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Book Launch for Sarah Cramsey’s Uprooting the Diaspora

On September 20, the Austria Centre Leiden and the Leiden Jewish Studies Association convened a panel to celebrate the launch of Prof. dr. Sarah A. Cramsey’s new book Uprooting the Diaspora: Jewish Belonging and the “Ethnic Revolution” in Poland and Czechoslovakia, 1936-1946.

The book was published by the Modern Jewish Experience Series at Indiana University Press in 2023. Dr. Corey Williams, Programme Chair of Religious Studies, hosted the event which included comments from Dr. Rebekka Grossmann (Leiden University Institute for History), Dr. Kate Brackney (Leiden University Institute for History) and Prof. dr. Ismee Tames (Utrecht University and NIOD). More than 70 people attended this event and the reception following it including representatives from the Austrian Embassy in The Hague, from the Czech Embassy in The Hague and the Czech Cultural Centre in Rotterdam. 

Cramsey’s book explores how the Jewish citizens rooted in interwar Poland and Czechoslovakia became the ideal citizenry for a post–World War II Jewish state in the Middle East. She asks, how did new interpretations of Jewish belonging emerge and gain support amongst Jewish and non-Jewish decision makers exiled from wartime east central Europe and the powerbrokers surrounding them?  
Usually, the creation of the State of Israel is cast as a story that begins with Herzl and is brought to fulfillment by the Holocaust. To reframe this trajectory, Cramsey draws on a vast array of historical sources to examine what she calls a “transnational conversation” carried out by a small but influential coterie of Allied statesmen, diplomats in international organizations, and Jewish leaders who decided that the overall disentangling of populations in postwar east central Europe demanded the simultaneous intellectual and logistical embrace of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as a territorial nationalist project.  

Uprooting the Diaspora slows down the chronology between 1936 and 1946 to show how individuals once invested in multi-ethnic visions of diasporic Jewishness within east central Europe came to define Jewishness primarily in ethnic terms. This revolution in thinking about Jewish belonging combined with a sweeping change in international norms related to population transfers and accelerated, deliberate postwar work on the ground in the region to further uproot Czechoslovak and Polish Jews from their prewar homes.  

The invited panelists had much to say about Cramsey’s book. Brackney, a historian whose own research explores how aesthetic norms have developed for remembering the Holocaust and other genocides, noted that Cramsey used a unique collection of documents from  “various officials and advocates from United Nation’s Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the Czech government-in-exile, and the World Jewish Congress" to “illuminate the complex international and institutional backdrop that made emigration” away from Europe an option for European Jews after the Second World War and the Holocaust. According to Brackney, Cramsey’s work shows that the “motivations of these officials weren’t just humanitarian, though. By the end of 1946, what Hitler initially starts is a project that the Allies, returned governments-in-exile, and Soviets are determined to finish: that is, a radical re-organization of East Central Europe through massive population transfers, which engineer a new map of homogenous nation states.”  

Grossmann, a historian of migration and the unique visual culture attached to it, delivered an eloquent review of Cramsey’s book. Commenting on the pictures, the style and the emotion in the text, Grossmann noted that Cramsey had successfully found “a balance between the meticulous political history of small and large-scale decision-making and the way these decisions shaped the situation for Jews in Europe, in exile, and in transit.” Cramsey’s book is not just “another addition to political portraits of those who tackled the question of whether the existence of a Jewish State could exist alongside a Jewish advocation for minority rights.” For Grossmann, the protagonists of Uprooting the Diaspora “help us to understand a history that was both regional and transnational at the same time, a history that occurred in places like Warsaw or the Czech border town of Nachod just as much as it did in Geneva, New York, or London. It is therefore a perfect example of how to show that microhistories can be written as global history and that global history has much to contribute to local histories. What is needed to write such a history is a large number of sources illuminating both what happened on the ground and the decisions that were made far away from it.” Cramsey’s excellent array of sources (in Polish, Czech, German, English and Yiddish) from archives across three continents enabled an understanding of “the local implications of global decisions and the ways local histories shaped global history in return.”  

Finally, Tames situated Cramsey’s work more broadly, ending her comments with a profound statement. Uprooting the Diaspora reveals the “violence” embedded in the ethnic and national categories that were created in the 1940s and continue to be utilized today. There was “violence”, Tames observed, in the act of category creation itself.  Cramsey responded to questions from the panelists and all responded to questions from the audience which included more than 30 B.A. and M.A. students from Religious Studies and History.

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