Noontime Lecture: Katerina Capkova, “The Construction of Jewish Identities in Stalinist Poland and Czechoslovakia”

Dr. Katerina Capkova , Research Fellow, Institute for Contemporary History Czech Academy of Sciences

Dr. Katerina Capkova , Research Fellow, Institute for Contemporary History Czech Academy of Sciences

By Bethany Wages

On 12 April, 2016, Katerina Capkova gave a Noontime Lecture based on her book project entitled “The Construction of Jewish Identities in Stalinist Poland and Czechoslovakia.” Capkova is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences. Currently, she is a Visiting Scholar at the Department of History, University of Chicago.

According to Capkova, the history of Jews under Communism is often depicted as a story of religious and national assimilation, and also atomization of Jewish society. In her lecture, Capkova questioned this common assumption and attempted to answer the following questions: How was it possible to “be Jewish” in Stalinist  Poland and Czechoslovakia? Why was there a different institutional framework for Jews in the two countries? To what extent did the Communist dictatorship bring change or totally new forms to Jewish institutions and activities, and to what extent may we find continuity with Jewish life from the period before the takeovers and before the Shoah?

Capkova began her lecture by pointing out that she was able to make her arguments based on her perspective of looking to the border lands of Poland and Czechoslovakia. After World War II there was a mass migration of Jews from the main areas of these two countries to their border regions. She started by looking at Czechoslovakia. She stated that there were few secondary works to draw from in her research in this area. The only book that even attempted to cover the same issues she dealt with in her research was In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism, by Alena Heitlinger (2006). In this work, Heitlinger interviewed 119 people who identified as Czech Jews as opposed to Slovak Jews. In many cases, this was the first opportunity that these interviewees had the chance to meet other Jews, having only recently discovered their Jewish heritage. However, Heitlinger’s interviews did not look at Jews located in the borderlands and therefore, according to Capkova, perpetuated the distorted image of Jews in the Bohemian lands.

She argued that it was important to look to the borderlands because, according to her research, about half of the total Jewish population in the Bohemian lands were migrants. The archives from these regions provided a totally different picture of Jewish life than what Heitlinger’s study proved. In the case of communist Czechoslovakia, the Jewish communities moved into areas that were populated by German communities before the war. According to Capkova, these migrations were opposed by the Czech government. Because of this, Jewish communities were forced to create new traditions for themselves which were not used before the war. In these regions, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provided aid and post-war infrastructure for Jewish religious practices.

When Capkova analyzed the case of the borderlands of Poland she found that forty-seven percent of all Polish Jews lived in Lower Silesia in the year 1947. She also discovered dozens of Yiddish schools in this region. In terms of work done on the Polish Jewish population, she cited Irena Hurvic Nawakowska’s research in Zydzi Polscy (1947-1950) which looked at the Jews of Warsaw, Lodz, and Lower Silesia. Nawakowska found clear evidence of differences in language, education, religion, and Jewish culture between the three Polish cities.

Capkova’s main aim was to explore how, in both of these borderland regions, the communist regime influenced how Jewish people met, expressed their religious practices, and how they chose hobbies. She found that in post-war Czechoslovakia the government refused to recognize Jewish rights, meaning that Jews were allowed no political party, no schools, and all Jewish organizations and centers were closed. Until 1989, any meetings of Jewish people had to be officially approved before they could take place. Consently, Capkova argued that the only places where Jewish people could express themselves fully were prayer halls, homes for the elderly, and cemetaries. She argued that because of this separation, Czech Jews felt that they lived in two worlds; a world where one lived as a Czech and a world where one lived as a Jew.

Bethany Wages is REEES M.A. at UIUC. Her focus of study is history. She recently completed her thesis entitled “The Political Evolution of Vera Zasulich: Populist, Marxist, Socialist.” She received her B.A. in Honors/History and English Literature in 2014 at Wright State University and will graduate this May. She will attend Indiana University at Bloomington to study Information and Library Sciences in the fall of 2016.

Anna Shternshis, “Machine Guns, Mothers’ Graves and Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II”

Professor Anna Shternshis

Professor Anna Shternshis

On February 15th, 2016, Professor Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) delivered her lecture “Machine Guns, Mother’s Graves, Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II.” Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006) and the forthcoming When Sonia Met Boris: Daily Life in Soviet Russia (2016).

