Erika Larsson – Hope through disaster

KiH 1/2001

Erika Larsson
Hope through disaster

Without historical memory, what would become
of an individual, a people, a community?
Marcus Ehrenpreis „Att minnas och att glömma”
Judisk Tidskrift 1940

Anyone who devotes most part of her life to history, reading, writing, teaching and thinking about this subject, is pleased to find that history matters a great deal also to others – even if it is another history for another purpose. I had not thought that much about the role history plays in other peoples lives, until I a couple of years ago started to study Jewish identity, and realised the impact of history there. And if you have once noticed the importance of history in one field, its power is suddenly apparent almost everywhere.

The dissertation I am working on as a PhD-student in history, is supposed to answer the question about the impact of history on human beings or, less pretentious, describe how history matters to us, how our views of past, present and future influences each other. What needs render some parts of history important, while others remain unnoticed? What does history do for us? My main interest is the common, everyday, uses of history, not the conscious use you find for example in politics (although the division between the one and the other may be vague), but history as an important part of our culture, identity and existential ideas.

The concept of historical consciousness is here understood as the process in which human beings, in their everyday life, combine past, present and future – or, in other words, their space of experience with daily life and the horizon of expectations. The three dimensions of time will have an influence on each other, so that our understanding of the past affects our expectations for the future, and the other way around. In the same way, our picture of the present is important for how we apprehend past and present, as well as it is created by our ideas about history and future [2].

Thinking about the past is an inevitable part of the human way of looking at life. No-one can refrain from using history as a point of reference in life. Stories about history is necessary for our identity and sense of belonging. Thus everyone, regardless of the quality of knowledge about the Black Death or the fall of Masada, has a historical consciousness. It is of less importance if the events included in the space of experience is considered scientifically true or not. The historical consciousness can be built on novels or myths as well as on historical narratives produced by scholars. The main issue is whether they are considered to be true in some sense.

This also implies that there is no such thing as a human being without a sense of history. In Sweden you commonly see the expression „historielös” („without history”), used to denote a person, preferably a student, considered to be lacking sufficient historical knowledge – thereby also considered more susceptible to totalitarian ideologies and other unpleasant complaints. Of course there are people with inadequate knowledge about history, people who would probably find increased insights in history both pleasing an useful, but this does not mean that they lack a sense of history or a historical consciousness.

My „dissertation to be” will not be able to prevent misapplications of history. Even if such a thing were possible, I would no doubt refrain from doing so. I think that if history should be valuable, it has to be used for something. Historical narratives provided with an existential meaning has an important purpose to fulfill, even if they are not compatible with what is considered absolute truth, something I hope to be able to show in the following.

That I am considering Jews is not due to any idea about Jews being more connected to the past, or especially apt be stuck in memories, nor to an expectation of exquisite historical knowledge among that group. Jews are of course not even a uniform assembly, all sharing the same opinions. Thus I won’t be able to say anything about how the Jewish community at large view or use history. However, that does not bother me particularly, since my main intention is to show how history matters, through what I consider to be a well chosen example. Jewish tradition has been devoted to preserving memory. God reveals himself to man through his appearance in history, and remembering the past thus is the only way to find out about God. There is a purpose, Gods purpose, with history, and therefor it is meaningful. Many scholars studying Judaism have described the Jews as the „inventors” of meaning in history: „As for the Jews, they invented history as an existential dimension of man in time” [3]. The Swedish chief-rabbi Marcus Ehrenpreis claimed, in 1939, that „history /…/ basically [is] a religious concept, since it implies that there is a system in what is happening” [4]. Thus I have reason to believe that one can find interesting reflections concerning history in the Jewish tradition.

Another reason for studying the Jewish group is that it is a minority, that has preserved its identity for a very long time in spite of an otherwise far reaching assimilation to the majority-culture. The collective memory has probably played an important part for this identification. In an issue of the Swedish-Jewish monthly magazine Judisk Tidskrift from 1940, Marcus Ehrenpreis writes:

Normal peoples, who live on their historical ground, carry this living memory of the past within as well as looking at it; memorials, buildings, ancient sites, landscape, bear witness to the being of the nation, its growth, victories and failures. Israel, who has been chosen to live scattered among other nations for thousands of years, has, more than these nations been left to keeping the historical memory alive. No word is pronounced with more emphasis in our Sacred Scripture, than the word s a c h o r , remember. Our holidays, our ceremonies and symbols, as well as many of our prayers, are to a lesser degree religious or dogmatic in their purpose; they are primarily thought to be a kind of historical teaching, preserving the memory of the past, not allowing the connection with history to slacken [5].

