Jewish Warsaw – Jewish Berlin

Literary Portrayal of the City in the First Half of the 20th Century

by Alina Molisak (Author)
©2021 Monographs 294 Pages
Open Access


This book is a reflection on the Jewish presence in two European capitals, Warsaw and Berlin, in the first half of the 20th century. It was inspired by the works of Polish-Jewish, Yiddish and German-Jewish authors, as well as by the connections between urban spaces and the formation of different varieties of modern Jewish identity. The spotlight is cast on images preserved in literary works, namely those concerning separate Jewish neighborhoods and the sphere of cultural interethnic contacts. By attempting to restore the presence of Jewish inhabitants of both cities, destroyed by the Holocaust, it may become possible to see how the imagined communities of the time were created and preserved in the texts, even if, in reality, the metropolises were transformed into necropolises.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Two Cities – Two Quarters
  • City and Politics
  • Supplement: City and Politics, That Is, Literary Political Fiction191
  • City and Religion
  • City and Vice
  • City Divided and Contact Zones
  • City and Emigration
  • Concluding Remarks: City and Variants of Identity
  • Bibliography
  • Index of People
  • Series index

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I have long been interested in the subject matter of the functioning of urban spaces, particularly those of Warsaw and Berlin, which, as it seems, have a lot in common. When I look at various versions of these two cities’ literary record, I notice how clearly they are bound by their peculiar existence, which spans between worldliness and provincialism. When studying these urban spaces’ history, one discovers their shared peripheriness, the experience of war destruction (during the Second World War), and the efforts to rebuild the urban structure, the effect of which, in the case of both capital cities, was sometimes something like a ‘staging’ of the city that sought new versions of its identity. Both Berlin and Warsaw were often seen as cities placing between the East and the West.1 Particularly interesting was not only the history of these two metropolises and their political history but also their urban development and cultural and ethnic diversity. First and foremost, the presence of their Jewish inhabitants was highly visible in the first half of the twentieth century, with their social stratification, internal diversification, and transformations connected with the development of modern Jewish identity remaining a vital part of the European heritage and also a fascinating research topic for me.

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Treated symbolically, Warsaw and Berlin can be said to represent two Jewish communities which lived in different conditions and had a lot in common but also differed in many respects. Literary records concerning these two metropolises produced in the first half of the twentieth century constitute an enormous fond difficult to present within the framework of one publication. Hence, the texts analyzed in this book are only a sample, a small collection of various prose works, which facilitates seeing various representations of these two places, the literary topographies connected with Warsaw’s and Berlin’s Jewish spaces.

We have to do here with a curious way of perceiving space. On the one hand, the authors use various clichés and stereotypes, often to exoticize the East. On the other hand, in these texts we often encounter an outlook on the different versions of the identity of the West-European diaspora as seen with the eyes of newcomers from the East, who sometimes adopted the categories which described their distinctness and defined their own identity.2 More complex proved the situation where the immigrants from the East-European diaspora came into contact with the phenomenon of the interest taken in, for instance, Hasidic spirituality, which certain German Jews regarded as an opportunity for returning to the roots. Those who looked at the East-European Judaism like at a chance for revival were far from treating the East in categories of cultural subordination and barbarism, while in the case of the religious sphere many were also fascinated by the East European Judaism (more about this topic in the chapter “City and Religion”).

Aside the sphere of the sacred another important dimension of the functioning of the urban space is the sphere of power, which is why the realm of political activity constitutes a vital aspect of the literary records. The presence of Jewish milieus in this domain is represented by both realist narrations and political fiction novels (chapter “City and Politics”).

Cities are also areas conducive to the activity of people from the social margin. Urban centers are spaces where organized crime develops. These phenomena, which were also present in the Jewish circles in both capitals, deserve attention as well, particularly that research (Ułaszyn’s, Brzezina’s, and Krynicka’s) has indicated the existence of a curious kind of language connected with this sphere of the Jewish and non-Jewish community’s activity.

The phenomenon of migration of inhabitants was evident in both Warsaw and Berlin. What I have in mind here is both the movement of the population within ←10 | 11→the borders of the urban center and the escape from the shtetl to the metropolis, connected predominantly with the modernization processes and various forms of anti-Semitic violence. Descriptions of migration motivated by various considerations, which, particularly in the case of the German capital, contributed to the emergence of the Ostjuden’s separate microworld, are supplemented with images of the course of the metropolization of Jews in the European diaspora. I analyze these in the chapter “City and Emigration.”3

The perception and valorization of space is accompanied with the functioning of common places, that is contact zones (Pratt) where multi-ethnic communities present in the tissue of the metropolis co-exist.4 One should inquire not only about the common areas, but also about divisions in the urban space and the existence of invisible walls between the communities inhabiting both capitals. To this I devote the chapter “City Divided and Contact Zones.”

