Discovering and Making Memory. Jewish Cultural Expression in Contemporary Europe

by Dagmar C. G. Lorenz
Discovering and Making Memory. Jewish Cultural Expression in Contemporary Europe
Dagmar C. G. Lorenz
The German Quarterly
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University of Illinois at Chicago

Discovering and Making Memory. Jewish Cultural Expression in Contemporary Europe

Sander Gilman argues in Jews in To- day's German Culture that the Holocaust is the touchstone of contemporary Jewish identity.' In the 1930s, National Socialists' "eliminationist anti-Semitismn forced not only recent immigrants, but also emanci- pated and assimilated Jews, and persons unaware of their Jewish family back- ground, to confront the issue of their Jew- ishness and their future in German-speak- ing countries.2 Like the Austrian-born Auschwitz survivor Jean Ambry, many German-speaking Jews had considered themselves Austrians or Germans first and foremost, viewing their Jewishness as sec- ondary at best. For them the experience of being Jewish was linked with the experi- ence of persecution.

Existentialist-positivist and stubborn atheist that I am, it doesn't occur to me to convert the Jewish fate into ametaphysical phenomenon. In my eyes the Jews are as little a chosen people as an accursed one. They are nothing but the chance result of historical constellations that were unfa- vorable to them for two thousand years . . . no, the Jews and their historical existence are not a metaphysical phenomenon. They are, as I just said, more the victims of chance than of necessity, and also of that in- dolence of the heart which in the Middle Ages plunged the peasant, and in the hey- day of capitalism the proletarian, into un- speakable misery. Indolence of the heart: I choose to employ this old-fashioned for- mula. For it summarizes the factual situa- tion better than the most sophisticated sociopsychological studies. The older ones amongyou may still have witnessed how, in the Third Reich, due to indolence of heart, people quickly grew accustomed to their Jewish neighbor being fetched at night and deportede3

Jean Arnbry knew that his family was considered Jewish. However, he knew next to nothing about Jewish culture or the Yid- dish language, and he was not a religious man. He derived the most tangible proof of his Jewishness from anti-Semitism and his deportation to the concentration camp. The issue of identity was particularly prob- lematic for persons of Jewish background who grew up almost assimilated into Ger- man or Austrian society. Identifying with their country and language of origin had become nearly impossible, but they also lacked the connection to Jewish culture that would have enabled them to position themselves into a Jewish context and par- ticipate in Jewish life. Amkry's observa- tions on learning new conceptual patterns reveal some of the difficulties older persons forced into a new reality faced particularly. Ambry describes the life of the agingperson as the memory of time spent elsewhere; hence the difference between later-life peri- ods and youthful existence, to which the world seems open and the possibilities for expansion almost limitless4 Ambry is pri- marily concerned with cultural agingas juxtaposed to biological aging processes. Thus he focuses on the intellectual barriers be- tween persons of different age groups, in- terpreting these barriers as the result of fast-changing cultural and theoretical codes that need to be, and are impossible to

The German Quarterly 73.2 (Spring 2000) 175

be, learned by the aging individual, in or- forced to draw the conclusion that:

der to keep abreast with his or her times (Am6ry 90). The problem of becoming cul- turally obsolete was a particular threat to Holocaust survivors trying to convey their experiences to the following generations, and to find modes of expression that, in Adorno's words, are not coopted by the "neutralisierte und zugerichtete" tradi- tional culture which causes "noch das aufierste BewuRtsein vom Verhbgnis [...I zum Geschwatz zu entarten."5

The lives of survivors and exiles, and those of their children, continue to be affected by the Nazi legacy, and there is avast body of literature reflecting the impact of the Shoah on the memory of those whom the Nazis victimized. Often the attitude and rhetoric of the children of survivors are less ambivalent, more rigorous, than those of survivors who remember the prewar era. In her 1987 book Unzugehorig ("Not Be- longing"), Ruth Beckermann, the Vien- nese-born daughter of a Holocaust survi- vor, writes about her and her peers' rela- tionship to the Shoah:

For the children of the survivors, too, the

meaning of their own life is challenged by

the memory of the extent and the far-rea-

ching implications of the loss, for the sur-

vival of their parents was ultimately acci-

dental. A death sentence had been passed

on all Jews, without distinction, regard-

less of their social class and personality.

