New Approaches to the History of the Jews under Communism

Katerina Capkova's picture
April 30, 2017
Czech Republic
Subject Fields: 
Contemporary History, Eastern Europe History / Studies, European History / Studies, Jewish History / Studies, Modern European History / Studies

An EAJS Conference

To be held at Villa Lanna, V sadech 1, Prague 1,

The experience of the Jews under the Communist régimes of east-central and eastern Europe has been a hotly debated topic of historiography since the 1950s. Until the 1980s, Cold War propaganda exerted a powerful influence on most interpretations presented in articles and books published on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’. Moreover, most works focused both on the relationship between the régime and the Jews living under it and on the role of the Jews in the Communist/Socialist movements and the political events connected with the rise of antisemitism and emigration.

Even after the collapse of these Communist régimes, the political history and diplomatic relations between the Socialist states and the State of Israel remained the dominant topics in research on the Jews of the formerly Communist societies. Only in the last ten years or so can we observe a turn towards more complex views of Jewish experience under Communist régimes. The most inspiring and ground-breaking research done so far seems to have been especially in the area of the Jewish experience of the different parts of the former Soviet Union. One of the aims of our conference is therefore to start a dialogue between scholars focused on the Jews of the Soviet Union and those working on Jewish history in the pro-Soviet regimes of east-central and eastern Europe, because there has been, for various reasons, little cooperation between these two groups of scholars, even though their topics are interconnected.

Another aim of the conference is to provide junior scholars from Europe, especially those who come from east-central and eastern Europe, with a forum in which to discuss their research projects with top experts in the field. Many of the history departments at universities in the post-Communist region still focus on political history and adhere to the master narrative of the dominant nation. The history of the Jews under Communism is, in this context, often analysed from the perspective of the perceived (dis)loyalties of the Jews, and the highly politicized question of Jewish involvement in the Communist movement also remains dominant. All the more, then, is there a need for intense debates about new approaches and methodology free from nationalism and ideology.

Several key perspectives, we think, could help us to achieve a better understanding of the complexity of Jewish experience under the Communist régimes and thus also of the various Communist régimes and regions.

First of all, we are especially interested in contributions focused on the everyday life of the Jews, Jewish religious and secular organizations, and the possibilities of ‘being Jewish’ under the Communist régimes, which are also matters related to the legal position of the Jewish communities. Comparisons of the situations in the several countries of east-central and eastern Europe will, we believe, reveal many differences in the legal, religious, cultural, and linguistic circumstances of the Jews in the individual countries and regions. Obviously, the Jews of the Eastern bloc had no single way to express their Jewishness; there is no one particular pattern. Especially when it comes to the institutional and legal setting, the historian needs to ask to what extent the differences resulted from the diverse history of Jewish social and political life before the Communist takeovers. In other words, we also want to hear scholars address the question of the extent to which the Communist dictatorships brought change or totally new forms to Jewish institutions and activities, and also to what extent we may find continuity with Jewish life from the period before the takeovers and before the Shoah.

Second, scholars in this field mostly concentrate on the Jewish cultural and political elites in the Communist societies and therefore also on the Jews in the large cities, often the capitals. Though there is clearly a need for more research of this kind, we particularly welcome contributions that emphasize the experience of the Jews on the periphery and also Jews who did not succeed in becoming part of the elite or did not even wish to do so. This shift in perspective might well show, among other things, that the supposed religious and national assimilation and also atomization of Jewish society under a Communist régime was not as predominant as it has been claimed to be in the earlier historiography. As the research of Jeffrey Veidlinger, Gennady Estraikh, Arkadi Zeltser, Elissa Bemporad, and Valeri Dymshits suggests, Jews on the geographic or social periphery in the different parts of the Soviet Union deep in the Communist period were preserving and developing Jewish religious traditions and Yiddish culture. Research on similar topics for the countries of east-central Europe largely remains to be done.

Third, as the path-breaking work of Anna Shternshis shows, even if we consider the official Communist propaganda for and about the Jews, we must be careful to separate the intentions of the propaganda writers from how the propaganda was perceived and creatively transformed by the Jews. Among the questions of interest to us is how the official anti-fascist ideology was perceived by the Jewish communities and by individual Jews. What about the state-sponsored Yiddish publishing houses and journals which were often seen as providing unique opportunities for Yiddish journalists and writers, while, however, demanding their loyalty to the socialist State?

Fourth, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, consciousness of world-wide connections between Jewish communities, families, and individuals increased and several international Jewish institutions were established. When, how, and to what extent did Communism attack this aspect of Jewish life, which was one of most important in the Jewish modernization process? How did the Jews try to negotiate and preserve the particular modes of their transnationalism during the Cold War and East-West political divisions?

