33 Questions to Historian Prof. Miriam Rürup
Since December 2020, the researcher has been the director of the Moses Mendelsohn Center for European-Jewish Studies (MMZ) in Potsdam. She succeeded founding director Prof. Dr. Julius Schoeps. In addition to the new priorities at the MMZ, Rürup considers the digital space to be of central importance in creating additional access to sources about Jewish history. The historian, who has always been involved in work at memorial sites, brings comprehensive expertise in this field to Potsdam.
Festive buffet with kosher animals or vegan?
If it is a public event to which we invite guests – a conference or a talk – then always with a choice of vegan dishes because then there is something for everybody.
How important is good food for you?
I like cooking very much and I also really enjoy eating but I am not particularly curious about culinary matters.
When you became director of the MMZ, was the glass half-full or half-empty for you?
For me, the glass is basically always half full as long as you are healthy and have desires and ideas in which direction things could go and you are looking forward to the next day.
What surprised you?
It was during the lockdown that I came to Potsdam so I was surprised by the extent to which everyone ploughed a lonely furrow – in the whole city and the surrounding areas. We first had to find a way to come together. Above all, however, it was surprising to me how open-mindedly people could meet and get to know each other while taking walks.
Are we back to normal now?
In terms of the pandemic? Hopefully, we are at least on our way. Especially now that the temperatures are such that you can sit in the office with the window open. Everybody is coming back, we’re having those “random exchanges” again when you meet – on the stairs or in the courtyard, and then move on with three projects. For months, we arranged fixed timeslots to meet on Zoom for example, where projects were being discussed in a goal-oriented manner and then the appointment was already over again. That may be efficient, but it’s not really inspiring in the long run, and everything enjoyable about it gets lost.
Is your desk at the MMZ one of the nicest workplaces?
It is definitely a very nice workplace. The view is great, the light is fantastic. You also get to see the tourists at Neuer Markt and how interesting out-of-towners find the city. But above all, it’s the nicest commute, I’d say.
Bicycle or car?
Mostly bicycle, if possible, and then along the lakes, through forests and so many historical places, past partly reconstructed historical buildings that also tell a story. As a historian, I very consciously cross the former border every day, for example at Glienicke Bridge.
Has your life changed since becoming the MMZ director?
Definitely. It is, after all, a big center with numerous perspectives, offers and committed colleagues, who contribute many ideas for projects. The 24 hours of the day are always too short to give consideration to everything. My experience of time has definitely changed and my enthusiasm for the possibilities of cooperation in the region has grown.
Does the MMZ also influence your research?
The MMZ consists of many. And with their various approaches from literary studies, sociology, Israel studies, library science, political science, art history, museum studies, and even mathematics, they represent a terrific range of research. This results in numerous research questions, and my research projects are our projects.
Where do you set new priorities?
Of course, at the MMZ we want to build on a lot of things that already exist in terms of established research traditions. But there are also many new things to discover and explore. This includes, for example, the widely ramified history of the German-Jewish diaspora, which began long before the forced emigration between 1933 and 1945 but took on a completely new dimension as a result of flight and expulsion. Many very different countries come into view, but also questions of connections between the various new places of arrival, where German Jews also sought to connect to some of their traditions. This also includes the history of the remigration of Jews to the Federal Republic as well as to the GDR. Other projects focus on Brandenburg as a conurbation (around Berlin) of various Hachshara sites where young Jews prepared for their emigration from Germany. In connection to these different topics, we are also carrying out a digitization of the presentation of research and knowledge, i.e. we want to make our results accessible to a much broader public in an internet portal (www.juden-in-brandenburg.de).
Are you more the analog or the digital type?
Spontaneously, I would say analog. But I’m both, it just depends on what we’re talking about. When it comes to reading, I’m absolutely the analog type. I need the feel, the turning of the pages. But when we’re talking about research methods and thoughts on how to communicate history to the general public, I quickly become a digital person and think that this is our big opportunity.
The digital collection and presentation of knowledge is indeed very important to us at the MMZ. We want to provide access to Jewish history to as broad and diverse an audience as possible, and, ideally, in two languages. After all, descendants of Jews from this region often no longer speak German. At the same time, there is a pedagogical aspiration, insofar as we want to create opportunities or offer assistance so that even school classes can come into contact with Jewish history. You can also see the importance we attach to the digital world from our online presence. We have just gone online with a completely new and revised website.
What motivates you?
