EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2020/21
Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality, 1941–1991
Virtual GEOP Workshop, November 22 to 24, 2021
POLIN Jewish Museum in Warsaw
Organizers: Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto) & Alexander Walther (Schiller-Universität Jena)
The virtual GEOP Interdisciplinary Research Workshop “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality, 1941/44–91” at the POLIN Jewish Museum in Warsaw aimed to examine the role of Yiddish in the cultures of Socialist states in Eastern and East-Central Europe in their trans-socialist and transnational entanglements in the second half of the 20th century. Over the course of three days, workshop participants discussed different ways in which Yiddish cultural agents, thousands of whom chose to remain in Eastern Europe, positioned themselves within socialist narratives of the past, present and future, and in dialogue with the Jewish diasporas around the world.
The central research questions included:
- How did various attempts at cultural restitution and revival of Yiddish take shape under the conditions of state socialism?
- Which conceptions of Yiddishkayt, of Jewish secularism and socialism emerged in this context?
- Which actors were involved, against which biographical backgrounds did they act and how did they interact with each other?
- What role did the Shoah and the Cold War play in these efforts?
- How were phenomena such as antifascism and internationalism Yiddishized?
Focusing on Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany (especially the German Democratic Republic), Romania, and individual Western countries such as the United States, Argentina, and Israel/Palestine, discussions orbited around Yiddish as a vehicle of Jewish culture within Socialist states and the diverse cross-bloc interconnections of various actors during the “Yiddish Cold War.” The Yiddish language, which was an essential component of a modern Jewish culture in East(-Central) Europe before the Holocaust, turned out to be particularly suitable for this examination. Although the language lost much of its everyday significance due to the murder of a large part of its speakers, it remained a central factor of transnational interconnections, especially through the flight movements that began before and after the Shoah. While in the Soviet Union, for example, Yiddish cultural figures fell victim to Stalinist persecutions between 1948 and 1953, new, albeit minimal, spaces for Jewish secularism and socialism opened up in the post-Stalinist period to form, among other things, an active front in the Yiddish Cold War. In socialist Poland, the post-war phenomenon of nusekh Poyln (Polish Way) emerged – caught between the deep traumas of the Holocaust, the commitment (of whatever kind) to a socialist present, and in exchange with the Yiddish (Polish) diaspora worldwide. And while there was initially little effort in Germany to revive Yiddish culture, enclaves flourished in the DP camps before the residents moved on, primarily to Israel or the United States, or chose to remain in (often East) Germany.
A niche topic by nature, scholars of history, literature, cultural studies, and musicology discussed with each other interdisciplinarily and drew a broad and complex picture of Yiddish culture(s) in the respective countries by tracing connections, duplications, alterities, or dependencies. The trans-socialist and trans-national approach often, but unfortunately not consistently, challenged the block binarity of older narratives as legacies of the Cold War and were in dialogue with the latest developments in the research fields of Cold War Culture Studies, Diaspora and Transnational Studies, (Soviet/Socialist) Subjectivity and Gender Studies, and postcolonial theory with a special focus on the socialist space. However, consequences of marginality of topic in the academy specifically and of Yiddish generally presented themselves in the discussions, as well, in that it proved difficult to explore distinct countries comprehensively, not to mention Socialist Yiddish’s transnationality throughout the whole Cold War period. So while the goals of the event have been generally achieved, it became apparent that this is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation which will be continued and intensified in the planned conference volume which is set for publication with De Gruyter in 2023.
The workshop opened on November 22, 2021 with welcoming remarks by POLIN’s director Krzysztof Persak and the workshop organizers, Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto) and Alexander Walther (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena), and was conceived as a tribute to David Shneer. David Shneer was one of the pioneers of a younger generation of scholars who turned to the problem of Yiddish and state Socialism, freed from the ideological burden of the Cold War, and was meant to participate in the workshop. In 2020, Shneer passed away prematurely – leaving behind a field of research that was decisively shaped by him. The opening night was open to the public. It was dedicated to Shneer’s work on Yiddish in the GDR and started with introductory remarks by his widower Gregg Drinkwater. Drinkwater set the stage for the main part: a lecture-concert with Jalda Rebling, Tobias Morgenstern and Daniel Weltlinger who took us back to Yiddish East Berlin with a deep dive into Rebling’s song repertoire. Rebling is the youngest daughter of Lin Jaldati (1912–1988) – the famed voice of socialist Yiddish culture during the Cold War. Jaldati, an Amsterdam native, a Holocaust survivor herself and life-long convinced socialist, decided to follow an invitation by the German Democratic Republic with her husband, the German socialist Eberhard Rebling (1911–2008), and emigrated with her family to East Berlin in 1952. She ascended to fame with her performances of Yiddish antifascist music from the GDR across the spreading global Communist empire touring Western Europe, Israel, and the USA together with her husband Eberhard Rebling and daughters Jalda and Kathinka. Jalda Rebling accompanied her mother already back then and continues her legacy still today. During the opening night, she performed with a band a selection of primarily antifascist Yiddish songs and contextualized them alongside. The concert was followed by a Q&A with both Rebling and Drinkwater who provided further information about the (symbolic) role of Yiddish in the GDR and within the Socialist empire the role of Yiddish in the GDR and the connection to antifascism. The Zoom event was attended by over 50 people from all across the world. As such, it in and of itself spoke to the transnationality of today’s Yiddishland.
