German Jewish Perspectives on Home and Belonging – Sasha Salzmann and Max Czollek
Written by Maria Roca Lizarazu (University of Birmingham)
On 4-5 June 2020, my colleague Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) and I had planned to hold a two-day international conference at the Institute of Modern Languages Research with the title “From ‘Where are you from?’ to ‘Where shall we go together?’ Re-imagining Home and Belonging in 21st-Century Women’s Writing”. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, we decided to postpone the event which will now take place in the autumn of 2020. To still mark the dates of the initially planned conference, this blog entry engages with some of the key questions motivating our event from the perspective of contemporary German Jewish literature and culture by showcasing a short reading by Sasha Salzmann and an interview with Max Czollek. We look forward to presenting and discussing the many other approaches that will be part of our conference programme later this year, and we hope that this blog post will be the start of a fruitful exchange around the topics of home and belonging in 21st century literatures and cultures.
“Heimat” and Contemporary Germany
In the so-called “century of the migrant” (Nail 2015, 1), the meanings of “home” and “belonging” are shifting on a global scale. They are becoming more plural, fluid and entangled across national, cultural and linguistic borders, and the notion of home as a fixed location is being augmented by emphasising the process of “home-making” (Meskimmon 2011, 29) across spatial and temporal borders. At the same time, we are witnessing the return of violent nationalisms across the globe, oftentimes fuelled by a desire to turn back the clocks and reinstate (an always imaginary) homogeneity as the norm. These ambivalences are also visible in the contemporary German-language context, not least because Germany has such a complicated relationship with concepts of home and belonging. The German notion of “Heimat” (home/homeland/sense of home), which is hard to translate into any other language, has a deeply problematic history that connects the term to various manifestations of German nationalism, which found their most violent outpouring in the period of National Socialism. In recent times, debates around what “Heimat” might mean in the German context, and how to deal with the concept and its legacy, have resurfaced, not least in response to the arrival of several thousand refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa since 2015. These discussions resulted in, on the one hand, conservative re-appropriations of the term, as evidenced by the 2018 renaming of the former Bundesministerium des Innern (Ministry of the Interior) into Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat or “Heimatministerium” (“Heimat”-Ministry).One the other hand, there are attempts to engage differently with notions of “Heimat” and belonging from the perspective of younger generations, as is the case for Nora Krug’s hugely successful graphic memoir Heimat (2018) or Saša Stanišić’s critically acclaimed account entitled Herkunft (Origins, 2019). And then there are those who reject “Heimat” completely, arguing that it cannot be untangled from exclusive and homogenising notions of belonging. A recent collection of essays entitled Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (Your Home is our Nightmare, 2019) aims to give voice to all of those who have never been included in the concept of “Heimat” in the first place, while the 4. Berliner Herbstsalon at the Maxim Gorki Theatre challenged present-day German society to “Deheimatize it!”. It is perhaps unsurprising that these attempts come from individuals who are, in Fatima El-Tayeb’s words, constructed and considered as “undeutsch” (un-German) – “als nicht nur nicht zur nationalen Gemeinschaft gehörend, sondern diese durch ihre Anwesenheit gefährdend, destablisieriend” (not only do they not belong to the national community, they are also imagined to endanger and destabilise it by virtue of their sheer presence) (El-Tayeb 2016, 34). As such, individuals from “undeutsch”, minority backgrounds are continuously confronted with the dark and nightmarish side of “Heimat”, which affects all those who are not included in this supposedly idyllic space. As El-Tayeb and others argue, the concept’s seemingly harmonising potential actually depends on the exclusion of individuals and groups who are imagined as “Other” – hence the idea that one person’s home is another person’s nightmare.
The three approaches to “Heimat” outlined here – conservative re-appropriation, critical re-examination, and wholesale rejection – are part of a wider reassessment of belonging and “Heimat” in present-day, “postmigrant” Germany. As Naika Foroutan has argued, the underlying conflict in “postmigrant” societies, i.e. societies that renegotiate their epistemological, normative and institutional frameworks in the wake of large-scale migration movements, concerns the issue of plurality (Foroutan 2019). A strengthening of conservative notions of “Heimat”, which correspond with homogenizing and, in some cases, “(neo-)völkisch” thinking, can be seen as one strategy of rejecting the actually existing and increasing plurality in a “postmigrant” Germany. On the other side of the spectrum, the editors of and contributors to Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum and the organisers of the Herbstsalon seek to counter these strategies by acknowledging and promoting pluralistic, “deheimatized” notions of belonging.
