6 Questions with Dr. Jason Lustig

Tue, March 26, 2019
6 Questions with Dr. Jason Lustig
Dr. Jason Lustig

The Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies welcomes Dr. Jason Lustig as a new Lecturer and Israel Institute Teaching Fellow in Israel Studies. Dr. Lustig is a scholar of modern Jewish history and culture, and holds a Ph.D. from the UCLA Department of History. We sat down with Dr. Lustig to learn more about his book manuscript, upcoming fall courses, and podcast.

Your book manuscript A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture investigates the creation of centralized archives for Jewish history in Germany, the United States, and Israel/Palestine. What roles did archives and archiving play in telling Jewish history?

People tend to think of archives as “neutral” repositories of information about the past, but the reality is that they are constructed and shaped by the people who create them, preserve them, and decide what is “in” and what’s “out.” In my book I investigate the ways in which Jews around the world have created archives in order to preserve Jewish history and culture, and in doing so have actively created the sources which historians have used to study the Jewish past. As a result, these archival institutions and collections have shaped the kinds of stories and histories that people tell about the Jews.

Khaykl Lunski, chief librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilnius before the warThis story isn’t just about how we write history, though. It’s also about how the past is put to use as a symbol of what the future might become. Part of what I’m doing in this book is to think deeply about the nature of archival consciousness in Jewish cultures. That’s to say, in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jews the world over looked to archives—both as institutions, and also in terms of the records that they represent—as repositories of a cultural sphere they felt was slipping away from them, whether because of urbanization, mass migration, or due to the Holocaust.

For Jews, archives came to hold a particular kind of value, as a way to hold tight to this past, and also as a way to demonstrate their own cultural vitality: Having archives meant that you could determine how Jewish history would be written, in a practical way, and it also meant that you could say that you “owned” this history. Now, of course I would argue that no one can really “own” history as it is a shared heritage. But when we look at efforts to create archives after the Holocaust in places like the state of Israel, the United States, and west Germany, the struggles over who had these materials were real, and they were spirited, for exactly this reason, because they were symbols of their own place in a new landscape of Jewish life.

How did the Holocaust and the Second World War influence the nature and scope of archival collecting? 

The Holocaust is at the center of the diverse struggles over archives which animate my book. Before the Holocaust, Jews had created diverse and rich archives, and the Nazis destroyed all of that. Indeed, I often talk about how the Nazis’ assault on the Jews constituted both an attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe, and also to destroy their cultures. The Germans were very aware of the power of history and they wanted to produce a propagandistic “counter-history” of the Jews which would paint Jews as “parasites” and outsiders, so beginning in the 1930s and especially after Kristallnacht they started confiscating Jews’ historical materials alongside other cultural properties like books and artwork.

A warehouse of confiscated books in Prague, 1942-1944 (Jewish Museum in Prague)As a result, already in the 1930s the Germans had an extensive program of looting and plunder which only accelerated once the war began. People are probably most aware of the theft of Jewish-owned art, businesses, and real estate, but a large component of this loot included libraries and archives too.

By the end of the Second World War, an outstanding question was what to do with all of the vast trove of Jewish cultural treasures found in Germany. Through restitution, most of these historical materials were sent to Jerusalem and elsewhere.

In these same immediate postwar years, Jews in the both United States and Israel/Palestine created archives of the Jewish past which would represent their own new centrality within Jewish culture. The destruction of European Jewry, then, went hand in hand with the rise of new centers after the Holocaust which were the recipients of cultural properties through restitution.

What surprised you the most while researching the history of Jewish archives?

There are two things I could point to that that surprised me the most about the history of Jewish archives.

First, there’s the ironic place of the Nazis within the history of Jewish archives: the fact of the matter is that a lot of the materials which survived the Holocaust did so because the Germans tried to preserve them. If we look at the archives of YIVO, for instance, the materials which the Germans stole and brought back with them to Germany are what made their way to New York after the war. On the other hand, any files that Jews smuggled out were actually lost, for the most part. Altogether, it’s the Germans’ “interest” in Jewish history and culture that led to the preservation of many of the materials which actually survived the war.

Alex BeinI also was surprised at how intense the struggles over the archives were, and how interesting all of the people were who were involved in them. They basically all knew each other. Alex Bein, who was the first state archivist of Israel, Jacob Rader Marcus, who founded the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and Friedrich Illert, the municipal archivist in Worms, Germany—they were all so personally, intensely invested the question of collecting archives because they felt a deep connection to the history and the files had deep stakes for their own vision of the future.

