Graduate Student Research Reflection: Ilana Miller

The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a fifteen month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion. 

By: Ilana Miller, History
2015 Pozen Research Grant for PhD Students Awardee

It might seem surprising and even implausible, but from 1955-1970, the communist bloc was the leading producer of the genre of what we would now call “Holocaust film.” Moreover, the vast majority of these films (almost thirty) came from just two countries: Poland and Czechoslovakia. This sudden interest in the Jewish experiences was notconfined to cinema, but proliferated in literature and theater as well. When I first stumbled onto this discovery, I was left dumbfounded: why did these works exist at all, in a society in which was supposedly at best, unsympathetic to Jews, and at worst, openly hostile?

This is the central question I set out to investigate during my pre-dissertation researchin summer 2015, generously funded by the Pozen Center for the Study of HumanRights. I spent four weeks in Poland (three in Warsaw and one in Łódź) and three inPrague, Czech Republic. On this trip, I made it my goal to examine archival collections that would shed light on literary production, including publishing agencies and contractsand writers’ personal papers. In my seminar papers and MA thesis, I had the opportunity to examine many of the films, literature, and theater that made Jewishexperiences central to narratives of the interwar period or Nazi Occupation. Fundamentally, each of these works foregrounded the Jewish experience of statelessness, of being excised from one’s national community, becoming “outside the pale of the law” (as Hannah Arendt describes the experience in her classic analysis inthe Origins of Totalitarianism).

From the idyllic archive locales of the Památník narodního písemnictví (Museum ofCzech Literature) at the Strahov Monastery in Prague and the Muzeum Literatury(Museum of Literature) in Warsaw’s Old Town Square, I read letters and personal correspondence of writers and filmmakers, hoping to understand their motivations forusing their works to foreground questions of social, cultural and civic alienation. Justification for engaging in this kind of activity, I thought, had to be at least personally significant; after all, this was a time and a place in which one’s work could be banned for addressing such themes (particularly when Jews were the subject). Writers and filmmakers described a general sense of moral imperative, a belief in the fundamental need to discuss the consequences of the rapid dehumanization and abandonment of the Jewish population. Director Alfréd Radok, for example, wrote to the Czech Jewishwriter Jiří Weil that his semi-autobiographical 1949 novel Life with a Star (an exploration of the slow mental and physical breakdown of a man hiding during the Nazioccupation) was a “covenant for all people who wish to be human.”

Now, what does all this have to do with human rights? In recent years, scholars have begun to argue that the dissident movement in the communist bloc played a central role in the human rights “breakthrough” of the 1970s. But before there was dissent, there were intellectuals—such as the writers and filmmakers in my project—who attempted to challenge the state on issues of individual freedom and expression by pushing the boundaries from within the system itself. The idea that literature, cinema and theater could be used to affect positive social change particularly gained currency during the late 1950s and 1960s, the years after Stalin’s death, when it seemed possible to reform the socialist model in order to allow for pluralism, both political and cultural.

For human rights history, the story of writers, filmmakers and other cultural professionals’ attempts to publicize human rights violations (even if not couched inthose terms) during the 50’s and 60’s provides crucial backstory to the global rise ofhuman rights discourse and its relationship to the dissident movement. For the fields of Jewish and East-Central European history, my work challenges long-held assumptions about the general silence in East-Central Europe about Jewish experiences during thelong postwar period. Furthermore, it suggests not simply that there was conversation about Jewish life in the communist bloc, but that it was central to cultural and political shifts in the postwar period.