Jewish writers and migrantphobia in 20th-century France

Jewish writers and migrantphobia in 20th-century France

Friday, November 18 · 3:30 - 5pm Greenwich Mean Time (UTC±0)

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The second virtual event in the series ‘Migrantphobia and Antisemitism: Prejudice, Culture and Belonging,’ hosted by Maynooth University.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, France enjoyed a privileged reputation as a potential destination for Jewish migrants. At the same time, nativist rhetoric in France targeted Jewish migrants both as Jews and as migrants. Jewish migration to France inevitably took on a different character in the 1930s and ’40s, with refugees escaping Nazism to France, followed by the horrors of occupation and Vichy France. This event, featuring speakers Nadia Malinovich and Julia Elsky, will look at differing experiences of Jewish migrant writers in France in the first half of the twentieth century, asking how the relationship between the categories of ‘Jewish’ and ‘migrant’ intersect for these writers; who is deemed able to claim to be ‘French’, or to speak ‘French’; and how these writers might help to conceptualise ‘integration.’ For Jews as well as other migrant groups in France, these questions remain as relevant now as they were a century ago.


Nadia Malinovich holds a PhD in history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is Associate Professor of English and American studies at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne and a CNRS affiliated researcher, where she coordinates the Judaismes Contemporains research group for the Groupe Sociétés Religions Laïcités (GSRL). She is the author of French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth Century France (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008) and co-editor of The Jews of Modern France: Images and Identities (Leiden Brill, 2016). She is currently writing a transnational history of the last generations of students and teachers who attended the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in the Middle East and North Africa and subsequently emigrated to France, the United States and Canada.

‘Between Dream and Reality : French Jewish Immigrant Jewish Literature in the 1920s’

The very positive reputation that both France and Paris traditionally held in the eastern European Jewish imagination strongly colors the image of Paris that emerges in eastern-European immigrant and first-generation literature of the 1920s. Upon arrival, protagonists often make the city their own and immerse themselves in its pleasures and freedoms. Ultimately, however, they see their dreams of melting seamlessly into Parisian life, and into France more generally, thwarted by outside forces beyond their control. I will explore this theme as it is manifest in two Jewish-themed novels: L’Epopée de Ménaché Foigel (The Epic of Ménaché Foigel) by André Billy and Moïse Twersky and Jacob by Bernard Lecache. In both of these books, Jewish protagonists face both internal and external challenges in their attempts to adapt to and integrate into French society. On the one hand, they are torn between their attachment to their home culture and family and their desire to reinvent themselves as fully French. On the other hand, they face obstacles from a French society that reads them as societal outsiders. While antisemitism plays a role in this othering in both novels, it is arguably their status as immigrants writ large as much—or more so—than their status as Jews that limits their ability to fully integrate into French society.

Julie Elsky is Associate Professor of French at Loyola University Chicago. In 2020, she published Writing Occupation: Jewish Émigré Voices in Wartime France with Stanford University Press’s series on Jewish History and Culture. Julie has published articles on World War II and its legacy, as well as on Jewish identity in France in PMLA, Yale French Studies, Nouvelle Revue Française, Archives juives, and other journals. Most recently, she curated a digital collection of objects of memory for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s digital tool, Experiencing History. She will also continue to research Marseille as a center of cultural life during the Second World War with a co-author. Finally, her new book project is about the origins of the Theater of the Absurd during the Second World War, with a focus on Eugène Ionesco’s interwar and wartime experiences.

‘Jewish Émigré Voices in Wartime France’

Among the Jewish writers who emigrated from Eastern Europe to France in the 1910s and 1920s, a number chose to switch from writing in their languages of origin to writing primarily in French, a language that represented both a literary center and the promises of French universalism. This talk will look at their experience in France during the 1930s and 1940s. Notably, under the Nazi occupation of France, these Jewish émigré authors continued to write in their adopted language, even as the Vichy regime and Nazi occupiers denied their French identity through xenophobic and antisemitic laws. These writers reexamined both their Jewishness and their place as authors in France through the language in which they wrote. This talk will draw in particular on Benjamin Fondane’s poetry from the 1930s and his rewritings during the war, engaging with the topics of exile and multilingualism, and putting his work into the context of a Jewish Francophonie.

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