Auf den Spuren jüdischen Lebens: Complaints

Since I last posted (a million years ago, it seems) I moved and then had no internet for 2 weeks. I also made what might be some progress on my research paper.

As a return to writing, I offer a complaint. This is directed towards my course at Humboldt University entitled “Auf den Spuren jüdischen Lebens in Berlin-Mitte” (Tracing Jewish Life in Berlin-Mitte). The title of the course, as you can see, refers explicitly to the neighborhood of Mitte, and to its specific Jewish history. Mitte has a very rich Jewish history, making it an appropriate subject for a university class (one, which incidentally, meets in Mitte).

However, the class is, in my opinion, far too focused on a general history of Jewish life in Berlin, as well as on basic facts about Jewish customs, anti-Semitism, etc. While these themes are also important, they go too far beyond the stated scope of the course. This gives the impression that anything deemed “Jewish” is relevant. The specific history of the development of Jewish life in Berlin-Mitte is compromised.

I very much doubt that a course focusing on the history of Christian life in Berlin-Mitte would include activities such as “meet real-life Christians,” or approach the topic as a generally disorganized grab-bag of interesting Christian-related things, starting with the arrival of Christians in Berlin and awkwardly and not thoroughly moving into the present day (but not even the present day, as one easily forgets that there is a living Jewish community in Berlin).

This course does not question WHY there are so few Jewish sites in the present cityscape. It does not question why we can see what we can, while other sites remain absent or completely unknown. For a class that is interested in traces it annoys me that the history of specific spaces is being ignored. Rather than asking difficult questions, which would force one to confront the reality of absence, Jewish life in Berlin-Mitte is presented as something archaic, authentic, and unproblematic. I often get the impression that by expressing interest in “Jewish themes” many Germans think they deserve a pat on the back.

After asking questions like “Do the Jews do it like us?” – it referring to anything from burial customs or singing in the synagogue and us referring to German Christians (and the assumption that everyone in the class is one) – many then ask “how should we even commemorate Jewish life?” I think by not always saying “The Jews” like they’re some monolithic, mythological group would be a good start.

I am disturbed by the fact that this course seems to be bearing the weight for all of Jewish studies at Humboldt University. It is clear that the Theology students, or the Religious Studies students know nothing about Judaism or the history of Jews in Europe. Their education, is seems, as revolved around the Holocaust. That so many seem to be learning for the first time that Jewish life was once very rich and active in Germany makes me sad. This course should not bear the brunt of someone’s burgeoning fascination for Jewish themes. Reviewing the origins of Zionism, for example, should be done during a time other than 4:15 to 5:45 on Wednesdays. Or else the course should be re-titled: “Random things about Jewish History and Belief for Beginners.”

Begegnungen/Encounters

Since my last post I was finally able to procure a copy of Anne-Christin Saß’s whopping doorstop of a dissertation: “Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik.” I have been waiting since September for it to be available from the library. (I probably should have just buckled down and bought a copy seeing as it’s highly relevant to my research and that I work with her). She focuses on Eastern European Jewish migrants in Germany during the Weimar Republic.

Since I am myself interested in the problem of representing migration histories without rooting them in national narratives, I was pleased and inspired when I began reading her introductory chapters in which she describes her approach.

The history of Europe (of the world!) has been shaped by migration. Migration, therefore, is more than an additional narrative to national histories. [1] Migration is the norm. Just as that is the case, so are multiple migrant identities the rule rather than the exception. [2] Cities and people can be represented within multiple frameworks – of identity, historical trajectory, etc. Saß uses Berlin as Transit City as her example: “Next to questions of self-representation, the perception of strangers, and ‘stigma management,’ can the border-transcending networks between the home countries, Berlin as current living environment, as well as the further emigration countries be be taken into account.” [3] (Excuse my awkward German translating).

One of the questions I keep repeating to myself during my own work on Eastern European Jewish migrants in Berlin is: what makes this story so compelling? What makes it unique? For me it is because it represents a break from a nationally contained historical trajectory. It shows that this European capital played a roll in the development of global Jewish culture. It was and is, despite contemporary claims to the contrary, a migrant city.

Saß looks at Berlin as a “connection and intervention center between Eastern Europe and the USA.” Berlin as a “place of foreigners, as transit and passage space, as well as a place of diverse encounters (not only) between East and West.” [4]

I really like the idea of “encounters” Begegnungen – and need to reflect on it more. When I first learned the word begegnen it was in the context of coming across someone, like a friend, in the street. A random encounter. And every example was located in the street. I therefore cannot disassociate the German word from the image of happening upon, being confronted with, surprised by something or someone in the street. It’s a funny but rather poignant way of conceptualizing migration history – it is something that played out in the street, in cities, as encounters between bodies. Such encounters then produce links (next to fear and prejudices). The “encounter” is phenomenological – it occurs between subjective, conscious bodies that react to each other. The encounter and then the reaction alter the previous space, opening it (even while trying to guard it).