The actual workshop (closed to the broader public) started on November 23, 2021 with the panel “Dis/Continuities of Yiddish in Socialist Countries.” Sabine Koller (University of Regensburg) opened with her paper “Yiddish in the Soviet Union – Dovid Hofshteyn’s Literary (Re)Invention in (Post)War Times.” After World War II, the year 1948 turned out to be a crucial date in the history of (Soviet) Jewry. It is the year when the famed Soviet Yiddish actor and head of the Jewish Antifascist Committee Shloyme Mikhoels was killed by Stalin’s order; it is the year when the State of Israel was founded. Against the backdrop of this eventful history and considering Soviet Yiddish literature in the 1940s, the paper explored Dovid Hofshteyn’s (re)invention of Jewishness in his war-time poetry (cf. his cycle Kh’gleyb (I believe) published in 1944 in Moscow and, with a completely different content, in 1945 in New York) and after the war, e.g. Rusland (Russia), L’chaim (To Life), and Bay mayn fentster (At my window), his last poem published before his arrest in September 1948. Koller’s contribution was followed by Kamil Kijek’s (University of Wroclaw) paper “Yiddish in Poland in the late 1940s.” Yiddish as a daily cultural, political, and social practice of Jewish life in Poland in the early postwar period was the focus of this contribution. Based on a broad source base, Kijek contrasted the language use of Polish Jews and showed how Yiddish related to the other spoken languages Polish, Hebrew and Russian. The final panelist was Binyamin Hunyadi (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) with his paper “‘Di lebedike meysim’ (The Walking Dead): Volf Tambur and Romanian Post-WWII Yiddish Prose.” Hunyadi traced the career of Volf Tambur (1915-1995), one of the central figures in Romania’s post-World War II literary milieu, from a representative of the “Yung Rumenye” – a group of young Yiddish writers of interwar Romania – toward becoming an advocate for the Communist regime. However, Hunyadi also highlighted how Tambur experimented with other genres, such as Hasidic stories, in addition to his socialist-shaped texts. The subsequent discussion was very lively and rich. Among the questions that were discussed with Koller was the issue of neatly separating between a Jewish and non-Jewish sphere generally and a Jewish and Soviet sphere specifically and the question of a Soviet anti-racism that works against and beyond the Western idea of ‘race’ altogether. Kijek answered questions that pertained to the specific peripheric places he was examining in his presentation, discussed the potential to decenter the study of Yiddish in postwar Poland from the center in Warsaw to the peripheries and whether this can be applied generally to Yiddish on the Socialist margins. In the Q&A, Hunyadi further discussed the specificity of the Romanian case within the Socialist bloc and in which ways this affected the role of postwar Yiddish literature. As the odd one out, the case of Romania, and Volf Tambur specifically, has the potential to enlighten specific universal conditions beyond its particularities.
