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Multiple Identities: Non Jewish Jews during the Shoah

Susanne Urban at the 8th summer workshop in Yad Vashem 2015
Susanne Urban at the 8th summer workshop in Yad Vashem 2015

From July 6 to 9, 2015 Yad Vashem held its 8th Summer Workshop at the International Institute for Holocaust Research. At the center of the 4-day workshop were research papers on “non Jewish Jews”, meaning those that did not, or only to a certain degree, consider themselves to be Jewish, but had been declared as Jewish by the NS-Regime and hence persecuted. The workshop was intended for scholars conducting research on aspects of the little-known fates of these people. Dr. Susanne Urban, Head of the Research and Education Branch at the International Tracing Service (ITS) was invited to report on her current research work on the situation of this group of people as Displaced Persons (DPs) on the basis of the documents at the ITS.

Self-definition and extrinsic attribution

With a total of 18 papers, the participants offered insights into their research on a group that is barely present in the public consciousness or in academic circles, that of the persecuted people of the „non-Jewish Jews“. Belonging to this group are descendants without Jewish self-awareness, Jews that had converted or were completely assimilated and those who lived in mixed marriages.

How the attribution and the accompanying exclusion and persecution affected their identity was shown in the papers using extensive structural research and on the basis of representative individual cases. Assimilated Jews or those with a Jewish heritage who converted to Christianity saw themselves confronted with the fact that their definition of self and thus of their lives was destroyed – and not only by the NS-Regime.  The churches, too, ascribed to different policies, depending on the dignitaries and the regions; only rarely did conversion provide any protection.

Very often this led to multiple ruptures in identity. Such was the case with Jewish children who had to struggle for survival on their own in Poland during the Shoah, and who, for their own protection, assumed a Polish identity – a different language, a different religion, a denial of family. The second rupture followed after 1945:  the children should return to their Jewish identity, which was often associated emotionally with terrible experiences and the murder of their families.

The Identities of Non Jewish Jews as DPs

In her paper, Dr. Susanne Urban drew attention to the situation of German “half-Jews” or “mixed breed” after the liberation. The questionnaires and documents of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) from the holdings of the ITS formed the underlying data for this. They provide information on those DPs who applied for support and often for emigration, too. “My question while reading the documents was how these people defined themselves”, explains Urban. “Did they label themselves as Germans, DPs or as Jews? And: did they consider themselves as such, or did they want to make their persecution fate clear to the IRO with this definition?” Using specific case studies, her lecture showed how individuals defined themselves, how they experienced the persecution and whether the IRO evaluated them as qualifying for support. 

The focus of the workshop was the multi-perspectivity of identity of the so-called „non Jewish Jews“ and the effort to integrate them into the narrative of the Shoah. The participants showed a keen interest in the documents of the ITS – some of them announced they would be coming to Bad Arolsen for research.

The Yad Vashem Summer Workshop takes place every year and aims to draw more attention to peripheral topics of Holocaust research, as well as supporting closer academic exchange. Additional information on the International Annual Summer Workshops can be found on the website of the International Institute for Holocaust Research.