The following topics are of particular importance for us:

  1. The legal positions of the Jews of the Communist/Socialist countries of Europe and the institutional opportunities for the Jews there (including religious, cultural, educational, and charitable institutions).
  2. The ways of preserving and developing ‘Jewishness’ under the Communist regimes, within and outside the official organizations, in private and in public.
  3. Networks across the ‘Iron Curtain’ and across the state borders in the ‘Soviet bloc’.
  4. Yiddish culture and education under the Communist régimes.

If you want to attend the conference, PLEASE REGISTER at by 30 April 2017.

Draft Programme

23 MAY

20.00 –20.30

Oleg Zhidkov (Jerusalem), The Jewish Movement in the USSR: New Sources and Perspectives (Video Testimonies)

24 MAY

9.00: Welcome

9.15–11.00: Panel I
Jewish Life, Religious Practise and Folklore under Soviet Communism I

Chair: Ilana Miller (Chicago/Prague)

Valery Dymshits (St Petersburg), The Boundaries of Illegal: Religious Practices and Shadow Economy in Soviet Jewish Life

Victoria Gerasimova (Omsk), The Jewish Community of Omsk under the Soviets, from 1940 to the 1960s: Between Tradition and Survival

Diana Dumitru (Chişinău), ‘It is Better to Live in Romania Than in the Soviet Union’: How Bessarabian Jews Tried and Frequently Failed to Become Soviet Citizens during Late Stalinism

11.00–11.15: Coffee break

11.15–13.00: Panel II
Literature and Jewish Identity

Chair: Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Warsaw)

Daria Vakhrushova (Düsseldorf), The Utopia of Yiddish Literature after the Revolution

Magdalena Ruta (Krakow), Nusekh Poyln and the ‘New Jewish Man’: The Image of the Jewish Communist in Yiddish Literature of Post-war Poland

Gennady Estraikh (New York), Soviet Yiddish Cultural Diplomacy, from the 1950s to 1991

13.00–14.00: Lunch

14.00–15.45: Panel III
Paths of Integration/Disintegration into the Communist Political System and Society

Chair: Michal Kopeček (Prague)

Galina Zelenina (Moscow), ‘Po Kurskoi, Kazanskoi zheleznoi doroge’: Jewish Private Life in the Moscow Oblast between Leisure, Underground Religion, and National Revival

Agata Maksimowska (Warsaw), Being Jewish in Soviet Birobidzhan

Kateřina Čapková (Prague), Centre and Periphery: Jewish Experience in Communist Czechoslovakia

15.45–16.15: Coffee

16.15–18.00: Round table
The Diversity of Jewish Experiences under Communism

Chair: Marcos Silber (Haifa)

Zvi Gitelman (Ann Arbor)
Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov (Warsaw)
Bożena Szaynok (Wrocław)
Andrea Pető (Budapest)

25 MAY

9.00–10.45: Panel IV
Jewish Identities and Ways of Life under Communism

Chair: Stephan Stach (Prague)

Anna Shternshis (Toronto), ‘I was not like everyone else’: Soviet Jewish Doctors Remember the Doctors’ Plot of 1953

Anna Koch (Southampton), ‘After Auschwitz you must take your origin seriously’: Perceptions of Jewishness among Communists of Jewish Origin in the Emerging German Democratic Republic

Kata Bohus (Frankfurt am Main), The Opposition of the Opposition: New Jewish Identities in the Samizdat of Late Communist Hungary

10.45–11.15: Coffee

11.15–13.00: Panel V
Jewish Religious Life and Folklore under Soviet Communism II

Chair: Raphael Utz (Jena)

Ella Stiniguță (Cluj-Napoca), Mountain Jews and the Challenges of Ritual Life in the Soviet Caucasus

Mikhail Mitsel (New York), Jewish Religious Communities in Ukraine, 1945–81

Karīna Barkane (Riga), Beyond Assimilation: Jewish Religious Communities in the Latvian SSR

13.00–14.30: Lunch

14.30–15.45: Panel VI
Jewish Transnational Encounters

Chair: Katrin Steffen (Hamburg)

David Shneer (Boulder), East Germany’s Jews, Their Transnational Networks, and East German Anti-Fascism

Eliyana R. Adler (State College/Warsaw), Strange Bedfellows: The Soviet Red Cross, Polish Jewish Refugees, and the American Joint Distribution Committee

15.45–16.15: Coffee

16.15–17.45 Concluding Round Table

Chair: Kamil Kijek (Wrocław/Prague)

Audrey Kichelewski (Strasbourg)
Elissa Bemporad (New York)
Arkadi Zeltser (Jerusalem)


Kateřina Čapková, Kamil Kijek and Stephan Stach
on behalf of the Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences

Supported by:

EAJS conference grant
Czech Science Foundation
Strategy AV21
CEFRES, Prague

Contact Info: 

Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences
Vlasska 9, Prague 1, 110 00

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