Shternshis spoke about her latest project, which she described as “something between history, literature, and art.” This project is based on a recently discovered archive of World War II-era Soviet Yiddish folk songs, collected by a team of Ukrainian (Soviet) scholars led by the Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961). During the war, Beregovsky and his colleagues at the ethnomusicology department of the Kiev-based Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture (including the famous linguist Elye Spivak) were evacuated to Central Asia, where they continued to collect songs, stories, and testimonies.  In 1947, they recorded hundreds of songs in Yiddish from Soviet Jews who had served in the Red Army, returned from Central Asia, or survived the war in Europe. Beregovsky and his colleagues prepared this material for publication under the title Jewish Creativity in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, but the volume was never released, likely due to its aberrance from Soviet ideology: Shternshis remarked that most of the songs emphasize specifically Jewish (rather than Soviet) suffering and/or heroism.

According to Shternshis, songs about service in the Red Army tend to emphasize violence and revenge. In the songs about life in occupied territories, a common motif is that of losing one’s parents: unlike Jews who joined the Red Army (of whom roughly two-thirds survived the war), the survival rate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories was about 1%.  In many songs, Hitler is compared to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, over whom Jews celebrate victory during Purim. Shternshis mentioned that Hitler was cursed as a specifically Jewish enemy, in myriad ways: “there are not enough curse words in the Yiddish language to describe every way they cursed Hitler.”

In the context of Soviet culture during World War II, Shternshis said that music “played a role in ideology, entertainment, and social commentary.” Many songs were specifically commissioned to motivate people to build and fight for a communist state. Other songs functioned as an outlet for escape—humorous music was an important wartime genre. Finally, folk songs were a means of interpreting events, and served as a medium for the preservation of historical memory.

After the war, Stalin changed his policies toward Jews, and all institutions of Jewish culture were closed down. Beregovsky and his group were arrested and their work was seized by the authorities. Elye Spivak died during interrogation in 1950, and others were sent to gulag labor camps for years: Beregovsky was released after his “rehabilitation” in 1956. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s, it became dangerous to speak about Yiddish culture in public. The material collected by Beregovsky’s group was transferred to a “department of restricted access” at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, where it remained for decades.

When Shternshis discovered this material, which “changes our understanding of the history of the Holocaust and how Jews in the Soviet Union made sense of their wartime experiences,” she felt that it was important to share it with a broader audience. She wanted to tell “the story of the people who sang these songs, but also that of the scholars who risked their careers to collect this material.” As such, a central part of her project was recreating these songs, a process which Shternshis described as “a sort of archaeological dig”—while many of the texts did not come with music, “the majority of wartime Yiddish songs in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe were sung to already-existing tunes.” Once the preliminary work was completed, Shternshis brought together an “eclectic” group of classically trained musicians, the “Yiddish Glory” band. Yiddish Glory recently finished recording an album, and a Toronto-area promoter is now “booking shows [for them] all over the country.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Ghostwriting: Erenburg and Grossman’s Black Book on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union

On Tuesday, September 17, Dr. Anja Tippner, Professor of Slavic Literature and Culture at Hamburg University, presented her new research in a lecture titled “Ghostwriting: Erenburg and Grossman’s Black Book on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union,” the first of the 2013-2014 academic year’s Noontime Scholars Lecture series. Dr. Tippner has written the monographs Alterity, Translation and Culture: Chekhov’s Prose Between Russia and Germany (Frankfurt/New York, 1997) and The Permanent Avant-Garde? Surrealism in Prague (Cologne/Weimar, 2009), as well as numerous articles on Jewish narratives in Eastern Europe and socialist children’s literature.

Dr. Tippner’s lecture examined the remembrance of trauma in the Soviet Union after World War II, specifically Holocaust memory narratives. After 1945, the Soviet victory over the Nazis became a part of the official myth. Remembering wartime experiences was difficult, unless it fit the ideology of heroism and the triumph of communism over fascism. Within that historical context, Dr. Tippner distinguished between two types of memory, individual and collective/institutional. In the Soviet Union, individual memory had to conform to the collective/institutional memory. Those individuals who had suffered during the war (e.g. soldiers, partisans, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war) could not tell their personal stories and were left out of memorials. “Their private pain went underground,” Dr. Tippner said because the Soviet culture did not acknowledge wartime trauma.

Ilya Erenburg

Ilya Erenburg

Since the Holocaust and its victims did not conform to that model of heroism and victory, their memories were unmentionable. However, beginning in the late 1940s, a time of growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, there was resistance against such a romanticized, fictionalized story of the war. To counteract the silencing of Jewish survivors’ voices, the Russian Jewish writers Ilya Erenburg and Vasilii Grossman compiled a Black Book on the Holocaust. It was a collection of survivors’ accounts, letters, and other documentary material that recorded Nazi atrocities against the Jews. The book covered all areas of the Soviet Union, especially Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Complementing local accounts from those areas were reports from the concentration camps in Poland. Erenburg and Grossman intended to publish the text in Russian, English, Hebrew, and German.

