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Encounters in Europe and the World. German-language Literature by Jewish Authors from the (former) Soviet Union


Migration, integration, and the ambivalence of the in-between

In his debut work “Russendisko” (Russian Disco) (2000), Wladimir Kaminer [Illustration 1], by now a successful author in the German cultural and literary scene, describes his impetus for emigrating to Germany as follows:

“In the summer of 1990, a rumour was doing the rounds in Moscow: Honecker was taking Jews from the Soviet Union, by way of compensation for East Germany’s never having paid its share of the German payments to Israel. [...] Normally most people in the Soviet Union tried to cover up any Jewish forebears they had, because you only had hopes of a career if your passport didn’t give you away. The roots of this lay not in anti-Semitism but simply in the fact that every position that carried any responsibility at all required membership of the Communist Party. And nobody really wanted Jews in the Party.”[1]

In this passage, Kaminer implicitly as well as explicitly identifies the core aspects that in various ways have influenced the work of Jewish authors from the (former) Soviet Union in German-speaking countries. Firstly, the question is raised as to during what period they migrated and what kind of political and social context and what form of state they emigrated to – the GDR, the FRG, reunified Germany or Austria. Secondly, there is the implicit question as to what age these authors were when they migrated, whether they were adults, adolescents, or children. This question implies all aspects pertaining to their past – whether this be the direct experience of reality in the republics of the USSR, or the knowledge and experience imparted through parents’ personal stories, or, finally, the experience of growing up in a new and different country. The latter involves the challenge of dealing with migration, with the respective current discourses and narratives in general and with one’s own condition in particular. The question that follows from this – also with regard to the situation of the Jews in the Soviet Union and the disruption of civilization that was the Shoah – is how and in what way one’s Jewishness would have to be reflected and integrated into the general discourse. Finally, yet importantly, mainly with respect to culture, there is, of course, the question of language choice, an aspect that encompasses much more than the problematic issue of national identity and that captures the ambivalence of migration in multi-lingual expression.

Kaminer emigrated to the GDR at that time. Not Erich Honecker, as Kaminer writes, but the first and at the same time the last democratically elected government of the GDR under Lothar de Maizière decided to take in Jews from the former Soviet Union for humanitarian reasons as part of their asylum legislation, or, more precisely: in view of the still outstanding reparations to Israel. In the negotiations prior to the German reunification, this entitlement to asylum or respectively to German citizenship was transferred into the legal instrument of quota refugees then provided by the Federal Republic.[2]

Prior to this, as of the 1970s, there is the “refusenik” movement (Russian: “otkazniki”, derived from “otkazyvat” – “to refuse”) of Jews who were initially denied emigration[3] and who with proponents such as Lew Druskin and Vladimir Vertlib (a child of the otkazniki, just asJulya Rabinowich) developed their own language-cultural perspective in the Federal Republic and in Austria. Subsequently, on the other hand, authors who had been socialized in Austria or in reunited Germany, such as Lena Gorelik or Sasha Marianna Salzmann [Illustration 2+3], appear in the literary reflection after the landmark year of 1990. Parallel to these respective experiences, there are authors whose creative work manifested in the American-Anglophone realm or in (Russian-speaking) Israel, such as that of Jonathan S. Foer or Dina Rubina [Illustration 4]. When looking at the migration to Germany, especially from the background of Russia or the Soviet Union, one also needs to consider authors who, since the 1990s, have come to Germany as so-called “Russlanddeutsche” (ethnic Germans from the (Ex-)USSR) such as Wlada Kolosowa.

Hence, these experiences, as they shine through in literary reflection, varied immensely already in terms of the formal ways of immigration. Independent of historical context and its semantic scope and independent of the regional setting (whether Berlin, Vienna or Salzburg), the literary production of writers with a Jewish (post-) Soviet background is extraordinarily prolific. The thematic range spans between autobiographical experiences – the foreign, the “familiar”, the ambivalence of arriving – and current societal discourses on diversity, gender, and integration.

As a child, Vertlib migrated with his parents via Austria, Israel, and the USA, back to Austria where he has been resident since 1981; as a young adult, Wladimir Kaminer emigrated to the still existing GDR in 1990; Lena Gorelik came to Germany as a child in 1992, together with her family. While their literary creation, shaped by a diversity of experiences, finds its expression in German, writers such as the Olga Beshenkovskaia – who died early (1947–2006) – and Oleg Jurjew (1959–2018) expressed their reflections in two languages – mainly Russian, but also German, with Jurjew also known to the German-speaking readership through the translation of his works.[4]