Multiple migrant identities entail multiple sorts of encounters. Saß describes the encounter between Eastern European Jewish intellectuals who came to Berlin before WWI and Eastern European Jewish refugees, mainly workers, escaping pogroms, poverty and statelessness. They didn’t understand each other – their encounter is written as the “clash of different Jewish times.” [5] She describes the encounter between “German Jews” and general “Eastern European Jews.” Then there is the encounter between Non-Jewish Germans and the same Jews from the East. These are only a few examples of possible encounters, coarsely outlined. These encounters are happening in Germany, in the streets of Berlin, but they are not isolated to one place or time – they are points of intervention between eras, philosophies, dress codes, etc. I don’t really know where I am going with this, but I guess it is to say that these street-level Begegnungen are individual transfer points that cannot be encapsulated by a national perspective. The movement of bodies, the migration of bodies means that even local history is not always so… local.

[1] Saß, Anne-Christin. Berliner Luftmenschen: Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in der Weimarer Republik. Göttingen, 2012. 22.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 188.

Ports, Passages, Homes

I was in Hamburg this past weekend and very much wanted to go to the Auswanderungsmuseum – Ballin Stadt (Emigration Museum). Unfortunately that did not happen. The focus of the main exhibition, as I learned online, is with the history of Hamburg as a port of embarkation. Many 19th and early 20th century European immigrants had to travel to Hamburg to board their ship to points further West, like the United States.

Throughout my work, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that immigration/migration link various national histories together. This is tied to the conclusion I hovered around in my last post, which advocated for a more fluid approach to history – one that eschews rigid nationalism and thus makes room for more stories.

The website for the museum in Hamburg makes reference to Ellis Island as the next stop for many who left from Hamburg, thus connecting both museums and two chapters of a longer journey. As far as I remember, there is very little mention at Ellis Island of Hamburg. The museum (which the man on the train next to me going back to Berlin described as “surprisingly self-critical for an American museum) focuses primarily on the experience of arrival and the early transition into American life. I find it a moving museum – an emotion I am wary to admit as I grapple with the history I was brought up with – one that celebrates the narrative of American immigration, and with the history I have come to learn – one that points out the flaws of the American Narrative (capital N!). The museum at Ellis Island – an “authentic” place, as it is located at the historical site – brings together stories of homeland and arrival to the new home. Origin, language, and identity are important themes. What is not dealt with (as far as I remember, and I could be wrong) are the details of the passage in between Home and New Home.

Immigration histories – particularly of the 19th and early 20th century – are not clear-cut point A to point B narratives. One of the questions asked in a class I was taking last semester was: when does immigration begin? Is it when the first leg of the trip has been traveled? Or is it when the bags are packed? Or is it when the thought of leaving is first entertained? I think that when one thinks of immigration, one thinks often of continuous movement. But there are so many stories of waiting – whether at “home” for the right documents to arrive and/or be approved, or in some city along the way, for the money to come through so that one can travel further.

This year I have been focusing on Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe living in Berlin during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During those decades Berlin witnessed a large influx of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms in the East. For many, the goal was to reach points beyond continental Europe, namely the United States and Palestine. For numerous reasons (travel restrictions, insufficient funds, contentment etc.) many found themselves rooted in Berlin where they opened prayer rooms, Yiddish-theaters, Hebrew bookstores, kosher restaurants, printing presses, tailor shops… the list goes on.

How, then, does the relationship between such people and such spaces get represented? The problem that I am working through now is how to define these Jewish migrants. Their temporal connection to the city, their non-belonging, is often what dominates the literature. They are not written into the identity of the city, although their presence there was felt – at one point Berlin became a veritable center of Jewish cultural and religious life. It was the second in the world for the production of Yiddish-language books, for example. Many of these travelers/immigrants/residents/what have you did not get the chance to go further. Those who were around – either out of will or necessity – as the Nazis gained power did not survive. But for those who temporarily made Berlin their home and traveled onwards to Hamburg – what becomes of the memory of their time there and all those other spaces that lay between Minsk and New York?

Cities like Berlin and Hamburg can tell a different immigration history – different than European hometowns and American cities. I say “can” because it is not necessarily what is done. For instance Berlin, in regards to Jewish immigration, has the opportunity to play a role in the new historiography of that experience by writing it as a series of belongings, of mobility that is not always characterized by movement. It is not a concrete path that begins in one place and ends in another.

Germany is described often as a Durchgangsstation – a passage or transit station – a description that I don’t think encapsulates the myriad ways in which travel and movement affect identity, both individual and “national.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries millions of individuals left their home cities, towns, countries – a staggering movement of people. Each person carried with them memories of landscapes, deposited them across other borders, and recounted them in mother and second languages, blurring the boundaries between remembered and lived spaces, between “home” and “home” and “home.” I can’t say when immigration begins – and I certainly could not say when it ends, if ever. Can ports and passageways thus become homes? Or perhaps I am playing too much with the notion of “home” – tying it to spaces both indifferent and hostile in an attempt to decentralize certain histories…

Unmentionable Memories: German Deportations 1945-1950

I would like to bring a few elements together: A film, a novel, a professor, and an unrealized museum.

