restricted access Introduction: Trauma and Displacement
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Introduction: Trauma and Displacement This study examines the responses of German Jewish writers to the geographical and cultural displacement that is one of the lasting consequences of the Holocaust, or Shoah. 1 The project sprang from my observation of a curious discrepancy: several authors who after 1945 lived outside of Germany but continued to write in German paradoxically experienced their favorable reception in West Germany after 1960 as a traumatic return of genocide and mass expulsion. This is true for at least three writers who attained high visibility and distinct profiles: Peter Weiss, who became the showcase exile writer of West Germany’s leading literary group, the Gruppe 47; Nelly Sachs, who became a celebrated symbol of reconciliation between Germans and Jews; and Paul Celan, who began to be recognized as one of the most important German -speaking poets of the twentieth century. The sense of crisis is most evident in the cases of Celan and Sachs, both of whom experienced a massive return of persecution fears, which were linked to their experiences during the Third Reich. But Weiss’s recognition as a Germanlanguage writer around the same time, commonly treated as his literary breakthrough, was also accompanied by strong feelings of ambivalence and a renewed sense that his own biography was vitally shaped by his family’s departure from Germany in 1935. Similarly, several German 1 INTRODUCTION 2 Jewish intellectuals whose postwar thinking revolved around the “break in civilization” 2 that is Auschwitz, including Theodor Adorno, Jean Améry, and Günther Anders, revisited their own experience of exile and displacement during the 1960s, often with devastating results. Grown up but not yet established at the onset of their exile, these writers and thinkers came into their own only after 1945, when the physical barriers to returning to Germany or Austria ceased to exist and a more diffuse sense of dispersal emerged. The thesis of my study is that these authors transformed their catastrophic displacement into a meaningful and productive predicament characterized as “diaspora.” In choosing this term, I enter a rich theoretical field in which attention to problems caused by globalization and mass migration goes hand in hand with a reconceptualization of diaspora as a political and cultural opportunity. The rethinking of “diaspora ” began with the attempt in postwar scholarship on Jewish history to distinguish between imposed and self-chosen exile, the latter being designated by diaspora. This distinction reflects the insight that since the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish life outside Israel has become largely a matter of choice, as it has been in previous periods of Jewish independence or compact settlement in their own land. In contrast , the term galut (Hebrew for “exile”) refers to the forced dispersion of the Jewish people. The distinction has been codified in the Encyclopedia Judaica, where it is used to characterize the different epochs of Jewish history. 3 The conception of this difference is a result of the secularization and politicization of Jewish thought. Whereas the biblical term galut refers to exile as a divinely ordained condition, usually a punishment for the people’s deviation from the path of the Torah, the notion of self-chosen exile assumes the ability of humans to determine the conditions of their own lives through political action rather than religious observance. Although the precise beginnings of this view are difficult to determine, it was foregrounded by the agitation for the emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth century and the Zionist movement that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Both the proponents of emancipation, who trusted in liberalism’s capacity to advance religious tolerance and civic equality, and the Zionists, who promoted the establishment of a Jewish state as a remedy against abiding antisemitism, were engaged in the creation of political conditions that would bring an end to the humiliations and persecutions suffered by Jews in the galut. 4 “Self-chosen exile” in this sense does not mean TRAUMA AND DISPLACEMENT 3 that diaspora is a good thing but that one can do something against it. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes, such a distinction between forced exile and willed diaspora remains wedded to a (Zionist) view of dispersion as pathological. 5 The decisive shift toward a more positive understanding of diaspora occurred more recently in postcolonial criticism and Jewish cultural studies. The new conception was concomitant with a semantic expansion of the term to include a wider range of displacements in a world marked by mass migrations for economic and...


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