The literary work of Jews from the (former) Soviet Union therefore a priori proves to be an intercultural, even transcultural phenomenon. The writers, some of whom also became active in the wider cultural arena – be it as actors and actresses, journalists or critics – and have played a part in a wide variety of cultural fields, impart their knowledge, their experiences and their reflections on their own condition. These reflections, however, quite often transcend into a universal statement and enter the societal discourse. A specific reference to Germany or Austria, to post-Soviet states such as Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, to Europe, Israel or the USA takes place along with a discursive exploration of the meaning of language, the situativity and the contingency of belonging, and the ambivalences of being. Their literature is a contemporary literature, in many ways autobiographical, and therefore on the one hand responding to current topics of public discourse such as gender relations or the complex relations between religion, society, and state, between the individual and the collective. On the other hand, understanding the Jewish experience of “otherness” as a prism, it ultimately goes beyond the problematics of migration and integration and turns to current issues such as the multidimensional relationship between Islam, Judaism, Christendom, and Atheism. 


Early voices         

Writers such as Olga Beshenkovskaia, who made their emigration decision from a position already firmly established in the cultural industry of the Soviet Union, found themselves faced with a twofold question of legitimization. In her fictional diary of 1989, written in Russian, Beshenkovskaia confronts these in a few words, “Why are you here?”[5]

Beshenkovskaia, an intellectual who came from the metropolis of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to the rather quiet city of Stuttgart in the South of Germany, reflected in her diary not only upon her motivation for departing but also upon her arriving in the very country from which the Shoah had originated. Historical turning points such as the Second World War, the Shoah, and the Stalinization and discrimination in the Soviet Union shaped the horizon of experience that her literary examination draws upon as much as they shaped the public perception of her work, at least in the so-called “underground”-culture, yielding the recognition and appreciation that she was long denied in Germany.

Vladimir Vertlib was born in Leningrad in 1966 and, having passed through various places during his migration, arrived in Austria in 1981 where he studied macroeconomics and has been active as a writer and translator since 1993. His significance for Austrian and German-language literature in general can be seen in his affiliation with the Viennese Theodor-Kramer-Gesellschaft für Exilforschung – he is the editor of their periodical “Zwischenwelten” [Illustration 7] – as well as the fact that he was awarded the Dresdner Chamisso-Poetikdozentur in 2006. In 2007, he published a collection of his lectures with the title “Spiegel im fremden Wort. Die Erfindung des Lebens als Literatur” (A Mirror Made of Foreign Words. Inventing Life as Literature).

In his debut novel “Abschiebung” (Deportation) (1995), he lays out the basic conflicts of his creative work, which all deal with placelessness, the search for personal happiness, Jewish-European-Israeli moods and mental states, or the collision of these. The “in-between” is expressed with ironical detachment on the narrative level – in a Jewish-Russian family’s odyssey through the authorities of the American bureaucracy and a child’s hopes that remain unfulfilled. In his novel “Zwischenstationen” (Way Stations) (1999), Vertlib already succinctly describes the vectors of his own in-between or his cultural poly-relatedness:

“I sometimes thought I was in Israel, and then again I was in Russia, until I realized that both were true. The house was a part of Israel and Russia that was located in an alien world called Vienna. There was no doubt: the world was built of a number of boxes that fitted into each other.”[6]

Vertlib’s subsequent novels accentuate in various ways the contiguities of identification, of familiarness and alienness; they take up the intellectual, emotional, and habitual complexity of migration and point to interlaced realms of experience. The novel “Letzter Wunsch” (Last Wish) (2003) was celebrated by Michael Wuliger as a “German-Jewish” novel in the Jüdische Allgemeineand the novel “Das besondere Gedächtnis der Rosa Masur” (The Peculiar Memory of Rosa Masur) (2001) can be read as a “Russian-German-Jewish panorama” in which Vertlib reviews the 20th century in its contradictoriness from the point of view of his protagonist. In the novel “Shimons Schweigen” (Shimon’s Silence) (2012) [Illustration 5], in turn, the protagonist, an Austrian writer on a reading tour in Israel, looks back at his adolescence as a Russian Jew in Vienna and is confronted with the presence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the same time. In a meta-discourse about literature, he pointedly comments on the concept of “truth” at the heart of the conflict between objectivity, subjectivity, and transcendence: “Ever since I kept a journal I knew that the reality of the world was more complex than the reality of facts. In my journal, reality seemed but the barren surface of what I believed to have found out to be the actual truth.”[7]

While analysing Jewishness is pivotal for the majority of Vertlib’s writings, in “Lucia Binar und die russische Seele” (Lucia Binar and the Russian Soul) (2015) [Illustration 6], he turns to new points of reference, namely the city of Vienna and the general question of law and justice. Finally, in “Viktor hilft” (Viktor Helps) (2018) [Illustration 7], he deals with the current daily debate about migration. Against the background of his own experience of migration and integration, and therefore often autobiographical, Vertlib discusses clusters of topics such as language and understanding, foreignness and belonging, and law and justice, and reintegrates them back into the current events of his present. With narrative pleasure, a sense of humour and a note of (self-) mockery he sketches out literature as a space of possibilities for exploration.

