‘The Lit’

On Sunday March 26th Mia and Hannah gave a joint talk to Edinburgh’s Jewish Literary Society: “Jews in the Archive: Haunting Memories in the Aftermath of the Holocaust”. About 35 people were in attendance, keen to hear about – and contribute to – the diverse themes surrounding this ongoing research.

Speaking about the Dorrith Sim archive which she will be exploring in detail over the coming year, Hannah began with a useful theoretical outline of the recent growth in personal archiving: the increasing appeal to both researchers and (grand)children of opening the proverbial suitcase in the attic. With reference to the work of Daniel Mendelssohn, Joachim Schlör and others, she discussed how collections of family documents and correspondence offer the possibility of framing generalised discourses of migration on a more human scale, of understanding national and international histories through an individual set of voices. At the same time, however, they raise occasionally difficult questions about the researcher’s (or anyone else’s) gaze: what do we desire to see and learn from a personal archive, and whose voices do we expect to hear? Hannah situated Dorrith Sim’s life and collections within this fluid context, whilst simultaneously drawing out some of the more unusual issues which confront the researcher when dealing with this particular archive. The materials in the Dorrith Sim archive are the combined work of her paternal grandparents Alma and Julius, her uncle Ernst, and Dorrith herself. Consequently, they offer multiple historical viewpoints and suggest myriad stories. This is compounded by the fact that at the time of the dominant background narrative – the Holocaust – Dorrith herself was a young girl, implicitly reducing her own agency in this part of ‘her’ story. Hannah also pointed to the striking ordinariness of the archive, its everyday character. This too raises important questions about the relationship between the personal and the historical, the subjectivity of daily life vs the ‘big story’, and the importance of – and inherent difficulty in – retelling an everyday history (Alltagsgeschichte) of those frequently glossed as ’victims‘.

In a smoothly-choreographed transition, Mia took over to speak about Dybbuks, hauntings and the 1951 Glasgow Festival of Jewish Arts. She drew attention to the perhaps unlikely choice of S. An-sky’s 1913 play The Dybbuk as a vehicle to present Jewish culture to the post-war British world. The play, set in a 19th century shtetl, confronts the at times oppositional themes of personal love, social expectation, family life (and death), cultural history and of course the spirit world. An-sky’s text does not, however, come near to resolving any of its powerful internal contradictions, choosing instead to hold competing narrative forces in a tense yet creative balance. Mia argued that the play’s dominant themes and their continued pull upon Jewish cultural imagination can themselves be read as their own form of haunting: the very real (and recent) spectre of eastern European death and destruction continuing to haunt post-war Jewish memory. In particular, she contrasted the Jewish Institute Players’ well-received performance with a far less successful tour by Israel’s Habimah theatre company in 1948. Despite previous successes with the play, the post-war USA tour almost destroyed Habimah – to the extent that some members of the company began to suspect that the play itself was cursed. Linking her talk back to Hannah’s discussion of archives, Mia also drew attention to the play’s origins in the folkloristic collection expeditions undertaken by An-sky, Joel Engel and others in the early years of the 20th century. Borne out of a desire to document a disappearing culture, these expeditions formed the beginnings of modern east European Jewish archiving. In the process, they documented and formalised materials intended to inspire contemporary artists in the creation of a newly radical and socially-informed folk art ­– a tantalising possibility which was to remain sadly unfulfilled.

The discussion which followed the talk was lively and wide-ranging. Particular interest was given to the complex questions that Hannah had foregrounded (which stories she might choose to tell and why) and also to an engaged discussion of the unpredictable and precarious serious of events which have since accompanied An-sky’s archival materials. Both Mia and Hannah will present this ongoing research as part of Glasgow University’s ‘Narrative Spaces in Scottish Jewish Culture: A Comparative Perspective’ colloquium, which takes place on April 23rd-24th.

Second event of the Astaire Seminar Series in Jewish Studies ‘Jews, movement, migration, location’, 21 March 2017, University of Manchester

Venue: A113 Samuel Alexander Building, University of Manchester
Time: 5-7pm

Sander Gilman (Emory University), Jews as Exiles and their Representations after 1933

Cathy Gelbin (University of Manchester), German Jews and the Cosmopolitan Ideal in Exile from National Socialism

Sander Gilman is a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University. A cultural and literary historian, he is the author or editor of over eighty books. His Obesity: The Biography appeared with Oxford University Press in 2010; his most recent edited volume, The Third Reich Sourcebook (with Anson Rabinbach) was published with the University of California Press in 2013, He is the author of the basic study of the visual stereotyping of the mentally ill, Seeing the Insane, published by John Wiley and Sons in 1982 (reprinted: 1996) as well as the standard study of Jewish Self-Hatred, the title of his Johns Hopkins University Press monograph of 1986.

In our age when the meanings associated with ‘exile’ and ‘asylum’ are radically shifting, it is valuable to examine how those not directly impacted came to understand such a political alteration after 1933. The transformation of European cosmopolitan intellectuals, at home in the world but also confortable with their role in high German culture, into exiles and asylum seekers was sudden and often unpleasant.  By late January 1933, such cosmopolitans, especially those publically identified as Jews or ‘political’ (or both) began to see their status changing, even prior to the introduction of punitive laws under the new Nazi state.  I shall examine two cases of how these exiles were seen by non-Jews in radically different political spaces:  Thomas Mann in exile writing his Joseph novels and Martin Heidegger, suddenly placed in a position of leadership in the new Nazi state, commenting in his ‘Black’ notebooks about Jews. I shall also think about what such positions mean for ‘Others,’ Jews and Germans (or both) in our age of the demonization of exiles and asylum seekers.

Cathy Gelbin is a Senior Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Manchester. She specializes in German-Jewish culture, Holocaust Studies, gender and film. She is co-editor of the Oxford journal Leo Baeck Institute Year Book for the Study of German-Jewish History and Culture and serves on the Board of Directors and Trustees of the Leo Baeck Institute London, as well as on the selection committee of Studienstiftung’s international Leo Baeck Fellowship Programme in German-Jewish Studies. Recent publications include The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture (2011) and Jewish Culture in the Age of Globalization (2014, co-ed. with Sander L. Gilman).

The brief period between the two world wars saw concerted efforts by liberal and leftist-leaning German and Austrian Jewish writers to promote the cosmopolitan ideal. For a little over a century, the cosmopolitan dream of a united Europe had been nascent among Christian and Jewish intellectuals in the German-speaking realm. Following the nationalist disaster of World War I and the rise of antisemitism throughout the 1920s, the cosmopolitanist project assumed particular urgency for Jewish intellectuals. My talk examines the changes in cosmopolitanist attitudes that exile from National Socialism effected among German-Jewish writers and intellectuals, including Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Lion Feuchtwanger.