In Sweden there are very few studies dealing with expressions of historical consciousness – although the concept often turns up in theoretical articles, curricula, and public debate. This is at least partially due to the fact that it is not quite easy to implement. Where do you trace the marks of historical consciousness in real life?

I have chosen to consider my dissertation also as an opportunity to find out which sources might be available for surveys of this kind. During the 20th century, and this is the period I intend to study, there are several Jewish magazines, sermons and of course rituals, traditions and tales. Since the 1950s there is also a Jewish school in Stockholm, and in recent years also monuments and a Jewish museum. In this essay I will however mainly be concerned with the example of the magazine Judisk Tidskrift and its founder Marcus Ehrenpreis during the 1930s and 1940s.

Judisk Tidskrift was published between 1928 and 1964, usually with one issue a month. Most of the time, and all years during the era I am concerned with here, Marcus Ehrenpreis was the chief editor and also the writer of many articles, often sermons held in the synagogues in Stockholm and Norrköping. Marcus Ehrenpreis, who was born i Lemberg (Lvov) in 1869 and later became chief-rabbi in Sofia before he were summoned to Stockholm in 1914, was engaged in the Zionist movement as a youngster and had participated at the first Zionist Congress in Basel 1897 as one of Herzls assistants [6]. In Stockholm many were probably expecting him to continue his work for the Zionist movement, but Ehrenpreis decided to cut down on his international engagements – disappointing a few but probably pleasing the majority of assimilated Jews in Stockholm [7]. That he still cherished ideals close to what is commonly called Cultural Zionism is obvious, not least in Judisk Tidskrift, although it is Cultural Zionism unusually focused on religion.

Striking in Ehrenpreis’ sermons, as well as in other of his writings, is the important role of history. In an extra-issue of Judisk Tidskrift published to celebrate Ehrenpreis’ 75th birthday, Ragnar Josephson, professor in the history of art, points to the rabbis effective use of history and the fact that he, according to Josephson contrary to historians proper, is able to turn history into something other than plain knowledge – „Knowledge is many things, but still just knowledge” [8]. Josephson also provides the reader with a description of how Ehrenpreis uses history:

It is the secret of historical writings, that it can create grandeur and spirituality from sufferings, and sorrow and disaster, from meanness and destruction /…/ Because it points towards other forces, forces that will never be depressed, but will always break through to help, heal and give hope [9].

The main problem demanding attention in Judisk Tidskrift in the 1930s and 1940s is, quite obviously, the Nazi Machtübernahme in Germany, their persecution of Jews there and later in other occupied territories. The scribes in the magazine seems to take upon themselves the task of keeping up hope within the Swedish Jewry. So does also Marcus Ehrenpreis in his essays and sermons. This task could not have been easy, because the scribes and essayists are well aware of the precarious situation for the Jews under Nazi domination. Already in the middle of the 1930s you can find articles mentioning an extermination of Jews, even if it is not implying the same thing as today – something that must after all seem very alien to human imagination.

The difficulties of the time are mainly treated, especially with Ehrenpreis, by interpreting the future through the experiences in history. Since development is considered to be fundamentally the same as it has been in the past, the future can be understood. Now, this is nothing new to the Jewish tradition. Already the Mishna, commentaries to the Torah finished in the second century, provides lists over events that are alike, thereby enabling people to understand their lives and living them both in accordance to the present and the demands of the law. The same strategy is applied by for example Jews in the Middle Ages, as well as later. Real persons are described by using archetypes [10]. That for example Haman [11] and the events in the Book of Esther is not necessarily considered historically true doesn’t really matter. In a beginners or children’s book about Judaism you find an explanation telling you that the Book of Esther might not be about something that has actually happened, „But that does not make it [the story] less true. It has happened many times in many different ways. /…/ Thus, even if the story about Esther didn’t occur at that time and in that place, it is still real [12].

The essayists in Judisk Tidskrift are also observing similarities between past and present. The representatives of evil, Hitler and the Nazis, appear as late followers of Pharao, the Babylonians and Haman. Especially the latter is apprehended as the number one enemy, father of all later anti-Semites, and is a frequently used parallel. In 1931, for example, the historian Hugo Valentin claims that anti-Semitism is a constant factor in history, even if its motifs are changing, „as they have been changing from Haman to Hitler” [13]. And in a play staged in spring 1945 for survivors from the concentration camps, Haman even looks just like Hitler – to the great amusement of the spectators [14]. Not only characters but also historical events are used as models for the present. Thus the situation for Jews in Germany is turned into slavery in Egypt and the German Blixtkrieg is seen as a parallel to the Assyrian and Babylonian campaigns in ancient times. Kristallnacht is immediately put in the same category as other disastrous events happening on the 9th of Av, even if the date November 10th is not really the same [15].

