Zoé Grumberg, “Testimonies as Historical Sources for the study of the rebuilding of the Jewish-communist life in Paris after the Second World War (1944-1967)”

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Zoé Grumberg is a PhD candidate at Sciences Po Paris and works on a thesis untitled « De la section juive de la Main-d’oeuvre immigrée (MOI) à la nébuleuse juive communiste (UJRE, MNCR/MRAP, USJF), Paris années 1920-années 1960 » under the supervision of Claire Andrieu (Sciences Po Paris). She graduated from Sciences Po in 2014 and obtained the agrégation of History in 2015. She is currently writing her PhD and is also teaching social and political history at Sciences Po Paris.

Very few has yet been written on the rebuilding of the Jewish-communist life in Paris after the Second World War: we rely on testimonies and on a few academic works based on testimonies. Some academics deliberately made this choice because they wanted to study identities. Others should have used Jewish-communist written archives but did not know of their existence or did not have access to them. They were thus limited to Jewish-communist newspapers – if they could read Yiddish – and testimonies of all sort if they wanted to adopt a Jewish point of view besides the one of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the State.

If testimonies and oral history are real historical sources, their use without a clear methodology can be problematic. As Umberto Eco wrote about literature, every text is a “lazy thing that require a cooperative work of the reader[1]” because a text is never completely explicit. I would argue that testimonies need the interpretative cooperation of the researcher to fulfil the silences and to explain what is not explicitly said and understandable. Unfortunately some of the works on the Jewish-communists suffer from a lack of reflexion on their sources and this is why I would like to highlight three points of methodology that seem to me fundamental to use testimonies in a social and political History:

  • Context and frameworks need to be rebuild carefully to understand how people acted and thought in a specific period.
  • Testimonies should not be seen as archives who say the history as it was but should be taken for voices emanating from the witnesses in a specific context. This is why it seems important to adopt different points of views and to compare a various kind of sources that complete and eventually contradict each other.
  • It is fundamental to understand how testimonies were produced.

In my thesis the study of the relationships between Jewish-communist organisations, the PCF and the State will help me understand the context, while the written archives emanating from those institutions will constitute a rich corpus of various sources. Then, to study the political engagement of the Jewish-communists and to see singularities and common points between them, I will do a collective biography of the members of some Jewish-communist organisations. Nevertheless, because the collective biography tends to diminish the singularity of each particular path, I will use testimonies to insert a qualitative approach in a quantitative work[2]. While the prosopography will underline the diachronic part of each engagement – when, how, etc. – the testimonies of some people will show synchronic dimensions such as different political identities at the same time, multiple engagements, doubts, etc. Used among other sources[3], testimonies will thus enrich this prosopography and allow us to hear voices of the dead, which is really valuable.

[1] Umberto Eco, Lector in fabula. Le rôle du lecteur ou La coopération interprétative dans les textes narratifs, traduit de l’italien par Myriam Bouzaher, Paris, Grasset, 1979.

[2] The major difference with the previous works is that the people I study will not be chosen because they testified: I will only use testimonies of the members of my corpus.

[3] My prosopography will be based on communist, personal and police archives.