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The kids on Oberlin Street: place, space and Jewish community in late interwar Strasbourg

  • ERIN CORBER (a1)

In the spring of 1938, Strasbourg's Jewish youth organizations inaugurated the Merkaz Ha’Noar, the community's first Jewish youth centre, which aimed to provide a safe, healthy and controlled environment for the development of young Jews in a rapidly transforming city on the border between France and Germany. The centre offered a unique location from which to reimagine Jewish and French history on the eve of World War II, and illustrates the power of the built environment of the city and its physical structures to forge new kinds of communities, identities and politics.

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1 I am indebted to Jean Daltroff for having introduced me to the history of the Merkaz and to the fascinating local history of the Jewish community in Strasbourg.

2 Guedj, J., ‘Les Juifs français face aux Juifs étrangers dans la France de l’entre-deux-guerres’, Migration et religion en France, 78 (2009), 4373 .

3 In his recent book, Bernard Wasserstein overturns the idea of a lost golden age of Jewry by arguing interwar European Jewish community and identity were in a state of decay, which facilitated antisemitic persecution and the destruction of Jewish civilization during the Holocaust. See On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War (New York, 2012).

4 See Hazan, K., ‘Le sport à l’OSE avant, pendant, et après la guerre’, Les cahiers du judaïsme, 21 (2007), 2636 ; Michel, V., ‘L’action médico-social à Paris dans les années trente’, Archives juives, 39 (2006), 111–24; also see Hazan, K., ‘Le sauvetage des enfants juifs de France vers les Amériques, 1933–1947’, in Harter, H. (ed.), Terres promises: mélanges offerts à André Kaspi (Paris, 2008).

5 The UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France), the French-Jewish council created by German law in 1941 to provide aid and assistance for Jews, and dominated by the existing French Jewish community leadership, have been compared to the Jewish councils in German-occupied Poland, who were charged with administering the everyday life of their respective Jewish communities, and whose survival depended on various degrees of collaboration with the Nazi authorities. In France, resistance to Nazi requirements was often met with arrest and deportation, yet UGIF members were able to manoeuvre in resistance activities and networks in the southern zone with slightly more ease until its dissolution in 1944. See Rajsfus, M., Sois juif et tais-toi!: 1930–1940; les français israélites face au Nazisme (Paris, 1981).

6 Cohen, E.S. and Cohen, T.V., ‘Open and shut: the social meanings of the Cinquecento Roman house’, Studies in the Decorative Arts, 9 (2001–02), 6184 .

7 Magnússon, S.G. and Szijártó, I.M., What is Microhistory? Theory and Practice (London, 2013). Early modern European historians have undoubtedly made an enormous impact on the terms of the debate and the practices of microhistory. Among this foundational work, Ginzburg, C., The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. J. Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980); Davis, N. Zemon, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA, 1983). For more on the debate over microhistory, see Ginzburg, C., ‘Microhistory: two or three things that I know about it’, Critical Inquiry, 20 (1993), 1035 .

8 Kostof, S., The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History (New York, 1991), 16 .

9 Lazare, L., Rescue as Resistance: How Jewish Organizations Fought the Holocaust in France (New York, 1996). Lazare, born in Strasbourg in 1924, grew up in nearby Metz. After the evacuation of Alsace, his family relocated to the south, where he joined the ‘Sixième’ Resistance network from Lyon, and went on to join the ÉIF's armed wing of resistance. For more on Jewish youth and resistance under Vichy, see Lee, D., Pétain's Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940–1942 (Oxford, 2014); Latour, A., La resistance juive en France, 1940–1944 (Paris, 1970).

10 Lazare's recent autobiography paints a full picture of the upheaval of evacuation from the eastern French provinces (albeit not from Strasbourg), and the relative ease with which ÉIF units and other youth movement participants reconvened in the south and became involved in rescue and resistance projects during the war. See Lazare, L., Le tapissier de Jérusalem: mémoires (Paris, 2015).