Unfortunately, Soviet politics interfered with the project. Erenburg, the Black Book‘s first editor, had to step down in 1945 because of his unforgiving position against Germany, which contrasted with the Soviet Union’s new policy of ameliorating relations. The notion of revenge against the wartime enemy became out-of-date. As a result, Grossman became the new editor. When a version of the Black Book appeared in 1946, it contained three types of material: diaries, letters, and journalistic reports. The text confronted the Russian reader with Jewish suffering and resistance. Moreover, Grossman included accounts of Soviet anti-Semitism and atrocities, which were taboo. His purpose was to stress the universal nature of anti-Semitism; it was not only a German problem. Overall, the tone of the Black Book highlighted how Jews must defend themselves against anti-Semitism. The final editing stages of the Black Book occurred amid more overt Soviet anti-Semitism. By 1948, publication of the Black Book became impossible. It was destroyed, and the drafts existed only in the archives. It finally appeared in print in 1991, when it was published in Kiev from a version located in Jerusalem.

Vasilii Grossman

Vasilii Grossman

While much scholarship on the Black Book has either viewed it as a historical document or studied its publication history, not its actual content, Dr. Tippner’s research is the first to look at the book as a literary text. She pointed out that well-known writers such as Viktor Shklovsky, Margarita Aliger, and Vera Inber all edited the documents that comprised the book. The Black Book is unique in highlighting the process of aesthetic transformation to record testimonies. The text deftly interweaves primary and secondary witnesses. Dr. Tippner observed that both the primary witness (one who experienced the events firsthand) and the secondary witness (one who analyzes those events intellectually) are necessary for a literary text. The primary witness needs the secondary witness as a listener. He or she serves as an indelible link to the past.  Sometimes, the primary witness is unable to relive painful memories or cannot provide an organized account of his or her suffering.  Hence, a secondary witness is essential to produce a coherent text. For the Black Book, artists and writers became the secondary witnesses whose role was to make sense of something incomprehensible. In order to be heard, the original testimony needed rewriting. The Black Book combined written and oral testimony, a hybrid of narrative and documentary sources.

Furthermore, Dr. Tippner identified the Black Book‘s editors as ghostwriters, both in the usual sense of anonymous, invisible writers, and as writers who are actual ghosts. Many witnesses to the Holocaust were killed; they haunted the editors with their suffering. Not only did the editors collect the documents and transcribe the testimonies for the survivors and witnesses, but also for the cause of Holocaust remembrance. Dr. Tippner specifically used the example of the writer Vera Inber, who compiled a collection of wartime events in Odessa as a collage. She complemented her narrative with short quotes from the survivors. The people she featured stood out as individuals. Her editorial comments collapsed the distance between her own testimony and those of the witnesses. Yet, there still existed an element of conformity to the Soviet literary model. One problem about the Black Book that Dr. Tippner indicated was that often the editing brought the original testimonies closer to Soviet ideology about wartime glory and how the survivors were good Soviet citizens. Although the editors proved the accounts’ authenticity through providing  the names, dates , residences, and photos of the survivors, they still subsumed the original accounts. Inber’s contribution emphasized Soviet solidarity, where Russians and Ukrainians helped their Jewish neighbors. Other writers followed her practice.  In the Black Book, Holocaust survivors expressed their desire to reconstruct Soviet society. Thus, the multiplicity of voices depicted in the text did not result in a multiplicity of perspectives.

Throughout the lecture, Dr. Tippner underscored how remembering and commemorating trauma were difficult within the Soviet experience.  Along with grief and loss, trauma was an utterly inappropriate emotion in a victorious socialist state. Collective discussion of the war’s less favorable aspects were muted since the official story omitted wartime trauma. Jewish survivors could not tell their stories independently or have them become part of the Soviet literary canon.

Dr. Tippner concluded with connecting the Black Book to today’s Russia. Although the Black Book discusses events that happened seventy years ago, it is still relevant to Russia, where memories of the Holocaust largely remain silenced. Consequently, Russian literature still lacks published memoirs and autobiographies of Holocaust survivors.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to write a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs, with a particular focus on the writer and translator Lilianna Lungina.