Theses in Focus: ‘Self-presentation and Identity: German-Jewish Writing Today’ by Hanna Maria Rompf

The second installment of ‘Theses in Focus’ comes from Hanna Maria Rompf and her PhD thesis ‘Self-presentation and Identity: German-Jewish Writing Today’. She is a PhD candidate and Departmental Assistant in the Department of German Studies at Mary Immaculate College Limerick, where she is jointly supervised by Dr. Sabine Egger and also Prof. Dr. Sascha Feuchert (Justus Liebig University Gießen). Hanna was awarded her Magister Artium: German Literature, History of the Middle Ages and Early Modern History from the Justus Liebig University Gießen. Her broader research interests include contemporary literature, Holocaust literature, migration literature and Paratexts, and she has a publication forthcoming in this area entitled ‘Zeitgenossenschaft als Voraussetzung für politische Literatur. Dmitrij Kapitelmans Das Lächeln meines unsichtbaren Vaters’, set to appear in the 2020 edition of Germanistik in Ireland, which Hanna is also co-editing. Her theses was runner-up in the 2019 Women in German Studies Book Prize competition.

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I have been interested in Jewish culture and history for a long time and the fact that I grew up near Frankfurt, which is home of the second biggest Jewish community in Germany, is a central factor. It strengthened my awareness of the events of the Shoah and of memory culture. I wrote my Master’s thesis about Holocaust literature and in particular about witness reports of Holocaust survivors and the depiction of history in their texts.

My fascination for contemporary Jewish literature started when I noticed that there is an increasing number of published texts by young writers with a Jewish background who cover questions of identity. Those writers undermine the public perception of contemporary Jewishness in Germany considerably and, most notably, create an image of a modern urban Jewish generation, which seeks to emancipate itself from its history and negotiate conventional cultural heritages as well as the role as victims in the German memory discourse. For instance, Max Czollek, who is spokesman of a Berlin-based group of Jewish artists, stimulated a controversial debate with his polemic appeal “Desintegriert euch!” (“Be disintegrated!”; Max Czollek, 2018).

I also realised that in many cases these writers came to Germany from the former Soviet Union and hence are part of the “Eastern turn” (Brigid Haines, 2008) in German literature. I became curious about how they deal with recent developments in society and with the Shoah as an event of memory culture. This group of authors, the so-called “Kontingentflüchtlinge” (quota refugees), migrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and are, as a result of their specific cultural background, exceptional within German-Jewish writing. Due to their unique experience of living in a communist state, their approach to the Shoah and other historic events differs significantly not only from the memory culture in Germany but also from former generations of Jewish authors. Young writers such as Dmitrij Kapitelman, Kat Kaufmann or Olga Grjasnowa no longer consider the Shoah as the main impetus for their writing but, instead, life in the Jewish diaspora, their relationship to Israel and their sense of belonging to a multicultural world. My PhD project therefore investigates contemporary autobiographic novels of Jewish writers from the former Soviet Union and how they, through their respective works, represent their specific understanding of Jewish identity in their texts.

While working on the subject, I became aware of the fact that this group of writers not only writes prose but is, at the same time, active in other media. Given the emerging role of digital media, as Georg Franck argues, the cultural sector is more and more transforming into a commercial market, an “economy of attention” (Franck, 1998). Self-presentation in different media seems to play a significant role for those writers in order to generate such attention, but also to point out their specific perspective on intercultural experiences. My research up to date supports the idea that the so-called epitexts (Genette, 2001) are in a large extent part of a marketing strategy in order to establish a strong position in the Literarisches Feld (literary field; Pierre Bourdieu, 1992). Journalism and social media provide additional platforms in order to establish that image beyond literature. I would argue that such attempts of generating attention in public prove the ambivalence of the cultural sector, causing growing opportunities of self-presentation but simultaneously an increasing competitive pressure, and the writer’s refusal to participate in Germany’s Holocaust discourse. To ascertain how the depiction of this concept of an urban modern Jewishness is extended to other media is thus another main aspect of the project. 

My dissertation seeks to illustrate the changing nature of German-Jewish authorship as well as German-Jewish memory culture under the influence of global migration and digitalisation. It is thus the first study to undertake a comprehensive examination of the close interaction and correlation of intercultural as well as intermedia phenomena in the context of current German-Jewish writing. In view of migration and dislocation as an everyday reality, questions of belonging or identity are currently of a fundamental relevance in a wider European context. My research project enables me to participate in this contemporary discourse.

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