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Michael Meng: Shattered Spaces. Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland, Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press 2011, XIV + 351 S., ISBN 978-0-674-05303-8, USD 35,00
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Rezension von:
Ferenc Laczó
Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Christoph Schutte
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Ferenc Laczó: Rezension von: Michael Meng: Shattered Spaces. Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland, Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press 2011, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 4 [15.04.2013], URL:

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Michael Meng: Shattered Spaces

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In this study, Michael Meng explores the story of the material traces of Jewish life in Berlin, Warsaw, Potsdam, Essen, and Wrocław over the postwar period. Focusing mostly on Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, Meng connects analyses of urban spaces, historic preservation and memory in intriguing ways. He in turn relates their postwar stories to the evolution of German-Polish-Jewish relations, the growing cultural significance of the Holocaust and the recent rise of what he terms "reemptive cosmopolitanism" (10, passim) - meant to provide a sense of closure.

In his first chapter, Meng discusses restitution laws and practices, showing how communist Poland and East Germany "never officially returned one single piece of property to its postwar Jewish community" (53). While external pressure made some difference in West Germany, there clearly was no deep societal impetus to return property there either. Meng concludes that in this regard societal norms were not that different on the two sides of the Iron Curtain (58-59). In Chapter Two, Meng explains how projects of urban renewal sacrificed Jewish sites: due to the confluent agendas of planners, preservationists, city officials and ordinary citizens, they were "swept away in the euphoria and promise of postwar urban reconstruction" (108). Even though the restorative impulse was much stronger in Warsaw than in the two halves of Berlin that embraced a practical form of modernism, this did not imply significantly different approaches to Jewish spaces.

In Chapter Three, Meng broadens his focus to show how in Essen, Potsdam and Wrocław few sites were neglected so thoroughly and destroyed with so little opposition as Jewish ones. Here again, the author demonstrates that due to its selectivity and ethnic biases even the more extensive reconstruction program of Wrocław failed to meaningfully incorporate Jewish sites. In a remarkable case of insensitivity, the monumental and relatively intact synagogue of Essen was transformed into an exhibition hall of industrial products in 1959, only to be turned into an exhibition on "the suffering, persecution, and resistance of the German population as a whole" (203). Meng argues that until a revision in the late 1980s, the exhibition in the Essen synagogue repeated the clichés of older anti-fascist interpretations and avoided the question of German involvement in the persecution of Jewish neighbors. In the meantime, Potsdam experienced "noisy" debates about architectural questions but its synagogue was destroyed in "stunning" silence (149). The Polish regime, too, continued to neglect, destroy and even liquidate Jewish cemeteries into the 1980s.

Shattered Spaces argues that after the early postwar decades, German and Poles unexpectedly "went from seeing Jewish sites as worthless rubble to perceiving them as evocative ruins that had to be preserved" (259). The dramatic transformation "from wholesale erasure of the Jewish past to almost frenetic commemoration" (261) that has unfolded in recent decades is the central element of Meng's story. He claims that this transformation was at first largely due to local initiatives. These were then related to broader cultural trends and various transnational shifts ranging from questions of historical consciousness through nostalgia and the new aesthetic appreciation of ruins to the spread of mass tourism. In the eyes of Meng, Jewish sites previously functioned as haunting wreckages and represented a kind of collective abject, "a discomforting, polluted, and disdained part of the self" that threatened one's sense of identity and meaning. Yet due to the interplay of various factors, they now began to trigger "interest, curiosity, nostalgia, recollection, and melancholia" (5).

In this context, Jewish sites increasingly attracted the attention of national politicians and international Jewish leaders. After decades of silence and neglect, they emerged as a transnational issue. In communist-ruled East Germany and Poland Jewish sites also became embedded in political conflicts between regime and opposition and were often part of official attempts to influence international opinion. By 1988, such developments led, among other things, to the increased importance of the anniversaries of the Kristallnacht and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. At the same time, Meng claims that while Eastern German initiatives came mostly from the state, Poland and West Germany produced, in spite of their different regimes, comparable patterns of local initiative and debate (196).

Meng notes a "dizzying" increase in interest over the past two decades that gets manifested not only in rebuilding projects but also in the construction of new Jewish spaces - in regions where few Jews live. Meng views these commemorative displays of Jewishness and multiethnicity rather critically. In his eyes, they tend to be linked to the self-serving celebration of the "cathartic, redemptive transformation of Germans and Poles into tolerant democratic citizens" where Philosemitism serves as a marker of "successful change from the past" (237). He maintains that new projects often foster a sentimental and exotic image of Jewish culture as "uniquely rich, authentic, and cosmopolitan", accompanied by mythic understandings of the supposedly harmonious coexistence in the pre-Holocaust era (222). These projects only occasionally involve deeper engagement with the previous destruction, neglect and erasure of Jewish spaces (10). M. also notes that the recent trend of locating Jews in the past "mixed awkwardly with the ongoing rebuilding of Jewish life" (241).

By offering a nuanced history of shifting meanings, perceptions, and interpretations of Jewish sites in a transnational frame that cuts across national, political and local borders, Meng challenges some long-held assumptions about the importance of the Cold War divide. He does this without neglecting significant differences between German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish histories and the ways Germans and Poles confronted their historical relationships with Jews, including their different types and varying levels of responsibility and victimhood. Covering a range of management strategies such as denial, suppression, disavowal, acknowledgement, commemoration and recall, the book as a whole unsettles the popular myth that Germany provides the model for successful postwar repair. At one point, Meng even claims that Poland "experienced arguably more searing debates about is complicated relationship with Jews than West Germany did" where the "redemptive" discourse on the Shoah became strongly ritualized (157). Meng reveals Polish debates as largely triggered by issues such as the competitive sense of Polish victimhood and the soul searching that followed the "anti-Zionist" campaign of 1968.

Shattered Spaces aims to provide a broader social history of memory and an interpretation of the meaning of what is recalled and forgotten in order to go beyond what Meng calls the intentional forms of memory (such as memorials or museums) as well as the often employed but rather simplistic stories about suppression and recall. He conceives time as multilayered and thinks of memory "as an encounter with the past" that becomes "entangled in broader cultural meanings, identities, and narratives" (14). While his efforts in these directions are laudable, Meng offers little social historical context and cannot provide much direct evidence on the actual encounters with these Jewish sites in the postwar period - especially its early phase. Even so, "Shattered Spaces" has a fascinating story to tell and is rich in captivating detail. It is also an opinionated history book that ends on a prescriptive note: "the possibility of embracing a violent past exists in [...] triggering multiple and varied cosmopolitan challenges about the collapse of human compassion" (270).

Ferenc Laczó