In Global Transit. Jewish Migrants from Hitler’s Europe in Asia, Africa and Beyond
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the international conference „In Global Transit. Jewish Migrants from Hitler’s Europe in Asia, Africa, and Beyond“, which took place on February 14-18, 2018 in Kolkata, India. The event was organized by Andreas Gestrich (GHI London), Simone Lässig (GHI Washington), Anne Schenderlein (GHI Washington), and Indra Sengupta (GHI London).
Please find the program and more information on the conference here.
Anne C. Schenderlein is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute, Washington DC. She received her PhD in Modern European History from UC San Diego. Her first book on the history of German Jewish refugees in the United States, and relationships to Germany from 1938 to 1988 will appear next year. A recent publication on the topic is “Making German history in Los Angeles: German Jewish refugees and West German diplomats in the 1950s and 1960s,” Jewish Culture and History, (2016). Her current research project is on the cultural history of boycotting in Germany from the late 19th century to the 1970s. Related to this, she is co-editor of a volume on Jewish Consumer Cultures in 19th and 20th Century Europe and North America, to which she contributed a chapter on the American Jewish boycotting of German products before and after the Second World War.
Together with Andreas Gestrich, Simone Lässig, and Indra Sengupta, you organized the conference “In Global Transit. Jewish Migrants from Hitler’s Europe in Asia, Africa, and Beyond”. The call for papers for the conference called special attention to three areas of enquiry “Economic and Humanitarian Aspects”, “Encounters with Race, Racism and Colonialism” and “Multidirectional Encounters and Knowledge Transfer”: What made you choose these three main themes and how did these different fields engage with each other during the conference?
There are several different reasons for why we focused on these themes, and I can obviously touch on only a few. The opening of borders for refugees and the provision of refugee aid are generally framed as humanitarian issues. However, economic as well as domestic and foreign policy factors frequently shape decision-making processes in this regard. We wanted to find out more about debates in the 1930s and 1940s to complement the well-known research on U.S. refugee policy and U.S. immigration restrictions. Why did other countries, like India, Iran, and the Soviet Union allow refugees to enter? Aside from looking at the motivations of states, we were also interested to know how non-state actors and businesses benefitted from the refugees’ situations. This question not only contributes to a better understanding of the refugee economy at the time but might also be helpful in thinking about current refugee situations. Our focus on the colonial South naturally opened up questions about racism. Having experienced anti-Semitism at home, the refugees witnessed discrimination of other groups in the places they fled to. We wanted to know how their prior experience affected their everyday lives as well as their thinking about the larger world and questions of justice, for example.
The history of knowledge is a research focus of the GHI and migrant knowledge in particular has been at the center of several programs and events (see this upcoming workshop, for example). Scholarship on Jewish refugees has frequently examined the contributions of individuals or groups of professionals, intellectuals, and artists on the receiving societies. We want to break with this focus on expert knowledge and investigate what everyday people knew, how they used their knowledge, how their knowledge changed, and what other people knew about the refugees. All three themes not only represent under-researched areas in the history of the Jewish refugees but offer lots of starting points for comparison with other migration movements.
What was the most surprising for you during the conference? Was there any talk that stood out or that was of particular interest to your own research?
My first book, which is coming out next year, is on German Jewish refugees who settled in the United States. Before reaching North America, many of them had traveled long and circuitous routes, staying in countries where they could not or did not want to settle permanently. During the conference, I learned more about some of these way stations, these places of transit, and how they affected peoples’ later lives. I found it particularly interesting to learn of the experiences of German Jewish refugees who, as former German citizens, were classified as “enemy aliens.” I’ve written about the discriminatory consequences the enemy alien classification had for Jewish refugees on the West Cost of the United States. In British India, Jewish refugee “enemy aliens” were placed in internment camps. While this was a grim and frustrating experience, the white European internees were still treated better in the internment camps than some of the local Indians. Because they did not want to threaten the local hierarchies, British colonialists hired Indians to clean and serve the internees.
There are plans for two “follow-up” conferences to be held in Beijing and Berkeley. How can these events build on the preliminary results from the “In Global transit” conference and what questions – not addressed in Kolkata – could the upcoming conferences put an emphasis on?
We are still in the early phases of conceptualizing the next two conferences, but I can tell you that for our Berkeley meeting in 2019, we will stick with our theme “In Global Transit.” Experiences of temporariness, insecurity, and uncertainty, of waiting and being dependent on forces that are difficult to control, if at all, are experiences central to processes of migration then and now.
Citation: “In Global Transit. Jewish Migrants From Hitler’s Europe in Asia, Africa and Beyond”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9832.