Jewish Studies

Journeys from the Abyss – 5 minutes with Tony Kushner

To celebrate the release of Journeys from the Abyss, caught up with author Tony Kushner to discuss the various experiences of Jewish refugees and the importance of history and memory. 

Could you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired your research? Why do you think this is the first study to place Jewish refugee movements from Nazism into a wider framework of global forced migration?

Over the past couple of decades I have been increasingly interested in refugee history. With Katharine Knox, who I wrote what is the first history of refugees in modern Britain, I was surprised how, with a few exceptions, many refugee histories have been totally neglected and, indeed, forgotten. What we did was a form of rescue history, but we also very much wanted to show how refugees have been part of the British landscape for centuries now.

More recently I have taught a special subject on modern refugees and became aware how in the field of refugee studies, historical approaches are very marginal. The focus is on the ‘now’ which whilst understandable, makes it very hard to make comparisons and to know what is, and is not new about the current refugee crisis.

Equally, I have been involved in researching, writing and teaching around the Holocaust and was aware, again understandably, how it has become self-contained as an area of study and reflection. This is true of those who were refugees from Nazism – an area itself which is a little marginal in Holocaust studies.

With the global refugee crisis which has being growing in scale since the late twentieth century, I wanted to bring together the study of Jews who managed to escape Nazism with modern refugee and migration studies with the hope that they could both shed light on one-another. Journeys from the Abyss is the result. Each section on particular Jewish refugee journeys – of women, of children and of ‘boat people’ has a pre-history and a post-history. I am not trying to argue that forced migrants before and after are simply the same as Jewish refugees from Nazism but that we can gain so much from the comparisons and also get beyond the unhelpful idea that some histories are ‘worse’ than others.

You used a variety of sources such as governmental papers, film and museum during your research for this book. How did they influence the book?

I want to study how refugee impacted on everyday life so Journeys from the Abyss uses a very wide variety of sources. It uses more ‘traditional’ archives such as government records and those of organisations involved with refugee work, but also cultural sources including films, novels, memorials, museums and site visits to show a variety of responses and also the relationship between ‘then’ and ‘now’. It meant travelling to sites connected to major moments in migration crises including places such as Haifa and Lampedusa, both intimately involved with the arrival and containment of refugee arrivals. Studying the journey itself forces the scholar into inventive approaches and finding sources is part of the challenge I faced. My aim thus, is to provide a total history – history from the bottom up and top down but also one that combines and juxtaposes history and memory.

The book addresses the experiences of Jewish refugees. How did you go about researching their experiences? Did any of these experiences particularly stand out to you?

As a social historian, I have always wanted to bring in the voices of ordinary people. In Journeys from the Abyss this means the testimonies of a wide range of refugees – Jewish and non-Jewish. I have thus used a wide range of oral histories, autobiographies and other sources in which we can access the perspectives of forced migrants. These are used critically which is not to say I am dismissing them in importance – quite the contrary. How people remember and re-remember their experiences is vital. Whilst there are many testimonies that stand out, perhaps that of Lore Segal is the most remarkable for me. Her writings are astonishingly self-aware and reveal the dilemmas of being a refugee in the modern era. Lore’s family were dispersed across the world and she shows, if it somehow still needed to be explained, how it is not easy being a refugee.

 How to you think the book paves the way for further research into the forced migration of Jewish refugees during the nineteenth and twenty first centuries?

The goals of the book are ambitious and there will be some way to go before those in Holocaust studies will place the Jewish refugee experience in a longer tradition of forced migration and, equally, those in refugee studies will take history seriously. Journeys from the Abyss is a start but also a challenge to those working in both fields. I sincerely hope that both established and younger scholars will take it much further.

Tony Kushner is Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Parkes Institute and History Department, University of Southampton.

More information on Journeys from the Abyss by Tony Kushner.

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