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The "Ostjuden": East European Jews before, during and after the Holocaust


Admission requirements

No admission requirements.


The German word Ostjuden means “Eastern Jew” but it also means so much more. This course explores the Ostjuden as a nebulous group, a religious category, a racial designation, a lower notch on the socio-economic hierarchy and as a historical lens to read both long and short histories of east central Europe (or the region between Berlin and Moscow) and this region’s important diasporas. Beginning in the early modern era, this course is centered on the 19th and 20th centuries and carefully considers the 1940s, the Second World War and the Holocaust specifically. Using an impressive array of primary sources -- from music, wood carvings, photographs and film to archival documents, fiction, poetry and diaries -- students in this class will gain a deeper understanding of “Eastern Jews,” the worlds encircling them, their relationships with both Jewish and non-Jewish “others,” the rich civilization they created, the utter destruction of that civilization during World War II and the Holocaust and the strange afterlives of this group and the concept related to it. Topics to be covered include: migration, diaspora, hasidism, rootedness, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, political partition (German, Russian and Habsburg monarchies), messianic movements, the great ISMs of modern Europe (see under course objectives), war, occupation, displacement, pogroms, the Holocaust, genocide, trauma and memory as well as culture, politics and “otherness.”

Course objectives

Each student who completes the course will:

  • Develop a broad competence and understanding of the Jewish experience in central and eastern Europe as well as an understanding of Judaism and coexistence between “eastern” Jews and both Jewish and non-Jewish “others” (to include the nobility, the peasantry, religious authorities and “Germans,” “Ukrainians,” “Poles,” “Czechs,” “Austrians,” “Slovaks,” “Hungarians,” “Romanians” and “Russians”) over the last millenium.

  • Develop an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Jews in this region between Berlin and Moscow that takes into account anthropological, sociological, historical, literary, economical, and political methods and theories as well as studies on “otherness,” “trauma” and memory.

  • Develop a better understanding of the important ISMs which saturate the modern world, like: nationalism, fascism, communism, socialism, liberalism, anti-semitism, racism, feminism, secularism, extremism and (post)colonialism.

  • Develop a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and genocide studies more generally.

Transferable Skills

  • Learn how to read a historical document and religious texts carefully and critically, and to
    present a clearly-argued and well-supported interpretation of its significance in both written and oral forms. Beyond mastering a body of factual information, in other words, you should be able to say something about these facts, to ask and answer the “so what?” question.

  • Be more attuned to the continuing presence of the past in contemporary debates and think
    historically about “current events”—that is, to explain how political institutions, cultural worldviews, social and economic relations, and popular attitudes which took shape in the past continue to play a role today. As we will see throughout the course, “history”—that is, individuals’ and groups’ interpretations of their pasts—is often mobilized to define and defend current agendas.

  • Gain basic practical writing, conceptual and production skills as you write an original final paper and prepare for an essay-based midterm exam.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

  • Take home, written midterm examination: 30%

  • Final paper: 50%

  • Active participation: 20%


Students who have participated in all elements of the course, but scored an overall insufficient mark are entitled to a resit. For the midterm, students will be given a chance to hand in new versions. For the final papere, students will be given a chance to resit the paper.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Most readings will be available via the course webpage on brightspace.

One or two books may be required for purchase as well. Consult the syllabus on brightspace/and instructions given on the first day of class.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory. General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.