Becoming Transnational? Russion Jewish Students at the Universities of Late Imperial Germany

Essay, 2010

14 Pages, Grade: B+



(Pavel Vasilyev)

One of the primary values of the contemporary world is education. The scholars and laymen alike have noticed the ever-increasing role that information and knowledge play in our lives.[1] Nearly all young people in the developed countries get their college degrees, and in many metropolitan areas in Europe and North America the graduate (Master's) degree is gradually becoming a compulsory requirement as well. Education is also intrinsically linked with mobility and transnationalism, since contemporary technology and transportation allows those craving for knowledge to move around the world in their quest – thus transforming both the students' identities and the host communities.

However, it was just not always like that. The developments that are described above present a rather recent trend, that became noticeable only after the Second World War. Prior to that, even in the most developed countries education remained an elitist occupation that was available only for a small number of people. Modernity, however, brought changes that were transforming the traditional landscape; and it would be very interesting to have a look at the experiences of those lucky students who managed to get to the universities around fin-de-siècle. Moreover, such an angle would allow us to exploit interdisciplinary approach and approach the issues of identity, ideology and modernization from the perspectives of social and cultural history alike.

In this paper I would like to focus on the experiences of Russian Jewish students at the universities of late Imperial Germany – and for some reasons. In European context, the Jews have received a specific dual status as both well-educated “people of the Book” and discriminated pariahs, excluded from universities and academia more generally. Russian Jews struggled with additional complications, since they were both the members of the transnational religious community with rich history and tradition and the subjects of the multi-national empire which wanted to look as an enlightened and modern European state, but still remained arguably the most backward and autocratic country on the continent. The chronological boundaries (late 19th – early 20th centuries) are determined by the fact that in this period more and more Russian Jews, whose educational opportunities were seriously hindered at home, explored the possibility of studying in Germany. In my opinion, the look at the ideas, personalities and presentations that resulted from the interactions between Russian Jewish students from the Pale of Settlement and the ivory tower world of German universities can tell us much about new identities that were emerging around fin-de-siècle.

Accordingly, in this paper I plan to examine and analyze the background of Russian Jewish students and their years at the universities of late Imperial Germany in order to show how their previous identity was at the same time shaken and strengthened – and then transformed into a new one based on their transnational experiences. In doing so, I plan to rely on such classics as Jack L. Wertheimer's articles about Russian Jewish students in Imperial Germany[2] and Harriett P. Freidenreich's Female, Jewish and Educated [3], which established links between history of science, Jewish studies, and gender history. I have also benefited greatly from the article by Luise Hirsch[4] as well as from Fania Oz-Salzberger's recollections about the student years of her great-great uncle, Joseph Klausner.[5] I will also use the case-study approach and analyze various materials documenting the life of Soviet Jewish psychiatrist Raisa Iakovlevna Golant (1885-1953) to show how professional and personal experience of many Russian Jews was shaped by their studies at the German universities around turn of the century.

The Students: Ostjuden from the Pale or Motivated Learners?

We are often eager to take for granted a somewhat stereotypical view of the Eastern European Jew coming to study in Germany as a poor, naive and traditional, but motivated, hungry for knowledge and easily manipulated. In fact, a very similar picture is presented in the contemporary report cited by Jack L. Wertheimer: “Every morning the train would bring into Berlin, from the eastern frontiers, new and unsuspecting hordes of students... These newcomers were green; for the most part they did not know where their sympathies lay, and their future would be decided by their first contacts... The station is either the Friedrichstrasse or the Alexander Platz. From a fourthclass carriage a student creeps out, dragging after him his packages...gummy-eyed from lack of sleep”.[6]

However, the obviously stereotypical nature of such an account should make us feel more critical about it. They were indeed “numerous and thirsty for knowledge”[7], these newcomers from the East, but to learn more about them we should examine more closely their motivation for studies and the social groups and political camps that they represented. My feeling is that this stereotypical portrayal of Russian Jews is largely based on the fact that they were all primarily perceived (as in fact they were) as Ostjuden, natives of the Pale of Settlement, which was the very epitome for the restrictions that the Russian imperial authorities imposed on Jewish educational and career opportunities. One of the purposes of the pages which follow will be to show that there was a substantial degree of diversity among the emigrants from the Pale (even though the common factors were also very important).