11 Lazare, Rescue as Resistance, 54. Alsatian Jewish migration to the southern zone after 1939 has also been of interest to public historians and archivists in the French provinces. A recent archival exhibition project by the Archives départementales de la Dordogne tracks Jewish life in the region after the evacuation of Strasbourg and the Bas-Rhin in 1939, after which thousands of Alsatian Jews migrated into towns and cities in the southern zone, reconstituting Jewish social, religious and cultural institutions. See Reviriego, Bernard, Les Juifs en Dordogne, 1939–1944 (Périgueux, 2003).

12 Garrioch, D., The Making of Revolutionary Paris (Berkeley, 2004), 7 .

13 These characterizations are prevalent in studies critiquing the established Parisian Jewish community for not protecting their vulnerable immigrant coreligionists from deportation. A well-known example of this argument is Rajsfus, Sois juif.

14 Kohn, M., Radical Space: Building the House of the People (Ithaca, 2003).

15 de Certeau, M., The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1988), 117 ; Benjamin, W., The Arcades Project, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 421–2.

16 Interview with ancienne Éclaireuse israélite de France, Franceline Bloch, 15 Mar. 2011 (author's own collection).

17 See Pary, J., ‘Ou va la jeunesse juive?’, Le journal juif, Paris (15 Feb. 1935). The author documents the fierce tensions at a meeting called by a ‘private group’ to create a Federation of Jewish Youth Societies in Paris to create a united front against rising antisemitism during the refugee crisis. However, representatives displayed no unity around the table; Zionists launched nationalist attacks on the leftist-socialists’ internationalism and centrists’ moderate Judaism. All three attacked ‘right-wing’ conservatives, who in turn castigated their non-religious brothers for dismissing the Hebrew Bible, which ‘talked about social justice even before the clubs of Belleville!’ The meeting was disastrous, a clear indication of the deep religious, political, ethnic and class-based fissures existing among Paris’ diverse Jewish community, characterized by Weinberg as ‘one of confusion, duplication, and atomization’. For more on the drive to unite the Parisian Jewish community, and the obstacles involved in this project, see Weinberg, D., A Community on Trial: The Jews of Paris in the 1930s (Chicago, 1977). Turkish Sephardic Jewish migrants to Paris were largely excluded from this project.

18 After the Franco-Prussian war, Alsace-Lorraine was annexed to Germany as part of its Imperial territory by the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871).

19 See Goodfellow, S., Between the Swastika and the Cross of Lorraine: Fascisms in Interwar Alsace (De Kalb, 1999).

20 See Dreyfus, J.-M., ‘Alsace-Lorraine’, in Grüner, W. and Osterloh, J. (eds.), The Greater German Reich and the Jews (New York, 2015).

21 Letter from Sauvegarde Commerciale Messine to préfet de la Moselle, 22 Jan. 1935, Dossier Ligue Contre l’Antisemitisme, Archives departementales de la Moselle, 301 M 73.

22 Strasbourg was a curiosity to its visitors, the guide noted, in its ‘narrow, irregular streets. . .where one can still encounter a number of beautiful Renaissance buildings, pretty homes made of wood. . .and even those strange habitations with floors above reaching out and touching one another as if to prevent the light the street below them’. See Molieri, , Itinéraire du chemin de fer de Paris à Strasbourg (Paris, 1853), 134–5.

23 In spite of being prohibited from residing in Strasbourg in the early modern period, Jews still participated in social, legal and economic life in the city while living in surrounding towns and villages. See Kaplan, D., Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg (Stanford, 2011).

24 While on the level of national public discourse, emancipation was meant to liberate Jews from their traditions and ‘self-governing enclaves’ that had characterized Jewish life under the Old Régime, Alsatian Jews were resistant to manipulation yet also ‘adapted their religious traditions to bourgeois standards’, creating new models of Jewish culture. Hyman, P., The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, 1991), 89, 155.

