Nicole Freeman, 2014 AJC Fellow
While visiting Jewish cemeteries and memorials in Poland last summer, I reflected upon the sites I had previously seen in Germany. What are their differences and similarities? How have Germany and Poland comparatively come to terms with their difficult pasts? My own academic research on twentieth-century Germany and Poland has been greatly influenced by the most recent “transnational turn” within the history discipline. Transnational history focuses on the movements of peoples, ideas, goods, and technologies across nations. In fact, historians now look beyond national boundaries to study global themes and processes in a larger context. Transnational history allows for scholars to challenge the traditional framework of the nation state, expose its limitations, and problematize nationalist histories. Historians, like Michael Meng, have recently studied Jewish synagogues and cemeteries as transnational spaces in Germany and Poland.
Meng’s book, Shattered Spaces, focuses on the destruction and preservation of Jewish sites and property after the Holocaust in Germany and Poland. He uses the cities of Berlin, Warsaw, Potsdam, Essen, and Wrocław as case studies in order to show parallel histories and shared memoires across national boundaries. Both Germany and Poland’s approaches to Jewish ruins evolved greatly over a 60-year period. Meng argues that local officials in Germany and Poland “made deliberate choices about what to rebuild and preserve from the rubble of the war.” This conscious selection helped reshape postwar German and Polish national identities. With small or no remaining Jewish populations, Jewish sites represented a past that neither nation wanted to confront in the immediate postwar decades. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal allowed Germans and Poles to build new, modern capitals and “erase these reminders of the past rather than mourn the catastrophe behind their shattered condition.” However, there was a general shift from destruction to preservation in the 1970s and 1980s. National politicians, tourists, and international Jewish leaders brought attention to Jewish ruins and sought to reconstruct the Jewish past.
During the AJC fellowship, we visited many of these preserved and reconstructed spaces of Jewish history in Poland. The Jewish cemetery, Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw are just a few of the sites in Poland that represent Jewish memory, nostalgia, tension, melancholy, and mourning. Meng refers to these kinds of reconstructed and newly built Jewish sites as spaces of “redemptive cosmopolitanism.” The commemorative sites represented the missing multi-ethnic nature of German and Polish democratic societies.
By comparing these Jewish sites of memory and mourning, we are able to address larger questions regarding the legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary Germany and Poland. Today’s historians are using transnational methodologies in order to bring these two countries into dialogue with each other. Moving away from national narratives allows for historians to draw connections between multiple countries and bring new perspectives to old questions.
Nicole Freeman is a PhD student at the Ohio State University who specializes in twentieth-century German and gender history. In 2012, she graduated summa cum laude from Salem State University with a BA in History and received her Massachusetts Initial Educator License in History and the Social Sciences. Nicole’s honors thesis explored the experiences of Jewish children rescued by the Kindertransport who lived with English foster families during the Second World War. Prior to staring graduate school at Ohio State, she interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.