The second panel of the day was entitled “Yiddishland and Transnationality” and included contributions by Jan Schwarz (Lund University), Rachelle Grossman (Harvard University), Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto), and Diego Rotman (Hebrew University, Jerusalem). In his paper “Chava Rosenfarb’s Life-Writing: Transnational Yiddish from a Woman’s Perspective,” Jan Schwarz analysed the poetry and diaries of Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011), one of the most important Yiddish women writers of the post-war period, in terms of their creation and dissemination in a DP camp, in Belgium, and later in Canada, and are examined especially regarding the dimension of gender. This elaboration was followed by Rachelle Grossman’s paper “Postwar Yiddish between East and West” which discussed the state-sponsored Yidish-bukh press in Warsaw. Characterized by a shared political outlook, it was in contact and collaborated with branches of the Yidisher Kultur Farband in New York and in Buenos Aires. These relationships allowed for the circulation of ideas and texts beyond the seemingly impermeable boundary marked by the Iron Curtain. In analysing archival documents as well as official publications by these presses, this paper examined how the transnational character of Yiddish – coupled with socialist politics – enabled these activities despite a larger geopolitical context that would otherwise prevent such contact. Miriam Schulz focused on “Soviet Yiddish and Third World Solidarity.” In post-Stalinist Soviet Union, Yiddish assumed official roles on the Cold War cultural front. While there are promising beginnings to map the geopolitical, ideological, and cultural role that the “Soviet Yiddish front” (Estraikh, 2008) was to play, Schulz, with the help of the paper Sovetish Heymland, turned to the as yet little considered Yiddish ambitions for a transnational, decolonized socialist cultural space of the “Second World” in solidarity with the postcolonies. Panel II concluded with a creative contribution by Diego Rotman entitled “Reconstructing Dzigan and Shumacher Poetics in Post-Holocaust Poland (An Artistic-Research Approach).” He streamed his film “Yiddish Silence” – a mediation on Polish-Yiddish actors Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, who survived World War II and the Shoah in the Soviet Union, performing there in Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Kharkiv, etc., before being arrested and spending several years in prison. In 1950 they immigrated to the young state of Israel and again built a career on the Yiddish stage. In the subsequent discussion, Schwarz was questioned about the gendered dimension of his presentation and asked to elaborate on how Rosenfarb’s postwar transnationality enlightens the East-West divide of Cold War Yiddishland generally and on her relations to Yiddish in Socialist countries specifically. He concluded that Avrom Sutzkever as a writer and Israeli Cold Warrior would have probably been a better fit for the workshop. Rachelle Grossman was asked to think about a material turn in Cold War cultural studies and what way the materiality of Yiddish bukh and its Western equivalent speaks to the differences between Socialist and Capitalist book production. Miriam Schulz was asked to elaborate on the relationship between Soviet authorities and Sovetish Heymland and questions whether the specific radical solidarity she examined in her paper could be seen as the intellectual predecessors of today’s inclusive Holocaust education. Diego Rotman’s creative contributions led to a discussion about the resonance and productivity of silence and potential for the study of Yiddish in the Socialist bloc generally.
The workshop session of November 23, 2021 closed with panel III “Performative Yiddish.” Katharina Friedla’s (Warsaw) paper “‘Bist a Yid? Can’t you speak to me in Yiddish?’ Yiddish as an Identity marker among Polish Jews in the Soviet Union” examined the role Yiddish played for Polish Jews in Soviet exile during and after the war, for example as a connecting element between Polish and Soviet Jews or for Jewish soldiers in the Polish army. Especially the phenomenon of German-speaking Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union who turned to Yiddish pointed to as yet unexplored changing power dynamics between German and Yiddish – an incredibly valuable contribution of Friedla’s paper. It was followed by Jeffrey Shandler’s (Rutgers University, New Brunswick) paper “Yiddish as Postvernacularism between East and West.” In it, Shandler showed the role of Yiddish during and after the Shoah in the Soviet Union by way of two transnational events. The use of prominent representatives of Soviet Yiddish culture in August 1941, and the performances of black civil rights activist Paul Robeson for a struggle against fascism in Leningrad in 1949 were presented on the basis of diverse sources. The semiotic and performative meaning of Yiddish was analysed in the respective contexts. The panel was wrapped up by Corina Petrescu’s (University of Mississippi) paper “The Penetrable Iron Curtain: The Jewish State Theater in Bucharest on Tour in Israel (1968).” By analysing the media response to the performances in Israel/Palestine, Petrescu explored the outsider role of Yiddish Romania within the Socialist bloc and showed how the Cold War influenced perceptions and opened up avenues of opportunities heretofore unacknowledged. The subsequent discussion orbited around the question of power and a reconceptualization when it comes to Yiddish vis-a-vis German (Friedla); the applicability of the concept of “post-vernacularism” on the Soviet Yiddish case (Shandler); and around spaces of opportunities that opened up for Yiddish actors not despite but thanks to political instrumentalization.