Kaminer, who was born in Moscow in 1967 and studied dramaturgy at the prestigious Moscow GITIS, draws different coordinates in his work. While Vertlib in his writings pursues an intellectual self-reflection as a multiple alien (a Russian-born Jew in Austria), Kaminer focuses on a playful communication with the German (reading) public. After the extraordinary resonance of his collection of stories “Russendisko” (Russian Disco) and noticed by a wider public as a writer and also as a DJ, Kaminer accentuates the element of the “other” within the self and – with extraordinary productivity – probes the boundaries of stereotypes and preconceptions. In a charming manner and in popular cultural form, Kaminer explores the heights and depths of migration and integration, employing a variety of genres and indeed favouring the story or the short story such as in “Russendisko” (2000), or “Mein deutsches Dschungelbuch” (My German Jungle Book) (2003) [Illustration 8], and also in a cookbook: “Küche totalitär. Das Kochbuch des Sozialismus” (Totalitarian Cooking. The Cookbook of Socialism) (2006). With works such as “Militärmusik” (Martial Music) (2001), “Schönhauser Allee” (2001), “Reise nach Trulala” (Trip to Trulala) (2002), “Karaoke” (2005), “Salve Papa!” (2008), “Meine kaukasische Schwiegermutter” (My Caucasian Mother-in-Law) (2010), “Diesseits von Eden. Neues aus dem Garten” (On this side of Eden. News from the Garden) (2013), “Goodbye, Moskau. Betrachtungen über Russland” (Goodbye Moscow. Reflections on Russia) (2017) [Illustration 9] and “Ausgerechnet Deutschland. Geschichten unserer neuen Nachbarn” (Germany, of all countries. Stories of our new neighbours) (2018) he consolidated his popularity – not unlike Lev Nussimbaum, the acclaimed Jewish-Russian writer of the Weimar Republic – a popularity which has been catalysed by public appearances in talk shows and in print media such as the taz.  

In his stories, which Kaminer also describes as “coping-with-everyday-life-literary-prose”, the author and narrator not only engages in a rapprochement with places and ways of thinking, but indeed, from a perspective of ironic detachment, makes a comparison between various ways of thinking and behaving, for instance as regards the relation between big cities and provincial areas. Only rarely does he directly discuss Jewishness, chiefly so in the story “Russen in Berlin” (Russians in Berlin), one of the stories in “Russian Disco”, where the narrator contrasts the Halakhic position of the community with a Soviet-style secular understanding of the world. With a humorous twist, Kaminer recasts the confrontations of the individual with different expectations – whether of the Jewish communities, of the Russian culture-in-exile in Berlin, or whether of stocks of its own knowledge and imprintings and conditionings ­ into a practical everyday interpretation of the new “reality”.

Retrospective views, preliminary views, prospective views

In addition to reflections on status, awareness heightened through the personal experience of migration and integration brings forth another aspect in literature: that of social and civic responsibility, as seen for example in critical reflections on and examination of current political events and developments.  

Thus Katja Petrowskaja, born in Kiev in 1970, a writer with a 1998 doctorate from the Moscow Lomonosov-University and based in Berlin since 1999, makes immediate and direct references to the transformation processes in the post-Soviet area in reportages such as “Die Kinder von Orljonok. Von Krasnodar nach Sotschi” (The Children of Orljonok. From Krasnodar to Sochi) of 2009 and “Mein Kiew” (My Kiev) of 2014.[8]

In the latter, she discusses the events at the Kiev Euromaidan and hence the question of where Ukraine ought to orient itself – to Europe or Russia. In the light of the violent confrontation about cultural belonging and national affiliation, she diagnoses a fundamental voicelessness: “I felt that I was hopelessly out of touch with my astonishment, my outdated peace-vocabulary.”[9]

Moreover, she raises the question of Europeanness in the shape of a desire for freedom and autonomy: “I felt sharply and unceasingly that this standing-there-in-the-cold-in-Kiev-on-the-Maidan-for-God-knows-how-long-and-whether-we-can-win was a thousand times more European than us sitting here in the comfort of our parlours in Berlin.”[10]