It's always most exciting where you don’t expect to find anything. When you don’t write Jewish history by researching a Jewish community but by researching a place and suddenly discovering that there are also Jewish traces, for example next to Armenian or Huguenot ones. In the Glauer mountains, for example, directly next to Trebbin and Ahrensdorf, where there was a Hachshara site, right next to it, probably on a neighboring hill – I haven't seen it yet – there was a village community of free thinkers in the 1920s. That occurred in parallel – and although very different, it shows us how important the larger historical context always is. In any case, Jewish history is most exciting when we look beyond the boundaries of the subject area.
Early bird or night owl?
Definitely not an early bird. That was probably one of the biggest adjustments for my colleagues here at MMZ. I like to come to work very late, stay late, and even write e-mails from home at 11 p.m. – but I’m even more startled when I get a reply!
Does anti-Semitism still drive you up the wall?
Absolutely, it still drives me up the wall. But here, too, I think it’s important to take a broader view: anti-Semitism is not a separate issue. In our society, resistance to diversity and to those who are marked as “different” is increasing in general. In dealing with racism, we as a society are still almost at the beginning. As far as stereotypical images of Jews are concerned – and without these, anti-Semitism would not exist – I am personally also irritated by philo-Semitism. I find these forced embraces more difficult to deal with. This, after all, occasionally involves people who, although they may well relate positively to Jewish life or research on Jewish history and culture, sometimes quickly perpetuate a stereotypical image of Jews, even if it is one with positive connotations. That’s why I am also puzzled by a sentence like “Jewish culture has given us so much,” because although it is meant positively, it contains so much dividing. Especially since such a notion seems to suggest that minorities are only worth something if they produce people like our namesake Moses Mendelssohn. I am pleased that we also bring our own expertise in this area with the Emil Julius Gumbel Research Department on right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism.
What changes when Holocaust survivors can no longer report and pass on their experience?
I have been involved with work at memorial sites for a long time: in Hamburg, where I was before, in the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation – in all places, the memorials are part of my view on history. There, discussions have been going on for quite some time about how reports of contemporary witnesses will be carried into the future. Do we need holograms of contemporary witnesses, for example? I think we should take a step back there. Why are these auratically charged eyewitness accounts so important to us? Documentarily, we need them, of course, and direct conversation with survivors is undoubtedly extremely important for them as well as for the listeners. But if we fear that we cannot convey things without eyewitnesses, we are actually challenged to rethink our forms and contents of imparting knowledge. Instead of worrying about how we can carry the auratic into the future, we should perhaps rather ask ourselves how we can preserve the contents of the eyewitness testimonies and the meanings associated with them for the future and which forms of communication are relevant for this. After all, it is about the substantive legacy, the statements of the contemporary witnesses, which we would like to carry into the future.
How is our society changing due to war and crises?
The already existing problems, the crisis-laden developments, are now becoming more apparent and forcing their way through more visibly. In addition, we see a kind of collective movement where groups are making their voices heard and shifting the discourse to the right. We as a society should take a clearer stance and direct our empathy towards the marginalized and not towards the “enraged citizens”.
How do you inspire others?
That sounds like I have a concept for it. I hope that others will want to join in when I get excited about something.
What does success mean to you?
If you succeed in inspiring others, and you notice that a supposedly crazy idea is taken up, adopted and developed. Then it will eventually bear fruit.
Is there a project left undone that you still want to finish?
Absolutely. There is a book that I’ve already finished in my head. It had about 270 pages. In reality, it has about 130 rough pages so far, but I haven’t touched it in one and a half years. When it had become clear that I might move from Hamburg to Potsdam, there was no more time for a writing flow. Among other things, the book is about statelessness, about people without passports – another topic that is not Jewish at its core but universal. Nevertheless, it also has a lot to do with Jews. I’ve been working on this for a long time, but I haven’t finished writing the book yet; I’ve only ever published articles on it.
Was there a special moment on your academic career path?
I can’t pin it down to one moment. Two things were decisive: I almost rushed to finish my dissertation at the end because I had the chance to take a parental leave replacement on generational history at a graduate college in Göttingen. And afterwards I was able to work as an assistant at the chair of Prof. Bernd Weisbrod. That helped me a lot. And the second thing was my stays abroad, first several times in Israel and then the years in Washington – at the German Historical Institute, in a metropolitan region with archives and museums, where you have the feeling that sooner or later everyone who has something to do with history will stop by. You can get to know an incredible number of people and their topics and broaden your horizons.
Behind closed doors and in dusty archives or big open-plan office?
