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.