When one thinks of memoir within the context of Jewish history, it is almost impossible not to ponder on the story of Anne Frank and her tragic account during the Second World War. Yet few people seem to be acquainted to the numerous other important autobiographical works by less known Jews.
Let’s take Gluckel of Hameln for instance. A mother of 13, who lived in late 17th century in Hamburg, has left us with a rich diary in which she recounts her experiences as a businesswoman and wife amidst the bustling Ashkenazi Jewry of Germany. Her story, although probably not unique, tells us that being a Jewish woman in the middle of pre-Enlightenment Europe is not exactly what one would think.
The famous Jewish philosopher, Solomon Maimon, recounts his love for letters and learning while still grappling to the old tenets of Judaism which has shown just how the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment was not really something definable at the societal level. It was rather the drive of the individual Jew, to find his place amidst the constantly changing world around him
Terms such as Zionism, Feminism and Socialism in the late 19the century really do not mean much until you get a feel of how a Puah Rakovsky went, felt and suffered through the most important times in Jewish consolidation for identity. Her story is one of sacrifice, hard work and determination- the very virtues that had helped establish Israel.
To be gay and Jewish in Berlin, and survive the entire war might sound unbelievable but Gad Beck’s tragic yet optimistic story of survival amidst terror and horror in the Shoah is sheerly a nerve-wracking account about the destruction of Jewry, but more importantly the friendship and love amid Jews and non-Jews that had made it possible for him and a few others to live through the ordeal.
“My future is in America” cried Rose Silverman-one of the many immigrants from Eastern Europe to America whose story has been published in conjunction with YIVO institute. Yet her story is only one of many of the countless of Jews who left with the hope of a better future in America from the despair and poverty of their home-countries.
What do all of these people have in common?
They are all part of much larger narrative, yet each in his/her own way is a piece of an intricate and laborious puzzle. They are in a sense still whole parts within a much bigger yet connected story. The question remains however: what is the importance of looking at the life and times of individuals from their own point of view?
Richard Menkis, professor in Jewish history at the University of British Columbia says that memoirs “make history come alive”, and really help us find the missing links in understanding how the Jewish world might have looked like.
In fact, they provide small glimpses of the world these individuals lived in but more importantly allow the historian to complement the study of history though the stories of people. They are indicative of not only their lives but their own positions as Jews, as well as their view of the communities they inhabited and how they interacted it within it. They are important mediums by which we can understand the past through the palpable experiences of people, rather than just historical abstractions.
Empathy is something that academia ultimately lacks- in the end it isn’t just facts, dates and names, but really those things mean nothing if there are no narratives of people from where he or she could relate to. In other words, how am I to understand how Jews truly lived in the past only through secondary interpretations, rather than by their own words?
The goal of the historian is not only to build upon an objective truth, but also to employ a certain humanism to the process of history. The best course is a middle one, where the narratives of people together with secondary analyses are employed to gain an overall comprehension of the complex nature of the past. At the end of the day history is about people.
It is Silverman, Beck and Gluckel who lived through it, and we are lucky to be able to share into their experiences which has been made possible through their memoirs.