I direct the question about the course of the ‘city’s narrative’ and how the aforementioned various phenomena exist in narrations about the urban space at a small number of selected Polish, German, and Yiddish prose texts, which fact I explicitly emphasize in the text. The context in which I read them is the modernization processes and the transformations of the Jewish identity and the development of its modern versions.

A separate topic is the transformation processes in both European and Jewish literature, with the latter produced in various languages and in contact with the Other. But this would constitute an entirely separate research area.5 An important phenomena which one should bear in mind when looking at the metropolitan spaces, is the kind of dislocation with which we have to do in various narrations concerning the East European diaspora since the second half of the nineteenth century and increasingly evidently in the early twentieth century. One can clearly see the slow departure from the dominance of the sphere of the shtetl/small town – a place so characteristic of Central and Eastern Europe – and ←11 | 12→its replacement with the city. The presence of urban spaces is connected with both migrations of the Jewish population and changes in the characters’ identity in response to the challenges of modernity, new social trends and movements, which changed the Jewish community to a considerable degree and made it possible to establish new orders, reevaluate traditions, confront the non-Jewish world, and, last but not least, facilitated the enormous multi-lingual growth of the Jewish culture during the pre-Holocaust period.

* * *

This book I have written is deeply indebted to others – I would like to express special gratitude to several people. I am thankful to Magdalena Marszałek, Gertrud Pickhan, Wojtek and Magda Klemm, Jola Żyndul, Maria Antosik-Piela, and Anja Tippner for the many meetings and highly inspiring discussions concerning both urban spaces and the types of Jewish identity. I am grateful to Szymon Rudnicki for his precious remarks and orienting me in the subject matter of Jewish political parties. Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota was highly supportive and taught me about the phenomena important to the religious dimension of Judaism present in the literary records. I would also like to thank Andrzej Zieniewicz for his critical remarks concerning the conception of the whole. Thus, I am solely responsible for any omissions, mistakes, and blunders.

I owe separate thanks to Shoshana Ronen and also Staszek Obirek for their attention, concern, and hours of conversations. I would like to thank all residents of our ‘Mokotów kibbutz’ and my true friends for the years of support. Last but not least, I am grateful to my family, particularly Leon Rozenbaum, for patience, kindness, and understanding.

1I wrote about this for the first time in my article devoted to Berlin, see “Miejska przestrzeń literatury dwudziestowiecznej – Berlin, Berlin,” in Dwudziestowieczność, ed. M. Dąbrowski and T. Wójcik (Warsaw, 2004); in this book I make use of my other publications on the subject matter of Jews: “Żydowska Warszawa – żydowski Berlin w pierwszej połowie XX wieku. Różne wersje religijności,” in www.plit-aip.com/plit/2015/08; “‘Spisek wam wszystko wyjaśni…’,” in (Nie)przezroczystość normalności w literaturze polskiej XX i XXI wieku, ed. H. Gosk and B. Karwowska (Warsaw, 2014); “Jüdische Identität in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts,” in Osteuropäisch-jüdische Literaturen im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert: Identität und Poetik, ed. K. Smola (Munich–Berlin, 2013); “Przestępczość wielkomiejska – prostytucja. Portret literacki Ostjuden: Warszawa i Berlin,” in Literatura popularna XX wieku – przeglądy – analizy – interpretacje, ed. E. Bartos and M. Tomczok (Katowice, 2013); “Literackie ślady żydowskich migracji pierwszej połowy XX wieku,” in Narracje migracyjne w literaturze polskiej XX i XXI wieku, ed. H. Gosk (Cracow, 2012); “Zionism in Polish, or a Few of Jakub Appenszlak’s Texts,” in Polish and Hebrew Literature and National Identity, ed. A. Molisak, S. Ronen (Warsaw, 2010); “Literacki obraz miasta – żydowski Berlin, żydowska Warszawa,” Anthropos 6‒7 (2006).

2This has been discussed by James Carrier. See J. G. Carrier, Occidentalism. Images of the West (New York, 1995).

3See T. Brinkman, “Ort des Űbergangs – Berlin als Schnittstelle der jüdischen Migration aus Osteuropa nach 1918,” in Transit und Transformation. Osteuropäisch-jüdische Migranten in Berlin 1918‒1939, ed. V Dohrn and G. Pickhan (Gottingen, 2010), pp. 25‒44.

