New Approaches to the Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust: History, Politics, Commemoration

New Approaches to the Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust: History, Politics, Commemoration

Selma Stern Zentrum für Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin; Manja Herrmann, Technische Universität Berlin / Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg; Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung, Technische Universität Berlin
digital (Berlin)
Vom - Bis
23.11.2020 - 25.11.2020
Ida Richter / Charlotte Weber, Selma Stern Zentrum für Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg, Technische Universität Berlin

The 2020 annual international conference took place as a virtual gathering. Its aim was twofold: to explore new insights into the history of rescue during the Holocaust and to examine new perspectives on the memory of the rescue of Jews in different contexts after 1945. The speakers and participants were welcomed by Sina Rauschenbach (Berlin), Michaela Küchler (Berlin), Lars Oeverdieck (Berlin), and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum (Berlin).

MARK ROSEMAN (Bloomington) opened the conference with the keynote lecture, in which he indicated the key issues surrounding the topic that would resurge during the discussions repeatedly. He pointed out that until recently, most of what scholars knew about “rescue” has been the “rescue of memory” – in the sense that the perception of that subject has been highly influenced by a public desire to commemorate – in contrast to the “rescue of history”. Roseman noted a wave of new historical research on the topic, a “rescue turn” in Holocaust historiography, as he put it, which tackles issues such as Jewish agency, gray areas, the importance of networks and the framing of “rescue” in post-war contexts. By giving an example from his own research on the Bund – Gemeinschaft für sozialistisches Leben, Roseman emphasized that the reality of the “rescue of history” differed from the “rescue of memory” in that the survival of Jews was often far more complex and dependent on circumstances than post-war narratives would make it appear.

The first panel united three case studies that discussed both the respective historical contexts and the post-war narratives of rescue and help during the Holocaust. GAËLLE FISHER (Munich) presented the case of the German diplomat Fritz Schellhorn (1888–1982), who claimed to have rescued thousands of Jews while he was stationed in Romania. Using this example, Fisher argued that the lines between the categories of “rescuers” and “perpetrators” are not as clear-cut as is often assumed. Therefore, she made the case for a historiography that embraces complexities and contradictory evidence instead of falling for simplified categories.

GERBEN ZAAGSMA (Luxembourg) similarly argued for a critical engagement with common images of “rescue” and focused on the well-known case of Anne Frank’s helpers, the most prominent among them being Miep Gies (1909–2010). He emphasized that although Anne Frank’s case came to dominate public images of rescue and help during the Holocaust, there is a need to move beyond her story in order to grasp the Dutch context.

JOANNA BEATA MICHLIC (London/Haifa) raised the issue of the instrumentalization of the topic of rescue during the Holocaust in contemporary public discussions in Poland in the last decades, but particularly after the election of the PiS party in 2015. She analyzed that the current historical policy aims to depict the Polish society as solely heroic helpers of Jews while omitting more problematic aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. Michlic called for further in-depth historical research and recommended a strengthening of unbiased historical education in Poland.

A further point raised in the conference was the issue of medial representation of the rescue of Jews in art, museums, and literature in different European settings. ZOFIA WÓYCICKA (Warsaw) examined various contemporary European museums dedicated to rescue. Even though these museums have followed global patterns regarding the memory and commemoration of the rescue of Jews, she revealed how these motifs were adapted to local needs. Thus, referring to Sharon Macdonald, Wóycicka speaks of a “glocalization of memory” regarding the rescue of Jews.

ANNA MARIA DROUMPOUKI (Berlin) examined exhibitions along with various literary and artistic representations of the topic of rescue in Greece. She demonstrated that these representations reflect a rather one-dimensional perception of Greek Christians coming to the aid of Jews. On the one hand, for the Jewish community in Athens, the celebration of Greek Christian heroism represents a form of self-assurance in a religiously homogenous Greek society. On the other, it is instrumentalized as a self-aggrandizing Greek nationalistic myth of the noble nature of Christian Greeks.

MARIJA VULESICA (Berlin) then focused on Branko Bauer (1921–2002), one of the most popular Yugoslav and later Croatian film-makers and directors. During the Second World War, he helped to save Ljerka Mikac, a Jewish woman from Zagreb. Did his cinematic work reflect his rescue of a Jew? In the framework of this question, Vulesica analyzed Bauer’s films and traced the development of the topic of rescue in the Croatian historiographical and political context.

