Academic journal article Ethnology

Group Identities and the Construction of the 1943 Rescue of the Danish Jews

Academic journal article Ethnology

Group Identities and the Construction of the 1943 Rescue of the Danish Jews

Article excerpt

The rescue of the Danish Jews from the Nazi roundups of 1943 has become the defining image of Judaism in Denmark, both within the country and to the world outside. This article examines the way in which this story about the past has been constructed, focusing particularly on its portrayals of the types of groups involved and on the motivations of the rescuers. It argues that the dominance and durability of this story in defining Jewish identity in Denmark stems from the type of relationships it posits between Danish Christians, Danish Jews, and worldwide Jewry. Anthropological studies of tradition could be enriched by a greater focus on such collaborative constructions of the past. (Denmark, Jews, history, identity, invention of tradition)

The past as a cultural construct has come under anthropological scrutiny over the past fifteen years as part of a general rethinking of the notion of tradition (Ardener 1989; Badone 1991, 1992; Bauer 1992; Buckser 1995; Errington and Gewertz 1994, 1996; Friedman 1992; Guss 1993; Herzfeld 1982; Handler and Linnekin 1984; Hanson 1989; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984; Lofgren 1989; Lowenthal 1985; Scott 1985; Thomas 1992; Tonkin et al. 1989; Ulin 1995; Wilson 1976; Woost 1993). Before that time, anthropologists and historians tended to think of tradition as something tangible, as a body of shared customs and beliefs passed on relatively unaltered through time. In the style of nineteenth-century romanticism, they regarded tradition as a sort of patrimony, passed from generation to generation, that contained the core of a culture's identity and which shaped its understanding of the present. They even classified cultures according to their relationships with tradition. "Traditional," "cold" cultures were ruled by tradition, whereas "modern," "hot" cultures rejected and moved beyond it. In the past two decades, however, a radically different picture of tradition began to emerge. Anthropologists, folklorists, and historians began looking at changes in conceptions of tradition, and found that even supposedly cold societies frequently revised or reinvented their understandings of the past (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984; Handler and Linnekin 1984). Studies of the "invention of tradition" revealed the past as a surprisingly malleable symbolic resource, one which could be and was continually reinterpreted. Rather than the present being shaped by the past, it turned out that the past was largely shaped by the present (Friedman 1992). The focus of study in tradition therefore moved to the mechanisms by which the past was created. What made people invent the traditions that they did? How did particular visions of the past relate to the worlds of those who created them?

Most of the literature on this question has focused on issues of power. Scholars have looked at tradition primarily as a means of aggrandizement in asymmetrical political relationships; in situations of dominance and resistance, groups construct images of the past which support their own political interests. Colonial powers may picture traditional native societies as childlike and archaic, justifying their own appropriation of political authority (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984; Errington and Gewertz 1994). Colonized peoples, by contrast, may imagine the past as a golden age, which can be returned to only by the overthrow of the invaders and their culture (Scott 1985; Friedman 1992). Competing factions in a society may present competing conceptions of tradition, each of which favors the faction which invents it, and each of which may be expressed through public ritual (e.g., Errington and Gewertz 1994; Kertzer 1980; Dirks 1994). Some scholars have also examined the relationship between tradition and group identity; they have seen different versions of the past as methods by which different groups express and come to terms with the dilemmas of their own (Friedman 1992; Badone 1991; Buckser 1995; Luhrmann 1989; Errington and Gewertz 1996). Taken together, this scholarship has produced a new understanding of the past as a subtle and fluid medium for expressing ideas about the present and plans for the future. …

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