25 In 1808, there were 1,476 Jews living in Strasbourg, but by 1863, Strasbourg's Jewish population had grown to over 2,800, 3.4 per cent of the total urban population, making Strasbourg the second largest Jewish community in France, after Paris. Hyman, Emancipation, 96.

26 See Caron, V., Between France and Germany: The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, 1871–1918 (Stanford, 1988), 168 . See figures for the larger regional trends in Benbassa, E., The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present (Princeton, 2001). For more on Alsatian Jewish migration outside of France, see Bloch-Raymond, A., ‘Mercy on rude streams: Jewish emigrants from Alsace-Lorraine to the Lower Mississippi Region and the concept of fidelity’, Southern Jewish History, 2 (1999), 180202 .

27 Schnurmann, E., La population juive en Alsace (Paris, 1936).

28 Schnurrmann's description of the socio-economic homogeneity of Strasbourg's Jewish community in the early 1930s starkly contrasted with the case in Paris, home to a rapidly expanding, ethnically diverse and highly socially stratified Jewish community, largely a result of its position as the primary spot for immigration from as early as the 1880s. In contrast, Strasbourg was home to just a handful of working-class Jews and, making connections between class and criminal activity, calculated an even lower incidence of ‘Jewish’ crime.

29 See Kahane, R., The Origins of Postmodern Youth: Informal Youth Movements in a Comparative Perspective (Berlin, 1997).

30 Editorial, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 13 Mar. 1936. This observation was not unprecedented. In 1935, the Tribune juive published a scathing critique of Strasbourg's Jewish scouting movement for its apparent lack of interest in developing Judaic education among its leaders, a problem which translated to a disinterest in developing a ‘solid religious instruction’ among youth in general.

31 ‘Programme du centre de la jeunesse’, ‘Bulletin de la Jeunesse Juive’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 20 May 1938.

32 Andrée Salomon, one of the key Jewish Resistance figures in the Oeuvre au secours des enfants and child rescue operations, was a lawyer's secretary in Strasbourg in the interwar period, and active in Jewish aid programmes for German refugees. In her memoirs, she wrote: ‘we had always known foreigners in Strasbourg, especially from the east’. The Polish Jewish community operated almost completely separately from the established Alsatian community, managed its own house of worship, appointed its own rabbis, etc. See Salomon, with Hazan, K. and Weill, G., Andrée Salomon, une femme de lumière (Paris, 2011), 80–1.

33 For more on German Jews in Alsace during these years, see Vincler, J., Communautés juives en péril: Alsace-Lorraine, 1933–1939 (Metz, 2010), 43–4; and see the definitive work on France and the refugee crisis, V. Caron, Uneasy Asylum: France and the Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942 (Stanford, 1999).

34 Kevin Lynch's sharp observation that ‘city forms, their actual function, and the ideas and values that people attach to them make up a single phenomenon’, wholly applies to understanding the unique quality of Jewish public life in Strasbourg. Lynch, K., Good City Form (Cambridge, MA, 1984), 36 .

35 Even as Parisian Jews became upwardly mobile and moved into other districts, the Pletzl remained a Jewish quarter. Interwar Belleville and Montmartre were populated by similarly dense clusters of immigrant Jews settling in the vicinity of work in textile and clothing workshops, and consequently developed strong cultural and political networks to cope with and combat broader economic and social crisis. For more on Paris’ Jewish workers at the turn of the century, see Green, N., The Pletzl of Paris: Jewish Immigrant Workers in the Belle Epoque (New York, 1986).

36 While Paris’ Grande Synagogue was built rather inconspicuously onto a narrow side street rather than a main thoroughfare, the Strasbourg synagogue was visible from most angles of the city from both sides of the river Ill. See Snyder, S.C., Building a Public Judaism: Synagogues and Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, 2013), and Daltroff, J., 1898–1940: la synagogue consistoriale de Strasbourg (Strasbourg, 1996).

