Recognize, comprehend and preserve | German-Jewish Cultural Heritage | DW | 30.11.2012
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German-Jewish Cultural Heritage

Recognize, comprehend and preserve

Researchers at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies devote themselves to the cultural heritage of German-speaking Jews around the world. Project Director Elke Kotowski tells us about the work.

"When a person - and a society - is only able to remember that which can be reconstructed within the framework of a given present, then exactly that which no longer has a framework in that given present will be forgotten." - Jan Assman

Tracing the heritage of German-speaking Jews means journeying to over 60 different countries, starting with the countries in which Jews lived until the beginning of the 20th century.

An initial glance at the map already reveals the first hurdles: borders have moved and entire countries have disappeared, as well as important centers for German-speaking Jews such as Bucovina, Poznan or those in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Today the legacy of this culture is often only be felt in bourgeois Jewish households in Berlin, Wroclaw, Chernivsti, Lviv, Prague or Vienna.

Farewell and a new beginning

Even as the threat of the influential National Socialist dictatorship continued to grow, it was still difficult for Jews to leave their home countries. Many of them could not be taken from their old lives, meaning that the possessions which reminded them of life back home, now displaced in a foreign land and facing an uncertain future, constituted something of a transportable cultural homeland.

Elke-Vera Kotowski, pictured in Vilnius

Elke-Vera Kotowski, pictured in Vilnius

Since many countries placed a ban on immigration, it was not uncommon for the first station of exile to be a transit camp in a foreign city. It was easier for refugees to obtain visas for Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Shanghai than for the US or Argentina, where the majority of émigrés hoped to settle.

So refugees arrived in new, unelected lives in which to lay down roots, negotiate pre-existing norms and rebuild a little piece of home. The host countries spread the new arrivals unevenly. That led to varying degrees of integration from community to community.

German-speaking Jews often gathered in certain districts of cities - in Washington Heights, New York or in Belgrano, Buenos Aires, for example. In these districts they were able to live, work, and to foster the cultural traditions of their home countries.

A poem, a feeling

Around 10 years ago in Buenos Aires, the author Robert Schopflocher, who was forced to leave his hometown of Fürth at the age of 14, wrote a poem in which he stated:

For over 60 years / in Argentina, / but the word "tree" / always and still reminds me of / the village linden tree in Ranna / in Franconian Switzerland, / occasionally also an oak / or a German fir tree

Even though the soon to be 90-year-old has lived in Argentina for three-quarters of a century, it is still the "German" forest, "German" literature, thought and art, which affects and guides him.

Schiller, Goethe and Romanticism / Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and Expressionism / left their mark on me, / no less than the German forest, / the German professor / or the Jewish religion class …

Verses like these are evidence of a deep connection to a culture which, until the first third of the 20th century, was still cultivated and shaped by the Jewish middle classes, whether in cities like Berlin, Prague or Vienna, or in the provinces, in Eisenstadt, Fürth or Poznan.

A piece of home in exile

Robert Schopflocher's poem, titled "Confession," arrestingly displays his divided emotions. Migrants such a Schopflocher were marked by German culture, which represents home even in exile. That's despite the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime in the name of Germany.

Countries of exile have long become homelands. And so the poem ends with the words: And where is my fatherland now?

The cultural homeland and its heritage manifest themselves in varying forms. In light of that, one aim of our research project is to recognize, comprehend and preserve this heritage which is still fostered among émigré German-Jews today. That is something which is still not really embedded in the collective conscious, neither here nor there.

Digital memories

The term "cultural heritage" refers not only to objects in archives, libraries and museums, but also to all the personal memories and legacies (craft skills, a broad education or traditional belongings) which testify to the cultural and religious traditions of their home countries.

In order to make this cultural heritage in the collective consciousness accessible to future generations, an internationally networked open-access databank is being created. All institutions working on this topic should be a part of that network.

Elke-Vera Kotowski is project director and historian at the Moses Mendelssohn Center.