Jewish Pasts, German Fictions: History, Memory, and Minority Culture in Germany, 1824-1955

Jewish Pasts, German Fictions: History, Memory, and Minority Culture in Germany, 1824-1955

Jewish Pasts, German Fictions: History, Memory, and Minority Culture in Germany, 1824-1955

Jewish Pasts, German Fictions: History, Memory, and Minority Culture in Germany, 1824-1955

Synopsis

Jewish Pasts, German Fictions is the first comprehensive study of how German-Jewish writers used images from the Spanish-Jewish past to define their place in German culture and society. Jonathan Skolnik argues that Jewish historical fiction was a form of cultural memory that functioned as a parallel to the modern, demythologizing project of secular Jewish history writing.

What did it imply for a minority to imagine its history in the majority language? Skolnik makes the case that the answer lies in the creation of a German-Jewish minority culture in which historical fiction played a central role. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Jewish writers and artists, both in Nazi Germany and in exile, employed images from the Sephardic past to grapple with the nature of fascism, the predicament of exile, and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. The book goes on to show that this past not only helped Jews to make sense of the nonsense, but served also as a window into the hopes for integration and fears about assimilation that preoccupied German-Jewish writers throughout most of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, Skolnik positions the Jewish embrace of German culture not as an act of assimilation but rather a reinvention of Jewish identity and historical memory.

Excerpt

In every age, alongside the obvious phenomenon of assimilation, we
can notice the dissimilation which always accompanies it.

Franz Rosenzweig (1922)

If historical fiction is a staple of the national imagination, how might a minority relate to it? What does it mean for a minority to imagine its history in a majority language, as it seeks to integrate in an age of nationalism and embourgoisement? This book is a study of how German-Jewish novelists used images from the Jewish past, most notably from the Sephardic-Jewish past, to define their place in German culture and society. Building upon the work of Pierre Nora and Yosef H. Yerushalmi, I argue that Jewish historical fiction was a “realm of memory” (lieu de mémoire), a cultural form that functioned as a parallel, and indeed as a corrective to the modern, demythologizing project of secular Jewish history writing (Wissenschaft des Judentums). Jewish Pasts, German Fictions shows how, for German-Jewish writers throughout most of the nineteenth century, for major authors like Heinrich Heine and Berthold Auerbach as well as for “minority” authors like Ludwig Philippson, the Sephardic past came to represent both hopes for integration and fears about assimilation. For modernist German-Jewish writers from the 1890s to the 1920s, by contrast, Sephardic stories gave shape to their concerns with anti-Semitism and Zionism. Finally, this book shows how, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Jewish writers and artists in Nazi Germany and in exile employed these very same images from the Sephardic past (Inquisition, expulsion, auto-da-fé) to grapple with the nature of fascism, the predicament of exile, and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. the term I use to describe this dynamic of minority memory is dissimilation, a term first coined by the German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig in a diary entry in 1922.

Dissimilation is a response to a conventional view of German Jewry, which has long been defined in popular representations by the polemical . . .

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