East European Jews in the German-Jewish Imagination from the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica

Curated by Rachel Seelig, Committee on Jewish Studies.

The symbol of East European Jewry was an important tool of German-Jewish self-definition. Were these so-called Ostjuden foreign or family? Did they represent a tradition from which German Jews would have to dissociate in order to secure their civic equality as Germans, or were they fellow members of a single Jewish nation? The stereotypes that German Jews attached to East European Jews reflect their own evolving self-perception and conflicting national aspirations.

The long and difficult path toward emancipation during the nineteenth century led German Jews to reject traditional notions of Jewish nationhood and to refashion themselves as "German citizens of the Mosaic faith." In their efforts to assimilate, they deliberately adopted German middle-class gentility, politeness, and aesthetic refinement, and contrasted these traits with a crude stereotype of East European Jewish life. They created a caricature of the ghetto, which signified not only a confined space but also a self-segregating worldview. German Kultur was viewed as the path out of the ghetto of traditional society into the modern nation-state. 

Around the turn of the century, many German Jews shifted their focus from assimilation to self-determination, and from German fatherland to Jewish homeland. The image of the Ostjuden was likewise transformed. Distant strangers became long-lost brothers. Archaic tradition became a source of cultural authenticity. The nobility of life in the shtetl (Jewish town), the beauty of traditional religious observance and the perceived cohesion of Jewish national identity in the East were held up as ideals against the tendencies toward intermarriage, apostasy and even self-hatred associated with post-assimilation German-Jewish life. What had been disparaged became a source of romantic fascination and pride.

Throughout this period, imagination had to be reconciled with reality. The stereotypes that German Jews attached to the Ostjuden were conditioned by actual historical encounters between the two groups. With the westward migration of Jewish refugees in the wake of the Russian pogroms the Ostjuden became a visible presence in Germany. As German-Jewish soldiers made the opposite journey toward the eastern front during World War I, the physical reality of the ghetto either intensified or overturned preconceived images of the Ostjuden. Whether the ghetto came to Germany or Germany went to the ghetto, physical contact between German and East European Jews played a powerful role in shaping perceptions of self and other.

Equally significant in the revision of German-Jewish identity were encounters between Jews and non-Jews. Whether rich or poor, assimilated or traditional, western or eastern in appearance and custom, all Jewish stereotypes fed the anti-Semitic imagination, and all Jews came to be seen as an alien presence on German soil. The enduring question of Jewish nationhood was therefore supplanted by a racial identity defined and imposed by others. Indeed, the efforts of German Jews to distinguish themselves from the Ostjuden were overshadowed by the efforts of Germans to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

Stereotypes often play a central role in the formation of collective identities. The items on view represent the changing symbol of the Ostjuden in the German-Jewish imagination and experience; as such, they reflect the complex face of German Jewry itself.

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