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Karen Auerbach

Generational History and Religious Change: A Jewish Publisher’s Family in Fin-de-siecle Warsaw

This presentation traces the history of a Jewish publishing family in Warsaw at the turn of the 20th century as a window into the impact of nationalism on the social world of assimilating families. The private lives of the Lewental family were intertwined with Salomon Lewental’s public role as a prominent publisher of Polish literature in the last third of the 19th century. His position as a mediator of Polish culture opened doors to elite social gatherings for his children, while his wife, Hortensja, turned the family’s own home into a venue of Polish cultural and social life. Salomon Lewental’s access to the world of Polish cultural life seemed, at least for a time, to allow his children to overcome social divisions between Jewish and Catholic societies. Yet it was the very progress in overcoming these divisions that gave rise to his eldest daughter’s struggles over how to reconcile her family’s Jewish background with her Catholic faith. The daughter’s increasing sense of alienation by the turn of the 20th century is rooted in tensions between the family’s path to integration in the generations that preceded her; and evolving ideas about the relationship among nation, state, religion, and ethnicity in the world outside. Theirs is a generational narrative that was shaped by the changing landscapes of what it meant to be Polish, what it meant to be Jewish, and the relationship between the two.

Karen Auerbach is assistant professor of history and Stuart E. Eizenstat Fellow at the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She researches Polish Jewish history in the 19th and 20th centuries, including issues relating to integration, urban history, the Holocaust, and Yiddish literary history. Her first book, The House at Ujazdowskie 16: Jewish Families in Warsaw after the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 2013), is a history of Jewish families who were neighbors in an apartment building in Warsaw after the Holocaust. Her current work focuses on the history of the book in Polish and Jewish history, with a book project about Jewish publishers of Polish literature in the 19th and early 20th century. Previously she taught at Virginia Tech, Monash University in Australia, and Brown University. She also held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Southampton in England, the University of Michigan, and Yad Vashem.