This was not only the case in the territo-

ries under Nazi control: the Nazis had no

other objective but to expand their sphere

of influence ad infinit~m.~

The world of non-Jews was forever changed as well, regardless of what roles they and their family had played during the Nazi era: of perpetrators, collaborators, and not-so-innocent bystanders; or those of resistance fighters and, very rarely, sym- pathizers with the persecuted Jews. The Austrian historian Erika Weinzierl, de- spite her efforts to highlight the heroic deeds of Austrians who helped Jews, is

I...] cowardice, a lack of solidarity to- wards one's Jewish fellow citizens, and the lack of imagination regarding the suf- fering of other people are the main rea- sons why the numbers of the "Righteous" (Gerechte) were far too small at a time when righteous people were badly needed to safeguard human rightse7

Following Nazi Germany's defeat, all con- tinuities were, could not but be, disrupted. Yet it was impossible for most Germans and Austrians who had identified with the SS-state and its leader to mourn the Nazi victims. Their sense of loss was part of a historical memory distinctly different from that of the victims. They were forbid- den to lament openly the defeat of the re- gime they had served, but throughout the decades, the reactions to the Nuremberg trial, the Eichmann trial, and later at- tempts to bring Nazi criminals to justice were highly ambivalent. Germans and Austrians also had difficulty reevaluating cultural monuments condemned by the Nazi regime and disavowing Nazi aesthet- ics. They were for the most part unable to link the Weimar and interwar Austrian culture to the postwar culture.

In her autobiography weiter leben ("live on,") Ruth Kliiger discusses the euphe- mism for Hitler's "Third Reich," "the most recent past." For almost five decades, she writes, this past has remained "recent."S During her visit to UIC Jeannette Lander explained that the relationship between Germans and Jews has remained abnormal to this day, a situation she believes is un- likely to change. "Where there is no tomb," Ruth Kliiger writes, "the work of mourning never ends. Or we become like animals and do not work at mourning at all. When I say tomb I do not mean aplace in a cemetery but the knowledge about the dying and the death, of someone close" (94).

The memory of National Socialism and the Holocaust continues to have a pro- found effect on the position Jews take to- ward the non-Jewish majority. By the same token, the past casts a shadow over the way non-Jews view their culture and the people who are their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The past continues to have amajor impact on the current debates in German-speaking countries and on their cultural production, while the ramifi- cations of Nazi crimes, the matter of com- pensation to the victims by the countries that took advantage of them, are debated worldwide as ever-new information comes to light.

Walter Benjamin observed that history is written by the victors. However, the un- precedented record of literature, painting, photography and other materials produced by the victims themselves in the 1930s and 1940s illuminates both Nazi crimes and the suffering of the oppressed. Jewish painters and writers (diarists, novelist, and scholars) recorded their lives before, during, and after their ordeal. Often, the works survived the artists. Some were placed into secret places, like the artwork of the painters around Pe- ter Kien in Theresienstadt, and some were in safekeeping with reliable persons. This art,these writings, conveyed the truth with greater immediacy than any statistics or trial transcripts could have. They revealed their authors' personalities and the diverse life of pre-Nazi Jewish society. They illus- trated the immense losses caused by state- sanctioned crime and criminal indifference.

The Berlin-born painter Charlotte Salomon was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 26. She was among those who shaped today's cultural memory.9 Her gouaches illustrate a young woman's pri- vate experience in the context of an entire era, revealing the constraints political and social forces placed on her. Boldly modern- ist, Salomon's work is diametrically op- posed to Nazi aesthetics. Artwork such as hers gave direction to Jewish intellectuals born after the Shoah. It anchored them in a reality apart from the majority culture, and opened the door to the tradition of antifascism. This way they found models that helped them forge their identity as Jewish intellectuals and artists. Other im- pulses for post-Shoah Jewish writing and filmmaking came from Jewish communi- ties overseas with Central European ori- gins. Jeannette Lander, born in New York to Polish-Jewish immigrants in 1931 and raised in Atlanta, moved to Germany with her husband. Compelled by an extraordi- nary sense of mission, she wished to write for a German public and establish a bridge between Americans and Germans, Jews and Germans. Thus she "unlearned Yid- dish"l0 and made German her literary lan- guage. Lander writes about power, vio- lence, oppression, and genocide. In her ear- lier work, the Holocaust and the search for the Jewish past in Central Europe were central themes.

