EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2015/16
Suppressed Historiography, Erased Memory? The Perception of the Shoah in East Central Europe during Socialist Rule
Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies, Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, 30 November – 1 December 2015
Main organizer: Dr Stephan Stach (Aleksander Brückner Zentrum für Polenstudien, Halle)
Co-organizers: Dr Michal Frankl (Department of Jewish Studies and History of Antisemitism, Jewish Museum in Prague) and Professor Dr Yvonne Kleinmann (Aleksander Brückner Zentrum für Polenstudien, Halle)
From November 30 to December 1 2015 the Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies hosted the workshop “Suppressed Historiography, Erased Memory?” at the Martin Luther University in Halle. The workshop was organised in cooperation with the Jewish Museum in Prague and made possible thanks to a generous subvention from the European Association for Jewish Studies’ Conference Grant Programme. Additional support was granted by Deutsch-Tschechischer Zukunftsfonds/ Česko-německý fond budoucnosti and Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.
During the period of socialist rule in East Central Europe, historical research into the perception of the Shoah focused mainly on the politics of history (Geschichtspolitik) of the socialist states. This perspective meant that the Shoah was either marginalized or politically exploited by the socialist governments. Other individuals or groups seeking to shape its perception, including Jewish Communities, Historians, Museums, and artists, were often ignored. This workshop aimed at a broader understanding of Shoah perception as a dynamic process within shifting boundaries of political restrictions and proposed to draw a wider picture that includes the agency of individuals and social groups in forming the historiography and memory of the Shoah. In addition, the workshop aimed to stimulate comparative and transnational approaches on the issue, which so far have been lacking.
The idea that during state socialism historiography of the Shoah was suppressed and its memory erased or at least manipulated and politically exploited by the ruling parties is still prevalent. However, recent research in several countries (especially Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary) has raised reasonable doubt about this schematic and generalising characterisation. On November 30 and December 1 the workshop “Suppressed Historiography, Erased Memory? The Perception of the Shoah in East Central Europe during Socialist Rule” presented an opportunity for early career and senior researchers in this field to present and debate their findings and re-evaluate this mentioned assumption.
In his opening remarks Stephan Stach (Aleksander Brückner Center, Halle) pointed out that even though from the 1980s up to very recently the research literature on Shoah perception in Eastern Europe draws the image of a tabooed and distorted topic, there is much evidence proving that this is only minor part of the whole picture. According to Stach, the research activity of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny), along with representations of the Shoah in film, literature and art, and also, on different occasions, the public (press) debate, all demonstrate the existence of a discursive space for the Shoah in socialist East Central Europe.
However, the boundaries of this space were shifting between the 1940s and the 1980s and differed between the respective countries. Considering the large number of recent research results on single states and societies of the regions (four monographs in this field appeared in Germany alone in 2015[i]), Stach suggested to approach the issue in a comparative way to identify state socialist features of dealing with the Shoah. Another approach he suggested for future research is to trace transnational entanglements in Shoah research and commemoration, within both socialist East Central Europe and across the Iron Curtain.
The first panel of the conference, Socialist Shoah Historiography, looked at this subject by considering biographical studies of three researchers: Bernard Mark, Artur Eisenbach and Miroslav Karný. The two former had both been directors of the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute, while the latter had been active in post-1968 Czechoslovakia. Gabriel Finder (University of Virginia, Charlottesville) described Bernard Mark’s development from being a historian, who interpreted the Shoah according to the requirements of the ruling party, to what he described as a “bona fide historian”. Finder showed how the emphasis on communist participation in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising gradually decreased in Mark’s monographs from the late 1940’s to the 1960’s and how Mark finally freed himself from all communist interpretations in his last and only posthumously published book Megiles Oyshvits (The Scrolls of Auschwitz). Estera Flieger (University of Lodz) assessed Artur Eisenbach’s narrative strategies on the Shoah mainly in his extensive study Hitlerowska polityka zagłady Żydów (Nazi Policy of the Extermination of Jews), and confronted them with his biographical experience. Peter Hallama (independent scholar, Strasbourg) demonstrated how the former journalist of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s central organ Rudé Pravo (Red Law) Miroslav Karný was able to research the Shoah and regularly publish on the issue within the official framework in exchange for certain ideological concessions. During the discussion that followed these presentations, the subject of the protagonists’ understanding of their own Jewishness and their experience of Shoah survival was especially brought up.
