah (the Enlightenment) through a woman’s eyes. In it, she reflects on the choices that she and her husband Hanan made.

Born at the beginning of the 1830s in Bobruysk and brought up by strictly observant parents, I was in a position to see the transformation which European education wrought on Jewish family life....

My parents were God-fearing, deeply pious, and respectable people. This was the prevalent type among the Jews then, whose aim in life was above all the love of God and of family. Most of the day was spent in the study of the Talmud, and only appointed hours were set aside for business. Nevertheless, my father’s business affairs often involved hundreds of thousands of rubles. Like my grandfather, my father was a contractor, an occupation which, in the first half of the nineteenth century played a great economic role, enabling the Russian government to erect fortifications, build roads and canals, and thus supply the army.

A marriage was arranged between me and Hanan Wengeroff, and at eighteen I became the bride of a man I loved deeply but knew not at all. Konotop, where my husband’s parents lived, was to be my new home. . . . Most Konotop Jews, including the Wegeroffs, were hasidim. A daughter of mitnagdim, I saw and heard much that was new.

I read a lot in Konotop, especially Russian. First I read the German books I had brought from home....Then I started on the Russian books which stood on the shelves of the Wengeroff library. I read...and taught my husband, eager to learn, German. But his chief study was Talmud....

Since our betrothal, my husband experienced mystical religious moods and devoted himself to the sacred mysteries of the Kabbala [Jewish mysticism]. Then, this fervent young man yearned to make a pilgrimage to Lubavich, the seat of the head of the Lithuanian hasidim. The rabbi would surely have the complete answers to all disturbing questions and enigmas.... One morning while I was busy at household tasks, my husband came into the kitchen and told me, elatedly, excitedly, that his father had permitted him and his elder brother to go to Lubavich in the company of their rabbi.

What happened there I do not know, for my husband never spoke of the tragic experience. All I know was that this young man, hopeful and inspired, made a pilgrimage to the rabbi, hoping he would unveil the great mystery, but returned sobered. He continued his religious observances and studied with the rabbi, but the magic and ecstasy had gone. Thereafter, little by little, he began to neglect his religious observances. Then he decided to cut his beard. We had our first quarrel....He reminded me that he was the man of the house and demanded my obedience and submission....

In 1859, my husband’s father, grandfather, and another partner obtained the leasehold on liquor for the province of Kovno. My husband was put at the head of the office. We liquidated our business, packed our possessions, and moved.

But before I go on about myself, I want to say something about 1855, which marked a new era in Russia, especially for Jews. It was the year Alexander II ascended the throne. He liberated sixty million peasants from bondage and the Jews from their chains. He opened the gates of his main cities into which swarms of Jewish youth thronged to quench their thirst of European education in the universities.

In this brilliant period of intellectual flowering, the Jews took part in the ferment in the whole country, the rise of the fine arts, the development of the sciences. The effects of the reforms in the forties were apparent now: a succession of Jewish professors, doctors, engineers, writers, musicians, and sculptors had won recognition abroad and brought fame to their country....

[In the 1860s] we moved to St. Petersburg....The St. Petersburg Jewish community had a magnificent synagogue and even two rabbis—one modern and seminary-trained, the other Orthodox. But the Jewish community had abandoned many Jewish customs and traditions. The more fashionable even celebrated Christmas....Passover...remained a festival of remembrance, joyful because it recalled not the Exodus from Egypt, but one’s own childhood in the shtetl. The seder was observed, in a highly abbreviated form. Even baptized Jews kept the seder. Though they did not themselves make the holiday feast, they welcomed invitations from their not-yet-baptized friends.

These were the customs of the upper stratum of Jewish Petersburg....Yet here...I often witnessed the strong feeling of solidarity among these Jews who had given up traditional Judaism. Jews in trouble with the authorities anywhere in Russia used to turn to the Petersburg Jewish community for help. Petersburg Jews spared neither money nor time. They appealed to the highest authorities on behalf of oppressed Jews.


In our family, the struggle to keep the Jewish tradition went on in much the same way as in many other families. First my husband requested, and then demanded, that his wishes be fulfilled. It was not enough for him to have complete freedom over all matters outside our home: I had to “reform” myself and my home. It began with small things, intimate things, dear to me.

As soon as we settled in Petersburg, I had to discard the wig which pious Jewish women wore. It was here in Petersburg, after a violent struggle, that I ceased to keep a kosher home. Little by little, I had to drive each cherished custom from our home. “Drive” is not the right word, for I accompanied each to the door with tears and sobs. I loved my husband intensely and as faithfully as in the first days of our marriage, yet I could not submit without resistance....