Lander and Salomonused different me- dia to communicate their experiences as Jewish women. They portray areality both intimately personal and historical. The same intellectual rigor that spares neither the viewer nor the artist also permeates the works of Ruth Beckermann, the daughter of Shoah survivors. Born in Vienna in 1952, she is obsessed with the past, with finding out the truth about the Shoah, victims and perpetrators. In the 1980s she recovered and preserved the memory of Jewish Vi- enna and examined the existential choices facing Jews today." In 1993 she turned to studying the mentality of Hitler's former soldiers, the Wehrmacht, when the contro- versial exhibition "War of Elimination- the Crimes of the Wehrmacht at the East- ern Front" ("Vernichtungskrieg-Die Verbrechen der Wehrmacht an der Ostfront") came to Vienna. Beckermann made a film that asks important questions such as why old men, Wehrmacht veterans, attend such an exhibit, what they think today, and how they assess the brutal images on display. From her point of view as a Jewish woman, these men constitute the ultimate other, a horrifying mystery.

Salomon, Lander, and Beckermann are representatives of a tradition of alterna- tive memory, Jewish memory in German- speaking countries. The passion and integ- rity of their works ensure that Central Eu- ropean Jewish history will be remembered. They establish artistic records celebrating pre-Shoah Jewish culture, mourning the catastrophe, and proclaiming a critical and dynamic Jewish presence in contemporary Germany and Austria. Numerous works of literature of exile and the Holocaust have foregrounded the mental and physical im- pairments of Jewish survivors and exiles. There were even debates as to whether those who had lived through the worst hor- rors were at all qualified to write and speak about their experience. The Nazis would indeed be victorious had they succeeded in depriving Jews of their voice and vision.

However, the art and literary works from the Holocaust eraconvey in their very intensity a sense of the extreme attention paid by intended victims to their changing environment, and the creativity with which they captured the very essence of the struc- tures and people that threatened their lives on a daily basis. Many survivors, dealing with the traumatic loss of security in the most basic sense-separation from their cultural home, in some cases displacement from Yiddish-speaking society, and the loss of family, friends, and neighbors-showed a resolve and resourcefulness that allowed them to become supremely successfU1 in new environments that required from the immigrants a maximum of concentration and risk-taking. Their stories represent a record of the capacity to transform the trauma through the act of communicating. The culture-critical production of the post- Shoah generations, and their oppositional, often provocative, literary works, reveal a continuity that is based largely on memory, that of the individual survivors as well as that of the cultural memory preserved in lit- erature, historiography, and memoirs.


lSander L. Gilman, Jews in Today's Ger- man Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Uf: 1995)


2Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Ho- locaust (New York: Knopf, 1996) 49-80.

3Jean AmBry, "Antisemitism on the Left," Radical Humanism, trans. Sidney and Stella Rosenfeld (Bloomington: U of Indiana f: 1984) 36-51. AmBry writes, in "~ber Zwang und Unmoglichkeit, Juden zu sein," Jenseits von Schuld und Siihne (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1977) 130-56: "Ich war neunzehn Jahr alt, als ich von der Existenz einer jiddischen Sprache vernahm [...I Ich war Jude, so wie einer meiner Mitschiiler Sohn eines bankrotten Wirtes war: wenn der Knabe mit sich allein war, mochte der geschaftliche Niedergang der Seinen so gut wie nichts fur ihn bedeutet haben" (131).

4Jean AmBry, On Aging. Revolt and Resig- nation, trans. John D. Barlow (Bloomington: Indiana Up 1994) 101.

5Theodor W Adorno, Prismen. Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (Miinchen: DTV; 1963) 26.

6Translation of Ruth Beckermann, Unzugehorig (Wien: Locker, 1987) 127, "Youth in Vi- enna," Contemporary Jewish Writing in Aus- tria. An Anthology, ed. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz (Lincoln: U of Nebraska f: 1999) 310.

7Erika Wienzierl, Zu wenig Gerechte. ~sterreicher und Judenverfolgung 1938-1 945 (Graz: Styria, 1997) 201.

8Ruth Kliiger, weiter leben (Gottingen: Wallstein, 1992). "her die Geschichte der so- genannten 'jungsten Vergangenheit,' (die mit den Jahren nicht iilter zu werden scheint und daher irgendwie so zeitlos ist wie das Jiingste Gericht) ist so vie1 geforscht und geschrieben worden, darj wir sie langsam zu kennen meinen, wahrend die Geschichte der Vergan- genheitsbewaltigung noch aussteht" (198).

gAnnelie Pohlen, "Staged Record of a Life," Leben oder Theater. Charlotte Salornon (Amsterdam: Waanders Drukkers, Zwolle, 1992) 163-64.

loJeannette Lander, personal conversation, Chicago, Oct. 1998. llRuth Beckermann, dir., Nach Jerusalem, filmladen, 1992.

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