After victory in Europe had been declared (8 May 1945), Joseph Stalin, Clement Attlee, and Harry S. Truman convened in Potsdam (a small city just outside of Berlin; former home of Friedrich the Great). Here they collectively signed the Potsdam Agreement – a postwar protocol that included spoils to be awarded to the victors and necessary punishment to be meted out to the losers. [1] It was in this protocol, that the face of Europe was carved up and reconfigured. Germany lost significant stretches of territory – both land that it had forcibly captured up to and during the war, as well as swathes of terrain that had been historically “German” and whose populous was German speaking. This territory covered parts of East-Central Europe, including sections that were to become Western Poland (formerly Silesia, Pomerania, East-Brandenburg, and East-Prussia). Although much of former German territory was “given” to Poland, the nation was under Soviet control (both things seriously complicating Polish identity).

The German populations in these territories – whether having moved there during Nazi expansion plans, or having been historical residents – had to leave. This period of “flight and expulsion,” at it has been called, was approximately five years of violent de- and repopulation. Even those German-speakers who were also Polish speaking, for example, and whose families held roots in the land for generations were no longer welcome. Any remote connection to Germanness implied a connection to Nazi power and resulted in forced evacuation. Subsequently, in the case of Poland, Poles were brought in from the East to repopulate cities and villages that formerly bore names such as “Breslau” or “Danzig” – turning them into “Wrocław” and “Gdańsk” and infusing them with real Poles and a Polish identity.

This process was not easy. Nor was it bloodless. Above all, it is, particularly in Germany, not easy or popular to talk about. Any history focusing on injustice wrought upon Germans in the aftermath of the Second World War runs the risk of relativizing the Holocaust – of placing the suffering of Germans above that of Jews. To a certain degree I believe in this logic, particularly in light of postwar memory of WWII in Germany, when German’s were dusting themselves off, clearing rubble, and nursing their wounds, and when the scope of the Holocaust was subject to silence and denial. The extent of pain injustice inflicted on the German community does not even remotely approximate the fact of systemic discrimination and violence, as well as of industrialized mass-murder . Particularly since any of the violence and discrimination brought unto Germans was done without the intention of eliminating an entire culture as a whole.

 That being said, I would still like to talk about this violence. I find it important as it was inflicted in the name of national belonging. The point being that local identity must be commensurable with national identity – therefore speaking a different language and practicing different customs than the declared majority community would not be allowed under the rubric of some abstract, homogenous idea of a national Dasein. In this schema, plurality is not to be tolerated (particularly curious considering Poland has historically been a diverse nation, of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc.). I do not approve of any violence that purports to preserve and protect the purity of Nation-State, nor of the myth of national subjects as a Volk of sorts.

Last night I went to another film as part of the Polska Film series. This one was a contemporary drama, entitled “Róża” (“Rose,” like the name). It took place in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Masuria– a Prussian region that had been home to both German and Polish speaking groups. An officer of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) goes to Masuria, where he meets Rose, a bilingual Masurian woman. The officer, Tadeusz, had witnessed the death of her husband, a Wehrmacht soldier, and has come to return some of his possessions. He helps Rose demine her potato field and ends up staying. A romance develops between the two, marred by disturbing memory: Rose had been raped numerous times by invading armies; Tadeusz witnessed his wife’s brutal rape and murder. The horror does not remain limited to memory. Rose is under constant threat because of her Germanness – her home is constantly broken into by members of the new local Polish Authority who rape her. Her body is so wounded and weakened by these repeated rapes that she dies. Tadeusz marries her Polish-speaking daughter so that she will not be deported to Germany like the rest of the German-speaking community, who we see climbing into cattle cars, reminiscent of other deportations. The film is filled with disturbing representations of violent rape and other graphic confrontations. It is a frightening story that shows that the violence and killings did not end with the official end of the war.

The film reminded me of a novel I had begun reading a few years ago and never finished (ironic in light of its title). It was my first confrontation with the history of German expulsion. The book is Reinhard Jirgl’s Die Unvollendeten [The Incomplete or Unfinished]. The story traces the history of one family from the summer of 1945 until today. It opens in Czechoslovakia during the beginning of the expulsions of the German-speaking population. We witness the dispossession, concentration, and eventual deportation of the German-Czechs. Jirgl writes this process in an experimental prosaic style, substituting “und” [and] with an ampersand (&) or just an “u,” and the word “ein” [one] with its numerical equivalent (1). Words are often mangled or strung together, with exclamations points beginning or interrupting individual words or sentences. This style gives the text a sense of urgency and disjointedness. One feels uneasy, awkwardly passing over strangely built phrases that do not offer the comfort of familiar or stable composition.

