Experiences of Violence and Notions of Temporality in Jewish History

Experiences of Violence and Notions of Temporality in Jewish History

Ilay Halpern / Monica Rüthers, Universität Hamburg; Kim Wünschmann, Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden, Hamburg
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
27.03.2023 - 29.03.2023
Katja Grosse-Sommer, Berlin

Discussing the interplay of temporality and violence in Jewish history, the conference “Experiences of Violence and Notions of Temporality in Jewish History” took place as part of the working group “Before the Pogrom. Anticipated Violence in Modern Jewish History” within the research unit “Gewalt-Zeiten/Times of Violence. Temporality in Violent Undertakings”. Funded by the Research Program of the City of Hamburg (Landesforschungsförderung Hamburg), a cooperation of the Universität Hamburg, the Institute for the History of the German Jews, and the Helmut Schmidt University of the Bundeswehr, the gathering of scholars explored how experiences of violence impacted Jewish understandings of time and temporality throughout history.

MONICA RÜTHERS (Hamburg) introduced three temporal prisms to structure the conference’s exploration of conceptions of time and violence in Jewish history, differentiating between an eschatological narrative of time, an integration of Jewish history into a secular understanding of time as well as taking into consideration utopian expectations of Zionist and socialist ideologies, and the importance of the Holocaust as a defining event, seen as disrupting the continuity of the Jewish timeline.

The keynote address by ELISSA BEMPORAD (New York) discussed current scholarly work on pre-Holocaust violence in modern Jewish history, focusing on anti-Jewish violence in form of the pogrom as it occurred during the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921. Bemporad stressed that pogroms most often occurred in times of uncertainty and political changes. They constituted a disruption of the quotidian peaceful pace of life and marked an acceleration of time. Unprecedented was not only the extent of the violence, but also the documentation efforts Jewish activists and organizations launched in the pogroms’ aftermath, including the collection of material known as the Tcherikower archive, now stored at YIVO New York. Since the 1990s, according to Bemporad, scholarship has redefined the centrality of the pogroms in the Russian Civil War and as a turning point in modern Jewish history. Bemporad also emphasized the pogroms’ intense afterlife: not only did they significantly affect how the Holocaust was understood, but the pogroms as experience and memory shape Jewish history writing until today.

The pogrom’s representations in photographs, crucially important for both documentation and memorialization, were analyzed by MONICA RÜTHERS (Hamburg) and NATALIA KUZOVOVA (Kherson). Apart from presenting their typology of pogrom photographs, which included images of perpetrators, victims, and material damage, they argued that photographs narrate violence in time. Photographs of violence have an impact until the present day, as part of complex temporal narratives as well as contemporary visual conventions. Photographs, they argued, could also constitute agency, and can be read as political acts and a call to action.

The concept of Jewish agency in violent times was raised also by LAURA JOCKUSCH (Waltham), who discussed her current research on Jewish revenge during and after the Holocaust. As a reactive notion, revenge occurs in response to atrocity, intending to restore moral balance. Revenge, according to Jockusch, references the past while being future-oriented in its attempt to prevent experienced wrongdoing from being repeated. Exploring multiple forms and functions of revenge in imagination and action, she argued to strip revenge from its moral implications.

One of the best-known acts of revenge by a Jewish individual in the name of the collective is the 1926 assassination of Simon Petliura by Sholem Schwarzbard, who held the commander of the Ukrainian People’s Army responsible for pogroms perpetrated during the Russian Civil War. ELISABETH GALLAS (Leipzig) showed the long-term consequences of Schwarzbard’s acquittal of in his Paris trial, which inspired Raphael Lemkin’s work on genocide as a crime against a collective. Gallas emphasized the trial’s anticipatory nature in its attempt to prevent future anti-Jewish violence, and the successful defense of lawyer Henri Torrès to frame Schwarzbard’s act as one of retaliation for the collective suffering of Jews during the Russian Civil War.

Agency in the face of anti-Jewish violence was not limited only to retroactive acts. JAN RYBAK (London) focused on Jewish militias in Galicia after World War I. As defensive organizations, they were also part of Jewish nation-building projects in the multi-ethnic territory. Regarding temporality, Rybak argued that militias should not be seen as responses, but rather as future-oriented manifestations of state-building in local communities. Militias could thus be seen as a turning point in history in which two timelines coincide: that of the Jewish people able to assert their rights in military self-organization, and that of the other communities in the region – both of which would shape the new Galician society.

ANNE-CHRISTIN KLOTZ (Jerusalem) showed how the Yiddish-language press in Poland tracked and monitored the gradual deprivation of rights of German Jews in the late interwar period in an act of anticipation of the Holocaust. According to Klotz, by chronicling the antisemitic violence, journalists brought together temporal elements in learning from the past, influencing the present, and aiming at changing the future. They experienced, Klotz argued, events on a linear timeline, recognizing the unprecedented nature and danger of the situation and understanding that, faced with Nazi persecution, there would be no turning back.

