Living For The City: Jews in Urban Spaces in Interwar France

AHA Session 41
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
David H. Weinberg, Wayne State University
Nadia Malinovich, Université de Picardie-Jules Verne

Session Abstract

If urban history is “a tale of many cities,” and urban historical practice is “a tale of many historians,”[1] France is unequivocally a colourful hexagon-shaped patchwork quilt of stories, sources, and people(s). Stave’s comment on US urban history holds true for scholarship on France, which, in spite of pioneering microhistorical work, still tends to hold a Paris-centred, top-down focus on national organizations and legislative politics. Recent research on cities outside of the capital, especially in the interwar period, has yielded new insight into the ways that unique urban economic and social landscapes shape experience and policy. As an example, Mary Dewhurst Lewis’ work on migrants in Lyon and Marseille and Clifford Rosenberg’s study on foreigners in Paris not only provide essential lenses on local practices and environments, but also shed much-needed light on the intricacies of the “bigger” national picture, and the complexities of state processes. These rich perspectives serve as a reminder of the textured and problematic nature of a monolithic national historical narrative.

This panel focuses on urban and microhistorical approaches in the study of France’s metropolitan Jewish communities. Significant scholarship in French colonial Jewish studies, particularly in North Africa, has facilitated a simple dichotomy between the metropole and colony, effectively obscuring the rich diversity of local Jewish experiences in metropolitan France. Moreover, the highly centralized French archival systems are weighted on the capital, tending to favour Paris as the location for an overarching story of interwar French Jewish experience.  As these three papers demonstrate, however, Paris provided but one among many unique settings for varied Jewish developments in the years before the Second World War.

These three papers apply micro and urban historical methodologies to questions about Jewish life and culture in Metropolitan France during the interwar years, focusing on experiences of immigration, local cultural development, and activism in the face of Nazi policy abroad. Paris, capital of France and home to France’s largest population of East European Jewish immigrants after the First World War, takes centre stage in Underwood’s paper, which documents the ways in which Yiddish speaking immigrants transformed this dynamic, modern, urban space into an intelligible new ‘home.’ Strasbourg, a smaller city in the heart of former German territory, was home to a vastly different community of French Jews, traditionally more observant, economically more bourgeois than their Parisian coreligionists, and on the frontlines of the refugee crisis. In the 1930s, Corber argues, a peculiar urban Jewish renaissance took place in Strasbourg that negates contemporary and scholarly assessments of Strasbourgeois Jewry’s impotence and decline. Scott-Weaver examines the refugee crisis in further detail by casting her gaze on Nice and Strasbourg, two border cities with distinct Jewish communities shaped by their respective urban experiences. Scott-Weaver demonstrates the degree to which local case studies of Jewish activism reveal necessary details about how aid networks, and further, rescue and survival networks, operated in the prewar and war years.

[1] Bruce M. Stave, “Urban History: A Tale of Many Cities,” OAH Magazine (Vol 2, No 2, Winter 1986).

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