David Shneer’s winning project highlights Holocaust survivors who ‘commemorated murdered Jews in the very country that orchestrated their murder’
David Shneer, a University of Colorado Boulder historian, has won a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the group announced this month.
Shneer is among 81 winners chosen through a peer-review process from a field of 1,200 applicants.
The ACLS Fellowship program honors scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences that have the potential to make significant contributions to knowledge in their fields. The awards range from $40,000 to $75,000 and support six to 12 months of full-time research and writing.
“As we continue to navigate the unpredictable world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, ACLS remains committed to supporting humanistic scholarship that contributes important perspectives to the conversations shaping our world and helps us better understand the human experiences of the past and those that will influence the years to come,” council President Joy Connolly said in a prepared statement.
Shneer’s project, called Art is My Weapon: Anti-Fascist Music, Yiddish Performance, and Holocaust Memory (1933-1989), tells the story of one woman and her husband’s attempt to redeem post World War II Germany from its Nazi past with their Yiddish performance and socialist politics.
In 1952, Lin Jaldati, a Dutch Jewish cabaret performer and Auschwitz survivor from Amsterdam, moved to East Berlin with Eberhard Rebling, a pianist, who had left Germany under Hitler for Holland where he survived the war.
By singing anti-fascist Yiddish music, Jaldati and Rebling animated the memory of World War II and the Holocaust in their concerts, Shneer notes, adding: “They commemorated murdered Jews in the very country that orchestrated their murder; their concert halls served as alternatives to Jewish religious spaces; and their message in these performances envisioned a peaceful future through the universalist lens of communism.”
Shneer recently answered five questions about his scholarly work. The questions and his answers follow:
Question: The story of Lin Jaldati’s life is stunning. Once you discovered it, you could have written a book about her, but you chose to combine your historical scholarship with multimedia performances. How does this approach help you better chronicle her life and its impact?
Answer: Lin Jaldati, the Dutch Jewish dancer and singer, survived the Holocaust and moved with her husband, Eberhard Rebling, to East Germany. There, she became the Yiddish diva of the communist world.
"Millers Tears" by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles on Vimeo
After writing several scholarly articles, I thought about how I wanted to transform her story of hope into something more visceral, so I decided to do a performance. I worked with Jewlia Eisenberg, who is a singer, and transformed her life into a 70-minute story called Art is My Weapon. Two parts learning, one part entertainment, Art is My Weapon shocked people with what it stood for—resistance in times of hopelessness, a visible future in times of current hardship.
She died in 1988, one year before the Berlin Wall fell down, but I would have hoped that she would have kept on singing.
Q: You’ve described Jaldati as “one of if not the key player in shaping Holocaust memory in East Germany.” Can you tell us more about why this is so?
A: As a Jewish Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen survivor, Jaldati was key in animating Holocaust memory in East Germany. As part of East German memorial celebrations, she sang in Yiddish at Holocaust memorial celebrations, concentration camp openings, and at Auschwitz memorial celebrations.
She sang Yiddish songs that rang true of Holocaust memorialization such as “It is Burning (S’brent),” a 1938 Mordechai Gebirtig song that became a Holocaust ghetto song after the war. She also sang “Never Say (Zog nit keynmol),” a 1943 Hirsh Glik song that became the European Jewish national anthem after the war but before Israel’s founding in 1948.
Q: Can you tell us about the significance of Jaldati’s embrace of Yiddish song and Yiddish dance to her opposition of fascism?
A: Yiddish was always the anti-authoritarian indigenous folk language of Eastern European Jews, but not just for Jews. African American actor and singer Paul Robeson sang Yiddish songs as early as 1936 for the Spanish Civil War and continued singing in Yiddish throughout his life.
Yiddish song and dance tell us a lot about her anti-fascism in the 1930s, but more often in the 1950s and 1960s in East Germany, as she sings these new songs of East German anti-fascism through the lens of Holocaust memory.
Q: In the abstract published with your ACLS fellowship announcement, you note that Jaldati and Rebling “commemorated murdered Jews in the very country that orchestrated their murder; their concert halls served as alternatives to Jewish religious spaces; and their message in these performances envisioned a peaceful future through the universalist lens of communism.” To what extent did their audiences react well, and why do you think Jaldati and Rebling had the success they had?
A: The audiences, whether in East Germany or in Vancouver, Canada, loved Lin (they always called her Lin). In East German concert halls, these concerts served as secular Jewish spaces when none existed. And the audiences loved their vision of a peaceful world through socialism, albeit with the East German state regulating their every movement.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say about the ACLS fellowship in particular?
A: I’m honored to be an awardee of the ACLS fellowship and hope that I can turn this year into a beautiful book about Lin Jaldati and Eberhard Rebling as the animators of Holocaust memory and visionaries of a peaceful future.
Formed in 1919, ACLS is a nonprofit federation of 75 scholarly organizations. It describes itself as the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences, and it holds a core belief that knowledge is a public good.