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FU-BEST 25: Jewish Life in Central Europe

InstructorChristoph Kapp
Credit Points5 ECTS / 3 U.S. credits


With the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the Jews of Central Europe were faced with the ambiguities of modernity. Whereas equality was one of the main demands of the time, it was granted to the Jewish minorities in Central Europe only after long struggles. And even this political achievement did not last long. Yet since the late 18th century and its emancipation movement, one of the most influential and versatile cultural legacies in Central Europe was created by German speaking Jews. The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the salonière Rahel Levin Varnhagen, among many other Jews, not only influenced European high culture of their time. They also founded a unique German-Jewish tradition that many artists and intellectuals draw upon to this day. Jewish writers such as Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth have added to the aesthetics of German literature to become a part of a modern world literature, while Zionism became a veritable alternative after 1900. Many Jews remained in Germany, however. They stuck to the German language and canon – even after Hitler‘s rise. And even after many of them were murdered in the concentration and extermination camps and on German streets during the Shoah, it was Jewish intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, and poets like Paul Celan who began the greater part of working through what had happened to the once glorified „German-Jewish symbiosis“. This work goes on today, while Jewish writing in Central Europe has yet again diversified greatly and new voices make themselves heard. However, none of them can go on writing without relating, one way or another, critically or nostalgically, to that great and tragic German Jewish legacy of the past.

This course will introduce and discuss canonic texts by European-Jewish authors from Moses Mendelssohn to Paul Celan. It thus gives an extensive overview of German-Jewish culture since the late 18th century. Every class session starts off with a contextualization of the historic circumstances in which each text was created. In this part, the wider picture of German-Jewish culture and history will be developed, whereas in the second section of each class session, reading assignments will be discussed in greater detail. Here, the class will concentrate on one or two exemplary readings the students will prepare and present. These literary readings constitute the core interest of each session, this course being situated in the field of cultural studies. Poetic and philosophical texts will not be read for their own sake but in order to shed light on everyday life in Central Europe.

All readings are available in English, but most of them are originally in German and thus may also be read in German.