In her debut novel of 2014, however, “Vielleicht Esther. Geschichten” (Maybe Esther. Stories), for which she was awarded the prestigious Austrian Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize in 2013, Petrowskaja sets out to explore her family history. Along the stories of her relatives, her journey takes her through various times and spaces, forming a mosaic: the present, the time of her childhood in the 1970/80s, the Second World War, the Shoah, the time before 1917 or 1918, i.e. the imperial times of the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. The branches of the family, as well as the references made in the text to Heine, Joyce, or Kafka, point to a dimension of Europeanness that was shaken to its very foundations by the experience of the Shoah: the places where families had lived were turned into places of extermination or wiped off the map. In her description, this is reflected in fragmentariness, including notes, reports, and impressions and often resting upon vague recollections, as in the case where the father of the narrator, the Esther of the title, is trying to remember his grandmother’s name: “I think her name was Esther, my father said. Yes, maybe Esther.”[11], or the inaccessibility of knowledge and experience becomes apparent in reflections about language itself: the first-person narrator does not speak any of the languages of her ancestors, be it Yiddish, Hebrew, or Polish. Besides, she identifies teaching “deaf-mutes” as the primary field of professional activity of some of her ancestors and concludes: “Our Jewishness remained deaf-mute for me and deaf-muteness remained Jewish. This was my history, my ancestry, this was not me.”[12]

The exploration of the family history, along with the search for traces and with the documentation, turns into the first-person narrator’s search for meaning, into an (implicit) negotiation of her own status as a post-Soviet migrant from Kiev in Berlin, as a Jew.

Another writer who takes a critical look at social constellations is Julya Rabinowich, born in Leningrad in 1970. She studied interpreting, translating, and painting in Vienna and has been living there since 1977. In addition to her novels  “Spaltkopf” (Split Head) (2008), “Herznovelle” (Heart Novelette) (2011), “Die Erdfresserin” (The Woman Who Ate Dirt) (2012), “Krötenliebe” (Love of Toads) (2016) and “Dazwischen: Ich” (And In-Between: Me) (2016), her theatre plays as well as her column “Geschüttelt, nicht gerührt” (Shaken, Not Stirred) in the Austrian daily “Der Standard” have made her known to a wider audience.

In her debut novel “Spaltkopf” [Illustration 10], for which she was awarded the Rauriser Literature Prize in 2009, Rabinowich has chosen the emigration of a Jewish-Russian family from Leningrad in the 1970s and their “arrival” in “the West” as central theme. The narrative perspective alternates between that of Mischka, the protagonist, and that of the “Spaltkopf”, an imaginary Russian fairy-tale character that also serves as a memory reservoir. Cross-fading the present and the past into one another puts emphasis on the disruptions and the disillusioning of migration: “Emigration is a protracted process that starts out in a paradox: abruptly, like the outbreak of a disease or the procreation of a child. The emigrant sets out into the world as another Hans in Luck and ends up in an entirely different (fairy)-tale.”[13]

Drawing from her own Jewish experience, Rabinowich makes realities of the universal human condition such as coming of age or the fragility of memory her theme in the novel.

Her subsequent novels, too, deal with universal themes such as fear, love, existential distress. In “Herznovelle” [Illustration 11], the body organ becomes a projection screen where relationships, longing, desire, and loss are negotiated. It becomes a symbolic lyrical character, as is condensed in the motto: “The heart is the centre of everything, he says/ I wonder, what my centre is/ I don’t have any/ he is my centre instead/ I tell him so/ he takes my heart out of my chest/ and shows it to me and says: / This is yours. / And I say: / you may keep this defective specimen for free, on approval.”[14]

The novel “Die Erdfresserin” [Illustration 12], for its part, takes a socially critical look at the “illegal” migration from Eastern Europe: Diana, the protagonist, tries to earn a living for her family in Austria and ultimately fails, poetically embodied in the figure of a female Golem. “Krötenliebe” [Illustration 13], on the other hand, condenses the aspect of transgression in the lives and encounters of Alma Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka und Paul Kammerer: “The triangle of mother, father, and child. Of lovers and spouses. Of birth and death, and of what lies between the two: change”.[15]

“Dazwischen: Ich” traces the emancipation of the girl Madina who has fled with her family from an unspecified war zone – presumably the Bosnia of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – and who with increasing independence asserts herself in the new environment as the voice of her family in dealing with the authorities, at school, and finally in dealing with a handed-down concept of gender roles. Not least due to the poetic quality of her language, Rabinowich ties together matters of universal significance with the specifically Jewish condition. 

The world as a space of action

Guided by other perspectives, those of “post-migration” to be precise, the cognitive and the narrative interest in the literature of authors already socialized in Germany or Austria undergo a change. Informed by a cosmopolitan attitude, their work problematizes the disintegration or internal differentiation of (potential) identities and turns to geo-political and geo-cultural phenomena and conflicts.

Sasha Marianna Salzmann, born in 1985 in Volgograd and raised in Moscow, came to Germany in 1995 together with her parents. They came as “quota refugees”. She studied literature and drama in Hildesheim and Berlin and works today as a playwright, essayist and writer in Berlin. She is also resident author of the Maxim-Gorki-Theater.