4M. L. Pratt, “Art of the Contact Zone,” Profession 91 (1991): 33‒40; her, Imperial Eyes: Travel, Writing and Transculturation (London, 1992), p. 2. See also E. Prokop-Janiec, “Kategoria pogranicza we współczesnych studiach żydowskich,” in her, Pogranicze polsko-żydowskie: Topografie i teksty (Cracow, 2013), pp. 134‒146.

5One example of reflection on this subject matter is Krutikov’s work. See M. Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity 1905‒1914 (Stanford, 2001).

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Two Cities – Two Quarters

Getting to know cities involves deciphering their
depictions, narrated just like that, as if in a dream.

S. Kracauer6

Since the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries urban space has been a particularly important place and an object of literary narrations. A constant element of representations of this space is, on the one hand, fascination with the city, and, on the other hand, the fears, concerns, and terror caused by this deformation of the existing world. Although for many twentieth-century literary characters the city is the most natural environment, a phantasmic place attractive through both its diversity and universality, its evaluations are often ambivalent. With the appropriation of the urban space by literary texts come attempts at its metaphorization; visions of fascination with the urban space begin to coincide with its apocalyptic record.

In reference to the conception of the city as cultural space formulated by Aleksander Wallis, Ewa Rewers notices two possible perspectives of reading this research proposal:7

Wallis’ approach can be called culturalist, which puts him alongside Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Siegfried Kracauer, Lewis Mumford, Richard Sennett, Peter Hall, Edward Soja, and Michael Deer, to list just a few scholars important for research on the twentieth-century city. But one can also say that it is connected with cultural studies as defined by the British and Americans.8

According to Wallis, particularly vital areas are generated in places where the cultural practices of the urban community are centered, including the spaces which he considers the most vital, such as, the city center, the home, and the temple. But the scholar points out that nowadays areas situated outside culture (markets, railway stations, airports, and hotels)9 play a tremendous role and strive ←13 | 14→for recognition as cultural areas. Thus, the modern city should be seen more like a work of art (Hans Jonas’ conception) than through the prism of division into various areas saturated with symbolic values to a varied degree (Wallis).10

It seems, however, that in reference to literary texts produced in the first half of the twentieth century Wallis’ conceptions provide more appropriate analytic tools. One has to bear in mind that in his definition of the city Wallis used the classification of space defined according to criteria such as function/purpose, ownership, shape, characteristic features, etc.11 For the notion of the cultural area defined by Wallis can regard not only the city center or the temple/sacred realm, but also parts of the city such as quarters.12 Describing the space of a quarter would inherently involve not only noticing its information layers (origin history, architecture, ownership relations, urban planning structure), but also formulation of a repertoire of cultural roles played by such a clearly marked place. In a metropolitan system a quarter is seen as a “mainstay of hominess.”13 The space delineated by the street network remains under the rule of the community, at least on the symbolic level (even if not legally). Sometimes – and this is the case with the Jewish quarters in Warsaw and Berlin in the early twentieth century – the symbolic sphere too has an ambiguous status. Take, for instance, the bi- and sometimes tri-lingual (in Warsaw under the Russian partition) street signs, shop signs, and advertising slogans.

Transformations of perception of the urban space are nothing new. The city is sometimes seen as an awe- or repulsion-inspiring area of ambivalence, with its diversity based on opposites and contrasts (Max Weber). At other times it is viewed critically as a sphere subordinate to commercial values, an area dominated by the pursuit of financial gain and the universal experience of alienation (Georg Simmel).14 Emphasizing the durability of Weber’s conception, Dobiesław Jędrzejczyk points out that it supplements the gravity of the issue of ←14 | 15→community, of the bond tying the entire city.15 In the individual urban centers, this community’s awareness is conditioned by, for instance, their size and cultural type.16 The precursor of such an outlook on the urban space was Florian Znaniecki, who believed that “urban dwellers are not only bodies, but also active experiencing ‘subjects’, in which character they are not in the city but the city is in the sphere of their shared experience and actions; they create it as a most complex social structure. This experience is precisely ‘experiencing space’ […].”17 It is noteworthy that this ‘experiencing of space’ accompanies not only those who remain in the sphere of its immediate influence, but it also often becomes a constructed experience, attributed to the existence of subjects present in art (literature).

