Humanitarianism from the Margins: Framing Return Migration and Repatriation in Jewish Europe and Africa

April 24, 2019
Lecture at The Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, 201 Moses Hall
Speakers: Nick Underwood and Florian Wagner (Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley & The Regional Pacific Office of the German Historical Institute, Washington DC)

A dual lecture with tandem fellows Nick Underwood and Florian Wagner. As fellows of the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute with a focus on the history of migration, their research centers around Jewish return migration and repatriation tendencies in France and Ethiopia. The presentations will be followed by a discussion with Andrea Westermann, Research Fellow and Head of Office of the Pacific Regional Office of the GHI, juxtaposing the French and the Ethiopian Jewish Diaspora, their overlaps and divergences.

Nick Underwood will discuss his research on reconstructing Jewish France after the Holocaust. Postwar, post-Holocaust Europe's largest Jewish population was found in France, and it was diverse, covering several years and layers of migration and integration into France. France's postwar social, political, cultural, and linguistic context was also unique in Europe because it played host to so many different Jewish migrant, returnee, and survivor communities. Underwood’s presentation which is based on his current book project “Plural Jewish Communities: Yiddish Culture and Jewish Migration in post-Holocaust France 1944–1965,” will focus on the postwar reestablishment of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in France. Through an examination of the revitalization of Yiddish culture in post-Vichy, post-Holocaust, and postwar France, he will demonstrate new markers of inclusion that Yiddish-speaking Jews appealed to create a new, Franco-Yiddish postwar Jewish identity. This particular Jewish community in France sought not to include themselves as part of a normative French bourgeois culture, but as part of an alternative French leftist and internationalism Republicanism that seemingly embraced cultural pluralism and advocated for the benefits of a cosmopolitan French cultural sphere. To analyze how these Yiddish-speaking Jews articulated their Franco-Yiddish subculture, he will examine simultaneously the postwar Yiddish cultural organization the Farband fun Yidishe Kultur-Gezelshaftn in Frankraykh, the Yiddish theatre group YKUT, and the Yiddish literary journal Parizer shriftn (Paris writings) to understand the French cultural cues and societal norms to which these people tried to attach their program of Yiddish cultural renewal in the wake of the Holocaust.

Florian Wagner will discuss his research on Jewish repatriation in Ethiopia. In the 1980s, Ethiopian Jews were the last Jewish diaspora group to publicly debate repatriation to Israel. The reasons for the belated return discourse can be found in Israel, which, for the first time, officially accepted Ethiopian Jews as Jews. This change of mind was mainly a reaction to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, where the repressive Derg Regime and the famine of 1985 had produced thousands of refugees. Most of them, including the Ethiopian Jews, fled to refugee camps in Southern Sudan. Among those refugees were also inhabitants of the regions of Tigray and Eritrea that had separatist tendencies and were partly controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Once in the refugees arrived in the camps in Sudan, however, they faced a similar shortage of food. As a consequence, they decided to organize their “repatriation”: the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and the Tigrayans and Eritreans to their country of origin. Using sources from the Sudanese refugee camps and beyond, Wagner will show how their self-organized repatriations were linked. He will argue that by promoting their migration and repatriation they contributed to a new humanitarian discourse “from the margins” that sometimes used and sometimes contradicted international refugee law. This fresh perspective on the repatriations in Ethiopia thus allows us to better understand the functionality of non-Eurocentric humanitarian discourses.

For more details, please contact Heike Friedman ( or follow The Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington on Facebook or Twitter.