The first page opens with shouts:

 Zuerst, u wie in Früherenzeiten vor der-Pest, drangen von-Überall-her die Warnschreie menschlicher Stimmen an : !Heutmorgen sind Viele schon erschlagen & erschossen worden –.– In der kleinen Stadt Komotau im Sudentenland wurden seit Stunden Strassen & Gassen mit immerdenselben Durchsagen in tschechischer Sprache beschallt. [2]

My rough translation:

 First, n like in early times before the-plague, the warning cries of human voices push from-all-over : !Thismorning many were already beaten & shot –.– In the small city of Komotau in the Sudetenland the streets & allies were for many hours ensonified with alwaysthesame announcements in Czech.

The Announcement:

30 MINUTEN ZEIT – MIT HÖCHTENS 8 KILO GEPÄCK PRO PERSON – AM BAHNHOF SICH EINZUFINDEN – DIEJENIGEN, DIE GEGEN DIESEN BEFEHL VERSTOSSEN, WERDEN NACH DEN KRIEGSGESETZEN BESTRAFT – [3]

30 MINUTES – WITH MAXIMUM 8 KILO PACKS PER PERSON – GO TO THE TRAIN STATION – WHOEVER VIOLATES THIS ORDER WILL BE PUNISHED ACCORDING TO LAWS OF WARFARE –

Jirgl captures the haste and rush of leaving, of leaving everything behind. The family we are following, like so many other families, gets separated. One daughter, married to a Czech, attempts to stay behind. Notes are left at train stations. Bodies are squeezed into train cars and dropped off into inhospitable German territory. Unwanted, and viewed with suspicion, the protagonists are given shelter in an old barn, waiting out the winter atop piles of hay. They need to build for themselves a new existence in a new country, enveloped in a climate of animosity. It was their “Germanness” that had them forced from their homes in Poland or Czechoslovakia, but it is their perceived otherness – their not being from the particular village or region they found themselves in – that makes their transition into German life difficult and painful.

This is not such an obscure history. Millions of Germans can trace their family roots to these former German territories. Return was, of course, impossible. For those who found themselves in West Germany, visiting their former homes was not even an option until the fall of Communism and the borders were reopened. During my last semester at Hampshire, I took a German class at Smith College that dealt with migration stories. The professor, Gertraud Gutzmann, an animated and impassioned woman who specialized in the books of Anna Seghers, revealed a few tidbits of her own history. She had been born in a town that is now part of present-day Poland, and was forced as a child to leave for Germany. She has since visited the town and described coming upon the church, in which a service was taking place. She told us of her initial urge to cry out This is not your church! This is not your town! But quickly calmed herself, nodding to the Polish worshippers as they silently left the building. Despite decades of living in East Germany, West Germany, and the United States, she could not totally divorce herself from a sense of origin – a home she barely knew but could not enter. She is an American citizen now – a title she bears despite an accent, previous passport, or memory of another landscape.

Professor Gutzmann mentioned that there were other German professors teaching in the Pioneer Valley with similar biographies. There are so many Germans who feel set apart for having been born in these contested spaces. Their stories are a profound reminder of the power of landscape, and of how artificial certain identities can be. A passport or certificate of citizenship does not tell someone’s full story. “German” includes within it millions of individual stories, with millions of unique longings, be it for a glimpse of the North Sea, the Black Forest, the River Oder, the sea coasts of Anatolia, or the frozen streets of St. Petersburg. Like so many personal histories, German expulsion has been, for the most part, excluded from German cultural memory. There was an attempt a few years ago to establish a museum to German Flight and Expulsion. It was to be erected in Berlin. The city was already engulfed in discussions and debates about a central Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The thought of establishing another memorial site dedicated to the horrible effects and after-effects of war, but which broached the issue of German suffering, came as a horrible insult to the memory of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust (as well as to Poles who do not want a resurgence of German nationalism on Polish soil).  This critique is not unfounded. Many of the expelled Germans had been vehement supporters of National Socialism. Many were ardent German nationalists, anti-Semites, and anti-Slavs. Rather than a museum, a foundation has been established within the German Historical Museum  – Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung [Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation].

A problem with establishing a museum in Berlin – the national capital – is that this history then becomes an explicit chapter of German national history. It becomes something done to the Germans, rather than as a more complicated expression of unstable identities. The question asked by the film, Jirgl’s book, or my professor’s story is who belongs here? This question is not limited to East Prussia or the Sudetenland – it has been repeated time immemorial. In addition to redefining (or doing away with) the parameters of national belonging, how we write histories needs to be reconsidered. If we reframe German expulsion as an event that was not perpetrated against the Germans, but rather as an example of violent national myth making and the aggressive creation of an artificial, homogenous national identity, then this history could perhaps be told. Watching on screen the horrific rape of Rose’s body, one cannot accept that such an act could be tolerated, because of the victim’s perceived “Germanness.” If an imposed identity (German, Pole) results in deadly bodily violation or in forced removal, what do we want with such identities? We must ask, who dictates belonging? “Germanness,” “Polishness,” or “Americanness” do not carry with them intrinsic qualities. But national identities silence memory and dictate remembrance.