Znaniecki also stressed that “no man can individually stay anywhere permanently or temporarily without entering the range of the spatial values of some system simply by means of his very presence. […] Presence […] within the scope of the given system’s spatial value is experienced socially as a kind of participation in this property.”18 As a result of thus perceived mutuality of relations – of the interrelations between the subject and space – even in the case of the object’s constructed or reported experiences (literary fiction and reportage respectively) it is possible to say that the space acquires a somewhat special status, it is co-shaped by various actors. Putting predominantly specific inhabitants, subjects of urban life, at the center of attention makes their relations closely connected with the given area become instruments of identification and isolation.

In sociology the city is defined as a social place where strangers meet. It is not so much a meeting place as more like a very important sphere of moving between what is familiar to what is not, between the known and the unknown, between what is one’s own and what is alien. This synthesis of many reflections ←15 | 16→on the urban space (formulated by scholars as different as Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Richard Sennett, and others) was proposed by Markus Schroer.19

Elżbieta Rybicka very shrewdly remarks that “the city is not only a cultural space in the strictest meaning of this term, that is, an object of research and reflection of cultural studies (as well as many other disciplines: history of art and architecture, sociology, and philosophy of culture), but also a laboratory of transformations in culture.”20 Due to such an interdisciplinary approach to geopoetics we obtain a lot of analytic tools in the areas with which deal scholars who are advocates of the ‘spatial turn’ in literary studies, particularly history of literature. Owing to the approach proposed, in the case of urban spaces we also gain a broader understanding of the city. Thus, “both the object of research (the place experienced by man, the cultural landscape) and the new hermeneutic methods (emphasis laid on comprehension as opposed to explanation) have brought humanistic geography closer to literary studies.”21 The scholar presents the ways of approaching the category of space after the cultural turn – the attention is focused predominantly on relations between space and language, and culture and literature. Scholars are increasingly often interested in space understood in a transitive, dynamic way. The object of relations is hybrid areas, heterotopies. Yet again there returns the category of place, but this time in the perspective of reflections on ethnicity, class divisions, gender, and, last but not least, in the context of the pragmatism of authority over space, along with sometimes highly peculiar ways of its ideologization, which occasionally assumes the form of symbolic violence. These reflections are accompanied with the “conviction that literature performatively establishes, creates, and gives meanings to space.”22

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Relating how the understanding of the category of ethnicity has changed in contemporary research, Eugenia Prokop-Janiec emphasizes the polemic character of present-day diagnoses. Scholars such as Appadurai or Modood associate ethnic identity not so much with origin or socialization and internalization of specific cultural practices, as they consider this category (in its traditional definition) as historic, stating that nowadays “ethnic identity proves to be […] increasingly weakly connected with participation in specific cultural practices such as language, religion, or attire […].”23 Evoking Fredrik Barth’s and Stuart Hall’s conception, the scholar discusses the chronologically variable and the diversely conditioned way of the functioning of the subject, which undergoes processes of (self-)attachment and exclusion and which in a multicultural society chooses to belong to a culturally diverse group. One can wonder to what degree Jews living in the European diaspora – whose identity since the nineteenth century had undergone various modifications as a result of their community’s acculturation, assimilation, and modernization – are a model example of these two processes. Curiously enough, ethnic threads appearing in contemporary conceptions of culture, both those concerning deterritorialization of culture (Gupta, Ferguson, and Appadurai) and those which describe processes of hybridity (Welsch, Hannerz), can be used with regard to the cultural functioning of the Jewish diaspora before the twenty-first century, now when the realization that ethnic and national groups function as constructs, as imagined communities (Anderson) seems to be increasingly common.

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Assuming that the ethnic problem with respect to literature can be treated as a “cultural issue, with literature deemed one of the practices which constitute the cultural field,” we can try to read texts in such a way so as to bring out not only the meaning-generating practices (Culler),24 but also to facilitate a comparison between experiences of various ethnic groups recorded in various forms (in the form of fiction or otherwise). In consequence, reading literary texts produced in the first half of the twentieth century, for this is what I want to devote my attention to, is going to facilitate, to some degree, a portrayal of the cultural identity of the specific group.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (August)
modern Jewish identity urban spaces comparative perspective selected literatures diaspora culture european history
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 294 pp.

Biographical notes

Alina Molisak (Author)

Alina Molisak is Professor at the Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw. Her research interests concern Polish-Jewish literature, literature and the Shoah, and varieties of identity. She authored several books, including Judaism as Fate. The Matter of Bogdan Wojdowski; and co-edited the following volumes: Polish and Hebrew Literature and National Identity; Galician Polyphony. Places and Voices; The Trilingual Literature of Polish Jews from Different Perspectives.


Title: Jewish Warsaw – Jewish Berlin