A key area in which such re-assessments are currently taking place are the arts, which, as some argue, are more suited to develop new and alternative visions of belonging and togetherness: “Political discourses are not the only forums, and rarely are they the first in which the effects and affects of migration and plurality are felt and negotiated. In fact, stories of postmigration […] are created in everyday life and especially in the arts” (Ring Petersen et al. 2019, p. 58). It is for this reason that we have asked two prominent and leading voices in contemporary German Jewish discourse to give us their take on questions of home and belonging. While both are writers, they are also actively involved in the German-language cultural sector as curators of various artistic and creative platforms.
Unhomely Homes – Sasha Salzmann
In the video clip below, German Jewish author and playwright Sasha Salzmann, who also collaborates closely with the Maxim Gorki Theatre’s Studio Я, is reading from the English translation of their highly acclaimed debut novel Ausser Sich(Beyond Myself, 2017). The question of belonging – and of how we can think belonging differently – is, arguably, at the centre of the entire text. The novel’s title implies a subject that is somehow beside itself, that does not fully belong to itself. Belonging, or rather a definite knowledge of where one belongs, which is something that is often taken for granted in political discourse, is thus presented as improbable, maybe even impossible. A stable, rooted sense of identity is contrasted with what one could call, in the words of Édouard Glissant, “relation identity” (Glissant 1997, 144) – something that is not a given or an essence but that only exists in relation to otherness. Salzmann addresses some of these concerns in her reading of a chapter from the book entitled “zu Hause”/“Home”:
In the book, the quotation marks surrounding the chapter’s title signal a distance from the concept of home, pointing to complications of belonging: upon returning to his homeland Russia after migrating to Germany with his family, the protagonist of the chapter, Anton, has to realise that the place he considers home is no longer homely. What is more, he has to learn that this home was never his in the first place – as a Jew he was never a part of the imagined community of his homeland. This disenchantment with “home” also affects Anton’s father, who had hoped to find a (better) home in Germany. Although Salzmann’s reading leaves open what kind of account he will give of the family’s new home “Germania”, the fact that he had to rehearse his ostentatiously jovial answer beforehand signals that this new home also is not what it initially seemed. The chapter thus stages a clash between expectations and realities, between an individual’s choice over their sense of belonging and belonging as something that is imposed from the outside. Belonging is thus precarious and ambivalent and so is the notion of being “zu Hause” (at home).
De-integrating, De-heimatizing – Max Czollek
The ambivalences of home and belonging are also central for Max Czollek, who works as an essayist, poet, journal editor and curator. He rose to prominence with the publication of his recent polemic Desintegriert euch! (De-integrate Yourselves!, 2018). The book makes the case for a Jewish emancipation from what could be described as an imposed sense of belonging, namely the roles that Jews in Germany have to perform in what Czollek denounces as the German Jewish “Gedächtnistheater” (theatre of memory). Pointing beyond German Jewish discourse, Czollek stresses that many other minorities are also trapped in roles that hamper the expression of more multi-facetted, pluralistic senses of identity. What is thus needed are notions of belonging that can account for and accommodate the already existing diversity of contemporary German society. In the following interview, we asked Czollek about his take on home, belonging and integration and about how we may be able to imagine these differently in the future.
Since our conference is concerned with renegotiations of home and belonging, we’d like to start by asking you what your understanding of home is, maybe with a particular view to the complicated German notion of “Heimat”.
Max Czollek: I’d like to start by differentiating between a political notion of “Heimat” and a personal idea of belonging and home. My critique is directed towards the political concept. I argue that the political notion of “Heimat” is one of many concepts producing the difference between those who are already here (“Germans”) and those who are coming from “elsewhere” (the Other, i.e. Migrants, Muslims, Jews, …). It is thus strongly connected to the demand for the Other to adapt to a specific notion of Germanness whose outlines remain blurry. The curious twist on “Heimat” is that people will always assure you that they harbour only the best intentions like using “Heimat” to make people feel at home and to identify with their respective community. The thing is, however, that you don’t have to want people to be excluded in order for them to be excluded. And if you say “Heimat” you are drawing on a specific German tradition of one people, one territory, one nation that will produce its own modes of discrimination. And we can see this happen today.
