EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2016/17
‘New Approaches to the History of the Jews under Communism’
Prague, 23-25 May 2017
The main goal of the conference was to establish new perspectives for research on the Jewish experience under Communism, both in the Soviet Union and in the Communist states of eastern and east-central Europe. Acknowledging the substantial achievements in the field and considering mainly state policies towards Jewish communities, antisemitism, emigration, and political and diplomatic history, the conference aimed to go beyond those topics. In the call for papers, we, the organizers, encouraged potential participants to propose papers related to the social, cultural and political history of the Jewish communities, to dwell on complexities, contradictions, and hitherto unknown features, to present these communities as subjective historical actors rather than mere objects of state policy or of the history of the non-Jewish majorities. We wanted to transcend the most discussed and highly politicized topics such as attitudes of non-Jews to the Jewish communities in Communist states and questions of Jewish representatives’ engagement in the Communist project. The conference was also intended to launch an intense debate that would propose not only new research topics, but also new methodologies and new sources, which would transcend previous ideological and nationalistic biases. Consequently, in the call for papers we emphasized topics, methodologies, and sources related to everyday Jewish life and experiences, religious life, the persistence of old social and cultural structures from before the Communist period, transnationalism (also transgressing the boundaries of the ‘Iron Curtain’), daily vernacular and linguistic questions, non-elite and peripheral aspects of Jewish life, unofficial social and cultural networks ‘slipping’ over the legal and ideological boundaries drawn by the authoritarian states.
A particular breakthrough on this path was made in the last ten years in the history of the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union. The conference sought to invite leading experts on this topic to join in a conversation with historians of other east-central European Jewish communities, to share and discuss their perspectives and thereby enrich both fields. Another goal of the conference was to achieve an inter-generational dialogue. In order to do so, besides inviting world-renowned scholars, we reserved several conference places for young European scholars, to ensure that they would be well represented at the event and to give them a chance to present their research and to exchange ideas with leading researchers in the field.
Detailed conference description
The conference was opened at 8 pm, on 23 May, with a presentation by Oleg Zhidkov (University of Ber Sheva), ‘The Jewish Movement in the USSR: New Sources and Perspectives’. This was a discussion of a project recently concluded by a research team led by Professor Yaacov Ro’i of the Hebrew University and carried out in cooperation with the Jerusalem Jewish National Library. Zhidkov presented snippets of a few of the hundreds of video testimonies of veterans of the ‘refusenik’ movement in the Soviet Union, and discussed the interview surveys, his method for choosing the interviewees, the time and geographical scope of the project, and its potential for the research of the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union.
The main part of the conference began at 9 am, on 24 May, with opening remarks by one of the conference organizers, Stephan Stach (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague). This was followed by the first conference panel, ‘Jewish Life, Religious Practice and Folklore under Soviet Communism, Pt I’, chaired by Kateřina Čapková (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague), with papers by Valery Dymshits (European University, Saint Petersburg), Victoria Gerasimova (Omsk State University) and Diana Dumitru (Ion Creangă State University of Moldova). The first of the speakers, reporting on historical and ethnographic research in the Mogilev Podolskiy area and a few other former ‘shtetls’ in Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, discussed the connections between legal, illegal, and unofficial Jewish religious practices in these areas in the last two decades of the Soviet Union and their connections to the ‘shadow’ or private economy of the time. During the panel discussions, Dymshits was encouraged by Kamil Kijek (University of Wrocław) to discuss the pre-revolutionary stratification in the Jewish community, social prestige divisions between ‘balebatim’ and ‘balei meluche’, and their development and restructuring in the late Soviet state.