To be able to use these parallels, one has to accept the idea that there are fundamental similarities between past and present. If you don’t see any likeness between your situation and the conditions of men in times that was before us – and seeing such similarities is by no means inevitable – it must be very difficult to use history for gaining insights in your own life. It would then perhaps be entertaining, but nothing more. Neither theologically nor philosophically does this pose any problem in Judaism, since emphasis on the continuity of time is a very basic idea. This is also observable in Judisk Tidskrift, where certain phenomena are considered eternal – anti-Semitism, divine grace and the victory of righteousness.

Still even so trustful a character as Marcus Ehrenpreis despairs, or at least has doubts sometimes. He compares his task as a preacher today with that of the prophet commonly called Deutero-Isaiah, in the Babylonian captivity, and claims that the situation of today makes his work even harder. Deutero-Isaiah could foresee, or have an idea of, Cyrus, the Persian king defeating the Babylonians and allowing the Israelites to return to their land, but „the preacher today still can’t see any signs of Cyrus…” [16].

Disasters like the captivity were difficult to handle already for the prophets, since the calamities were considered Gods punishment brought by an erring people. Thus happiness as well as misery is by God. Sinning leads to Gods’ punishment, while improvement returns the grace of God. Sometimes, however, the punishment seemed to lack proportions, or – which is more interesting in this case – improvement wasn’t followed by better conditions. The prophets reconsidered their view of life, and then claimed that God might very well wait a while before he rehabilitates his people, but that his grace will eventually return [17]. Ehrenpreis does the same thing; Gods saving hand is postponed but he keeps being sure that it will be seen, sooner or later.

And here we reach what seems to be the main idea in the use Ehrenpreis’ and the other essayists made of history before and during World War Two. The parallels are not comforting just as they are, but if one draws the consequences from them, history might be used to create a historical consciousness implying a happy future.

The memory tells us this: Your road through history began with sufferings, your travel trough the ages were a walk in fire and blood, hatred and despair. You have survived Egypt, and Persia, and Rome, and the Spanish inquisition, You will also survive the devastation now brought upon you [18].

…the Jewish community in Poland, bravely struggling for their survival through the ages, will also outlive the disaster now threatening it… [19].

Everyone reading Judisk Tidskrift, everyone listening to the sermons by Ehrenpreis, had the key to history, they knew what had later become of the events brought to mind by the parallels. All of them knew that the Israelites were freed from slavery and taken from Egypt to the promised land, that the rule of the Babylonians finally came to and end and that Haman was cruelly – yet fairly – punished for his viciousness. It may well be that they didn’t really consider these stories perfectly true, but they might still have thought that the narratives revealed the truth about which kind of world we are living in, the truth about the nature of God and mankind. Besides, they could easily see that all those miseries in the past never managed to wipe out the Jewish people – something that is used to prove that they would survive also in the future. Ehrenpreis strongly believed that righteousness would eventually be victorious, „as it has always reached victories in the past” [20]. There is also an idea about disaster never being complete, but that a small amount of people will always survive, building something new and better after the calamities.

And this is also typical: Destruction is never complete, history does not now a thing such as total disaster, but the transforming, changing and renewal of life [21].

That this survival does not imply physical survival for all individuals must be apparent – claiming otherwise would be disastrous to the credibility of the writer. Instead it is a matter of survival for the people as a group of individuals and – especially with Ehrenpreis – about something he refers to as the eternal spirituality of Israel. The Jewish tradition will never disappear. In the autumn of 1945, in a sermon at Yom Kippur, he noticed that the enemies of Israel had, in spite of everything, not managed to destroy this spirituality, „that will live for ever” [22].

It is thus obvious that remembering disaster might help keeping up hope in difficult or what does even seem hopeless times. The parallels used are those of really terrible events, and they seem to be more useful the worse they are. You can’t, however, use just any event. The persecution closest in time in the 1930s would be the late 19th and early 20th century pogroms in Russia, but they are almost never invoked and absolutely not as a comforting example. The secret of a successful comparison (successful as creating hope), seems to be a matter of time passing. Events appear to be more useful if they are viewed from a distance.