[1] As a side note: I am not a particular fan of this winner-loser matrix, in which the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States (and occasionally France) represent the triumphant parties, and Germany takes on its title of supreme villain. The problem with this conception is especially apparent in the case of Poland – a nation invaded by both Nazi and Soviet forces, and which never had a Quisling (Nazi-collaborationist) party. They “won” in the sense that they had helped fight off the Germans, but “lost” in that they were subsequently occupied by unwelcome Soviet forces for decades to come.

[2] Jirgl, Reinhard. Die Unvollendeten. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag: 2007. 5.

[3] Ibid.

“Mir Lebn-Geblibene” – The (ruptured) possibility of Polish-Jewish co-existence

For the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising the annual Berlin film festival, Polska Film (a celebration of Polish cinema), has dedicated a number of its screenings to filmic representations of, dedications to, and confrontations with this monument event in Holocaust and Jewish history. Last night I went to see a showing of the film “Mir Lebn-Geblibne  [געבליבענע  מיר לעבן ]”  (for some reason this program will not let me publish the Yiddish words in the order they should be read) (English: “We the survivors” or “We are still alive”). It is a documentation of postwar Jewish life in Poland. It is comprised of a series of scenes, shot during the immediate postwar period (1946-48). It opens with the unearthing of the Ringelblum archives, buried in the ruins of Warsaw, and moves through images of a repatriation house in Lodz, a children’s home in Otvoczezk, Jewish-communist youth groups, Jewish factories, Yiddish theaters, the artist Nathan Rapoport at work on his sculpture to the Ghetto uprising, and more. The scenes are silent with accompanying Yiddish narration and musical score. It was directed by Natan Gross, a Polish-Jew, who not long after the making of the film emigrated with the film’s producers, Saul and Isak Goskind, and cameramen, Adolf and Władysław Forbert to Israel. Together the men had formed the reestablished Warsaw-based Kinor Film Cooperative, which made a few more Yiddish-language films with the financial aid of the American Joint Distribution Committee for Aid of Jews (known as the “Joint”). [1] [2]

The film offers an upbeat, optimistic perspective on Jewish life in postwar Poland. Despite occasional reminders of death and destruction, such as sweeping shots of the rubble mounds of Warsaw, or staggering piles of shoes, the majority of the film expresses a tone of hope. It seems to claim that it is possible to reestablish Jewish life in Poland. Poland had been a center of Jewish cultural and religious life in Europe. Jews had lived there for centuries, establishing that stretch of Eastern Europe as a homeland of sorts. [3] During the Holocaust around 3 Million Polish Jews were murdered – the majority of the community. At the end of the war there were at most approximately 240,000 Jews living in Poland. After the screening, the friend who accompanied me could hardly find the words to express her disbelief that such a film could exist. Who financed it? Who was responsible? The fact that the film came from the Jewish community itself did not seem plausible. Anyone who has read about Jewish life in postwar Poland knows that the country was an incredibly inhospitable place.

Therefore I was initially shocked and confused by the film’s clear message of hope; it is no secret that, for Jews in Poland, violence and terrorism did not end with the Holocaust. The strong survival and robust expression of anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Poland is highly disturbing. The scene depicting life in the repatriation house for Holocaust survivors in Lodz was a chilling reminder of the postwar pogrom in Kielce – a violent attack against a Jewish community center where many Holocaust survivors were housed, which resulted in around 40 deaths just one year after the Holocaust. [4] In addition, there are numerous reports that describe the experience of Jews returning from the camps, hiding, or exile only to find that their homes and property had been taken over by non-Jewish Poles who were not pleased that the original owners had survived. No court would accept cases of Jews wanting to reclaim stolen property. Homecoming Jews were subject to threats and intimidation. Terrorist underground groups, such as the NSZ [Narodowe siły Zbrojne] – Nationalist Armed Forces – were active in murdering Jewish residents and spreading lies and slanderous propaganda about Jews. [5] Thus many Polish Jews left Poland shortly after the war, recognizing that there could be no peaceful future there for them.

