Marina Sassenberg. Selma Stern (1890-1981): Das Eigene in der Geschichte. London and Tuebingen: Leo Baeck Institute, 2004. 293 pp. EUR 69.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-16-148417-9.
Reviewed by Aine Zimmerman (Department of German Studies, University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2005)
The Intersection of Personal and Academic History
As one of the first German-Jewish female academicians, Selma Stern's life is notable on many levels: as the author of notable scholarly works such as The Court Jew, as a founding member of the Leo Beck Institute in New York, as the director of the American Jewish Archives, and as a woman whose experience of German political-cultural events influenced her research into the history of German Jews. The historian and sociologist Marina Sassenberg's work, Selma Stern: Das Eigene in der Geschichte, provides the reader with the first comprehensive study of the "grand old lady of German-Jewish historiography." In researching Stern's life and academic work, Sassenberg considers the connections between biography, history and academic production: how do Selma Stern's life experiences and her historical research intertwine with one another? How does an historian react to the paradoxes in her own history and how does she position them in her work? In what ways does she view herself in the context of German-Jewish history, both as a woman and a German Jew? The final question demonstrates Sassenberg's commitment to situating Stern's biography not only in the context of Jewish Studies, but also Gender Studies. By examining Stern's life under multiple rubrics and intersections of "German," "Jewish," "intellectuality" and "femininity," Sassenberg writes a satisfyingly complex biography that offers a fresh perspective on the times in which Stern lived, as well as her own responses to her historical situation.
The German-Jewish historian Selma Stern's life (1890-1981) spanned the major events of twentieth-century German history: the Weimar era, World War I, the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Sassenberg calls her analysis of Stern a "case study" of the context of women's emancipation at the turn of the last century, the identification of Jews with German culture of the twentieth century and the German-Jewish reaction to the cultural break of National Socialism within Western civilization (p. 17). Providing excellent background information on the political and cultural climate, Sassenberg guides the reader through significant aspects of Stern's life and times. The book is divided into two main parts, roughly translated as "Conceptions of Self" and "Conceptions of History." In the first section, the reader learns of Stern's childhood, schooling and university studies, as well as her relationships and later marriage to Eugen Tubler. Sassenberg thoroughly researches the cultural and gendered contexts in which Stern grew up and was later ensconced as an adult. Drawing on diary excerpts, as well as Stern's poetry and correspondence with friends, Sassenberg considers Stern's development of her own concept of femininity and gender roles, and her experience of the academic world as one of the first female academics in Germany. She also traces how outside forces compel this acculturated German Jew to consider her connection to Judaism and the trajectory of meaning that "Germany," "nation," and "Judaism" have for her at different points in her life. Due to the myriad themes Sassenberg explores in Stern's life, her work will be of interest to scholars of Jewish, Gender and Cultural Studies, as well as historians in general.
The second section, "Conceptions of History," addresses the relationship between Stern's academic interests and her own historical context. Stern's publications, such as Josel von Rosenheim, Der Preussische Staat und die Juden, and The Court Jew, are part of the standard literature of German-Jewish and European-Jewish historiography, and Sassenberg examines Stern's concept of German-Jewish history that underpins these academic writings. She illustrates Stern's initial position, drawing off the Enlightenment tradition, that there is a positive connection between German and Jewish history, the so-called "symbiosis." She considers the effects of the Holocaust and Stern's own exile experience on her conception of German and Jewish history, concluding that she no longer views Jews' emancipation in Germany ushering in the "German-Jewish symbiosis," but rather, less positively, as simply another "epoch of Jewish history" (p. 258). Meticulously examining all of Stern's major works and the contexts in which they were written, Sassenberg critically traces how Stern's conception of history is reflected in her academic writings. While this section also incorporates the historical contexts of Germany and the United States, where Stern fled into exile in 1941, "Conceptions of History" will be most useful to the scholar with intimate knowledge of Stern's extensive bibliography; other readers may find themselves awash in minute details of Stern's research and publications.
Although Stern did not live to see this development in historical research, a paradigm change in the 1980s has shifted the focus away from viewing Jews as victims during World War II. Sassenberg's study of Selma Stern's life and work is exemplary of this change: situating her subject in the larger German-Jewish history, she presents a portrait of a complex, active researcher and thinker of the twentieth century who eludes convenient categories.
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Aine Zimmerman. Review of Sassenberg, Marina, Selma Stern (1890-1981): Das Eigene in der Geschichte.
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