Katja Schatte Lecture (Summary)

Sat, 04/01/2017 - 1:30pm

Katja Schatte (University of Washington)
"Between Scholarship and Community Engagement: Exploring Pre- and Post-Reunification Jewish Life in East Berlin"

March 7, 2017

Katja Schatte Lecture

In this lecture, presented on March 7, 2017, Schatte touches on issues such as the relationship between the second and third generations of East German Jews, scholarly and community debates about contemporary and East German Jewish identity, Holocaust memory, and the effects of trauma and exile across generations.

Katja Schatte, the 2016-2017 Margee and Douglas Greenberg Research Fellow, gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on pre and post-reunification Jewish life in East Berlin from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. This period is part of her wider dissertation research on Jewish women’s lives and identities in East Berlin from 1945 to 1990. 

While previous work on Jewish life in East Germany before and after unification focuses mainly on the Communist politics of the political elite, Schatte expands her research and analysis of East Jewish German life to include scholars, writers, teachers, artists, and journalists in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and post-GDR. Only examining politics is an oversimplification, Schatte asserted, of people’s attitudes and experiences, which changed over time and were shaped by many factors, including gender, family history, profession, geographic region, how they survived the Holocaust, and how they experienced reunification. Schatte examined not only politics but also people’s relationships to Jewish life and Judaism as a religion.

Schatte argued that scholars and artists within the community have already invested significant intellectual labor in engaging with their history but have not always gotten the recognition they deserve. After briefly reviewing some of the works that have influenced and inspired her project (see Resources below), Schatte reflected on ways that oral history promotes community engagement in scholarship. Drawing from the work of Michael Frisch, Schatte explained how using oral history methods has allowed for shared authority in her own project, offering examples of how scholars, artists, writers, and community members helped to define what her research questions and focus would be. Also drawing from Frisch, Schatte emphasized the importance of paying attention to the impact of historical events -- such as reunification -- on the ways individuals tell their stories. What are the conditions under which people are sharing their stories, and what is the relationship between those conditions and the narrative? Schatte analyzes these questions in her project.

In 1989 there were less than 400 Jews officially registered with the Jewish community in East Berlin. There were many more who were affiliated more loosely with Jewish culture or religion. Schatte went on to describe the significance of the Jewish Cultural Association (Jüdischer Kulturverein Berlin e.V.) to these more loosely affiliated Jews. The organization was founded in 1989, emerging from a group called We For Us, which was founded in 1986. The association provided an informal gathering space for East German Jews to engage with Jewish culture, history, and religion, and the people involved in the formalization of the organization were primarily members of the second generation (the children of the generation that survived the Holocaust). 

As Schatte discussed the history of this organization, she stopped to focus on one of its first board members, Andree Fischer-Marum. Schatte met and interviewed Fischer-Marum during her fieldwork when Fischer-Marum had just published a book of her grandfather’s letters, which he wrote from a concentration camp in 1933 and 1934 before his death. In the Visual History Archive, Schatte discovered an interview with Fischer-Marum’s mother. Schatte described it as finding a missing puzzle piece to something she had already started working on while she was in Berlin. She turned her lecture towards an in-depth description of this family and their history, their relationship to Jewish life, the religion of Judaism, and the place and role of politics in their home and their stories.

After showing a clip from Sophie Marum’s interview, Schatte argued that Sophie Marum expresses a sentiment common to many first generation narrators in the Visual History Archive and people Schatte interviewed – the sense that everything they tried to accomplish politically did not matter anymore and the feeling that there was no space to acknowledge the work they had done to overcome Nazism and anti-Semitism and to build a different Germany. Another common feature between the interviews, Schatte discovered, is skepticism towards the second generation’s seemingly sudden interest in Jewish life, culture, religion, and identity. This feeling was not only directed towards the second generation, Schatte asserted. When she interviewed Eva Nickel, a member of the second generation, in Berlin, Nickel expressed skepticism about why members of the first generation were suddenly interested in what it meant to be Jewish so late in their lives. Schatte went on to discuss the revival of Jewish life and identity, and possible reasons for the emergence of individual interest in what it meant to be Jewish.

Returning to analysis of We For Us and the Jewish Cultural Organization, Schatte described some of the controversies related to the group and their significance, which illustrate interesting developments in East German Jewish life. These included not only skepticism from outsiders about revived interest in being Jewish, but also who could belong to the group and who could not. From the time the Jewish Cultural Organization was formalized in 1989 until 2009, it provided an important space for Jewish life in East Berlin.

Schatte explained that she found 70 interviews in the Visual History Archive of people who lived in the GDR. She discovered during her research that there was an advertisement in the Jewish Cultural Association’s newsletter in 1995 from the Shoah Foundation worldwide search for people who wanted to share their Holocaust survivor stories. Most of the interviews she found of those who had lived in the GDR were from 1996.

Before concluding her talk, Schatte shared some reflections on a few other central aspects of her research, beginning with her interest in scholarly and artistic engagement with her research topics. She described the impressive amount of artistic production she discovered in the Visual History Archive, which she did not expect. She then discussed why and how she takes women as a starting point in her research and the ways that mens’ stories seem to automatically enter the picture, even when the focus is on women. She saw this often in the interviews she watched in the Visual History Archive as well. Schatte shared a clip from an interview with Alice Zadek, who begins discussing her husband in answer to a question, and the interviewer reminds Zadek that he’s interested in hearing about her, not about her husband. Schatte concluded her talk with a moving excerpt from Alfred Fleischhacker’s testimony about the importance of moral courage.

The long and lively Q&A following Schatte’s lecture included questions and discussion of the Marum’s family history, the relationship between the East German state and Jewish community members, the reasons for the disbanding of We For Us, reactions to her project in Germany, and the perceptions of members of the third generation about their relationship to the Holocaust, the GDR, reunification, and the stories told about these events.


Resources Recommended by Katja Schatte

Robin Ostow. Jews in Contemporary East Germany. (1989)

Vincent von Wroblewsky. Between Torah and Trabant. (1993, German)

John Borneman & Jeffrey Peck. Sojourners. (1995)

Video: Summary of a workshop / conference on Jewish life in the GDR last November in Berlin, organized by the Jewish Museum Berlin, the New York Office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, and the Leo Baeck Institute New York (German with English subtitles)

Video: Short interview with Eva Nickel, a social worker and member of the (East) Berlin Jewish community who works with late-age PTSD among Holocaust survivors (German with English subtitles)


Summary by Martha Stroud