CfP: New Approaches to the History of the Jews under Communism


New Approaches to the History of the Jews under Communism

Prague, Villa Lanna
23-25 May 2017

Deadline : 31 October 2016

Organizers : Kateřina Čapková, Institute of Contemporary History, Czech
Academy of Sciences; Kamil Kijek, Department of Jewish Studies, University of
Wrocław; Stephan Stach, Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of

The experience of the Jews under the Communist régimes of east-central and
eastern Europe has been a hotly debated topic of historiography since the
1950s. Until the 1980s, Cold War propaganda exerted a powerful influence on
most interpretations presented in articles and books published on both sides
the ‘Iron Curtain’. Moreover, most works focused both on the relationship
between the régime and the Jews living under it and on the role of the Jews in
the Communist/Socialist movements and the political events connected with the
rise of antisemitism and emigration.

Even after the collapse of these Communist régimes, the political history and
diplomatic relations between the Socialist states and the State of Israel
remained the dominant topics in research on the Jews of the formerly Communist
societies. Only in the last ten years or so can we observe a turn towards more
complex views of Jewish experience under Communist régimes. The most inspiring
and ground-breaking research done so far seems to have been especially in the
area of the Jewish experience of the different parts of the former Soviet
Union. One of the aims of our conference is therefore to start a dialogue
between scholars focused on the Jews of the Soviet Union and those working on
Jewish history in the pro-Soviet regimes of east-central and eastern Europe,
because there has been, for various reasons, little cooperation between these
two groups of scholars, even though their topics are interconnected.

Another aim of the conference is to provide junior scholars from Europe,
especially those who come from east-central and eastern Europe, with a forum
which to discuss their research projects with top experts in the field. Many
the history departments at universities in the post-Communist region still
focus on political history and adhere to the master narrative of the dominant
nation. The history of the Jews under Communism is, in this context, often
analysed from the perspective of the perceived (dis)loyalties of the Jews, and
the highly politicized question of Jewish involvement in the Communist
also remains dominant. All the more, then, is there a need for intense debates
about new approaches and methodology free from nationalism and ideology.

Several key perspectives, we think, could help us to achieve a better
understanding of the complexity of Jewish experience under the Communist
régimes and thus also of the various Communist régimes and regions.

First of all, we are especially interested in contributions focused on the
everyday life of the Jews, Jewish religious and secular organizations, and the
possibilities of ‘being Jewish’ under the Communist régimes, which are
also matters related to the legal position of the Jewish communities.
Comparisons of the situations in the several countries of east-central and
eastern Europe will, we believe, reveal many differences in the legal,
religious, cultural, and linguistic circumstances of the Jews in the
countries and regions. Obviously, the Jews of the Eastern bloc had no single
way to express their Jewishness; there is no one particular pattern.
when it comes to the institutional and legal setting, the historian needs to
ask to what extent the differences resulted from the diverse history of Jewish
social and political life before the Communist takeovers. In other words, we
also want to hear scholars address the question of the extent to which the
Communist dictatorships brought change or totally new forms to Jewish
institutions and activities, and also to what extent we may find continuity
with Jewish life from the period before the takeovers and before the Shoah.

Second, scholars in this field mostly concentrate on the Jewish cultural and
political elites in the Communist societies and therefore also on the Jews in
the large cities, often the capitals. Though there is clearly a need for more
research of this kind, we particularly welcome contributions that emphasize
experience of the Jews on the periphery and also Jews who did not succeed in
becoming part of the elite or did not even wish to do so. This shift in
perspective might well show, among other things, that the supposed religious
and national assimilation and also atomization of Jewish society under a
Communist régime was not as predominant as it has been claimed to be in the
earlier historiography. As the research of Jeffrey Veidlinger, Gennady
Estraikh, Arkadi Zeltser, Elissa Bemporad, and Valeri Dymshits suggests, Jews
on the geographic or social periphery in the different parts of the Soviet
Union deep in the Communist period were preserving and developing Jewish
religious traditions and Yiddish culture. Research on similar topics for the
countries of east-central Europe largely remains to be done.

Third, as the path-breaking work of Anna Shternshis shows, even if we consider
the official Communist propaganda for and about the Jews, we must be careful
separate the intentions of the propaganda writers from how the propaganda was
perceived and creatively transformed by the Jews. Among the questions of
interest to us is how the official anti-fascist ideology was perceived by the
Jewish communities and by individual Jews. What about the state-sponsored
Yiddish publishing houses and journals which were often seen as providing
unique opportunities for Yiddish journalists and writers, while, however,
demanding their loyalty to the socialist State?

Fourth, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, consciousness of
world-wide connections between Jewish communities, families, and individuals
increased and several international Jewish institutions were established.
how, and to what extent did Communism attack this aspect of Jewish life, which
was one of most important in the Jewish modernization process? How did the
try to negotiate and preserve the particular modes of their transnationalism
during the Cold War and East-West political divisions?

The following topics are for us of particular importance:

1. The legal positions of the Jews of the Communist/Socialist countries of
Europe and the institutional opportunities for the Jews there (including
religious, cultural, educational, and charitable institutions).
2. The ways of preserving and developing ‘Jewishness’ under the Communist
regimes, within and outside the official organizations, in private and in
3. Family and gender aspects of Jewish life under Communism.
4. Networks across the ‘Iron Curtain’ and across the state borders in the
‘Soviet bloc’.
5. Yiddish culture and education under the Communist régimes.

Among the scholars who have already agreed to participate in the conference
Elissa Bemporad, Queens College, New York
Valeri Dymshits, European University at St. Petersburg
Gennady Estraikh, New York University
Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov, Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw
Marcos Silber, University of Haifa
Anna Shternshis, Toronto University
Arkadi Zeltser, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

The conference will take place at Villa Lanna
(, Prague, from 23 to 25 May 2017. We are
planning to publish an edited English-language volume of selected papers.

Thanks to generous funding from the European Association of Jewish Studies,
Institute of Contemporary History (of the Czech Academy of Sciences) Prague,
and CEFRES, Prague, we are able to offer accommodation and meals for all the
conference participants. Limited travel subventions will be available for some

Please send a longish abstract (1,000 words) of your research project
(including footnotes) and a short bio by the end of October 2016 to all the
conference organizers:,, We encourage junior scholars from Europe to apply. The
results will be announced by the end of November 2016.


Katerina Capkova
Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Vlasska 9,
Prague 1

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