In the third panel on commemorating the rescue of Jews in Europe, KOBI KABALEK (Pennsylvania) focused on the depiction of German rescuers in relation to the general population in various media from the immediate post-war years to the present day. He drew attention to the fact that the question of what behavior was considered exceptional has been central throughout the years, supporting diverse political, social, and moral goals. Kabalek called for a shift away from simplistic categories such as “good” or “bad” Germans and towards considering the complexities of human behavior.

CHARLOTTE WEBER (Berlin) then explored the gender dimension. She presented the specific case of Else Behrend-Rosenfeld (1891–1970), a female Jewish survivor who wrote one of the earliest autobiographical accounts of rescue in the German language. Weber showed that the main narrative around Behrend-Rosenfeld – namely, that her book was an act of gratitude towards her German rescuers – was essentially influenced by her being a woman, thereby demonstrating how gender issues have shaped the memory of rescue in Germany.

ANDREAS BOUROUTIS (Thessaloniki) focused on the commemoration of the rescue of Jews in the Italian national context through the example of post-war narratives around Italian diplomats who were involved in the rescue of Jews in Thessaloniki, Greece. The commemoration of the rescue of Jews in Italy was exaggerated in an attempt to create a post-war narrative, which in Bouroutis’s opinion was intended to unify the divided country and present a humanitarian face to the world, leaving the problematic aspects of the fascist party’s rule aside.

JULIA SAHLSTRÖM (Stockholm) provided insights stemming from her research on the Swedish-Jewish press in the early post-war period. She stated that whereas positive aspects of Swedish actions during the war such as the intake of Danish-Jewish refugees were praised, more problematic issues concerning Swedish concessions to Nazi Germany and strict immigration policies earlier in the war were largely ignored.

IDA RICHTER (Berlin) addressed the immediate post-war reception of Raoul Wallenberg (1912–disappeared 1945), one of the most well-known “rescuers” of Jews during the Holocaust. Noting that today, he has become a symbol for human rights, Richter argued that this cannot be regarded as self-evident, since during the war and in his early post-war reception, Wallenberg’s actions in Budapest were not discussed in terms of human rights. However, in the 1940s, his mission was connected to the concept of humanitarianism, which shares a discourse of humanity and cosmopolitanism with that of human rights, but remains distinct.

The fifth panel shifted the attention to the rescue of Jewish archives and ceremonial objects. MICHAEL BERKOWITZ (London) outlined the history of the relocation of the Warburg Institute from Hamburg to London and shed light on the different individuals involved in that process. Noting that these aspects of the Warburg Institute’s history have received little attention in research, Berkowitz argued that central reasons were that the story of rescue has been sidestepped by the Warburg Institute itself, and that it is mistakenly assumed as self-evident that the Warburg Institute was saved.

ANNA-CAROLIN AUGUSTIN (Washington) reflected on post-war narratives regarding the rescue of Nazi-looted Jewish ceremonial objects. Augustin showed that after the war, Jews shared the basic assumption that their ceremonial objects had to be rescued from the perpetrators, whereas for non-Jewish Germans such as art dealers or museum professionals, post-war rescue claims often served to assist and enrich them. Although the acts of rescuing people and objects cannot really be compared, the ways in which they have been instrumentalized and the post-war narratives of their rescue nevertheless show clear parallels.

The sixth and final panel of the conference was dedicated to Yad Vashem’s Righteous among the Nations program. MORDECAI PALDIEL (New York) headed the “Department for the Righteous among the Nations” at Yad Vashem between 1984 and 2007 and could therefore provide fascinating inside knowledge. His paper focused on the history of the honoring of Oskar Schindler (1908–1974) as a Righteous among the Nations. Paldiel showed how a public scandal caused by Schindler’s visit to Israel and the planting of a tree in his name in 1962 led to the creation of the commission responsible for deciding on the honoring of Righteous among the Nations based on fixed criteria.

TOM ESHED (Jerusalem) presented a paper on the entanglement of the Righteous among the Nations program with Israeli foreign relations. He demonstrated that the Israeli Foreign Ministry was involved in the process of awarding the titles and in the solemn award ceremonies from the beginnings of the program onwards. Drawing on the especially relevant example of diplomats and statesmen who were awarded the title in the 1970s, Eshed showed that the title functioned as a symbolic bridge between Israel and Europe.

MERON MEDZINI (Jerusalem) broadened the gaze to the relevance of the Righteous among the Nations program for Israeli-Japanese relations. He showed how the honoring of Sugihara Chiune (1900–1986) – a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania between 1939 and 1940 who had helped Jews to emigrate by issuing Japanese transit visas – as a Righteous among the Nations was entangled with foreign policy interests. Medzini argued that although he did not formally deserve the title according to Yad Vashem’s criteria, he was honored nonetheless, which was connected to the fact that his story provided an opportunity to thematize the Holocaust and the necessity of the existence of the State of Israel in Japan.

