This paper looks into the commemoration of what I call the “migrating past.” It traces the dynamics of memory and commemoration based on the case study of two groups in the post-perestroika period: Jewish Red Army WWII veterans who immigrated to Israel and Jewish Red Army WWII veterans who immigrated to Germany. Beginning with the Israeli case, I show how WWII combat experience becomes the elderly immigrants’ main symbolic capital in their struggle for status and recognition in their new country. Supported by the Russian community, the elderly immigrants succeed in bringing this unfamiliar story of WWII Jewish army combat into Israeli spaces of memory. The local cultural and socio-political contexts — the power and centrality of the Holocaust in the Israeli national narrative, the pluralization of memory, the state’s need to strengthen its military ethos — are among the factors promoting the incorporation of the veterans’ story in Israel.
The WWII Red Army veterans living in Germany are simultaneously a source of pride and embarrassment for other Russian-Jewish immigrants and for the German-Jewish community at large. The precariousness and ambiguity of migration to the country of the former enemy are symbolized by the figure of the veteran who, wearing his army jacket and medals, goes to the Victory Day celebration at the local Jewish community center. The war stories told by the veterans lack both “enemy” and “hero.” Exploring the veterans’ narratives, I embed my analysis in the wider mnenonic practices used by Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany to approach the past and manage the ambivalences of the present.
Sveta Roberman is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and at the Jewish Studies program at UC Davis. Her research focuses on the Russian-Jewish diasporas in Israel and Germany, evolving out of her dissertation on post-Soviet Russian-Jewish immigrants in Germany. She is the author of Memory in Migration: WWII Red Army Soldiers in Israel (2005, in Hebrew) and a number of articles on the topic, including “Fighting to Belong: Soviet WWII Veterans in Israel.” (Ethos, 2007).