I could not agree more with Robert L. Cohn, when he writes, “given their ultimate failure […] it is difficult to appreciate today how deep was the hope then that, despite the devastation, a Jewish community could be reborn on Polish soil.” [6] There were, however, signs that such a rebirth could be possible. The Polish government initially enfranchised Jewish citizens, offered financial and material aid to the Central Committee of Polish Jews, and many Jews were appointed to staff government positions. Polish president, Bołesław Bierut even openly repudiated anti-Semitism. Some were so convinced by the possibility of Jewish life in Poland, that “the Central Committee, in fact, at least until the Kielce pogrom, discouraged emigration as a part of its argument that Jews were Polish citizens and so had the right to live in Poland.” [7]

The film is a testament to the small window of possibility; it “acknowledges the horrors of the near past but focuses on the present situation.” [8] It is a utopian vision of Polish-Jewish coexistence and the collective effort towards realizing a better (communist) future. “Mir Lebn Geblibene,” according to Ira Konigsberg, “buys into the utopianism of Poland’s movement towards a communist state… Jewish workers feel wanted in the new Poland, we are told, and are working with Poland to a build a civilization acceptable to both.” [9] Viewers witness scenes of Jewish-communist youth group marching in neat rows – a sight reminiscent of the Jewish Labor Bund, a Jewish socialist party. However, the idea of Jewish participation in Polish communism was seen as too utopian. The consolidation of the communist government in Poland meant that anything remotely pro-Jewish would soon be restricted if not outright banned. The film was not approved for screening by the Polish government. Soon both the Kinor Cooperative and the Joint were no longer accepted. In 1949 Stalinist restrictions on cinema were adopted, meaning there could be no future for Kinor in communist Poland. [10] In 1950 Joint actions were terminated following accusations of spying. [11] Those Jews that did not emigrate in those initial years after the war would have to conceal their “Jewishness” if they wanted to live undisturbed in Poland. Yet even relative anonymity did not completely shield citizens of Jewish descent from later discrimination. In 1968 an “anti-Zionist” campaign was launched – any Pole with even the slightest ties to Judaism were accused of being Zionists and expelled from the Communist Party. This increase of institutional anti-Semitism resulted in another wave of immigration. Poles of Jewish descent were again forced and/or eager to leave the country.

In light of later historical developments in postwar Poland, “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” is a tragic reminder of the lost potential for cultural and religious plurality. As the film purports, Jewish life was prepared to flourish again. It must be emphasized that Yiddish theater had found a European audience once more – the famous Yiddish-speaking Polish-Jewish actress, Ida Kaminska, could be seen on the stage again, if only for a very brief moment. Considering the damage that was done to the Yiddish-speaking community in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is upsetting to confront the implication that there had been an opportunity for its rebirth. The celebration of Jewish theater, music, painting and sculpture as be seen in the film, are painful to watch, despite the joy and artistry they represent, with the advantaged knowledge of what is to come.

The legacy of Polish anti-Semitism with its postwar reverberations appears all the more complicated, if not a touch disturbing, with the resurgence of philo-Semitism in post-communist Poland. In her book, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Ruth Ellen Gruber describes the problematic embrace of all things “Jewish” by cities and communities where Jews no longer live. [12] This phenomenon is evidenced by the popularity of Klezmer music concerts, kosher-style restaurants with Yiddish sounding names, as well as “Jewish” souvenirs on display in the former Jewish sections of select cities. The explosion of “Judaica without the Jews” is a startling and not entirely comforting development, particularly when considered alongside such films as “Mir Lebn Geblibene,” which would suggest that the absence of Jewish culture in parts of Europe is not exclusively the result of the Holocaust.  Jewish guidebooks have becoming increasingly popular over the past 25 years or so, with places like the Polish city of Krakow now catering to Jewish-interest tourism: “in Krakow’s Kazimierz [the old Jewish quarter], a huge illuminated iron menorah flanked by rearing lions towers over the entrance to one of several Jewish-style restaurants, luring in the tour bus trade.” [13] Many visitors, myself included, find the gratuitous display of Jewish kitsch more disturbing and cryptic than pleasant.

Recently my email has been flooded with email alerts testifying to the “resurgence” of Jewish life in Poland. Last week, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was opened in Warsaw, located in the former Warsaw Ghetto and adjacent to the site of Nathan Rapoport’s famous memorial to the Ghetto uprising. An article from The Guardian on the subject speaks to the interesting phenomenon in Poland, in which younger Poles are discovering that they have Jewish origins. The article writes “that experts claim that there are as many as 20,000 people with Jewish roots [in Poland].” [14] The article does highlight persistent Polish anti-Semitism, but claims that young Poles with Jewish roots are now reclaiming their Jewish roots, opening up “Jewish” cafés or tending to neglected Jewish cemeteries. Another recent article, entitled “Jewish life slowly returns to Poland,” chronicles some of the postwar anti-Semitic history as I mentioned above, and tells the popular story of Pawel Bramson, a skinhead turned shochet (kosher butcher). [15]