37 Beyer, A., ‘Strasbourg, entre France et Allemagne. Structure urbaine et symboliques de la dualité frontalière’, Revue géographique de l’est [online], 47/2 (2007), put online 1 Apr. 2007, consulted 12 Jun. 2015,

38 For more on the migration of Alsatians, see Wahl, A., L’option et l’emigration des Alsaciens-Lorrains, 1871–1872 (Paris, 1972). On the debates about Alsatian regional identity between France and Germany before World War I, see Fischer, C., Alsace to the Alsatians? Visions and Divisions of Alsatian Regionalism, 1870–1939 (New York, 2010), 2052 . Igersheim, François, ‘La fabrication de la ville modern: Strasbourg, 1850–2000’, in L’urbanisme à Strasbourg au XXe siècle: Actes des conférences organisées dans le cadre des 100 ans de la cité-jardin du Stockfeld (Strasbourg, 2011).

39 At the turn of the century, most Jews resided near the new synagogue on Quai Kléber; 25% had homes near the old consistorial synagogue on rue Sainte Hélène, and another 25% settled around the independent synagogue on rue Kaganeck. In 1910, many Jewish homes and businesses were located in the Neustadt, ‘with 22 percent of the city's Jews living in district E3 (the area around the Kaiserpalast) alone’. Steinhoff, A., The Gods of the City: Protestantism and Religious Culture in Strasbourg, 1870–1914 (Leiden, 2008), 112–14.

40 See Weinberg, A Community on Trial. Also see Malinovich, N., French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth-Century France (Oxford, 2008); also Hyman, P., The Jews of Modern France (Berkeley, 1998).

41 Dr H. Muller, ‘Les organisations de jeunesse Juive à Strasbourg’, Tribune juive, 12 Jan. 1934.

42 ‘Histahdrout Ha’Noar Ha’Ivri Ha’Tikwah’, in ibid.

43 ‘Appel aux membres de la communauté israélite de Strasbourg’, Tribune juive, 13 Jan. 1933.

44 Bronner, S.J. (ed.), Jews at Home: The Domestication of Identity (Oxford, 2010). The home also plays an important role in the study of gender in the modern period. See Hyman, P., Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representations of Women (Seattle, 1995). Also see Neumann, B., Land and Desire in Early Zionism (Lebanon, NH, 2011).

45 Dr Muller, ‘Les organisations de jeunesse Juive à Strasbourg’, criticized Strasbourg's Orthodox Jewish youth movement for not seeking to ‘radiate’ beyond their group, or to get involved other milieux of Jewish life.

46 ‘Les voeux de la jeunesse de Strasbourg’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 12 Jan. 1934.

47 Daltroff, J.L’inauguration du “Merkaz”, le centre de la jeunesse juive de Strasbourg’, in L’Almanach du KKL (Strasbourg, 2011–12).

48 ‘La maison de la jeunesse Juive à Strasbourg’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 1 Apr. 1938.

49 Archives municipales de Strasbourg, Dossiers de la police du bâtiment, 233 MW 1675.

50 Kohn, Radical Space, 25.

51 ‘Discours du Dr. Joseph Weill’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 27 May 1938.

52 ‘La charte du centre’, ‘Bulletin de la Jeunesse Juive’, insert in Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 20 May 1938.

53 ‘Hinoukh habayit’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 7 May 1938.

54 Kohn, Radical Space, 67.

55 See, for instance, ‘L’office de la jeunesse aux yeux des quatre enfants de l’aggada’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 15 Apr. 1938. Also see the centre's schedule published in the Tribune juive on 28 May 1938, which lists a Zionist lecture, musical evenings, literary meetings, a theatrical performance and more.

56 Henri Lefebvre's distinction between dominated and appropriated spaces can help us think about how the Merkaz operated. L’urbanisme aujourd’hui: mythes et réalités – débat entre Henri Lefèbvre, Jean Balladur, Michel Écochard (Paris, 1967).