ANNA ULLRICH (Munich) and DAVID JÜNGER (Rostock) critically examined the agency of German Jews and its re-construction in personal narratives of Jewish leadership after 1945. Retrospectively, the year 1933 was understood as the turning point for German Jewry, which, they argued, obscures the perceived spaces of action during this time period. Emigration was elevated as the only reasonable response to the Nazi threat – though research shows that this was hardly the dominant topic amongst German Jews, whose leadership was actively involved in negotiations with Nazi authorities to enable continued Jewish life in Germany in the regime’s early years. Ullrich and Jünger thus called for a re-evaluation to gain a broader perspective of Jewish agency, rather than being led by questions of guilt and responsibility.

Other conference contributions focused on the role time and temporality played in representations of anti-Jewish violence. In his analysis of post-Holocaust Yizkor books, which serve to commemorate destroyed Jewish communities, ILAY HALPERN (Hamburg) showed that their narration of anti-Jewish violence was often integrated into what the so-called “shtetl narrative”-segments of the books. Whereas the sections dedicated to the Holocaust often included much temporal detail and focus, embedding violence into the shtetl narrative occurred without clear diachronic boundaries, using different narrational tools, such as retrospection and hindsight, or, particularly in the case of threatened violence, stretching its temporal limits and stressing its repetitive nature.

Focusing on literary representations of Jewish time, TAL HEVER-CHYBOWSKI (Paris) presented his translation of Leib Kvitko’s poem “Forgiveness?...”, analyzing the models of Jewish time and temporality in the poem. In order to create the possibility of forgiveness, the narrator, according to Hever-Chybowski, reframes historical, chronological and linear time into the broader frame of Hasidic time.

Further articulation of Ultra-Orthodox understandings of time were explored by GERSHON GREENBERG (Washington DC), presenting how eminent Orthodox thinkers understood the Holocaust in Jewish time, emphasizing the imminence of eternal redemption it was understood to herald. While some saw the people of Israel as belonging to spiritual time, and thus detached from sequential time, raising questions of exile and redemption and placing them beyond temporality, others understood time itself as a vessel for redemption of the Jewish people.

Such notions were analyzed also by BOGDAN OVCHARUK (Toronto), who sought to salvage the radical politics of Walter Benjamin, as grounded in Jewish Messianic temporality, from Benjamin’s antinomian rejection of the law. By looking at the constitutive power of revelation in Machiavelli and how it can complement Benjamin’s philosophy of justice, Ovcharuk introduced the concept of “Baroque Machiavellianism”, which brings the redemptive temporality of Benjamin’s concepts of Jetztzeit and Zakhor to a standstill. Divine violence, intended to be redemptive, cannot be enacted, because Benjamin rejects all human law as Machiavellian machination.

Continuation and rupture were themes echoed in OFER DYNES’ (New York) exploration of Pinhas Katzenellenbogen’s manuscript “Yesh Manhilin” (1758–1764), in which he examined the folklorization of a legend that was initially a family tale, a text which, in different parts and forms, connects the author’s traumatic experience of an anti-Jewish blood libel with a warning for generations to come to not return to the land of Poland, where this anti-Jewish persecution was experienced – thus creating a temporal, generational link by building on family narrative.

The significance of being aware of the Jewish calendar was emphasized by ALAN ROSEN (Jerusalem), who argued to see the timeline of World War II and the Holocaust not only through the Gregorian calendar. By understanding the particular significance of the Jewish month of Elul, on which Germany invaded Poland in 1939, claims Rosen, one adds extra dimension to describing the experience of the vast majority of the Jewish victims. Rosen’s contribution argued for a bifocal way of viewing time, juxtaposing and integrating both a Gregorian as well as a Jewish calendar to go beyond understanding the Holocaust as a rupture in Jewish time.

The long-term consequence of the Holocaust and its effects in current-day Israeli politics was analyzed by NOGA WOLFF (Jerusalem). The central emphasis on the Holocaust in the political arena, according to Wolff, is essential in the elimination of the category of justice, which fails to take away compassion and the need for the centrality of human rights as a lesson from Jewish history. This longue-durée approach decontextualizes Nazism and strips it from its fundamental anti-democratic and dehumanizing character.

Further contributions emphasized the elements of materiality, violence, and temporality. MAGDALENA WALIGÓRSKA (Berlin) explored the phenomenon of looting and dispossession in a genocidal context during World War II, emphasizing the phenomenon’s temporal elements. Not only does her work on shtetls in the Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian borderlands show that the transfer of Jewish possessions already began before the arrival of German occupiers, but it also emphasized long-term consequences, both emotional and material, for survivors and the surrounding population.

The interplay between emotions and materiality was highlighted further by CAROLIN LANGE (Hamburg), who studied the perceptions of the non-Jewish German population. Examining how the German majority society profited from the dispossession and deportation of their Jewish neighbors, she demonstrated how the German state facilitated the redistribution of apartments and possessions of Jews who emigrated or were deported. Lange traces an emotional shift in the experiences of the subsequent users and inhabitants to October 1941, when mass deportations of Jews in Germany began and “emotional ambivalence” regarding the use of these possessions, set in. This also coincided with a notable surge in fumigation or other cleansing attempts of the formerly Jewish properties and possessions.

