Reviews and Short Notices
Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. By Michael Meng. Harvard University Press. 2011. xiv + 351pp. £25.95.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 111–112, December 2012
How to Cite
Stoll, K. (2012), Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. By Michael Meng. Harvard University Press. 2011. xiv + 351pp. £25.95. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 111–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01289.x
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
‘A city and a nation was literally rising from the dead. Then, one afternoon, I was taken out to the former ghetto … Here there was not much to see. There was complete and total waste, and a monument.’ These lines, written by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1952 after his visit to Warsaw, encapsulate different encounters with the physical spaces and shattered sites of Poland's capital in the first years after liberation from German occupation. The urban district of Muranów, Warsaw's centre of pre-war Jewish life, which the Germans levelled to the ground after having crushed the ghetto uprising in April 1943, was not included in the historic preservation and reconstruction programme. Whereas the ruined landscape of the Old Town was perceived as part of a sacred heritage of the Polish nation worthy of preservation and restoration, urban planners, historic preservationists and politicians did not regard Jewish sites as culturally valuable and hence felt no obligation to rebuild the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street. Apart from the odd exception, they regarded the area of the wartime ghetto, in which the Germans had crowded together 380,000 Warsaw Jews in 1940, as an empty space that could be reserved for constructing a socialist future. It was decided to clear away the rubble and to build a socialist-realist housing complex in Muranów. Michael Meng argues that the space of the wartime ghetto evoked ‘the anxiety of the Holocaust’ among Poles. Thus, he interprets the appropriation and transformation of the area, where Jews lived, suffered, died and were selected for deportation trains to the death camp of Treblinka, as a collective management strategy for erasing the spatial markers of a discomforting and ‘abject past’ that they did not wish to confront.
However, the attempts to obliterate the reminders of persecution, deportation and mass murder of European Jewry, as well as the general disregard for Jewish communal property, were not specific to Polish society alone. Such phenomena also occurred in post-war Germany, the very land of those who organized and perpetrated the Holocaust. In his analysis of how Germans, Poles and Jews – individuals and different groups of people – have dealt with and interpreted various Jewish sites (mostly synagogues and cemeteries) Michael Meng demonstrates that the encounters, which this process entailed, developed ‘in related ways across local, national, and political borders’ (p. 15).
Meng identifies a common pattern generally distinctive to both democratic and communist societies in Poland and Germany: ranging from the deliberate destruction and neglect of historic traces of Jewish life in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to the preservation and restoration of Jewish sites from the 1970s onwards. According to Meng, this shift materialized ‘first on the local level as church groups, city leaders, political dissidents, and ordinary residents became concerned about the neglect and erasure of Jewish sites since 1945’ (p. 7). In the 1980s, and particularly post-1989, these spaces were transnationalized and ‘attracted local, national, and international attention from a wide variety of people who imbued them with diverse meanings’ (p. 260). Meng states that a new mode of public memory, which he terms ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’, has subsequently emerged.
Meng examines the changing attitudes towards Jewish sites from 1945 to the present day by focusing on the examples of Berlin, Warsaw, Potsdam, Essen, and Wrocław. He brings these five cities together by way of an ‘analytical kaleidoscope’, that is ‘a shifting analytical gaze that moves from city to city to reveal multiple perspectives on the common themes of memory, urban space, tourism, cosmopolitism, the Cold War, and postwar Jewish life’ (p. 12). With regard to the conception of time, the author is indebted to Reinhart Koselleck, who emphasized that temporality is multi-levelled. Meng thinks of time ‘in terms of layers that have varying degrees of depth, width, length, and origin’ (p. 14). He argues that ‘many layers of time now overlap in Jewish sites’ (p. 261).
According to Meng, broader segments of Polish and German societies have linguistically, mnemonically and politically appropriated ‘Jewish space’, in a conscious attempt to symbolize the ‘redemptive transformation of Germans and Poles into tolerant democratic citizens’ (p. 10). Meng identifies three characteristic features of ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’: First, it is part of official life with public expression and performance. Secondly, the ‘symbolic reincorporation of the Jewish past into the present’ offers ‘the promise of national redemption’. According to this logic, restoring ‘Jewishness’ is attractive because it ‘cleanses the nation of its sins’. Thirdly, this mode of memory is supposedly ‘often passive, and sometimes exclusive’ (p. 263). The term ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’ seems to imply that those active in memory culture are not concerned with the commemoration of the victims but rather with the image Germans and Poles present of themselves. However, this point is not necessarily a new one, as the concept of redemption through commemoration in German memory culture has been critically examined by Ulrike Jureit, who merits a mention in one of the footnotes in Meng's text. He criticizes the fact that ‘non-Jewish Germans and Poles also reduce Jewishness to the past’ (p. 249). In symbolically bringing Jews back into their societies through visible spaces, ‘Germans and Poles’, he maintains, are seeking ‘closure with the past’ instead of engaging critically with it (pp. 247–8). While Meng is correct in questioning the sincerity of non-Jewish activists in memory culture and while a representation of Polish–Jewish and German–Jewish relations, which focuses exclusively on the past and on Jewish victimhood, is inadequate, one can argue with his tendency to make apodictic statements when ascribing ‘redemptive cosmopolitism’ to ‘non-Jewish Germans and Poles’ as a whole without any differentiation.
The limitations of space preclude a detailed examination of each of Meng's chapters (1: ‘Confronting the Spoils of Genocide’; 2: ‘Clearing Jewish Rubble’; 3: ‘Erasing the Jewish Past’; 4: ‘Restoring Jewish Ruins’; 5: ‘Reconstructing the Jewish Past’). So, let me close by simply stating that this is a very well-researched and well-written book, providing an innovative approach to the subject. It deserves to be widely read and discussed.