In her debut novel “Ausser sich” (Beside Oneself) (2017), not unlike Petrowskaja, she chooses an unreliable narrative authority. The reconstruction of her family history over several generations in the Soviet-Union and Germany is undertaken from the points-of-view of the twins Alissa and Anton, between Moscow, the provincial parts of West Germany, Berlin, and Istanbul. The dissolution of certainties or the creation of one’s own narratives that rely on perceptions and ideas rather than on historical facts develop in the novel with increasing momentum along established categories of identity such as language, religion, and tradition. Thus one relative is characterised in the following way: “She [Valja] spoke in several languages at once, mingling them according to the colour and the taste of her memory into sentences that told a different story from what they were saying, it sounded as if her language was an amorphous compound of everything she was and for what there would never have been room enough in only one version of the story, or one language.”[16]

On a linguistic and textual level there are corresponding references to German as the narrative language, to Russian and Yiddish as handed-down historical-cultural realms, and finally to Turkish as a projection screen for the search for meaning and confrontation. Sometimes the author provides a translation of the Russian insertions, and sometimes she does not, thus denoting relations of distance and closeness, and contouring the aspect of intimacy with language and its meaning for both readers and protagonists. The exploration of opportunities that not least depend on the interplay and counter-play of attributions by others – such as discrimination and social exclusion – and self-attribution – such as the quest for acceptance and autonomous development – proves to be extremely fragile. Salzmann, bound to the (narrative) experience of the stage, playfully and eloquently accentuates names as markers: “She said her name was Katho, Katharina, Katüscha, like the song Выходила на берег Катюша, Katüscha went down to the river.”[17]

Given the unstable gender roles depicted in the novel, the critic Ijoma Mangold speaks of “fluid genders” in the Zeit, (Zeit, nr. 38, 2017), yet the search for identification, for recollection and knowledge, proves to be more fundamental:

“I, too, am lying somewhere on the bed, but I cannot see myself, I have no memories, have an umbilical cord that leads nowhere, have another living being next to me, in the same nothingness, that brushes me lightly, as lightly as a balloon, I hear scraps of what Valja is saying and patch them together with other images from sources for which I cannot guarantee.”[18]

The in-between of eras, cultures, and ideologies mirrors an alienation from the self and its potential opportunities; a social disintegration, viz. emancipation from the social habitus as called for by the German society as well as expected by the Jewish communities, a disintegration as Max Czollek recently described it.[19]

Laconically as well as entertainingly, Salzmann describes the points of reference she raises, such as the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the aspect of gender reassignment, hence sexual identity.

Lena Gorelik, born in Leningrad in 1981, migrated to Germany with her family in 1992 and later studied journalism and East European Studies in Munich. German audiences know her mainly through her numerous novels and her travel stories such as “Meine weißen Nächte” (My White Nights) (2004), “Hochzeit in Jerusalem” (Wedding in Jerusalem) (2007), “Verliebt in Sankt Petersburg. Meine russische Reise” (In Love with St. Petersburg. My Russian Journey) (2008), “Die Listensammlerin” (The List Collector) (2013), “Null bis unendlich” (Zero to Infinite) (2015) and “Unter dem Baumhaus” (Under the Tree House) (2016). However, in other media Gorelik also comments on current political and societal discourses, for instance in the documentary “Die Judenschublade – Junge Juden in Deutschland” (The Jewish Pigeonhole – Young Jews in Germany) (together with Margarethe Mehring-Fuchs, Larissa Weber; 2011) and in her photo documentary about an Albanian refugee girl “Syartas Reise. Menschen im Kirchenasyl” (Syarta’s Journey. People in Sanctuary) (together with Andreas Tobias, Sabine Böhlau; 2017).

“Meine weißen Nächte”, an allusion to the white nights in summer in St. Petersburg, deals with the process of arriving in Germany from the point of view of the first-person narrator Anja. Her integration into everyday life, involving cultural translation processes, discloses the ambivalences of any quest for meaning, for instance when Anja describes her brother: “My brother is not really a Buddhist. Just as little as he has ever been an orthodox Jew. Or a Jewish Christian. Or a philosopher. Or a development aid worker. He is simply an immigrant who is looking for his spiritual home. I am not sharing this insight of depth psychology with him, though.”[20]

Along with these reflections on identity, Gorelik points to a further aspect of the Jewish diaspora, that of the relations between different Jewries. “The American Russians were arguing all day with the German Russians whether America or Germany was the better country to live in, while Israeli immigrants blamed both sides for not having emigrated to their true Jewish home country, and the real Russians who still lived in Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kiev were trying to prove that life in the old home country had become really wonderful in the meantime.”[21] The debate on interpretive authority extends beyond regional contexts and touches on the (self-) concept of being Jewish per se.