Your work is very critical of certain dominant conceptions of belonging, as they for example manifest themselves in the integration paradigm. What is your problem with the notion of integration and how could we, in your view, re-think belonging along different lines?
MC: The concept of integration is another concept producing the difference between those who are here and those who are coming. Usually formulated as a demand (Integrate yourselves already!) or a lack (they are not integrated enough), it introduces three central aspects to the debate around belonging: (1) a specific albeit invisible group ascribes to itself the power to define who belongs and who doesn’t, (2) by calling on in-tegration society is being imagined as a place with one centre, and (3) the fantasy of integration rests on the idea that society needs homogeneity and harmony to function. I’d argue that you can find the first two points in other countries, the latter concept is connected strongly to a German idea of society and what it needs to function. Homogeneity and harmony, however, are not the basis of modern pluralistic democracies. Democracy, on the contrary, means a process of constant negotiation and struggle and this will continue to be so unless society succumbs to the homogenising demands of totalitarianism and authoritarianism.
Can you say something about the German Jewish situation vis-à-vis the questions of belonging and integration raised above?
MC: The Jewish minority holds a special position in German society and its self-construction after 1945. In its endeavours to reconstruct the notion of a positive German national identity, “the Jews” are called on to perform a specific “ideological work” within the “Theater of Memory”. Both terms where introduced by Sociologist Michal Bodemann. The “Theater of Memory” is based on the interaction between the redeemed and rueful perpetrator society and its descendants on the one side and the surviving Jews on the other. This leads to a peculiar situation specific to the Jewish minority: because of its intense symbolic significance Jews and their perspectives are very visible – but this visibility is restricted to the roles assigned to them in the German “Theater of Memory”. There is no place in this for Jewish diversity extending beyond the boundaries of a perpetrator-victim binary.
You are not only a political commentator but also a poet and performer – can you briefly comment on the interrelation between art and politics in your work? In what way do you think artistic discourse can or cannot contribute to broader socio-political developments?
MC: Instead of making a normative statement on the significance of art for each and every one of us, let me point to the empirical significance art and culture has assumed in the last decades in discussions about the future of the German society. This has been especially true for those minority groups that found themselves outside the established institutions of conflict resolution such as the trade unions and party politics. From the art-collective Kanak Attak to the post-migrant theatre of Shermin Langhoff, from stage-occupations by Jewish activists to the development of Hip Hop – art has served as a laboratory for discourses and perspectives that only later moved to the political sphere. For me, the question, therefore, is not if art can or cannot contribute to broader socio-political developments but in what way it does so and how we can accord more weight and attention to artistic interventions into the contemporary situation.
Our conference brings together participants and scholarly work from a range of places, which are not limited to the German-language context. Can you say something about if and how the German-language (Jewish) background that you outline in your work relates to broader transnational debates and other linguistic contexts? Do you see potential for transnational solidarities and cosmopolitan affiliations?
MC: My work is deeply indebted to the works of James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks and many others. At the same time, it is closely connected to the specific German constellation of a Jewish experience, (post-)migrant communities and a hegemonic culture and its desire for normalcy and redemption. And I can hardly imagine any other way to deal with the challenges and complexities posed by the contemporary situation than to be as specific as possible. At the same time, I find similar notions in places ranging from the US to Israel, China to Argentina. There seems to exist a global and globalized critique of discrimination we share with each other and a localized adaptation whose premises are always in need of an explanation. This is not merely a question of precision but also of the recognition of the equal value and specificity of our perspectives on discrimination. Transnational solidarities rest on two things – the agreement on a certain set of values. And the ability to listen to and respect each other’s perspectives.
In the context of our upcoming conference on renegotiations of home and belonging in 21st century women’s writing, we hope to develop further some of the questions raised by Salzmann’s and Czollek’s contributions. It will be particularly interesting to see how the issues highlighted here connect to and differ from other national, cultural and linguistic contexts and what contribution (women’s) writing can make to these present-day political concerns.