M. Umbach u.a.: Photography, Migration and Identity

Photography, Migration and Identity. A German-Jewish-American Story

Umbach, Maiken; Sulzener, Scott
Palgrave Studies in Migration History
Anzahl Seiten
XII ,127 S.
€ 58,84
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Sarah Wobick-Segev, Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, Universität Hamburg

Maiken Umbach and Scott Sulzener’s book Photography, Migration and Identity: A German-Jewish-American Story is a rich and readable micro-history of the Salzmann family based on the latter’s private archives. The book is organized both thematically and chronologically, following the family’s time in Germany both before and during the National Socialist era, and then after their emigration to the United States. Using private writings, poetry and especially photography, Umbach and Sulzener offer a thoughtful meditation on migration in German and German-Jewish history in the modern era.

In their introductory chapter, Umbach and Sulzener outline the subject of their study and motivations for it. The reader is introduced to the small Salzmann family: Hans, a doctor who worked in Berlin until 1939; his wife Käthe, a masseuse who worked at Hans’ clinic; and their two daughters, Ruth and Eva. Through the family’s story and archive, the authors seek to make important historiographical interventions into the histories of migration and the Holocaust. Firstly, the authors seek to nuance our understanding of migration as a process that connected individuals across a wide network of contacts. The authors show how German Jews were connected to other German migrants (Jewish and Christian) through historical memory, self-identification and personal networks. The Salzmanns’ migration to the United States was “an eminently German story,” one told in a Jewish key to be sure, but one that did not simply “entail leaving their German identity behind” (p. 3). We are reminded in the last chapter, migration was as a bridge, not a divide, that linked communities (p. 93). Secondly, the authors stress their desire to challenge passive characterizations of Jewish refugees and remind their readers that German Jews expressed and exercised agency while living in and then later fleeing Nazi Germany. To be sure, the authors do not deny or downplay the dangers posed to Jews by National Socialism nor do they question the urgent need of German Jews to escape the peril they faced. Instead, Umbach and Sulzener argue that German Jews fleeing Nazism chose to see themselves as migrants, not because they were politically naïve or in denial, but because it served them as a coping strategy that allowed them to maintain their claims to German and German-Jewish identity.

Chapter 2 begins by reminding the reader that Jews responded to the rise of National Socialism neither passively nor uniformly. In assessing the archival collections, the authors assert that for the Salzmanns, “photos are more prominent than any other medium in documenting the family’s lives in Germany, especially during the Nazi years.” (p. 19) Continuing the recent interest in photography not merely as a means of “illustrating” what we find in other sources, but as ego-documents in their own right, the authors analyze photographs and albums in order to offer insights into the minds and experiences of everyday actors. Chapter two highlights how family photographs reveal the family’s “rootedness in the German nation” and its membership in a “community of fate” with photographs showing the participation of close family members in the German military during World War One. As the authors note, photos from the interwar years demonstrate the ways in which the Salzmann family albums resembled those of other Germans at the time. Even in their album from their vacation to Italy in 1936, images reveal how family members acted out common bourgeois and cosmopolitan ambitions. The authors assert, “photographs do not just capture a reality, however partial: they also provide a powerful prompt for living out such moments, and seeing and experiencing them as constitutive of one’s social identity.” (p. 31)

Critically, as chapters 2 and 3 make clear, the rise of Nazism did not immediately end or challenge the Salzmanns’ sense of German identity. In one of the book’s more fascinating sections, the authors note how the Salzmanns’ travel albums from 1937 reproduce nationalist iconography, complete with captions in gothic script, Heimat-themed shots and photos of the family car on the new Autobahn. As the authors explain, in the face of racism and worsening acts of exclusion, the Salzmanns took to the roads, with camera in hand, and defiantly argued for their place in the local landscape.

Chapters 4 and 5 follow the family as migrants to the United States. Here the authors demonstrate the intertwined nature of the family’s subjective experience as migrants and refugees. While the immediate context of their departure from Nazi Germany made them essentially refugees or exiles, Hans and Käthe appear to have preferred not to see themselves in this light. As the authors suggest, the situation was more complicated, not only psychologically but practically as well: “The Salzmanns appeared neither the archetypal refugee, with the presumed severance between pre- and post-emigration strands of their lives, nor the model migrant evenly straddling homes both old and new.” Senses of rupture and continuity, and the overlapping of both, are explored again in chapter 5 as the authors examine the particular ways in which the Salzmanns integrated into their new home, a process which included continued affiliation to migrant associations. Umbach and Sulzener also analyze the Salzmanns’ holiday albums as they traveled in the United States. As seen through earlier albums taken in Europe, these American photo albums show how the Salzmanns used travel to express and create belonging to their new home, albeit using German Bildungskultur.

Yet, as the authors explain in chapter 6, the Salzmanns’ initial attempts to tell their own story in the context of a larger history of migration are in the long run complicated. Exploring how Jewish collective memory and historical consciousness developed from the 1960s onwards, the last chapter points to how Salzmann family members, especially Käthe (now Kate), began to process their experiences during the National Socialist era and the ways in which the trauma of events long past emerged.

Seen as a whole, the book is a fascinating contribution to the study of migration, photography, and the ways in which German-Jewish self-understanding was practiced and, critically, how it changed overtime. If I have but one complaint, it is that the book is short. The book’s focus pivots on the Salzmann archives, and these serve as the central primary source. Given the still relatively recent turn to historical studies of photography (of which Umbach is herself an important pioneer), additional references (to be sure, there are some) to other photographic collections or to other ego documents that confirm tendencies in the Salzmann archives would help in demonstrating the extent to which the Salzmanns’ experiences and the ways they visually recorded them were not unique. This is but a small quibble, however. Umbach and Sulzener’s book remains an important piece of scholarship for students and scholars interested in migration and Holocaust history. The work also serves as a clear case for the importance of using vernacular photography as a source in its own right.

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