Marianne Hirsch: "I do believe that personal experience can be the laboratory for research and also for theoretical explanation"
Marianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is the Director of Columba’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The main publications:
The Mother / Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Indiana University Press, 1989.
Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Harvard University Press, 1997.
Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory, co-written with Leo Spitzer. University of California Press, 2010.
The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2012.
School Photos in Liquid Time, co-written with Leo Spitzer, University of Washington Press, 2019.
There is a ‘theoretical’ assumption that a researcher should be emotionally distanced from the object of his or her research. Maybe it is relevant for physics, chemistry and biology but not for humanistic studies. We are always emotionally involved but do not always reflect on that. You are the author of the concept of postmemory, which plays a crucial role in current memory studies. I have just finished reading your and your husband Leo Spitzer’s book ‘Ghosts of home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory’. The core of it is based on your personal postmemory. It is an excellent ‘laboratory’, which impressively demonstrates that personal background of a researcher is not an obstacle but, on the contrary, is a powerful source for creation of historical research and theoretical concepts. It would be very interesting to have a discussion about how your family experience influenced your work in memory studies. ‘Ghosts of Home’ is not translated into Russian; therefore I have to ask some biographical questions.
1.Your parents were from Czernowitz and experienced tragic turns of history before, during and just after the Second World War in their home city: the far-right and anti-Semitic Rumanian regime (1938-40), Stalin’s repressions (1940-41), German Nazis invasion and the Rumanian Holocaust (1941-44), the new wave of Stalin’s repressions (1944 and after). How did they manage to survive in such deadly circumstances?
Yes, indeed my parents lived through these very turbulent historical events. Even prior to 1940, there were anti-Semitic measures in Rumania and my parents personally suffered various hardships during that time. For example my father was not able to study engineering at the university in Cernauti and had to go to Brno (Czechoslovakia) instead. My mother, who wanted to study medicine, was not accepted to medicine faculty in Cernauti because there was a quota for Jewish students so she had to enter the language faculty. So their lives were definitely affected by Rumanian antisemitism. The first Soviet invasion in 1940-41 was also a very difficult time for them. They were both taking care of their families and their parents. Both learned Russian very quickly in order to be able to work. For my father, who had been a Jewish socialist, there was some hope that under Soviet regime the Jewish people would be treated better compared to the rest of Europe. When Rumanians in collaboration with Nazis returned in the summer of 1941 things really began to close down for them. The Ghetto in Cernauti was established in October 1941. My parents managed to get a special permit, which was given by the Rumanian mayor of Cernauti Traian Popovici, who really wanted to save the Jews of the city and avoid mass deportations to Transnistria, which affected two thirds of the Jewish population of the city. When the Ghetto was dissolved six weeks later, my parents could return home and manage to survive the war by remaining in the city of Cernauti. They were forced to wear the yellow star, they were worried about subsequent deportations and they were trying to feed their families, because their parents were quite elderly. So it was a very difficult time. They had considered fleeing to the Soviet Union in June of 1941, as some Cernauti Jews did that, but they decided that it is impossible because of the care of the families. They struggled a lot and it was very difficult but certainly not as bad as it was fo0r families deported to Transnistria, where half of them did not survive.
2.The scale of Stalin’s repressions was a few times less than the death toll of the Rumanian Holocaust. Nevertheless your parents preferred to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Rumania in 1945. What reasons did they have for such a difficult decision? How did they get a permission for emigration in the situation where were heavy restrictions of moving abroad?
My parents survived Rumanian antisemitism, Nazis repressions and Stalin’s regime. Cernauti was annexed again by the Soviet Union in 1944 and, of course, the local Jews were liberated from the Nazis but for many of them it was still a very difficult time. Some of them were taken to do force labor in the Soviet mines in the Donbass region. Others were drafted into the Soviet army. People saw the corruption and repressions of the Soviet regime and they aimed to move to the West. My parents, who were originally fairly enthusiastic about the possibilities of socialism, were very shortly disillusioned. Consequently, along with thousands of Jews, they emigrated to Rumania, because Bukovina, the region where my parents lived, was divided into the Soviet and Rumanian parts. People from the Rumanian region of Southern Bukovina could get permission to rejoin their families. In my understanding, it was an anti-Semitic gesture of the Soviet regime. I think the Soviet authorities wanted to get rid of the Jews because they were concerned that they would have a referendum in Northern Bukovina about joining the USSR and Jews could vote against that. In 1945-46 a lot of Jews were given permission to move to Rumania. My parents fled with false documents acquired from Jews from the Southern Bukovina, who had previously perished in Transnistria. They had to pay for those documents. My parents emigrated first in 1945, and their families followed in 1946. Shortly after that Rumania was became communist and their possibilities for further emigration closed down.
Why did your parents not take the advice of a Jewish NKVD officer to leave Rumania immediately and stayed there for next fifteen years? After 1947 a lot of Jewish communists held leading government positions. Did that affect the attitude of Rumanians towards the Jewish minority?
There was definitely a high level of antisemitism in Rumania: both a traditional religiously motivated antisemitism and a modern one politically and economically motivated. The Jews were trapped between political opponents. The nationalists blamed the Jews for being ‘communists’, and communists blamed them for being agents of the ‘capitalist West’. My parents could not leave Rumania for a long time because their parents were quite elderly and they had sick relatives. Probably there were some other reasons as well: emigration is hard; and they had just survived the wa and many hardships. I think eventually my parents regretted not having moved earlier. By 1961 my grandparents had died and nothing held my parents in Rumania.
A lot of soviet Jews, who got permissions to immigrate to Israel, preferred to stay in Austria prior to moving to the US. Your family did the same and why did they not go to Israel? Did you experience any problems in Austria and how long were you there?
When we left Rumania we only had entry visas to Israel and transit visas to Austria. With no passport, we were stateless. We arrived in Austria with an understanding that we are staying there only for one day before departure to Israel. My parents decided to stay in Austria longer for different reasons. Even though that my father in his youth was a labor Zionist and a member of ‘Hashomer Hatzair, which is the socialist Zionist youth organization, by that time he was already wary of what he called “the Jewish experiment in Israel” and aware of many political problems. For my mother there was a concern about the new language and dfficult climate. This is why they decided to stay in Austria to take some time to decide where they could build a new life. My parents could not take any possessions from Rumania; the only thing they had was their professions. My father was fifty, my mother was forty four, so they wanted to figure out where they could live the rest of their lives in relative comfort and freedom, contrary to the hardships of their past. It was very difficult in Austria. My father was an engineer and although he got a job right away, he did not have the visas to work permanently . My father decided that the U.S. and its democratic system would correspond closer to his ideals. After a year we got a permission to enter to the US on the basis of an Austrian quota system.
How difficult was it for your family to adapt in American society? Did you get support of the local Jewish community? Did you ever experience anti-Semitic attitude from your peers or anybody else?
When we came to the US in 1961, economically it was a very good time. It was the time of Sputnik and science developed very fast. It was very easy for my parents to find jobs, the father as an engineer and the mother as a language teacher, she taught English in Europe and now she taught French in the United States. So their integration from the material prospective was not difficult. We were welcomed by the Jewish community in Providence Rhode Island, who helped us to settle. They rented an apartment for us and furnished it by the volunteer work of the Jewish community members. They were very generous and we are extremely grateful to them. My mother experienced more difficulties in integration as she found the United States culture very foreign in relation to her Central European background. My father was very enthusiastic to become an American. We did come across some anti-Semitism in the United States but the Jewish community in the places where we lived was quite strong and prominent so in comparison with Europe it was much less.
Your family lived through four repressive regimes and three emigrations. Did you reflect how your personal background influenced the choice of memory studies as a field in your academic research?
After being in academia for more than four decades, I tend to believe that a lot of our work is personally motivated, even if we are enjoined or encouraged to have some objective distance from our studies. Certainly my work is inflected by my personal circumstances and I embrace that, I do not fight that. I was involved in feminism where it was both personal and political also, and it was professional as well. Feminism offered a space for political work that was also theoretical as it involved rethinking accepted categories and paradigms. I do believe that personal experience can be a laboratory for research and for theoretical explanation as well. When I started working with memory studies, a field that I helped to develop in the mid-eighties, and for many of us, who worked hard to build that field, personal circumstances served precisely as a platform to thinking together. The notion of postmemory that I developed certainly came out of a personal sense in which my parents’ war time experiences formed the fabric of my own recollections, even though I did not experience them myself and I did not literally remember them. I felt that certain moments of their history were a part of my own memory and I felt that I had to find the term to describe that phenomenon. But that was not just my own experience; I read a lot of works of Jewish writers and artists of the second generation, and also descendants of American slaves and from other catastrophic histories. I felt that their evocations shared certain qualities of my own experience. Inths sense, the personal is also connected to others who have a similar experience – it is trans-personal. In the mid-eighties, when memory studies started, the memory of the Second World War came to the prominence in scholarship. First of all, the archives started opening especially after the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union and people could do new historical research. Secondly, people of my generation were ready to listen to survivors of the Nazis Holocaust, of the Soviet regime and so on. It took some time before we were ready to listen to stories of that kind and there was also an anxiety that survivors will die out and we would not be offered their stories. Many scholars of a community who became interested in memory studies in the mid-eighties were influenced by personal family circumstances but not only by that.
On which occasions did you receive information of your parents’ tragic experience? Were there any family traditions of remembering (Jewish festivals, meetings with relatives and friends, family celebrations and so on) or was it mentioned occasionally?
Many children of survivors of the Holocaust and other catastrophes report that their parents did not talk about the war and because of the silence they had to figure out themselves what happened or did not happen to their families. This was not the case for my family and my community. I grew up in Bucharest in a community of people from Czernowitz. Some of them, for example my grandparents who lived in Rumania since 1918, had never learned Rumanian, everybody spoke German and cooked meals that originated in Czernowitz. Rumanian culture was very strange for them. In that community they spoke about the ‘War’, they did not use the word ‘Holocaust’, the war came up all the time. I mean that practically every day stories were told about the war and what we knew about Transnistria. It was not related to any religious holidays because members of my family were not observant. And also there were no large family gatherings because that community was so scattered. Many people remained in the Soviet Union so we could not see each other for a long time. Many of our family members emigrated to Australia, Israel, Canada, United States, and to many parts of Europe. So there were stories which my parents still did not know. I remember when my cousins, who stayed in Chernovtsy, came to Bucharest in 1958, and we shared the stories about the deportation to Transnistria and about other relatives. So this all was very much alive, all the time. Of course I did not really connect some of these stories to I learned later about the Nazis camps like Auschwitz, about the experience of the Jews of the rest of Europe. I should say that my parents always considered that even though they lived in very difficult times, it was nothing like what other Jews of Western Europe lived through, who experienced the deportations to Nazis camps. When the term ‘survivors’ began to be used in the United States in 1980’s and I pointed out to my parents that they are Holocaust survivors by the definition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they resisted that term. My parents did live in the Ghetto and wore the yellow star, but they believed that this term should be only restricted to the survivors of Nazis concentration camps.
Your parents same as many Jewish residents of Czernowitz were taught to respect high-level German culture. For a famous Czernowitzer Paul Celan it was the personal tragedy that the bearers of that culture managed to create the Holocaust. Did your parents feel the same?
The Jews of Czernowitz were very much assimilated. Even my grandparents’ generation had switched from speaking Yiddish to German and they absolutely felt that German culture was their culture and the German language was their language, they claimed it as their own. A significant German language Jewish literature was produced in Czernowitz even in the generation that preceded Paul Celan. Before the 1940’s, Czernowitz Jewish writers wrote in German even though they were living in Rumania. Celan and my parents were educated in Rumania, they went to Rumanian school, but they mastered literary German. They were, of course, disillusioned. For Celan it was, as you described, a personal tragedy. But my parents did not give up German, it was still their language, they did not equate the culture they much admired and writers, whom they read, to a Nazis regime, they managed to separate the Nazis from the German culture, that they still claimed as their own. Of course Celan later wrote that Germans have to wash and clean their language before they can use it again because it was so contaminated by Nazi rhetoric an disfigurement. German culture and language remained very important for my parents, partly because a lot of writers, whom they read in German, Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger and others, they identified with as Jewish writers.
How did your visits to Chernivtsy and working on ‘Ghosts at home’ change your personal postmemory? How did the ‘places of memory's effect’ work in your case?
This is a really great question and difficult one. I think that hearing the stories, where the places of Czernowitz were described to me as a child very powerfully and vividly, has created a kind of mental picture. Postmemorial works of writers and artists of the second generation are composed of shadows and traces that often have nothing specific to connect postmemory to concrete material space and time. These imaginings are concretized when you visit the place itself, which is still the place but is not exactly the same place because so many years have passed and culture has changed. That is an uncanny experience. So I still remember how I did imagine a specific place my parents talked about, the place near the train station, from which they were almost deported, about where they decided to go back to the Ghetto and try to get permits to stay. They always described that place in a certain way, but when I went with them to see it, it actually looked quite different from how I imagined it. And now I have two pictures, I have the mental picture which I always carry with me, and I have the picture of a memory of being in that place. In the first picture it was a corner, in the other one it is a crossing of four roads, which is very symbolic, of course to be stopping at the crossroads and turning one way instead another way. That became very symbolic for me. So my personal postmemories were definitely affected by the specific visit but the visit did not eradicate the images I had before. And it is an interesting thing how memory works, memory is layered. The personal memory is layered with memory of other people, with cultural memory, with literary imagining. So I think that personal and family memory is always shaped by public discourses, by images which circulate in media and I think that the personal is never just strictly individual. And that is how I described what happened during the journey back to Chernivtsy with my parents.
Which projects are you working on now? What are your plans for the future?
I am still working on the memory studies where I have two different projects. The one is in collaboration with my husband and a historian Leo Spitzer. We are working on the book about the school pictures and class photographs called ‘The school photos and their afterlives’. That project was inspired by our research on Czernowitz, because we were interested in that genre of school photography. Those pictures are evidence how schooling works to assimilate children into community, into collective and how those collectives were set in the regimes where were persecutions, where was discrimination, and where was exclusion. Czernowitz is an interesting part of this book because Jews felt very comfortable in that city and in the school photos you can see the integration of Jews and non-Jews studying in the same public schools, and despite that Jews were separated from majority culture and deported to Transnistria. This book is not only about the Jewish ordeal but also about other regimes where minority’s cultures were assimilated, African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities in different parts of Europe. Another project is my general book about memory for the future. I am very interested in cultural memory, which is a concern not only in Jewish history but other tragic and violent events. I am studying how the tragic incidents in history of different nations were reflected in relations to each other, how they are rethinking in the twenty first century and how that changed the notion of cultural memory. So those are my plans right now.
Thank you very much for your interview