While I do consider important and necessary the opening of Jewish history museums and similar establishments dedicated to informing the public about Jewish life, culture, and history. I am not convinced by the notion of “resurgence” or “revival.” This would suggest that some pre-Holocaust state of Jewish life can even be approached and does not take into account the very particular ways that Jewish life had been developing. The individuals and communities in “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” were living descendants of that now irretrievable, unapproachable life. History museums do not approximate the rich and diverse ways that Jewish communities lived together in Europe – particularly in Poland. The emergence of Jewish-style restaurants, the reopening of synagogues and theaters, and the preservation of cemeteries are a sign of emerging respect not the revitalization of a lost culture. I, for one, highly doubt that deeply Catholic Poland will ever come to be seen as a center of Jewish life again. If so, it will be because of strange, kitschy appropriations of Jewish culture, rather than a reality of millions of Jews living both religious and secular lives. It must also be added that what constitutes “Jewish” has been irrevocably altered after the Holocaust. How “Jewishness” is defined and discussed today has been profoundly influenced by the reality of mass-murder. Jewish life now cannot be what it was. Perhaps the language we should be using should refer to “redefinition” rather than “rebirth.” “Mir Lebn-Geblibene” shows us that the moment for that rebirth passed a long time ago.

Notes:

[1] “Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive: Jews in Poland; unearthing the Ringelblum Archive.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://resources.ushmm.org/film/display/detail.php?file_num=5279. (22 April 2013).

[2] Stewart Tryster. “Introduction to the screening of ‘Mir Lebn Geblibene.’” (Film screening, Zeughaus Kino, Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2013).

[3] See: Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Schama writes of a symbolic Jewish connection to the lands of Poland and Lithuania. He alludes to Jewish villages scattering the countryside, and Jews who worked the land and soil with their hands. Schama’s own family contained woodsmen, Jewish men who cut timber they sent floating down Polish rivers to Polish cities beyond. Stories and memories of landscape remain embedded in his family’s mythology: the Yiddish lumberjacks cannot be disentangled from the land. The forests of Eastern Europe are figured as a symbolic Jewish home. 27-29.

[4] See: Gross, Jan T. Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz. New York: Random House, 2006.

[5] Cohn, Robert L. “Early Postwar Travelers on the Future of Jewish Life in Poland. The Polish Review 53, no. 3, 2008. 317-340. 319.

[6] Ibid., 318.

[7] Ibid., 329.

[8] Haltof, Marek. “Kinor.” Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. 20-22. 21.

[9] Konigsberg, Ira qtd in Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] See: Gruber, Ruth Ellen. Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

[13] Ibid., 133.

[14] Connolly, Kate. “Poland’s generation ‘unexpected’ leads resurgence of Jewish culture.” The Guardian, April 20, 2013. Accessed April 22, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/20/generation-unexpected-poland-jews.

[15] Easton, Adam. “Jewish life slowly returns to Poland.” BBC, April 20, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-17741185.

First Traces: Synagogue Heidereutergasse

First off, let me introduce you to my attempt at maintaining a blog that will chronicle not my daily ablutions, but rather thoughts I am having related to what I am studying, reading, viewing, etc. My hope is that this will induce a writing-habit.

Let’s begin! (By which I mean *I* will begin and *You* will read and hopefully nag me when I fail to make appearances)

“Jewish Berlin” is a phrase I am confronted with a lot. I hear it, I read it, and I use it in my own work with relative frequency. However, what these two words (the latter a bit more innocuous than the former) signify is not self-evident. It is unclear whether “Jewish Berlin” is referring to the current Jewish community – Jews who are alive and live in Berlin; synagogue services; Jewish social and charity organizations; the large Russian-Jewish population, and so on – or to a past community, a former life in which Berlin was home to a thriving, diverse and much larger Jewish population, a time before the deportations and mass killings of the 20th Century. The distinction does not end there. If we are speaking of a past “Jewish Berlin,” are we talking only of the visible reminders of that history – the structures that continue to make their presence known in the cityscape?: The New Synagogue; Moses Mendelssohn’s grave; the cemetery at Weißensee; the Jewish High School; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to name a few sites. Or do we include in that collection all those locations that have been painted over, built upon, and removed from living memory? This city – an urban palimpsest (see A. Huyssen) – is a tangle of layers. Nothing has smoothly sedimented: epochs and memories find their way to the surface. Other spaces can only be read about, searched for, and imagined.

I am attending a course at the Humboldt Uni. entitled: “Auf den Spuren jüdisches Leben in Berlin-Mitte” (roughly: Tracing Jewisn life in Berlin-Mitte). Spuren – traces – are popular here. Many residents and tourists with cryptic fantasies are drawn to the suggestion of the past. Different from “historical sites,” the trace functions as a keyhole of sorts. The trace is a tantalizing glimpse into a forgotten moment. The trace can be seductive as it does not offer a complete picture. It might not even offer anything at all. Traces can be strung together forming the plural “traces of Jewish life,” for example, which function as an ethereal city-guide, moving visitors along an invisible path of suggestive history.

I provide you with this introduction, as I will probably muse upon the idea of the “trace” at a later point, and will certainly be writing more upon my encounters with these various traces.