How this works after 1945, and now, when we have reached at least some distance to the events of World War Two, I can’t really say – not yet. At least some components in the memory of the Holocaust seem to have inherited ideas from Ehrenpreis and his kind – otherwise the historical consciousness appears to be the opposite of the one invoked by other calamities used to gain hope in the 1930s. The Holocaust was such disastrous event that the possibility of something alike happening again always throws a dark shadow over the future. Unpleasant events, as for example an Anti-Semitic demonstration by neo-Nazis, is immediately reviving pictures of the 1920s in Germany and thus also indicating a horrendous future. Using the Holocaust for pointing towards a bright future does not seem possible. Still there is some tendencies that might indicate almost such a usage in the future.

A couple of years ago a monument commemorating the victims of the Holocaust was erected at the main synagogue in Stockholm. In a narrow alley between the synagogue and the congregation centre runs large stone plates inscribed with the names of thousands of murdered friends and families of Jews in Sweden. My first visit at the synagogue occurred a Friday evening in November some years ago. Having listened to a speech about the vigour of Judaism through the ages, I went outside and almost bumped in to these names of extermination-camps and murdered individuals. I then couldn’t understand why the monument had been located just outside the synagogue, and remember thinking that it must be a terrible task to preach about the vitality of tradition to a community constantly confronted with the remains of something quite other. Today I believe that the location of this memorial is self-evident and that it is really stressing the strength in Jewish tradition. It is not only a reminder of a past disaster, not only preserving memories of loved ones, but also a witness to the continuation of Jewish life. In a way it is almost an illustration the American Jewish theologian Emil Fackeheims famous claim that it is the duty of every Jew to remain a Jew, as not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory, „Mir zeinen do – we are here, exist, survive, endure, witness to God and men…” [23].

In Out of Africa, the Danish author Karen Blixen is retelling a tale she heard as a child, the kind of tale you draw while you are telling it. This one is about a man in a small round house and the troubles he meet one night when his pond is damaged. The point of the story is not what is actually happening, but that the storyteller after finishing the tale has drawn the picture of a stork. To Blixen this is a picture of how all of us endure ups and downs, hoping perhaps to be able to see a pattern an maybe even a meaning in our lives [24]. As we know, remembering is not only about calling to mind single events, but to create memories containing existential meaning, that is, useful memories. Mircea Eliade, famous historian of religions, noticed that there is no culture where suffering and death is regarded as the end of everything; it is always followed by re-establishment resurrection [25]. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The Holocaust has had a great impact on the historical consciousness of man, Jew as well as gentile. Might it, in times to come, receive another meaning than today, and not only carry the message of death and destruction but also be able to give strength and hope for a better future?



(„Vad vore en människa, ett folk, ett samfund, utan det historiska minnet?”) All quotations from Judisk Tidskrift are translated to English by myself. I will currently add the original text in a footnote.


>A lot of things can be said about historical consciousness, but for my purpose here this will be sufficent!


>Vidal-Naquet 1996 s 58. Also for example Yerushalmi 1996, Eliade 1991, Brandon 1965.


(„…historia /…/ i grunden [är] ett religiöst begrepp, eftersom det betyder att det finns sammanhang och lagbundenhet i det som händer.”) Ehrenpreis 1948 s 47.


(„Normala folk, som leva pa sin historiska mark, bära detta levande minne av det förflutna inom sig och ha det för ögonen runt omkring sig: minnesmärken, byggnadsverk, fornlämningar, landskap vittna om nationens vardande och växt, om motgangar och segrar. Israel, pa vars lott det sedan artusenden fallit att leva i förskingringen, har mera än andra folk varit hänvisat att halla det historiska minnet vid liv. Intet ord later sa kategoriskt, betonas med sadant eftertryck i var heliga Skrift, som ordet s a c h o r , kom ihag. Vara fester, vara ceremonier och symboler, flera av vara bönetexter, äga mindre religiöst-dogmatisk innebörd: de avse i huvudsak att utgöra ett slags historiskt askadningsundervisning för alla, att halla levande minnet av det förflutna, att icke lata sambandet med gangna tider slappna.”) Ehrenpreis 1940a s 285.


Brody 1929.


This according to Stephen Fruitman, PhD-student in the history of ideas at Umea University, writing a dissertation about Marcus Ehrenpreis.


>(„Kunskap är mycket, men det är dock bara kunskap”) Josephson 1944 s 21.


(„Det är den historiska diktens hemlighet att den ur kval och sorg och olyckor, ja, ur gemenhet och fördärv kan skapa högtid och andakt /…/ Ty den pekar pa andra krafter, krafter som aldrig lata kuva sig, som ständigt bryta fram för att bota hjälpa, trösta och skänka hopp.”) Josephson 1944 s 18.