To give just one example, during the war Illert had stolen the archives of the Worms Jews from the Nazis, not from the Jews, and wanted to keep the materials there because he was convinced that Jews would return to Germany, and also because it was a way for him to indicate that he had opposed the Nazis. For Illert, bringing Jews back to Worms was part of his vision of rebuilding the city after the war’s destruction, because he saw the Jews as a central part of the cultural heritage of the “little Jerusalem of the west,” as he liked to call his city, which boasted one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe, dating to the eleventh century. Altogether, what’s exciting about this is that the historical materials really mattered to them, and it showed, because the struggles over archives had deep personal stakes.

Could you tell us about your upcoming Fall Jewish Studies courses? 

I’ll be teaching two courses in the fall: a history of Israel and Palestine from the nineteenth century to the present, and a seminar on the history of archives.

For the course, “History of Modern Israel and Palestine,” we’ll consider how one land has had so many intersecting histories and all those who live there have an intertwined destiny. It’ll be a survey that traces the parallel histories of Palestine and the land of Israel, the Zionist movement and Palestinian and Arab nationalism, alongside modern Jewish history and the development of Israel’s state and cultures.

The second course, “Adventures in the Archive: History, Memory, the Modern Information Society,” is a really exciting opportunity to think about our modern information age. That’s to say, today data are the engines of political and economic power, and we need to critically examine the nature of information, where it’s stored, and who “owns” it. What is the place of archives in civil society, public life, the economy, and the historical discipline? And what (if any) relationship exists between twenty-first century everyday digital archiving and the future of history? We’ll be thinking about the history of archives and their power in the present, and the relationship between professional collections and contemporary cultures of collecting and data hoarding. We also will be working closely with UT’s Harry Ransom Center for hands-on experience with archival materials.

You are also the host and creator of the Jewish History Matters podcast. What was the idea behind it? 

The podcast presents in-depth conversations with leading scholars about new research and enduring questions in Jewish studies and why they matter today. I created the podcast because I strongly believe that history matters, that scholarship and research has something important to contribute within a broad social, intellectual, and political context. People sometimes ask why we should take history classes, how you can get a job with a “useless” major. I argue that we need to understand historical context in order to understand how we got to today, and where we are going, and that this kind of context illuminates tremendous issues about not just the past but also our present.

Jewish History Matters Podcast

I also started the podcast from a particular idea which is that I wanted to emphasize the variety of ways in which Jewish history in particular matters. I wanted to help people think about why studying a group of people who are not especially large in number can help us to think about history and the human experience in a range of ways, and to get scholars to talk in similar terms. Some of the themes that have come up include the ways in which studying groups on the margin, and minority groups of all kinds, helps us to understand the wider society; the ways in which Jews can illuminate the history of religion; and the ways in which Jewish history provides a really useful case study to think about global history. 

The podcast is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, to experiment with public history and to think about the ways in which history matters today. My work on the history of archives is tied into the questions of how people have believed that history—or historical materials—have an important part to play in the public sphere. And just the same I would argue that history continues to matter today, and it’s something that I’m glad to be able to explore with my colleagues and guests who join me on the podcast.

Can you tell us about an interesting aspect of your background and how it’s influenced your research and teaching?

As an undergraduate student, I actually majored in both Judaic studies and computer science. While I decided to pursue an academic career studying the humanities, in the end it seems that I haven’t really been able to avoid the fundamental questions about the nature of information and data. I wasn’t exactly thinking in these terms when I settled on my dissertation topic, on the history of Jewish archives, which emerged out of my interest in the history of historiography, how people have written about the past and its practical and intellectual ramifications. Still, looking back, it’s clear that I’ve always been interested in how information is organized and who controls it, and my research on the history of Jewish archives fits into this broader question.

Read more about Dr. Lustig on his website, and check out Jewish History Matters here.

Interview by Natalie Cincotta, PhD Candidate, UT Department of History.

Images (from top to bottom):
Khaykl Lunski, chief librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilnius before the war (Wikimedia Commons)
A warehouse of confiscated books in Prague, 1942-1944 (Jewish Museum in Prague)
Alex Bein (Wikimedia Commons)

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