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Memoria e Ricerca

Public History beyond the state: Presenting the Yiddish past in contemporary Europe

di Gerben Zaagsma
in Memoria e Ricerca n.s. 37 (2011), p. 129

This article analyses how Europe’s ‘Yiddish past’ is presented, commemorated and engaged with in contemporary Europe from a Public History perspective. It investigates the ways in which Yiddish, its culture and its speakers, are inscribed in representations of Jewish history in museums, websites, and other settings. In doing so a distinction is made between Western Europe, where Yiddish-speaking immigrants and their culture formed but a part of local Jewish populations, and Central/Eastern Europe, where Jewish life was to a large extent Yiddish life. The article shows how a growing attention for migration in Western Europe, and the demand for Jewish heritage from abroad in Central and Eastern Europe, drive new and revised versions of Jewish, as well as national, historical narratives. It also contrasts such larger developments and contexts with local, ‘bottom-up’, activities. At the same it moves beyond national contexts and considers the role that European institutions play in preserving Yiddish heritage. The article argues that definitions of Public History, which predominantly focus on how professional historians take history to a broader non-academic public, are insufficient. The case of Yiddish in Europe also highlights the important role of the state in driving public history activities. Key words: Jewish history; Yiddish; Europe; Public History; Representation; Museums.