Neusner 1988 s 24ff.


Haman is the kings evil advisor, appearing in the Book of Esther, attempting to murder all Jews in Persia.


(„Men det gör den [berättelsen] inte mindre sann. Den har ägt rum manga ganger i olika skepnader /…/ Sa även om historien om Ester inte hände vid just den tiden och den platsen, är den trots allt verklig.”) Gersh 1999 s 144.


(„…liksom de växlat alltifran Haman till Hitler.”) Valentin 1931 s 7.


Sauter 1993 s 201f.


Ehrenpreis 1938 s 337. The 9th of Av (or Tisha Beav) is according to tradition the date on which both of the ancient tempels in Jerusalem were destroyed, when Bar Kochbas last stronghold fell, and the Jews were expelled from Spain. On 9th of Av these tragic events is commemorated through fasting.


(„[t]alaren av i dag kan ännu icke skönja nagon Cyrus…”) Ehrenpreis 1940a s 284.


Se exempelvis Brandon 1965 s 134ff.


(„Dagens minne säger oss: Eder historiska väg har börjat med lidanden, eder vandring genom artusendena var en vandring genom eld och blod, hat och trangmal. I haven överlevat Egypten, och Persien, och Rom, och den spanska inkvisitionen, I skolen ock överleva den hemsökelse, som nu drabbat eder.”) Ehrenpreis 1933 s 11.


(„…den judiska menigheten i Polen, som under arhundraden med kraft och hjältemod kämpat för sin existens, även nu kommer att övervinna den katastrof, som drabbat den…”) Ehrenpreis 1940b s 322.


(„…sasom den alltid i historien segrat.”) Ehrenpreis 1933 s 38.


(„Och även detta är typiskt: denna undergang är aldrig fullständig, historien känner överhuvudtaget icke till fullständig undergang, utan livet förvandlas, omdanas och förnyas.”) Ehrenpreis 1948 s 45.


(„…som kommer att leva för evigt.”) Ehrenpreis 1948 s 307.


Fackenheim 1997 s 97f.


Blixen 1986 s 184ff.(25)

Eliade 1991 s 98ff.


Blixen, Karen. 1986. Den afrikanska farmen. Stockholm: Trevi.

Brandon, Samuel George Frederick. 1965. History, time and deity : a historical and comparative study of the conception of time in religiousthought and practice, containing the Forwood lectures in the philosophy andhistory of religion, delivered in the University of Liverpool, 1964. Manchester.

Brody, Abraham. 1929. „Nagra notiser till Marcus Ehrenpreis´ biografi.” Judisk Tidskrift. Jubileumshäfte av „Judisk tidskrifts vänner” tillägnat Marcus Ehrenpreis pa hans sextioarsdag 1929.

Ehrenpreis, Marcus. 1933. Malakis rop till tiden : tal om gammal och ny träldom. Stockholm: Bonnier.

-. 1938. „Brinnande synagogor.” Judisk Tidskrift. -. 1940a. „Att minnas och att glömma. Sammanfattning av tal i Stockholms och Norrköpings synagogor.” Judisk Tidskrift.
-. 1940b. „Om Polens judenhet.” Judisk Tidskrift. -. 1948. Fragetecknet Israel : valda essäer fran aren 1923 till 1948. Stockholm: Bonnier.Eliade, Mircea. 1991. The myth of the eternal return : or, Cosmos and history: Princeton university press.

Fackenheim, Emil L. 1997. God’s presence in history : Jewish affirmations and philosophical reflections. Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson.

Gersh, Harry. 1999. Sa här gar det till. Judisk vardag och helg. Stockholm: Hillelförl.

Josephson, Ragnar. 1944. „Historikern, diktaren, förkunnaren.” Judisk Tidskrift. Jubileumshäfte tillägnat Marcus Ehrenpreis pa hans sjuttiofemarsdag.

Neusner, Jacob. 1988. „Judaic Uses of History in Talmudic Times.” i Essays in Jewish Historiography, edited by Ada Rapaoport-Albert. Middletown: Wesleyan University.

Sauter, Willmar. 1993. „Svensk-judisk teaterhistorik.” i Nya judiska perspektiv : essäer tillägnade Idy Bornstein. Stockholm: Hillelförl.

Valentin, Hugo. 1931. „Judisk manadsrvy.” Judisk Tidskrift.

Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. 1996. The Jews. History, Memory and the Present. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. 1996. Zakhor : Jewish history and Jewish memory. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Materiał udostępniany na zasadach licencji
CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Generic