Panel 2, Shoah Remembrance in the Jewish & non-Jewish Sphere, was devoted to Shoah commemoration in and outside the Jewish communities. Miriam Schulz (Columbia University, New York) approached the question of Jewish commemoration activities throughout the Soviet Union by analysing the Yiddish language Journal Sovetish Heymland, which appeared from 1961. As Schulz showed, through Sovetish Heymland‘s reporting on local Jewish, and Yiddish speaking, commemoration groups the agency of Jewish survivors in forming Shoah memory in the Soviet Union became visible. Katarzyna Person (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw) described how the underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, usually called “Ringelblum Archive” after its founder Emanuel Ringelblum, was initially treated as a symbol of Polish-Jewish endurance and resistance. However, according to Person, during the late 1940s and early 1950s it was increasingly interpreted within the ideological framework of anti-fascism and anti-imperialism and regarded as part of the all-Polish martyrdom in World War II. This in turn provoked harsh discussions among the Jewish historians in Warsaw and even led to an attempt to relocate the archive abroad. Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw) analysed the editing process of the various Yiddish and Polish editions of Ringelblum’s notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. She demonstrated how the assumption of what was considered appropriate for the reader and what had to be left out differed widely depending on the moment of publication and the expected readership. In the discussion following these presentations, the question of censorship and self-censorship was a key issue. The participants also raised the matter of which audiences certain publications addressed and what implications this had for the way the Shoah was written about.
Panel 3 was titled Eye Witnesses and their Role in Socialist Commemoration. It sought to highlight the role of witness and especially eye-witness accounts for the perception of the Shoah. Kata Bohus (Lichtenberg Kolleg, Göttingen) analysed the dissemination and perception of Anne Frank’s diary in Hungary, where a translation appeared in 1957, comparing it to the diary of the Hungarian-Jewish girl Éva Heyman, which had been published already in 1949. As Bohus pointed out, Anne Frank’s diary was much less controversial for both the Hungarian society and the government than Éva Heyman’s, since the latter raised problematic questions about the role of non-Jewish Hungarians during the Shoah and touched on other sensitive issues. Hannah Maischein (City Museum, Munich) approached the issue analysing Polish pictures portraying the Shoah and Polish-Jewish relations during World War II. As Maischein showed, many visualisations of the Shoah emerged in Poland before the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, whereas since that campaign a “forced forgetting” took place. However, the rise of the Solidarność movement and the beginning of a public debate on the role of non-Jewish Poles during the Shoah reversed this process and have since produced new visualisations. Jakub Mlynař (Charles University, Prague) delved into the question of how Czechoslovak survivors reflected the post-war representations of the Shoah in their narration, focusing on oral history interviews from the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation. This presentation sparked a lively discussion on whether the experience of Shoah survivors was really memorised differently in Eastern and Western post-war societies, as the phases of preoccupation with or ignorance of their own fate in the post-war years were very similar to those observed in survivor communities in the West. The politicisation of Shoah representations during Socialism, however, was addressed in the interviews far less than expected.
How the Shoah could be addressed in public debates was evaluated by Alexander Walther (Europäisches Kolleg, Jena), Tomasz Żukowski (Polish Acadamy of Science, Warsaw) and Richard S. Esbenshade (University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign) in the fourth panel, Discourses around the Shoah. Walther demonstrated how East German Journalists like Heinz Knobloch described in their works the voids that the Shoah had produced in German society by pointing at the traces of pre-war Jewish life in Berlin. Żukowski analysed the discourse in the 1960s on Polish help for Jews during the war, which, as he pointed out, made the actual fate of Jews during the Shoah secondary to the heroic role of Polish saviours. As a result, this discursive mechanism justified in the end an image of ungrateful and anti-Polish Jews. Esbenshade questioned the idea of a gap in Hungarian Shoah memory during the 1950s and 1960s by showing that the topic was in fact present. Representations of it could be found in mass-market literature, documentary collections and also at the pages of the Jewish Journal Új Élet (New Life), which were, however, adjusted to an anti-fascist narrative.
The fifth panel, Socialist Shoah Memorials & Jewish Sites of Memory, focused on memorial sites and Jewish sites of memory. Imke Hansen (Hugo Valentine Center, Uppsala) analysed how the site of the former concentration and death camp of Auschwitz and Birkenau became a memorial. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Hansen emphasised, Auschwitz was not yet a general code for the Shoah, especially in the minds of the former non-Jewish Polish inmates of the camp, who organised the memorial site. Yechiel Weizman (University of Haifa) approached the question of how far Jewish cemeteries, abandoned synagogues or their ruins, and other Jewish sites shaped the memory of the Shoah in communist Poland. Weizman, whose research methodology is largely inspired by social anthropology, showed using several examples how such sites became places for memory and even mourning in a local context. Gintarė Malinauskaitė (Humbolt University, Berlin) analysed the official Shoah commemoration in Soviet Lithuania using the example of the 9th Fortress in Kaunas. The narrative constructed around this memorial, she argued, was not only ideologically marked but also presented a gendered construction of memory.
