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.