In her paper ‘The Jewish Community of Omsk under the Soviets, from 1940 to the 1960s: Between Tradition and Survival’, Victoria Gerasimova discussed the social composition of one of the three biggest official Jewish communities in Siberia (consisting in large part of Second World War Jewish evacuees from the western Soviet Union but also of ancestors of Jewish cantonists and merchants from the last decades of the Tsarist period), the internal social and power dynamics, and religious practices, official and unofficial. In her paper ‘“It is Better to Live in Romania Than in the Soviet Union”: How Bessarabian Jews Tried and Frequently Failed to Become Soviet Citizens during Late Stalinism’, Diana Dumitru looked at the dynamics of the unsuccessful integration of the Bessarabian Jews into the political and social structures of the Soviet Union in the first years after the Second World War. She discussed matters such as popular antisemitism, the perception of the Jews as agents of Sovietization, post-1945 Jewish immigration to Bessarabia, and juxtaposed it with the complicated political stance of the Bessarabian Jews and their fresh memories of life in interwar Romania. In the discussion that followed, Zvi Gitelman (University of Michigan) commented on the similarities between the Jewish policies of the State and its reactions to anti-Communist popular antisemitism in other parts of the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Bloc.
The second conference panel was entitled ‘Literature and Jewish Identity’. It was chaired by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw). Its first panelist, Daria Vakhrushova (University of Düsseldorf), discussed the ideas of the most important Yiddish avant-garde writers and critics in the early years of the Soviet Union towards the main lines of discussion and conflicts in Soviet literary criticism in general. She pointed to their ‘Soviet integration’ on the one hand and the uniqueness of Soviet Yiddish literature of the period on the other. Magdalena Ruta (Jagiellonian University, Cracow), in her paper ‘Nusekh Poyln and the “New Jewish Man”: The Image of the Jewish Communist in Yiddish Literature of Post-war Poland’, discussed how Yiddish writers in post-1945 Poland negotiated the images of the new Jewish man when faced with the requirements of state propaganda and cultural policies, as it changed in various periods of the Polish Peoples Republic (1945–47, 1948–50, 1950–56, and 1956–68). Gennadiy Estraikh (New York University), in his paper ‘Soviet Yiddish Cultural Diplomacy, from the 1950s to 1991’, considered unknown initiatives taken in official Soviet circles and by some representatives of the official Jewish community, to change the antisemitic image of the Soviet State after the late-Stalinist 1940s and early 1950s with their campaigns against alleged cosmopolitism and the ‘doctors’ plots’, by sending representatives of Soviet Yiddish culture to the West and various countries of the Eastern Bloc, in the Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and later Soviet periods.
The third conference panel was called ‘Paths of Integration/Disintegration in the Communist Political System and Society’, and it was chaired by Michal Kopeček (Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague). It began with a paper by Galina Zelenina (Russian State University of the Humanities, Moscow), ‘“Po Kurskoi, Kazanskoi zheleznoi doroge”: Jewish Private Life in the Moscow Oblast between Leisure, Underground Religion, and National Revival’, a microstudy of a Moscow suburb, presenting a panorama of Jewish political, social, and cultural pluralism in the Soviet period. In the Malakhovka suburb, Soviet Jewish elites, who owned prestigious dachas, took part in ‘refusenik’ gatherings and unofficial Jewish religious practice, all of which attests to the density and importance of informal social networks in Jewish life in the Soviet period. Agata Maksimowska (University of Warsaw), in her paper ‘Being Jewish in Soviet Birobidzhan’, juxtaposed her interviews with long-standing members of the Jewish community in Birobidzhan – including their narratives of unofficial Jewish life, stigmas of being Jewish and being from ‘Jewish’ Birobidzhan – with the official Soviet narratives and policies of the ‘Jewish Autonomous Oblast’. She thus showed how Yiddish had practically disappeared from the public sphere in Birobidzhan and had become the language of the older members of families, eventually vanishing as the link of cultural transmission from one generation to the next. In her paper ‘Centre and Periphery: Jewish Experience in Communist Czechoslovakia’, Kateřina Čapková challenged the Prague/centre oriented narrative of the assimilation and ‘disappearance’ of the Czechoslovak Jewish community under Communism, and demonstrated the importance of Sub-Carpathian and Slovak Jewish immigration to the Sudetenland region after the Second World War and also the richness of newly established Jewish life there in the first few decades of the Communist period. Contrary to the common narratives of prosecution, economic degradation, and willing or enforced emigration from Czechoslovakia, Yiddish-speaking Jews from Subcarpathian Ruthenia and Slovakia remember those years not only as a time of political repression. It was for them also a time of a better standard of living than what they had experienced in their pre-war milieux and of less antisemitism from their non-Jewish neighbours than what they had known in their place of origin.