Whereas the protagonists’ search for meaning in Gorelik’s novel takes place mainly in Germany, in Dmitrij Kapitelman’s novel “Das Lächeln meines unsichtbaren Vaters” (My Invisible Father’s Smile) (2016) [Illustration 14], father and son set out on a journey to Israel. Kapitelman, born in Kiev in 1986, came to Germany at the age of eight, later studied sociology in Leipzig, and now lives in Berlin as a journalist. His debut novel also sheds light on the conflict of having a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

Olga Grjasnowa was born in 1984 in Baku (Azerbaijan), and in 1996 came to Germany with her parents. She studied in Göttingen, at the German Institute for Literature in Leipzig, and finally at the Free University of Berlin. Grjasnowa has so far presented herself to a wider public with her three novels „Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt” (A Russian Loves His Birch Trees) (2012) [Illustration 15], “Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe” (The Juridical Vagueness of a Marriage) (2014) and “Gott ist nicht schüchtern” (God Is Not Timid) (2017).

Her first novel “Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt”, favourably received by the critics, is about the life of a young interpreter, Maria Kogan. Unsettled by both present and past experiences she has to face the challenging question: “Wo willst du hin?” (Where Do You Want To Go?).[22]

The death of her friend Elias brings her to her physical as well as her mental limits, while the flashbacks to Baku bring up the excessive violence during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Mount Karabagh. She then leaves Frankfurt/Main, where she had been living and comparing her experience with that of her Turkish best friend Cem – “Wir sprachen deutsch miteinander, wie zwei perfekt integrierte Vorzeigeausländer.” (We spoke German with each other, like two perfectly integrated model-foreigners)[23], for Israel to work there as an interpreter for a foundation. While in Frankfurt she occasionally met with xenophobic resentments, now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is omnipresent. Death, loss, grieving, and depression accompany Kogan on her way towards becoming aware of her (multiple) belonging. Language appears as a central motif: who speaks how with what accent, also how language and physicality are connected; Kogan, by the way, does not know Hebrew. Between the languages and her aspirations, however, her fathoming finds no resolution.

Also in her succeeding novel “Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe” Grjasnowa focuses on oscillating identity formations, whether in terms of sexual orientation or relating to “Occident” and “Orient”. Loyal to the concept of committed literature, she finally addresses the Syrian war after the failure of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the refugee question in “Gott ist nicht schüchtern”. Quoting the American-Jewish singer-songwriter Daniel Kahn who lives in Berlin, the motto Grjasnowa has chosen to preface her novel is programmatic: “Freedom is a Verb”.


Literature as an intercultural realm of experience and resonance

The German-language literature of Jewish writers from the (former) Soviet Union proves productive as well as multi-faceted. Since the 1990s it has undergone an expansion that is reflected both in its abundance of topics, different poetics, and references, and finally in its presence in the wider public and its impact. It is an intercultural literature that partakes of various domains of knowledge and experience and in such way contributes nuance to and re-negotiates repeatedly the question as to what being Jewish means. The epistemic interest of the authors is guided by their respective horizon of experience and changes in the context of general societal change and individual experience and background. Coming to terms with one’s own identity remains the primary stimulus, however, even though it sometimes appears in a form that transcends empirical evidence. The individual autobiographical search for meaning that often crosses (apparent) boundaries of regions, languages, discourses et cetera, turns literature into a transfer zone, playing the part of an intermediary instance.

Its thematisation of memory, transgenerational traumata, stances on the Shoah, and elements of the conditio humana such as love, loss, or the desire for recognition, as well as the look it takes on Germany, Austria, the (former) Soviet Union and its successor states, on Israel, and the United States are what identifies this literature as a literature of encounters in Europe and the world.



[1] Kaminer, Wladimir, Russian Disco, London 2002, Translation by Michael Hulse, p. 13.

[2] As to the procedure, cf. Kessler, Judith, Zeittafel zur russisch-jüdischen Zuwanderung nach Deutschland in: Belkin, Dmitrij, Raphael Gross (Ed.), Ausgerechnet Deutschland. Jüdisch-russische Einwanderung in die Bundesrepublik, Berlin 2010, p. 176-177.

[3] Cf. Ro’I, Yaacov (Ed.), The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, Baltimore 2012.