The sixth and last panel was devoted to Shoah Representations in Film and Literature. Michala Lônčíková (Comenius University, Bratislava) analysed representations of the everyday life of Jews and non-Jews in Slovakia during the Shoah. To this end she focussed the novels St. Námestie sv Alžbety (Elisabeth’s Square) and Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street), which appeared in the 1960s and were both made into movies soon after. The latter film, The Shop on Main Street, which won an Oscar in 1966, generated an emotional debate in the Slovak language press in Czechoslovakia, as the way that the behaviour of Slovak society vis-a-vis the Jews was portrayed was rejected. By contrast, the Czech language press for its part reviewed the film in a generally positive way. The paper by Aránzazu Calderón Puerta’s (Warsaw University), analysing the Shoah narratives of six Polish films from the 1950s and 1960s, was read by another contributor, as she was not able to attend the workshop. As she underlined, many of the films, including Samson by Andrzej Wajda, Długa noc (The Long Night) by Janusz Nasfeter or Andrzej Brzozowski’s Przy torze kolejowym (By the Railway Track) took quite a critical stance towards the role of Poles. Anja Tippner (University of Hamburg) focused on the fictionalisation of the Shoah in Anatolii Rybakov’s Heavy Sand (Tyazhelnyi pesok). As Tippner demonstrated, Rybakov described many aspects of the Shoah which were rarely known in the Soviet Union. He did this, however, in a subversive way by presenting them as well known and well researched facts.
The workshop ended with a concluding discussion, which was introduced by the commentaries of Audrey Kichelewski (University of Strasbourg) and András Lénárt (National Széchényi Library, Budapest). In the comprehensive concluding discussion the participants of the workshop revisited selected aspects of the presentations. Among others the question concerning the relation of western (i.e. American and Western European) and East European Shoah Memory was raised. Richard Esbenshade asked whether it was the hegemony of the Western Shoah narrative that made the Eastern European model look exotic. Another discussant called for a comparative analysis of Shoah commemoration, for instance in France and Poland, in order to research if the differences in ‘East’ and ‘West’ were indeed as strong as so often proclaimed. Others saw many characterisations of East Central European Shoah Memory as a mirror of the lack of Western Memory.
The presented papers convincingly demonstrated that recent research moves far beyond the still-prevailing assumptions on Shoah Historiography and Memory in Eastern Europe during state socialism. Even though attempts to suppress research on and commemoration of the Shoah by state and party authorities can be identified between the late 1940s and 1989/91, this cannot be considered a general tendency. Representations of the Shoah surfaced on many occasions, but they were not only embedded in anti-fascist narratives. They were also part of memorial sites, literature, film and other expressions in the public sphere. In addition, depending on the strength of political control on the respective media, critical contributions on the behaviour of non-Jewish neighbours during the Shoah also appeared. Another observation that appeared in many papers was that a nationalist narrative that also influenced the way the Shoah was debated coexisted and competed with official narratives during state socialism. Although officially alien to the socialist ideology, nationalist narratives on the history of Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary played an important, and sometimes even the most important, role in settling the limits of what was speakable.
The papers and discussions during the workshop demonstrated that transnational as well as comparative approaches, which have largely been absent from research so far, are quite promising. Transnational approaches could lead to a better understanding of how knowledge on the Shoah was gained and spread within the Soviet-dominated bloc but also across the Iron Curtain. Comparative approaches between the different socialist countries would enable us to better qualify the influence of the political system or nationalist narratives on the perception of the Shoah. A comparison between the research, documentation and commemoration efforts in the countries of Eastern and Western Europe would in turn enable us to better evaluate the characteristic features of Eastern European Shoah memory.
Planned outcomes and Future Projects
The workshop lead to (at least) two new co-operations. Firstly, the participants Kata Bohus and Peter Hallama and the co-organizer of the Workshop, Stephan Stach, agreed to commonly edit a volume on Shoah Historiography and Memory in socialist East Central Europe, which will assemble the workshop’s papers (see next sub-section). Secondly Gabriel Finder, Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov and Stephan Stach began discussing a joint project on the Warsaw Jewish Historian Bernard Mark, which might result in a workshop (on occasion, in 2016, of the 50th anniversary of Mark’s passing away) or even a small collective publication.
The immediate output of the conference will be three conference reports to be published in HSozKult (h-net), Judaica Bohemiae and Remembrance and Solidarity (special issue on the Shoah) which will appear in the next weeks or months. The high quality and innovative character of most of the papers encouraged the organizers to reconsider the originally planned form of publication (thematic issue of a Journal). In order to be able to publish a larger portion of the papers and to have a greater impact, it is now planned to publish an edited volume, preferably with an English language publishing house. The book will be edited by Kata Bohus, Peter Hallama and Stephan Stach.
Announcements of the workshop on the web
Announcements of the workshop were made on the following websites:
- Aleksander-Brückner-Zentrum für Polenstudien
- Jewish Museum in Prague
- La Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah
[i] Imke Hansen: „Nie wieder Auschwitz!“ Die Entstehung eines Symbols und der Alltag einer Gedenkstätte 1945-1955. Göttingen 2015; Peter Hallama: Nationale Helden und jüdische Opfer. Tschechische Repräsentationen des Holocaust. Göttingen 2015; Hannah Maischein: Augenzeugenschaft, Visualität, Politik. Polnische Erinnerungen an die deutsche Judenvernichtung. Göttingen 2015; Michael Zok: Die Darstellung der Judenvernichtung in Film, Fernsehen und politischer Publizistik der Volksrepublik Polen 1968-1989. Marburg 2015.