57 In 1930, the Alsatian provinces comprised one quarter of national ÉIF enrolment. Fuchs, J., Toujours Prêts! Scoutismes et mouvements de jeunesse en Alsace, 1918–1970 (Strasbourg, 2007), 58 .

58 R. Gamzon, ‘Avodah (Construire)’, Message du Commissaire National, ÉIF, Dec. 1934, referenced in Gamzon's biography, Pougatch, I., Un bâtisseur, Robert Gamzon: dit ‘Castor soucieux’, 1905–1961 (Paris, 1971). The totem of ÉIF founder and chief Robert Gamzon was the beaver, and his lifelong interest in engineering shaped the scouting programme.

59 See, for instance, the series of stories printed in a Parisian Jewish youth magazine in the mid-1930s, in which the main serialized character, Eliacin, describes his transformation into a French Jewish boy scout. He learns the salutes, totems and songs, acquires a uniform; he learns the knots, how to cook a full breakfast and he repairs ‘the little shelf (in the locale) with nails and an old thread spool’. ‘Eliacin devient scout’, in Eliacin (Paris, 1932), 10.

60 R. Winter, ‘Bouclier’, field journal from 1938, private collection of Meyer-Moog family (Strasbourg).

61 As early as 1927, Hatikwah, one of Strasbourg's early Jewish youth hiking groups, was articulating a desire to ‘model and sustain a new Jewish milieu’ for the regeneration of the city's Jewish life. See ‘Kadimah, publié par Hatikwah, Société d’excursion de la jeunesse de Strasbourg’ (Strasbourg, May–Jun. 1927), Bibliothèque nationale de la France JO-83627.

62 ‘Le retour des camps’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 2 Sep. 1938.

63 ‘Ce que sera la grande foire kermesse que toutes les associations de jeunesse juive de Strasbourg organisent en commun. . .’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 11 Mar. 1938.

64 ‘Nouvelles locales: les deux journées de la jeunesse juive’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 14 Jul. 1939.

65 ‘Dans les départements: Cercle d’études de Mulhouse’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 10 Jun. 1938. For more on René Hirschler, his career and his milieu prior to the outbreak of World War II, see Corber, E., ‘Men of thought, men of action: the Great War, masculinity, and the modernization of the French rabbinate’, Jewish Culture and History, 14 (2013), 3351 .

66 The Tribune juive reported that in his speech, Cohn fused religious, nationalist, patriotic rhetoric in insisting on ‘the necessity for all Jews, while preserving their spiritual patrimony, to become good manual workers’. See ‘Bulletin official de la communauté de Colmar’, Tribune juive, Strasbourg, 10 Feb. 1939. For more on Léo Cohn, see Daltroff, ‘L’inauguration du “Merkaz”’.

67 See Klein, T., ‘Raymond Winter’, Lumière, 2/3 (Jul. 1945), 32 , CDJC ÉIF Mélanges Lumière; also see Orjekh, M., ‘Raymond Winter, scout et résistant: Strasbourg, 19 février 1923 – Saint-Flour, 14 juin 1944’, Archives Juives, 36 (2002/1), 144–7.

68 This was a condition of broader French Jewish public life in the interwar period. See E. Corber, ‘L’esprit du corps: bodies, communities, and the reconstruction of Jewish life in France, 1914–1940’, Indiana University Ph.D. thesis, 2013.

69 Lynch, Good City Form, 36.

* Thanks are due to Nick Underwood, Meredith Scott-Weaver, John Christopoulos, Alex Tipei, Devi Mays, Lisa Moses Leff, Ari Joskowicz, David Weinberg, Nadia Malinovich and the anonymous reviewers for feedback. Many thanks to Till Van Rahden for helpful discussion through the manuscript's preparation. I am indebted to three Strasbourgeois; to Jacques ‘Loup’ and Colette Meyer-Moog for welcoming me into their home in Strasbourg and offering me access to family documents and stories about Raymond Winter, and to Jean Daltroff, who, with his deep well of knowledge of Jewish Strasbourg, was an inspiration and a guide.

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