The last workshop day on November 24, 2021 commenced with the fourth and last panel: “Yiddish and Socialist Memory Cultures of the Holocaust.” Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw) presented on “Zygmunt Klukowski’s Diary and its Publication in Bleter far Geshikhte.” The journal Bleter far Geshikhte, the Yiddish-language journal of the Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw, was explored as a medium of an early Holocaust discourse in Poland (and beyond). Nalewajko-Kulikov demonstrated instances of censorship, precautionary deletions, or additions in Zygmunt Klukowski’s diary, which was published first in Yiddish and later in Polish, in order to discuss the broader issue of their political implications. Agnieszka Żółkiewska (Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw) framed the rather un-Yiddish Polish historian Michal M. Borwicz as a pioneer and founder of Polish-Jewish Holocaust historiography. As chairman of the Jewish Historical Commission in Cracow, which was active in the immediate postwar period, Borwicz wrote several books on the Shoah. The beginnings of Polish-Jewish historiography on the Holocaust were analysed in this paper with some references to the role of Yiddish and in their tension between the needs of Polish-Jewish survivors and the Polish authorities. Alexander Walther (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena) focused on “Yiddish and Holocaust Remembrance in the GDR.” Translated Yiddish literature was a rarity in the GDR. Yet, Walther’s analysis of the comparatively few publications and their origins showed the strategies translators and editors used for the sake of establishing Yiddish culture in a socialist and – in this context significantly – post-Nazi social order. The accompanying texts also revealed a hidden discourse about the Shoah. Finally, Arkadi Zeltser (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem) concluded the workshop with his presentation on “Yiddish on Holocaust Monuments in the USSR.” Zeltser’s paper turned to the Jewish Holocaust memorial culture in the Soviet Union, which, as a specifically Soviet phenomenon, was nonetheless strongly influenced by Jewish mourning rituals. The tension between modernity and tradition was resolved, Zeltser argued, through Yiddish as a bridge of Soviet loyalty, contemporary needs, and Jewish sensibilities. Within the discussion, participants discussed what the case of Zygmunt Klukowski can help to rethink Jewish-non-Jewish relations in postwar Poland; questioned the positionality of Michal M. Borwicz within the history of specifically Socialist Yiddish; elaborated on the role of Yiddish in translation as part of the history of Yiddish in postwar Socialist bloc and its effects on Yiddish as a still-living vernacular and a symbol of something that is forever lost; and, finally, semantic shifts in Yiddish, the language’s relationship to hegemonic languages such as German or Russian, and what both tell us about the role of Yiddish in the Socialist bloc.
Panel IV was followed by a concluding forum in which the most significant and productive threads in papers and discussions were summarized and further discussed with a view towards the future conference volume that is under contract with De Gruyter and set for publication in 2023. The discussion was guided by two threads: What is Yiddish and what is transnationality? The conference clearly showed that Yiddish is a linguistic system and a vehicle of culture but, in the Cold War context, increasingly also a powerful symbol of a culture destroyed – but also of perseverance and antifascism. In this context, one issue that was raised was the relative absence of the Cold War as a (geo)political and cultural conflict in the papers and discussions – an absence that, the participants agreed, will play a bigger role in the article versions. Another problem pertained to writing Cold War history from behind the Iron Curtain, as it were, and the acknowledgment of one’s ‘Western’ subjectivity as a scholar in today’s capitalist totality and the im/possibility of overcoming this positionality in our inquiries. When it comes to the question of transnationality, concepts like diaspora and the Bundist idea doikayt (hereness) were elaborated in regards to Cold War Yiddish. Especially the importance of the transsocialist dimension of Yiddish was highlighted for the tasks ahead. The concluding discussion was wrapped up with coming up with an agenda for the production of the conference volume in a collaborative way.
The workshop closed on November 24, 2021 with the world premiere of “Fighting with Music: Yiddish Songs of World War II from Central Asia and Chuvashia” – a lecture-concert with Anna Shternshis & Psoy Korolenko – that was open to the public and attended by over 80 people zooming in from all across the world. In 2018, Shternshis and Korolenko made history when their album Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II was nominated for a Grammy under the category of “World Music” as one of the only Yiddish-language recordings ever. With Yiddish Glory, they released a first selection of hundreds of Yiddish war songs that Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovskii had gathered within the microcosms of Jewish refugees, evacuees, soldiers, and Holocaust survivors in the Soviet Union and that were deemed lost until Shternshis unearthed them in an Ukrainian archive in 2000s. “Fighting with Music: Yiddish Songs of World War II from Central Asia and Chuvashia” are Shternshis’ and Korolenko’s newest recordings of Beregovskii’s treasure trove. They were presented alongside in-depth contextualization during the closing event to the public for the first time. The Q&A further explored the history of these new songs, and what they can teach us about the transnational, social and performative character of Yiddish in extremis and about the concrete social and historical contexts of their creation. Another subject that was discussed was the significance of these songs today in our age of rising transnational fascism.
