10. Transnational Jewish Refugee Stories: Displacement, Loss, and (Non)Restitution
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239 Chapter 10 Transnational Jewish Refugee Stories: Displacement, Loss, and (Non)Restitution Atina Grossmann Stories of Jewish migration and transnationalism have always, it seems, been deeply ambivalent, carrying the promise of adventure and new beginnings away from a rooted home, but also freighted with the panic of persecution and flight, the need as well as the desire to escape. For many German Jews, what was romantic and “modern” in the 1920s—­ to be cosmopolitan and to travel to exotic places, whether via film, literature, or actual voyages—­ was transformed by the 1930s into something more sinister, an experience of uncertainty, desperation , and loss. For some, the far-­ flung trajectories of expulsion and emigration nonetheless retained moments of wanderlust and thirst for new shores, catapulting those who managed to escape into places that had previously been the stuff of fantasy. These fraught stories of escape and postcatastrophe (necessarily incomplete and inadequate) restitution are necessarily transnational; they follow refugees as they flee into homelessness and statelessness and then, once transplanted—­ often numerous times—­ seek both to regain a sense of their own past and to establish the basis for a new future by claiming compensation for lives and possessions irrevocably left behind.1 The intimate and inevitable connection between “Wiedergutmachung” and these complex emotions, played out within and across a wide transnational postwar refugee universe, has, in many ways, long been obvious. The battle within Israeli society over whether to accept a “blood money” agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany was fierce and intensely bitter. The battle in living rooms and kitchens throughout the globalized world of Jewish survivors and refugees over whether the potential gain of some unspecified material compensation was worth entering a Papierkrieg with a reempowered German 240    Three-Way Street officialdom and the painful confrontation with memory and loss—­ as well as the necessary recognition of a sovereign Federal Republic—­ it would entail, was no less anguished.2 And yet, we are perhaps only now beginning to think, at least in an academic context, about the particular emotions aroused by claims for restitution or compensation for objects, in addition to the less literally tangible losses of freedom, health, and educational opportunity engendered by, in the language of restitution legislation, National Socialist religious, racial, and political persecution.3 These meticulously constructed lists of porcelain services and silver tableware, Persian carpets, Singer sewing machines, curtains and books, velour covered armchairs, oil paintings and lithographs, and of course real estate, composed in highly diverse permanent or temporary new homes from Buenos Aires to Bulawayo, or Tel Aviv to Tucson, were a key element in the complex, controversial, and unwieldy process collectively and awkwardly known as “Wiedergutmachung.” Their fraught significance is only heightened perhaps by the fact that these ghostly reminders of a devastated world and culture were generally specific to German Jews who could document such losses rather than the majority of East European Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The extensive archival record of this restitution process presents a history of German Jews that began and was catastrophically disrupted in Germany but then individually remembered and documented within a transnational network of lawyers, physicians, consular officials, and claimants in many different locales who all had to arrange the story in order to make it intelligible , plausible, and “legitimate” to officials in a newly constituted Federal Republic. It makes clear that an examination of emotional responses should consider not only the refugees and survivors themselves with all their jumbled ambivalent feelings, but also the reactions, cloaked by references to legal paragraphs and statutes, of the various German officials, attorneys, and “experts” of all sorts handling the claims, as well as the “Aryanizers,” who are often an important part of the “conversation.” Moreover, we are also pressed to think about the emotions of the descendants retrieving the files, confronting their contents, and imagining what it meant for the claimants to engage in this process with German officials and, in some cases, also directly with the new owners of what had once been theirs. Especially at the beginning, these exchanges in which victims had to redefine themselves as legal claimants in a society that had expelled and persecuted them and where, moreover, their interlocutors were not infrequently former persecutors, read as frustrating, painful, and bureaucratically grotesque legal and semantic battles, often suffused with antisemitism.4 To study them Transnational Jewish Refugee Stories    241 even now, decades later, provokes anger and a kind of disbelief. Inevitably, however, such investigations, at least in the case...



Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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