The conference was at its mid-point with the last event of 24 May, a panel discussion entitled ‘The Diversity of Jewish Experiences under Communism’. It was chaired by Marcos Silber (Haifa University) and participated in by Zvi Gitelman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw), Bożena Szaynok (University of Wrocław), and Andrea Pető (Central European University, Budapest). The first of the panellists, Gitelman, mainly emphasized various differences between the Soviet line of so-called ‘Jewish policies’ and their post-1945 versions in the various satellite states. He claimed, in opposition to the popular misconception, that the ‘Jewish question’ was of relative unimportance in Eastern-Bloc policy, and that there was thus a lack of sustained Soviet pressure to transplant the Soviet model of Jewish policies into the other states under Soviet domination. Nalewajko-Kulikov shared her views on what had been done so far on the topic of the Yiddish language in Communist Eastern Europe, both in the field of literature and in everyday life, and also on what still needed thorough study. These fields of future research should, she argued, include the question of the influence that Yiddish, a recently abandoned everyday language, has had on the ways Polish, Romanian, and Soviet Jews spoke and used the ‘majority languages’ with a still clearly audible ‘minority tinge’. Another so far neglected field of research is the real readership and impact of officially published Yiddish literature in the Soviet Bloc. Szaynok, in her talk, summarized the existing knowledge and state of the field regarding the history of the Polish Jews under Communist government. Pető discussed methodological nationalism and the impact that the illiberal turn in today’s east-central Europe has had on the study of the Jewish experience under Communism in general and in Hungary in particular.
The second day of the conference started with the panel ‘Jewish Identities and Ways of Life under Communism’. The participants considered the questions of Jewish identities, and life decisions taken in the various circumstances of the different Communist regimes. The panel began with a paper by Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto), ‘“I was not like everyone else”: Soviet Jewish Doctors Remember the Doctors’ Plot of 1953’. Based on a few hundred oral interviews with Soviet Jewish doctors, her paper evaluated their narratives on how they struggled with discrimination and what kind of strategies were individually and collectively employed by them to resist it. Anna Koch (University of Southampton), in her paper ‘“After Auschwitz You Must Take Your Origin Seriously”: Perceptions of Jewishness among Communists of Jewish Origin in the Emerging German Democratic Republic’, discussed how the clandestine, marginal, seemingly irrelevant, or denied feelings of Jewishness in the East German Communist regime affected Jews’ political decisions and attitudes in the early years of the German Democratic Republic. Despite official state policies, the strong feelings left by the Holocaust and its uniqueness among other Nazi-period martyrologies became the central element of the identity of Communists of Jewish origin. Kata Bohus (Jewish Museum in Frankfurt am Main), in her paper ‘Opposition of the Opposition: New Jewish Identities in the Samizdat of Late Communist Hungary’, analysed the role of the then young Hungarian Jewish generation in the anti-Communist opposition of the late 1970s and the 1980s and its positions regarding the future shape of the Jewish community, based on new, ethnic, or para-national and non-religious paradigms. In the discussion that followed her paper, conference participants debated the similarities and singularities between this case and cases in the other countries of the Communist bloc, particularly Poland.
The next panel of the day was entitled ‘Jewish Religious Life and Folklore under Soviet Communism’. Ella Stiniguță (Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca), in her paper ‘Mountain Jews and the Challenges of Ritual Life in the Soviet Caucasus’, spoke about the religious, cultural, and social life of the Mountain Jews of Soviet Azerbaijan and Georgia. Lacking official and institutional venues, their religious life became increasingly organized around family structures. An interesting aspect of this was the strong contact and mutual help amongst Jewish families and their practising Muslim neighbours. Mikhail Mitsel (JDC Archives, New York), in a paper entitled ‘Jewish Religious Communities in Ukraine, 1945–81’, demonstrated that the representatives of these Jewish communities were not passive towards the political system, but rather were active participants in it, negotiating and seeking to present their positions to the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs and the local authorities, white maintaining their ties to Israeli or American Jewish organizations, sometimes against official state policy. Karina Barkane (University of Riga), in a paper entitled ‘Beyond Assimilation: Jewish Religious Communities in the Latvian SSR’, presented a picture of a vibrant, active Jewish religious community that achieved and created various possibilities for religious observance, including synagogues.
