The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Transcultural Experiences and the Default Zones of Modernity: Pauline Wengeroff’s German Reflections on Jewish Life in Russia

PD Dr. Olaf Terpitz

The sociologist Karl Mannheim stated in 1922 an understanding of culture that regarded it as a "pluralistic system of interaction”. This implies in other words that culture relies on various encounters, exchange processes and the interweaving of practices.
When Pauline Wengeroff published her German language “Memoirs of a Grandmother. Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia” in 1908 resp. 1910 (vols. I and II), they met with a favorable reception in the German-Jewish press, which may come as a surprise in view of the subject matter presented and the narrative perspective. There are at least three moments that influenced the perception and dissemination of Wengeroff`s life story: 1) the encounter of German Jewry with Russian Jewry as "the other(s)," and this in a linguistically as well as habitually accessible manner, 2) the depicted transregional and transcultural entanglements in Europe, 3) the "life story" of a woman. Those three moments highlight, in their turn, the attractiveness of the memoir genre for the contemporary reader, the historian and the literary scholar (then and today) alike.
The talk seeks to explore the ways Wengeroff’s “Cultural History”, that appeared in the setting of the “Jewish Renaissance”, mirror Mannheim’s notion of culture. In this regard, it outlines interactions in the literary system itself (e.g. genre, reception), in the depiction of transregional experiences (e.g. Russian Empire, Germany, England), in ideational trajectory (e.g. the challenges of describing Yiddish, Hebrew or Russian contexts in German), and finally in conceptions of Europe. Wengeroffs memoirs, addressing diverse Jewish and non-Jewish publics alike, aimed not only at creating a transgenerational continuity, a repository of “cultural memory”, despite the profound transformation processes it takes up on, but also at pinpointing the role of communication, and above all, the female perspective in history.