Our class visited the Old Synagogue in the Heidereutergasse. Or more aptly, the ghost of the Synagogue as the original foundation of the building is just a grass-covered square, boxed-off and shaded by multi-story GDR structures. The East German TV tower, situated just a street away, peeks out over the roof of an adjacent building. Guests at the hostel across the street stand out on the sidewalk smoking. A man parks his SmartCar in the Heidereutergasse, his radio blaring.

An information plaque stands at the edge of the park, facing the backside of a large Plattenbau. It informs the reader of the great Synagogue that once stood on the dingy plot of green-space they see before them.

The Rise and Fall of the Synagogue in the Heidereutergasse:

An Edict was issued in 1671, the year that 50 Jewish families were allowed residency in Berlin after having been forced from Vienna, which stated that no synagogue would be allowed in the city. In 1700, a generation later, the “court-Jew” Joof Liebmann was granted permission to establish a private synagogue in his home. Another Jewish purveyor of the court then bought himself the same privilege, establishing prayer rooms in the Heidereutergasse. Around 1708, the Jewish community began raising their demands for a public synagogue – a demand that met resistance from the owners of the private rooms of worship who had payed a lot for that privilege.

In 1712 the foundation stone for the Synagogue was laid. On the 14th of September, 1714, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), the Synagogue was officially inaugurated. The christian master builder, Michael Kemmeter, constructed the Great Synagogue (as it was named) in a baroque-style. At that time it was, as sources say, the most magnificent synagogue in Germany. The exterior of the Synagogue was rather simple; it had no towers or cupolas lest it be mistaken for a Christan church. Inside the building was a baroque Tora Ark – on April 20, 1718 the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I visited the Synagogue and donated a curtain (Parochet) to cover the Ark.

In 1745 Rabbi David Fränkel (Moses Mendelssohn’s teacher) opened up a Jewish school (Bet ha-Midrash) in a newly built annex. The Synagogue was later renovated by christian architect Eduard Knoblauch (student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel) in 1856, and outfitted in a more classical style. With the construction of the Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse, the Synagogue in the Heidereutergase was renamed the Alte Synagoge (old synagogue).

The Old Synagogue was more traditional in comparison to the New Synagoge – which was constructed to fill the needs of the growing Reform community in Berlin. Women and men remained separate in the Heidereutergasse – whereas the Synagogue in the Oranienburgerstr. offered mixed services, organ music, and later prayer books translated into German.

The Synagogue was ransacked and poorly damaged by SA men during Kristallnacht of 1938. The building was then taken over by the German Reichspost. The Synagogue was later badly destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. Although a reconstruction was possible, the ruins of the Synagogue were removed in the 1960s (in the GDR).*

It is hard to imagine the scale of such a structure on what looks to be a measly plot of land. The large East German constructions make it hard to fathom that the “most magnificent synagogue in Germany” once stood here. Other traces occupy the same plot as well. Perpendicular to the Heidereutergasse is Rosen Strasse – the site of a successful resistance movement against Nazi forces. Jewish men were detained in a building on the street, and their non-Jewish wives showed up everyday, demanding their release. Their movement was successful and there are several abstract sculptures of pink-colored stone located on the square that memorialize their effort.

It might seem horrifying that such a grand and important structure like the first synagogue in Berlin could slip so deeply into obscurity. When one is accustomed to “tracing,” however, the invisibility or general neglect of such history no longer seems surprising. Most of the past “Jewish Berlin” has been reduced to informational placards, a simple address, or absolutely nothing at all.

Although I have grown used to carrying around house numbers in my pocket, standing before high-end designer shops trying to imagine a Kosher butcher occupying the same storefront, I still get angry. I think what most upsets me about this occupation with traces, with uncovering forgotten sites, is that it begins to sound like a treasure-hunt. A sense of satisfaction accompanies discovering an address or plot – but to what end? The truth remains that the disappearance of “Jewish Berlin” was the result of violence and hate. Buildings, often the casualties of war, are either rebuilt or make way for new constructions. The fact that many of these former sites of Jewish life had the potential to be restored but were not speaks to a perpetual disinterest by the majority society for things that deal with “other” histories.

Becoming attune to the proliferation of traces can be overwhelming. The amount of things that one cannot see is staggering. What, then, is the proper way of dealing with and confronting the trace? What sort of attention or recognition do such traces deserve? This is the question I am currently grappling with. To erect further memorials to a destroyed history is enervating. Historical accountability or curiosity becomes messily entangled with nostalgia – a dangerous emotion when dealing with histories that are not ours. Of late I have been opting for the maintenance of emptiness.

* Most of the information from: Rebiger, Bill. “Synagoge Heidereutergasse.” Das jüdische Berlin. Kulur, Religion und Alltag gestern und heute. Berlin: Jaron Verlag, 2000. 76-77.