In the concluding discussion of the conference, KIM WÜNSCHMANN (Hamburg) re-evaluated temporarily as an analytical category in the discussion of Jewish experiences of violence. Time, although a universal concept structuring the past through narrative, was nevertheless understood differently by historical actors and shaped their experiences in different ways. Putting time center stage in historiography then also exposes the scholar to critical reflection and self-reflection of their various interpretations of the past.

Elissa Bemporad emphasized the importance of gender: whether it be in the targeting of Jewish women in episodes of pogrom violence, or in their participation in support of Jewish militias and self-defense units, in their role in repossession and plundering, as well as their depictions in photographs and involvement in remembrance of anti-Jewish violence in the long term makes gender an essential factor for any analysis.

ALFRED BODENHEIMER (Basel) touched on the role played by historical vision of violence on current debates in Israel, while AMOS GOLDBERG (Jerusalem/Hamburg) called for a less Eurocentric treatment of anti-Jewish violence and Jewish perceptions of time, referring to the Zionist project and the American diaspora as main pillars of Jewish experiences that should receive more treatment. Thinking about Jewish violence, whether it be the Holocaust or the pogrom, through the prism of Jewish notions of time carries the potential to combine the separate disciplines of Holocaust studies and Jewish studies, but also to compare the Jewish temporalities with other experiences of violence in history.

Conference overview:

Keynote Address
Elissa Bemporad (New York): A Time to Live and A Time to Die, A Time to Remember and a Time to Forget: Temporality and Violence in the Modern Jewish Experience

Panel 1: Violence, Time and Agency I
Chair: Kim Wünschmann (Hamburg)

Laura Jockusch (Waltham): A Question of Time: Revenge during and after the Holocaust

Elisabeth Gallas (Leipzig): In Anticipation of Violence: Legal Legacies of the Schwarzbard Trial 1927

Panel 2: Violence, Time and Agency II
Chair: Ilay Halpern (Hamburg)

Tal Hever-Chybowski (Paris): Temporalities of Violence in Leib Kvitko’s poem “Forgiveness?...”

Jan Rybak (London): Jewish Security in a New Era: Nation, State, Self-Defence, and Galicia’s Jewish Militias after the First World War

Panel 3: Experiences of violence in Jewish memory and Israeli historiography
Chair: Amos Goldberg (Jerusalem / Hamburg)

Noga Wolff (Rishon LeZion / Jerusalem): The recruitment of the “long-term” perspective on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as a cause for the growing political violence in the Israeli society

Ilay Halpern (Hamburg): “From war to war, from pogrom to pogrom…” The integration of violence in the general shtetl narrative as reflected in Yizkor books

Panel 4: Eschatological vs. historicist interpretations of violence I
Chair: Karen Körber (Hamburg)

Bogdan Ovcharuk (Toronto): Messianic Temporality, Baroque Machiavellianism, and Constituent Revelation in Walter Benjamin

Gershon Greenberg (Washington DC): The Nullification of Time in Ultra-Orthodox Responses to the Holocaust

Panel 5: Eschatological vs. historicist interpretations of violence II
Chair: Amos Goldberg (Jerusalem / Hamburg)

Alan Rosen (Jerusalem): 17 Elul 5699: Why the Beginning of World War II in Jewish Time Matters

Anne-Christin Klotz (Jerusalem): Remembering means Fighting: How Eastern European Jews anticipated, understood and confronted Nazi-Germany and antisemitic Violence through Tradition and Novelty

Panel 6: Experience and anticipation of violence – Violence and Temporality
Chair: Björn Siegel (Hamburg)

Anna Ullrich (Munich) / David Jünger (Rostock): In Hindsight – German Jews, the Holocaust and the (Re-)Construction of the German-Jewish Past

Ofer Dynes (New York): From Blood Libel to Biography: Trauma and Temporality in Pinhas Katzenellenbogen’s Yesh Manhilin (1758–1764)

Panel 7: Violence and Material Culture: Experiences and perpetration of looting and dispossession Chair: Birthe Kundrus (Hamburg)

Magdalena Waligórska (Berlin): Looting in the Shtetl: Genocidal Dispossession during the Holocaust in the Polish-Ukrainian-Belarusian Borderlands as Seen from the Jewish Perspective

Carolin Lange (Hamburg): After They Left: The Dispossession of Jewish Assets in Nazi Germany and the Factor of Time

Monica Rüthers (Hamburg) / Natalia Kuzovova (Kherson): Life and Death, Violence and Temporality – A Preliminary Reading of Photographs from the Tcherikower Collection Showing Pogrom Victims and Pogromists

Concluding Roundtable: Experiences of Violence and Notions of Temporality in Jewish History

Elissa Bemporad (New York) / Alfred Bodenheimer (Basel) / Amos Goldberg (Jerusalem / Hamburg) / Kim Wünschmann (Hamburg)