In the sixties the government had begun its policy of Russifying the Jews. After the Polish uprising of 1863, Russian was made compulsory in the Jewish schools in Poland and Lithuania. Then the subject matter began to be regulated. Gradually, Jewish studies were shortened to make time for the general curriculum....

Then came March 1, 1881, and the sun which had risen on Jewish life in the fifties suddenly set. Alexander II was killed by a bomb on the bank of the Catherine Canal in St. Petersburg....

Now different times came. The reptiles that had shunned the light emerged. Antisemitism erupted; the Jews were forced back into the ghetto. Without ceremony, the gateways to education were closed. The jubilation of the fifties and sixties turned into lamentation.

The few rights Jews had enjoyed were withdrawn. Disabilities began to pile up. Rights of residence for Jews in the cities became ever more restricted. An academic education became more and more difficult for Jews to attain, for only a very small Jewish quota was admitted to the gymnasium and even fewer were admitted to the universities.

Pogrom was a new word, coined in the eighties. The Jews of Kiev, Romny, Donotop were among the first to experience the savage assault of the local mobs.

That was the beginning.

In the eighties, with antisemitism raging all over Russia, a Jew had two choices. He could, in the name of Judaism, renounce everything that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its offers of education and career— through baptism. Hundreds of enlightened Jews chose the latter. These apostates were not converts out of conviction, nor were they like the Marranos of an earlier age. These apostates disbelieved in all religions....

My children went the way of so many others. The first to leave us was Simon. Upon learning this, my husband wrote him: “It is not becoming to abandon the camp of the besieged.”

Volodya, my favorite child, no longer among the living, followed Simon’s example. After completing the gymnasium in Minsk with a brilliant record, he applied to the university at St. Petersburg. He submitted his papers. The admissions clerk rejected them. “These are not your papers. You must have stolen them. You are a Jew, but these papers refer to someone with a Russian name—Vladimir.” Several times more he applied to the university, with the same results. Then he took the fateful step, and was immediately accepted. 1


Connection Questions

  1. Pauline Wengeroff and her husband saw themselves as “modern.” Do you agree? What does the word mean to you? What did it mean to them?
  2. Pauline Wengeroff writes of the way many men interpreted the Enlightenment: “Preaching modern ideas like equality and fraternity in society, these young men were at home the greatest despots toward their wives, demanding ruthlessly the fulfillment of their wishes. Quite a few wives did not want to give way, but the spirit of the age won in this struggle and the weaker yielded, with bleeding hearts. This is what happened to others, and to me.” What is the “spirit of the age” and why did she find it so difficult to fight it? Why do you think Pauline Wengeroff and other Jewish women tried to preserve tradition, while their husbands championed progress and sought acceptance in the outside world? Why did she think men were more attracted to the outside word than their mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters?
  3. Pogrom is a Russian word that literally means “riot” or “destruction.” It has come to mean a government-organized or inspired massacre of a minority group, particularly of Jews. Over one hundred years ago, the nobles of St. Petersburg demanded that the “people’s wrath” be vented against the Jews. The peasants in the nearby town of Elizanetgrad responded with the first pogrom in modern times. A Russian writer has described the subsequent murders, rapes, and looting as the “unending torture” of a religious and ethnic minority. How did pogroms shape the way Jews like the Wengeroffs viewed themselves and others?
  4. Many “enlightened” Poles favored equal rights for Jews because they believed that once Jews had those rights they would abandon their faith and end the “Jewish problem.” Instead many Jews responded to freedom not by converting but by assimilating—by becoming more like the majority. They were confident that once they were “more German,” “more Russian,” or “more Polish,” the discrimination would end. How did the events that Pauline Wengeroff details alter such beliefs?
  5. Pauline Wengeroff believed that a Jew had only two choices: “He could, in the name of Judaism, renounce everything that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its offers of education and career—through baptism.” Were these the only choices? How do you think Hirsh Goldszmit, his sons, and grandson would have responded to her statement?
  6. Lucy Dawidowicz writes that converts like Wengeroffs’ children lived in a “shadowy land on the margins of both Gentile and Jewish society.” What might be the benefits of living on the margins of society and walking in more than one world? What are the dangers of living on “the margins of society”? Why is it often an uncomfortable place to be?
  • 1From The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, edited and translated by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Choices in a Modern World," last updated August 1, 2017.

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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