[4] Cf. Terpitz, Olaf, “Zwischen den Zeiten”. Russisch-jüdische Schriftsteller in Deutschland, in: Schoenborn, Susanne (Ed.), Zwischen Erinnerung und Neubeginn. Zur Deutsch-Jüdischen Geschichte nach 1945, München 2006, p. 232-249. For Beschenkowskaja cf. her bilingual Lyric volume Zwei Sprachen – Zwei Farben. Gedichte, 1997. For Jurjew cf. his novels: Halbinsel Judatin (german translation 1999, russian 2000 "Poluostrov Židjatin"), Der neue Golem oder Der Krieg der Kinder und Greise. Roman in fünf Satiren (german translation 2003, russian 2004 “Novyj Golem, ili Vojna starikov i detej”).

[5] Bešenkovskaja, Olga, Viehwasen 22. Dnevnik serditogo èmigranta [Viehwasen 22. Diary of a angry emigrant], in: Oktjabr’ 1998 (7), p. 8-64, 13 (“Зачем ты здесь?”) [“Why are you here?”].

[6] “Ich dachte manchmal, ich sei in Israel, dann wieder, ich sei in Rußland, bis ich verstand, daß da beides stimmte. Das Haus war ein Teil Israels und Rußlands, der sich in einer fremden Welt namens Wien befand. Keine Frage: die Welt war wie eine Anzahl von Schachteln aufgebaut, die ineinanderpaßten.” Vertlib, Vladimir, Zwischenstationen, Wien 1999, p. 31.

[7] “Seit ich Tagebuch führe, wusste ich, dass die Realität der Welt vielschichtiger war als die Realität der Fakten. In meinem Tagebuch erschien mir die Wirklichkeit als karge Oberfläche dessen, was ich als eigentliche Wahrheit zu erkennen glaubte.” Vertlib, Vladimir, Shimons Schweigen, Wien 2012, p. 125.

[8] Petrowskaja, Katja, Die Kinder von Orljonok. Von Krasnodar nach Sotschi, in: Raabe, Katharina, Monika Sznajderman (Ed.), Odessa Transfer. Nachrichten vom Schwarzen Meer. With a photo essay by Andrzej Kramarz. Frankfurt/Main 2009, p. 220-241; Petrowskaja, Katja, Mein Kiew, in: Andruchowytsch, Juri, Jevhenija Markivna Bjelorusecʹ (Ed.), Euromaidan. Was in der Ukraine auf dem Spiel steht. With a photo essay by Yevgenia Belorusets. Berlin 2014, p. 39-49.

[9] “Ich spürte, dass ich hoffnungslos zurückgeblieben war mit meinem Staunen, mit meinem altmodischen Friedens-Wortschatz.” Petrowskaja 2009, p. 41.

[10] “[i]ch spürte scharf und unaufhörlich, dass dieses In-der-Kälte-dort-in-Kiew-auf-dem-Maidan-Stehen-Gott-weiß-wie-lange-und-ob-wir-gewinnen tausendmal europäischer war als unser Sitzen in den warmen Berliner Stuben.” Ibid., p. 45.

[11] “Ich glaube, sie hieß Esther, sagte mein Vater. Ja, vielleicht Esther.” Petrowskaja, Katja, Vielleicht Esther, Berlin 2014, p. 209.

[12] “Unser Judentum blieb für mich taubstumm und die Taubstummheit jüdisch. Das war meine Geschichte, meine Herkunft, das war nicht ich.” Ibid., p. 51.

[13] "Die Emigration ist ein langwieriger Prozess, der widersprüchlich, nämlich abrupt, beginnt, wie der Ausbruch einer Krankheit oder die Zeugung eines Kindes. Der Emigrant bricht auf, als Hans im Glück in die Welt zu ziehen, und landet in einem ganz anderen Märchen.” Rabinowich, Julya, Spaltkopf, Wien 2011, p. 39.

[14] “Das Herz ist das Zentrum von allem, sagt er/ ich frage mich, was mein Zentrum ist/ ich habe keines/ er ist stellvertretend mein Zentrum/ ich sage es ihm/ er nimmt das Herz aus meiner Brust/ und zeigt es mir und sagt:/ Das gehört Ihnen./ Und ich sage:/ Das Mängelexemplar können Sie gratis zur/ Ansicht behalten.” Rabinowich, Julya, Herznovelle, Wien 2011.

[15] “Das Dreieck von Mutter, Vater und Kind. Von Geliebten und Eheleuten. Von Geburt und Tod und dem, was dazwischen liegt: Veränderung.” Rabinowich, Julya, Krötenliebe, Wien 2016, p. 7.

[16] “Sie [Valja] sprach in mehreren Sprachen gleichzeitig, mischte sie je nach Farbe und Geschmack der Erinnerung zu Sätzen zusammen, die etwas anderes erzählten als ihren Inhalt, es klang, als wäre ihre Sprache ein amorphes Gemisch aus all dem, was sie war und was niemals nur in einer Version der Geschichte, in einer Sprache Platz gefunden hätte.” Salzmann, Sasha Marianna, Ausser sich, Berlin 2017, p. 258.

