Historical Narratives in Soviet Yiddish Literature

Copiously funded by the state, a new literature in Yiddish emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, one which was to be fundamentally different from the pre-revolutionary literature. Instead of traditional ethnic-religious affiliations, an atheist Jewish identity was to be created on the basis of the Yiddish language, which, in the sense of Stalin’s later slogan, was “national in form, communist in content.” In their works, writers were expected to give this new national literature concrete form and persuasive power.

The dissertation project explores the question of how, against the background of the political and cultural upheavals throughout the 20th century, the understanding of Jewish history and belonging changed in the works of Yiddish-Soviet writers. The project examines how pre-revolutionary Jewish history was told in the face of the epochal break that was the October Revolution. Did the historical narratives—in the Marxist sense—consistently showcase the radical break with the past, or were there other models that focused on continuities and coexistences? Did the fact that many authors were strongly influenced in their childhood by the traditional Eastern European Jewish world, its worldview and its view of history, feature in their work? And in what form can these influences be found?

The project focuses on literary and journalistic texts written in response to the striking historical upheavals of the 20th century. The term ‘historical’ refers both to narratives situated in the past and to historical concepts and descriptions of the Soviet present. These readings could contain various things: official political as well as archetypal explanatory models, a messianic expectation of salvation, or even deeply rooted memories of one’s own history of persecution. Often, they formed the prism through which authors viewed striking events: the fall of the Shtetl world, the inevitable assimilation, the October Revolution, which was initially perceived as liberation (by most), the pogroms and the Holocaust, or the hope for spatial and linguistic autonomy in Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.

Leibniz-Kooperative Exzellenz 2020–2023
Head researcher(s): Yfaat Weiss (Director, DI), Matthias Schwartz (Research coordinator at the ZfL)
Associate Researcher(s): Irina Kissin