At the end of the conference, the participants joined in a final discussion. As several participants suggested, the terminology around the topic is problematic for scholarly discussion when it is left unchallenged, since concepts such as “righteous”, “unsung heroes”, and even “rescue” itself carry political and moral implications of which researchers should be aware. Throughout the conference, several presentations demonstrated how politicized the subject of rescue was and still is. Nations such as Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Poland present themselves as “rescue nations” while at the same time problematic aspects remain unexplored. In addition, the issue of whether political considerations played a role in Yad Vashem’s decision-making process concerning the conferral of the Righteous among the Nations title was discussed. Finally, the participants agreed on the importance of new approaches to the topic in order to grasp the complexities, problematic aspects, and gray areas of both the historical reality of rescue and its reception. Indeed, corresponding to the conference’s objective, a variety of new approaches, such as a focus on Jewish agency, gendered aspects, or the importance of networks, appeared in the papers and were discussed throughout the conference.

Conference overview:

Sina Rauschenbach (Spokesperson, Selma Stern Zentrum für Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin): Welcome note

Michaela Küchler (Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organisations, Issues Relating to Antisemitism, International Sinti and Roma Affairs, and Holocaust Remembrance, Berlin): Welcome note

Lars Oeverdieck (Chancellor, Technische Universität Berlin): Welcome note

Stefanie Schüler-Springorum (Director, Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung, Technische Universität Berlin): Introduction

Mark Roseman (Indiana University Bloomington): The Rescue of History

Panel I: Agency, Contents, Functions: Commemorating the Rescue of Jews in Europe I

Chair: Manja Herrmann (Heidelberg/Berlin)

Gaëlle Fisher (Munich): Both “Perpetrators” and “Rescuers”? Postwar Claims to Rescue in the Context of the Holocaust in Romania

Gerben Zaagsma (Luxembourg): The Helpers of Anne Frank – Recontextualising the Rescue of Dutch Jews

Joanna Beata Michlic (London/Haifa): Opportunities and Challenges to the Memorialization of the Holocaust: The Employment of the Histories and Memories of Rescue of Jews in Poland

Panel II: The Topic of the Rescue of Jews in Museums, Art, and Literature

Chair: Susanne Härtel (Potsdam/Berlin)

Zofia Wóycicka (Warsaw): The “Traveling Motifs” of the Rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in Contemporary European Museums

Anna Maria Droumpouki (Berlin): The “Morality Narrative” about Jewish Rescue in Greece: Literary, Artistic and Museological Representations

Marija Vulesica (Berlin): Was There a Topic of “Rescue” in the Cinematic Work of the Croatian Film Maker Branko Bauer?

Panel III: Agency, Contents, Functions: Commemorating the Rescue of Jews in Europe II

Chair: Beniamino Fortis (Berlin)

Kobi Kabalek (Pennsylvania): Exceptions and Idealizations in the Memory of Rescuing Jews in Germany

Charlotte Weber (Berlin): Between “Righteousness” and Cliché: A Gendered Approach to the Commemoration of Rescue of Jews in Germany

Andreas Bouroutis (Thessaloniki): “La brava gente”? The Commemoration of the Rescue of Jews in the Italian National Context

Panel IV: Agency, Contents, Functions: Commemorating the Rescue of Jews in Europe III

Chair: Andree Michaelis-König (Frankfurt (Oder)/Berlin)

Julia Sahlström (Stockholm): Memory and Justice: Swedish-Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

Ida Richter (Berlin): From Rescue Activity in Budapest to the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Prize: Raoul Wallenberg and Universalizing Narratives of Rescue during the Holocaust

Panel V: Commemorating and Debating the Rescue of Jewish Archives and Ceremonial Objects

Chair: Stefanie Schüler-Springorum (Berlin)

Michael Berkowitz (London): Seeking Haven for the Warburg Institute, 1933–1953: Where’s the Blue Plaque?

Anna-Carolin Augustin (Washington): Narratives of Salvage and Rescue: Nazi Looted Jewish Ceremonial Objects during and after the Holocaust

Panel VI: Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations

Chair: Joanna Beata Michlic (London/Haifa)

Mordecai Paldiel (New York): Oskar Schindler and the Creation of the Commission for the Righteous at Yad Vashem

Tom Eshed (Jerusalem): Holocaust Diplomacy: The Righteous Among the Nations and Israeli Foreign Relations

Meron Medzini (Jerusalem): Sugihara Chiune as Righteous Gentile of Yad Vashem

Final Discussion