[17] “Sie sagte, ihr Name sei Katho, Katharina, Katüscha, wie das Lied Выходила на берег Катюша, Katüscha ging an das Flussufer.” Ibid., p. 40.

[18] “Ich liege auch irgendwo da auf dem Bett, aber ich kann mich nicht sehen, ich habe keine Erinnerungen, habe eine Nabelschnur, die ins Nichts führt, habe ein anderes Lebewesen neben mir, in demselben Nichts, das mich streift, leicht wie ein Luftballon, höre Fetzen von dem, was Valja sagt, und bringe sie zusammen mit anderen Bildern aus Quellen, für die ich nicht bürgen kann.” Ibid., p. 86.

[19] Czollek, Max, Desintegriert euch! [Disintegrate yourself!], München 2018.

[20] “Mein Bruder ist nicht wirklich Buddhist. Genausowenig wie er wirklich ein orthodoxer Jude war. Oder ein jüdischer Christ. Oder ein Philosoph. Oder ein Entwicklungshelfer. Er ist einfach ein Einwanderer, der nach einer geistigen Heimat sucht. Aber diese tiefenpsychologische Erkenntnis teile ich ihm nicht mit.” Gorelik, Lena, Meine weißen Nächte, München 2004, p. 41.

[21] “Die amerikanischen Russen stritten sich den ganzen Tag mit den deutschen Russen darüber, ob Amerika oder Deutschland das bessere Land zum Leben ist, während die israelischen Emigranten beide Seiten beschuldigten, nicht in die wahre jüdische Heimat ausgewandert zu sein, und die echten Russen, die immer noch in Moskau, Sankt Petersburg oder Kiew leben, zu beweisen versuchten, daß das Leben in der alten Heimat mittlerweile ganz wunderbar sei.” Ibid., p. 196.

[22] Grjasnowa, Olga, Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, München 2012, p. 268.

[23] Ibid., p. 57.


Primary literature

Bešenkovskaja, Olga, Viehwasen 22. Dnevnik serditogo èmigranta [Viehwasen 22. Tagebuch eines zornigen Emigranten], in: Oktjabr’ 1998 (7), p. 8-64.

Beschenkowskaja, Olga, Zwei Sprachen – Zwei Farben. Gedichte, Wilhelmshorst 1997.

Czollek, Max,Desintegriert euch!“, München 2018.

Gorelik, Lena, Meine weißen Nächte, München 2004.

Grjasnowa, Olga, Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, München 2012.

Jurjew, Oleg, Halbinsel Judatin, Berlin 1999.

Jurjew, Oleg, Der neue Golem oder Der Krieg der Kinder und Greise. Roman in fünf Satiren, Frankfurt/Main 2003.

Kaminer, Wladimir, Russian Disco, London, 2002.

Petrowskaja, Katja, Die Kinder von Orljonok. Von Krasnodar nach Sotschi, in: Raabe, Katharina, Monika Sznajderman (Ed.), Odessa Transfer. Nachrichten vom Schwarzen Meer, Frankfurt/Main 2009, p. 220-241.

Petrowskaja, Katja, Mein Kiew, in: Andruchowytsch, Juri, Jevhenija Markivna Bjelorusecʹ (Ed.), Euromaidan. Was in der Ukraine auf dem Spiel steht, Berlin 2014, p. 39-49.

Petrowskaja, Katja, Vielleicht Esther, Berlin 2014.

Rabinowich, Julya, Herznovelle, Wien 2011.

Rabinowich, Julya, Krötenliebe, Wien 2016.

Rabinowich, Julya, Spaltkopf, Wien 2011.

Salzmann, Sasha Marianna, Ausser sich, Berlin 2017.

Vertlib, Vladimir, Shimons Schweigen, Wien 2012.

Vertlib, Vladimir, Zwischenstationen, Wien 1999.


Secondary literature

Kessler, Judith, Zeittafel zur russisch-jüdischen Zuwanderung nach Deutschland, in: Belkin, Dmitrij, Raphael Gross (Ed.), Ausgerechnet Deutschland. Jüdisch-russische Einwanderung in die Bundesrepublik, Berlin 2010, S. 176-177.

Ro’I, Yaacov (Ed.), The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, Baltimore 2012.

Terpitz, Olaf, „Zwischen den Zeiten“. Russisch-jüdische Schriftsteller in Deutschland, in: Schoenborn, Susanne (Ed.), Zwischen Erinnerung und Neubeginn. Zur Deutsch-Jüdischen Geschichte nach 1945, München 2006, S. 232-249.


Further literature

Mevissen, Sofie Friederike, Ruslanddeutsche Literatur, 29.10.2018.


PD Dr Olaf Terpitz

Published on 25 August 2020