K. Bohus u.a. (Hrsg.): Growing in the Shadow of Antifacism

Growing in the Shadow of Antifascism. Remembering the Holocaust in State-Socialist Eastern Europe

Bohus, Kata; Hallama, Peter; Stach, Stephan
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 327 S.
€ 71,00; $ 85.00; £ 61.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Monika Heinemann, Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow, Leipzig

Holocaust research has long been dominated by the perception that state-socialist Eastern Europe was an adverse place for the commemoration of Jewish suffering. Holocaust memory under communism has been considered an ideological taboo. This volume sets out to readjust this common belief. As the editors declare pointedly on its first page, the book “aims to show how during state socialism Holocaust survivors, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish activists, historians, writers, and journalists, used an antifascist narrative framework to make room for the memory of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.” (p. 1) Thus, they situate the volume as part of a newer—albeit not entirely new—research strand that seeks to diversify the perception of Eastern European societies and memory cultures under state socialism. And they achieve to do so by bringing together a variety of case studies spanning different media and forms of memory, providing insights into public and publicly accessible perceptions of the Holocaust.

The volume features case studies from Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Hungary, Poland, and various parts of the Soviet Union, among them Lithuania. The chapters are based on papers presented at the international conference “Suppressed Historiography—Erased memory? The Perception of the Shoah in East Central Europe during Socialist Rule”, jointly organized by the Aleksander Brückner Center for Polish Studies and the Jewish Museum Prague in Halle (Saale) in 2015. Rather than providing an overview of all twelve topical contributions, an exemplary study from each of the four sections of the volume will be discussed here.

The first section comprises three case studies on the work of historians of Jewish origin who have worked and published on the Holocaust in Stalinist Poland (Katarzyna Person and Agnieszka Żółkiewska), Czechoslovakia (Peter Hallama on Miroslav Kárný) and the GDR (Benjamin Lapp on Helmut Eschwege). Katarzyna Person and Agnieszka Żółkiewska scrutinize the publication policies of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw under state socialism. Focusing on the editions of three books with Yiddish documents from the Ringelblum Archive—short stories by Peretz Opoczynski, a collection of stories by Jehuda Feld, and a novel by Zalmen Skalov, all of them first published in 1954—they analyse motives for internal censorship practised by the institute under the directorship of Bernard (Ber) Mark between 1949 and 1966. They argue, first, that editorial interventions—made even before manuscripts reached state censors—allowed for the works to be published at all. This practice, far from being uncommon during socialist times, secured the existence and continuing work of the institute “at a time when the state was shutting down other Jewish institutions” (p. 23). Secondly, the authors show how editorial changes served the purpose to mask taboo topics and safeguard the dignity of victims. They argue that adjustments were meant to create and support a positive self-image of Jews, which was aimed at a national as well as international audience, and was suited to help rebuild Jewish communities after the Holocaust (p. 30–32). The last examples of editorial changes are traced by the authors in editions published as late as 1988. Their meticulous analysis offers a deep insight into motives, practices, and results of internal or self-censorship during state socialism in Poland. In spite of these odds, important Holocaust research and editions of documents were still allowed to reach an audience.

The second section of the volume presents Holocaust memorialization practices in Hungary (Kata Bohus) and Soviet Lithuania (Gintare Malinauskaite) as well as the afterlife of Jewish architectural remnants in Polish provincial towns (Jechiel Weizman). In her study on the first years of state socialism in Hungary, Kata Bohus showcases how elements of Jewish wartime memory “made their way into official versions of the history of the war” (p. 90), albeit in marginalized forms. Although the majority of victims of forced labour were never explicitly addressed as Jewish, they were included into the generic group of “heroes and martyrs” by state propaganda. This inclusion, as well as the celebrations of the liberation by the Soviet Army—a genuine experience among surviving Hungarian Jews in contrast to their surrounding society—, allowed for regular commemorative events to be held within the Jewish community without state intervention. As Bohus argues, these so-called martyr memorial services incidentally allowed for practices that circumvented some general state policies: the use of religious space by large numbers of community members as well as the strengthening of a distinct Jewish sense of community among the remnants of Hungarian Jewry.

Analyses of “artistic representations” of the Holocaust form the third part of the volume, including studies on Soviet (Anja Tippner) and Hungarian literature (Richard S. Esbenshade) as well as on Hungarian sculptural works and fine arts (Daniel Véri). Richard S. Esbenshade’s contribution makes a strong case for acknowledging the presence of Holocaust memory in Hungarian mass-market literature published after 1956. Referring to eight novels—all except one by non-Jewish authors with a wide readership—, he argues that, while nominally focusing on antifascist plots, they “are full of references to and […] serious engagement with” the persecution of Jews during World War II (p. 224). His analysis shows how individual plots portray Hungarian (national) responsibility and guilt, often connected to acts of plunder and betrayal. In Esbenshade’s view, such works have been overlooked by intellectuals and researchers in the past decades as they do not fit established (especially Western) expectations of “Holocaust literature”, and as their authors lost prominence after 1989. He advocates to look at these novels as examples of a “shared memory” of the war which partly succeeded to overcome the divisions between Jewish and non-Jewish perspectives, “at least in literature” (p. 224).

The final part of the volume focuses on “Media and Public Debate” and features chapters on journalistic writings in the GDR (Alexander Walther on Heinz Knobloch) and the Soviet Union (Miriam Schultz), as well as on the perception of publications by the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute in the GDR (Stephan Stach). Miriam Schultz contributes a case study on the Yiddish journal “Sovetish Heymland” and its coverage of Soviet Jewish initiatives for the establishment of Holocaust monuments in the late 1970s and 1980s. In her close reading of three accounts on Babyn Yar (Soviet Ukraine), Paopervale (Soviet Latvia), and Medzhybizh (Soviet Ukraine), she highlights the bottom-up initiatives behind many of these memorials. What is more, Schultz argues that such initiatives can be perceived as “expressions of Soviet Jewish patriotism”, which reveal the “complexities of Holocaust memory of Jewish ‘insiders’ who situated themselves within the Soviet system” (pp. 255f.). These complexities, she concludes, were reflected in a variety of narratives, interpretive frameworks, and voices on the Holocaust in the Yiddish-speaking population (p. 272).

Taken together, the chapters of this volume do not provide a systematic analysis of the development of Holocaust narratives within the antifascist framework of public discourse in the countries and societies they address. Rather, each of the authors offers a spotlight on exemplary protagonists and media of memory, in various periods and under changing political and ideological circumstances. Nonetheless, this spectrum of case studies showcases convincingly that Holocaust memory was indeed present and was being articulated within the narrative and discursive boundaries set by state socialism.

Furthermore, the chapters highlight the agency of Jewish and non-Jewish protagonists alike. In doing so, they contribute to differentiate our understanding of the rooms for intellectual and mnemonic manoeuvre within the ideological framing of the official Soviet and state socialist memory of the war. The various perspectives presented in the chapters are tied together convincingly by the editors’ introduction, which provides an analytical overview of the key issues of the volume. Together with the concluding chapter by Audrey Kichelewski, they offer a coherent and insightful framing that makes the volume an important contribution to the understanding of Holocaust memory in Eastern European societies during state socialism.

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