The organizers, Miriam Schulz and Alexander Walther, have signed a contract with dup | De Gruyter for the publication of the conference volume “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality, 1941–1991” as part of the series Yiddish Edition and Research. Based on the interdisciplinary workshop, the volume congregates scholars of history, literature, cultural studies, and musicology and provides a broad description of Yiddish culture(s) in the respective countries with a view towards connections, duplications, alterities, or dependencies.
The volume represents an important contribution to Jewish and explicitly Yiddish studies and aims to challenge Cold War narratives through the trans-socialist and -national approach in dialogue with recent developments in the research fields of Cold War Culture Studies, Diaspora and Transnational Studies, (Soviet/Socialist) Subjectivity and Gender Studies, as well as postcolonial theory with a special focus on the socialist space.
This inter-, if not post-disciplinary, approach is reinforced by a hybrid nature of the volume: the traditional academic contributions (with a standard length of 8000 words, including footnotes) are complemented by (1) a selection of archival documents, (2) heretofore untranslated Socialist Yiddish works, and (3) edited interviews with distinguished experts who provide insights into the challenges of studying Yiddish cultures under socialism and elaborate, through specific case studies, how current research projects can contribute to a better understanding of Yiddish as a cultural practice in the postwar (socialist) period. The interviews as well as, when possible, various contributions will refer to digital references, such as the concerts planned as part of the workshop. This synergy between the analog and the digital allows for deeper insight and the possibility for knowledge production with the anthology as an anchor and beyond.
Monday, 22 November, 2021
Welcome Address by: Krzysztof Persak (POLIN Museum); Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto); Alexander Walther (University of Jena)
OPENING NIGHT (FROM JENA)
Yiddish in East Berlin – A Tribute to David Shneer
Concert with Jalda Rebling, Tobias Morgenstern (Accordion) & Daniel Weltlinger (Violin)
Tuesday, 23 November, 2021
PANEL I: DIS/CONTINUITIES OF YIDDISH IN SOCIALIST COUNTRIES
Sabine Koller (University of Regensburg) – Yiddish in the Soviet Union – Dovid Hofshteyn’s Literary (Re)invention in (Post)-War Times
Kamil Kijek (University of Wroclaw) – Yiddish in Poland in the Late 1940s
Binyamin Hunyadi (Hebrew University) – „Di lebedike mesim” – The Walking Dead: Volf Tambur and Romanian Post-WWII Yiddish Prose
PANEL II: YIDDISHLAND AND TRANSNATIONALITY
Jan Schwarz (Lund University) – Chava Rosenfarb’s Life-Writing: Transnational Yiddish from a Woman’s Perspective
Rachelle Grossmann (Harvard University) – Postwar Yiddish between East and West
Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto) – Soviet Yiddish and Third World Solidarity
Diego Rotman (Hebrew University) – Reconstructing Dzigan and Shumacher Poetics in Post-Holocaust Poland (An Artistic-Research Approach)
PANEL III: PERFORMATIVE YIDDISH
Katharina Friedla (Warsaw) – “Bist a Yid? Can’t you speak to me in Yiddish?” Yiddish as an Identity marker among Polish Jews in the Soviet Union
Jeffrey Shandler (Rutgers University) – Yiddish as Postvernacularism between East and West
Corina Petrescu (University of Mississippi) – The Penetrable Iron Curtain: The Jewish State Theater in Bucharest on Tour in Israel (1968)
Wednesday, 24 November, 2021
PANEL IV: YIDDISH AND SOCIALIST MEMORY CULTURES OF THE HOLOCAUST
Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw) – Zygmunt Klukowski’s Diary and its Publication in Bleter far Geshikhte
Agnieszka Żółkiewska (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw) – Michal M. Borwicz: Pioneer and Founder of Polish-Jewish Holocaust Historiography
Alexander Walther (Jena University) – Yiddish and Holocaust Remembrance in the GDR
Arkadi Zeltser (Yad Vashem) – Yiddish on Holocaust Monuments in the USSR
CLOSING EVENT: WORLD PREMIERE, LIVE FROM TORONTO
Anna Shternshis & Psoy Korolenko – Fighting with Music: Yiddish Songs of World War II from Central Asia and Chuvashia
Lecture-concert followed by Q&A. Sponsored by Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Council for the Arts