The final conference panel was entitled ‘Jewish Transnational Encounters’. In the first presentation, David Shneer (University of Colorado, Boulder), in his paper ‘Maintaining Collective Identity after Fascism: East Germany’s Jews, Their Transnational Networks, and East German Anti-Fascism’, showed how East German Jews, through places of official contact amongst Soviet Bloc countries, kept in touch with the Jewish communities. This included visits by Yiddish singers and theatre companies, concerts by American artists involved in the ‘anti-imperialist’ campaign, and, by commemorating anti-fascist struggles and victims of concentration camps. Eliyana Adler (Penn State University), in her paper ‘Strange Bedfellows: The Soviet Red Cross, Polish Jewish Refugees, and the American Joint Distribution Committee’, spoke about the activities of the Joint, which, through the good offices of the Soviet Red Cross and, after the Polish-Soviet Agreement of 1941, also the Polish government-in-exile in the Soviet Union, organized help for the Polish Jewish refugees in the country. Such transnational contacts of Polish Jews were one of the decisive arguments for allowing them to emigrate from the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
The purpose of the final roundtable was to summarize the proceedings of the conference. This panel was chaired by Kamil Kijek (University of Wrocław), and included summary remarks of Audrey Kichelewski (Strasbourg University) and Arkadi Zeltser (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem). The panellists underlined the impact of migration on the realities of Jewish life in the Communist States as well as official and unofficial transnational links, both within and beyond the Eastern Bloc. What was unanimously emphasized by the panellists and also by the other conference participants was the importance of broadening the range of Jewish voices and sources, stepping beyond officially produced state documents, and undertaking comparative analyses of sources such as oral history testimonies, internal Jewish documents, and documents on Jewish life in the Soviet Bloc produced abroad or ones not intended for government institutions, which were produced in Eastern Europe but had found their way to Israeli or American archives. During the panel discussion, Gitelman had complained about the lack of discussion here about the relations between the Jews and the non-Jews of Communist Europe and the Soviet Union. These relations, he argued, should be analysed in comparative perspective between various Communist countries. He was opposed on this point by several other participants who argued that there had indeed been papers on these relations at the local level and that it was very hard to do comparisons without having detailed research from the different regions. Dimshits argued that not only comparisons were necessary; we also needed, he said, to consider the diversity of the situation of Jews within each single country (which he demonstrated with the Soviet case). Another problem that was apparently insufficiently discussed at the conference was mixed marriages, families, and identities, which were so prominent in the Soviet Bloc.
Summary: Outcomes of the conference and the tasks ahead
The conference achieved most of its aims. Its participants not merely outlined current research projects, but also presented fully developed projects that will come to fruition in new, innovative accounts of the Jewish experience under Communism, in the Soviet Union and in the Communist states of east-central Europe. As planned, the conference participants went beyond the narrowly defined borders of political history, and presented papers on Jewish social and cultural life, showing Jews not only as the objects of state policy but also, indeed mostly, as subjective historical actors. Various new, previously ignored sources and previously unemployed methodologies were presented. The conference brought together promising young scholars, whose papers were often of high academic quality, as well as most of the leading scholars in the field from all over the world.
The main tangible result of the conference will be a volume of edited articles based on selected papers presented in Prague. It will be published in English in an American university publishing house and, later, in Czech translation.
Reports on the conference
A report by Ilana Miller, University of Chicago, is published at H-Soz-Kult:
A Czech version of this report will be published in Soudobé dějiny, the journal of the Institute of Contemporary History, Prague.
There will be an article about the conference published in Roš Chodeš, the journal of the Jewish communities of the Czech and the Slovak Republics.
A link to the report on Czech Radio:
It appears as news on the website of the Czech Academy of Sciences:
And here is a link to photographs from the conference, which are also available in much higher quality on demand (copyright of the photographer, David Kumermann).
The full conference programme and the biographies of the participants are available on the conference website: