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Between Regression and Rupture: Nazi Ghettoization and the Perception of a “Return to the Middle Ages”

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 1 Ballroom

Abstract

In their 2002 Holocaust: A History, Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, describing the initial response of Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe to their confinement to ghettos, write, "Most ghetto inmates, whatever their personality traits, tried to understand their existence by viewing it within a continuum of Jewish history....The concept of a ghetto had a past in Jewish memory and the ghettos themselves had a Jewish past. It was logical that, initially, there was hope for a Jewish future." Their support for this claim consists of a single footnote. Nevertheless, it points to an important issue that merits further study: to what extent did inherited ideas about “ghettos” derived from the Jewish historical experience inform Jewish notions of their ghettoization under the Nazis? This is related to the broader question of the role that historical consciousness, including the formation of analogies with the past, played in evolving Jewish perceptions of their confinement in ghettos. In this paper, drawing primarily on diaries and memoirs from the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos, and on the underground press from the Warsaw Ghetto, I examine a recurring trope in this literature—the image of a “return to the Middle Ages,” motivated in part because the ghetto had come to be thought of as the symbol par excellence of the Jewish Middle Ages. My argument is that the Nazi ghetto underwent a process of defamiliarization during the Holocaust. Initially, the historical associations with the word "ghetto" may have suggested the existence of precedent in the Jewish past for the Nazis’ residential segregation of Jews, implying that ghettoization was the restoration of a premodern order of things. Only gradually did it register that the Nazi ghetto was an absolute novum that was unassimilable to a prior history of ghettoization or to any previous trial or calamity. The research on which this paper is based is part of a book I am writing on the changing meaning of the word "ghetto" for Jews from sixteenth-century Venice to the present.

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