Dusty archive is a good keyword because it’s another cliché. Perhaps it stands for the fact that you develop an idea there. Ordering and reading files is a bit like opening presents. You never know what treasure awaits you! But to refine this idea, you need exchange. I can’t get anywhere on my own. That’s why I constantly alternate between working in seclusion (e.g., in the “balcony office” at home or during a walk in the Glauer mountains) and then back right at the institute in exchange with others.
Has there ever been a dead end that still bothers you today?
Well, just because I can’t think of any, I wouldn’t say that there weren’t any. It’s probably because for me the glass is half full ... so the dead end is quickly reinterpreted as a conveniently quiet street with a turnaround option and, just like that, the question can be answered in the negative.
Consultant or storyteller?
Both. I don’t go to a committee or panel with a particular opinion or position and look for allies. Instead, the committees offer forums for exchange to move forward together. How do you deal with difficult or controversial cultural heritage, for example? I’m very happy to have debates like that because as researchers we are leaving our ivory towers at that point and science is becoming relevant to the general public. That brings us to the second point: stories are also texts without footnotes, exhibition catalogs with a condensed content. That is always a challenge and almost one of the most important tasks – to get the simplification right. It must not become platitudinous but should make complicated contexts comprehensible in clear words. Jewish history is, after all, complex. Nevertheless, it can be conveyed in an understandable way.
Are there any debates you should have better stayed out of?
I wouldn’t put it that way, especially since I like to engage in exchange and don’t shy away from debates. I even think they are extremely important for any society - that is, to deal with opinions other than one’s own. But the form that public debates have repeatedly drifted into in recent years, focusing not on exchange and the power of argument, worries me. Instead of genuinely discussing controversial issues, and at least attempting to understand contrary positions and attitudes, political judgment and political (pre)condemnation often take center stage.
Mountains or the sea?
Both. And the plain in between. Well, it’s not called “the difficulties of the plain” for nothing. I find the plain monotonous and then the wind always seems to come from the wrong direction, which of course outrages me as a cyclist.
What would you find hard to do without?
The sun, good wine, and friends. And professionally, the personal encounters at lectures and events of all kinds. When people who have just seen and heard the same thing exchange ideas and bring together different perspectives. I couldn’t do without that. And laughter.
Which decision do you never want to have to make?
Whether to send heavy weapons to Ukraine or other war zones. That is the privilege of a humanities institution. I can talk a lot about how important our work is. But at the end of the day, it’s not as important as a patient lying on a table somewhere or the question whether you should or should not send weapons somewhere.
Do you have a role model?
If at all, then several. Even as a teenager, I didn’t have just one star poster on the wall, and even now I don’t have pictures of people on the walls of my office but landscapes. Role models change, I would say. Ultimately, it’s simply the whole village that you gather around you in your life. That provides me with role models for the most diverse work and life situations.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hopefully still at the MMZ, which will then be at least as bustling as it is now. Which doesn’t have to be the current location at Neuer Markt, even if it is a very nice workplace. But the rooms contradict the nature of the MMZ. They are cramped, but we are an institute that wants to open up to the outside world and enter into discourse with urban society. Our library alone invites you to that! So my dream is for us to be in an open building that also spatially stands for exchange and cooperation.
Which discourse has yet to be held?
We don’t know that yet. A society stumbles into these things, as is currently the case: Why are we as a civil society now showing in a very impressive way how we receive refugees from Ukraine? But why was and is this so shamefully different with other refugee groups, such as in Moria on Lesbos? I would say that we still have to have a discussion about why we are not taking responsibility here and what this has to do with racist defensive reflexes in our society. So there is still a lot ahead of us and I have to correct myself: Actually, we are already in the middle of this debate.
Which project do you still want to do?
Perhaps due to moving to Potsdam but also due to encountering different historical collections and inventories, I’m increasingly interested in the history of Jews in the GDR. Or perhaps it’s better to say: a Jewish perspective on contemporary German history. This is one of the focal points we will set at the MMZ. But who knows what new research perspectives will emerge.
What is special about the MMZ in Potsdam?
The MMZ is the only independent academic institution in Potsdam that deals with Jewish history and culture in a European perspective. Among the existing institutes for the study of Jewish history in Germany, the MMZ also opens up an independent perspective by also focusing on Jewish regional history in Brandenburg. The Hachshara institutions are only one example. We want to look at the diversity of local Jewish cultural heritage – from cemeteries to buildings to special intellectual traditions. What is also special about the MMZ in Potsdam is that students can study Jewish studies at the University of Potsdam and also have facilities right next door where Jewish theology is taught and rabbis are trained. This is hardly possible in any other city in Germany and will hopefully continue to be possible.
This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2022 „Humans“ (PDF).