Some scholars have noticed that the main motivation for the Jews from the Russian Empire coming to study to Germany was the irresoluble conflict between traditional Jewish appreciation of higher learning and education and the restrictions of educational opportunities for the Jewish subjects of the Empire which were becoming more and more harsh towards the end of the century.[8] Modernity also put additional pressure on the young Jews, but the Tsarist government was highly consistent in its efforts to keep the Jews away from the major university centers of Russia (such as St. Petersburg or Moscow)[9].

Thus, the only logical solution for the frustrated youngsters of the Pale would be to go to study in the West – more specifically in Germany, a country which has emancipated its Jews and received universal recognition as a center of higher education and science. After all, it was not so far, just across the western border of the Pale of Settlement. Additionally, the restrictions that existed in the Russian Empire convinced the young Jews that study abroad was not only a mean toward education per se. The study experience in the seemingly liberal European country was in itself a socially and culturally uplifting experience (to borrow a term from Harriett Freidenreich, this strategy can be called “emancipation through higher education”[10] ).

It is also important to mention that Jewish girls who were motivated and interested in learning[11], were subject to double oppression and discrimination. As a result, their choice to study in the West was twice as difficult. However, it also led to a double emancipation (both Jewish and women's)[12] and a quick social and identity transformation that was even more noticeable than in Jewish males.

The seemingly universally shared motivation for education abroad should not overshadow the diversity in social position and political orientation of Russian Jewish students. Indeed, Luise Hirsch convincingly shows that “apart from university lecture room, there was no other area of social life in pre-World War I Europe, where Jews and Jewesses from so different backgrounds meet.”[13] The majority of Russian Jewish students were, of course, the sons and daughters of petty bourgeois parents from the low-middle classes of the Pale.[14] However, there still was a considerable degree of diversity – on social, religious and political levels. There were students from very poor families and the offspring of wealthy bourgeois, Orthodox Jews and careless freethinkers, Zionists and assimilationists.[15]


[1] The classical works on the subject include Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970) and Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (London: Heinemann, 1974).

[2] Jack L. Wertheimer, “The 'Ausländerfrage' at Institutions of Higher Learning: A Controversy Over Russian Jewish Students in Imperial Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 27 (1982): 187-215; Idem. “Between Tsar and Kaiser – The Radicalisation of Russian Jewish Students in Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 28 (1983): 329-349.

[3] Harriett P. Freidenreich, Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002). Freidenreich admits, however, that she is concerned with Eastern European Jewish women as well, but they “are much more difficult to trace than Central European women both before or after leaving the university” (Freidenreich, xv). Thus, materials from Russian archives can help in finding both similarities and differences between Central and Eastern European Jewish experience.

[4] Luise Hirsch, “Zahlreich und wissensdurstig: Wie jüdische Frauen die Akademikerin erfanden,” Kalonymos

8 no. 2 (2005): 1-5.

[5] Fania Oz-Salzberger, “Heidelberg's Hope,” (accessed May 6, 2010).

[6] Wertheimer, Between Tsar and Kaiser, 337.

[7] Hirsch, 1.

[8] Freidenreich, 3, 7. Cf. also Oz-Salzberger: “They were intoxicated with learning, those young Russian Jews, those lovers of forbidden books”.

[9] For details, see Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 257-282.

[10] Freidenreich, 1-17.

[11] Cf. Hirsch, 2 on the importance of girls' education in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition.

[12] Freidenreich, 2.

[13] Hirsch, 2.

[14] Ibid., 4.

[15] Ibid., 2.

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Becoming Transnational? Russion Jewish Students at the Universities of Late Imperial Germany
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Pavel Vasilyev (Author), 2010, Becoming Transnational? Russion Jewish Students at the Universities of Late Imperial Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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