Rethinking refugees with Comparative Literature professor Tabea Linhard

| Staff Writer

The idea was this: Use a random number generator to choose one out of the 120 departments at Washington University and then choose a random professor in that department. Talk to them, see what their work life looks like and ask them a potentially difficult question: Can you dumb things down for someone outside of that field? Why does your research matter? To phrase it less aggressively: If a nonacademic, utilitarian administrator were to ask you why you need funding for your work, what would you say?

The department was Comparative Literature, the professor Tabea Linhard. Linhard received her first degree in English, then specialized in Spanish and Mexican Literature. She came to Wash. U. in 2003 to teach Romance Languages and Literatures and now leads courses in other related departments in the humanities. She published a book in 2014, “Jewish Spain: A Mediterranean Memory,” which takes on the vast and disparate topic of the history of Spanish Jews.

Linhard sat down with me in her office, which overlooks a picturesque Brookings Quadrangle. She explained that in this field of exploring Spanish Jewry, many scholars will rely on large historical events that don’t always reflect real human experience.

“A lot of books about Spanish Jews end in 1492, when they were expelled from Spain,” she said. “But there was actually an important presence of Jews in Spain after that.”

Primarily focused on the 1930s and 1940s, Linhard explores disparate and conflicting realities of Jews in Spain.

“Before the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it was a relatively good place for Jews,” she explained. “That definitely changed at the end of the war, when [former Spanish prime minister Francisco] Franco won. The rhetoric was comparable to that in Germany.”

At the same time, though, Spain acted as a haven from occupied France and Germany when the Nazis took over.

“What is so contradictory,” she explained, “Is that many Jews [estimated at about 20,000-30,000] were able to save their lives, crossing over the Pyrenees and then making it to the Americas. This doesn’t really make sense, since Franco was supporting Axis powers.”

Some Jews accounted for this possibility of safety through a historical precedent of Medieval Christian-Jewish tolerance (before the centuries leading up to the Jewish expulsion), a “golden age” of acceptance they thought continued into the 20th century.

“They simplify, which is pretty understandable, by looking back at the past,” Linhard said. “But it’s often a very idealized vision of the past.”

Another mythical understanding involves a real meeting between Franco and Adolf Hitler in 1940, at the border between Spain and France.

“No one knows what happened in their discussion,” Linhard said. “But Jews hiding in Spain imagine that Franco said to Hitler: ‘The Catholic kings took care of the Jewish problem in 1492, hence there were no Jews in Spain.’”

Yet, soon into her research, Linhard found that this account was far more complex. Jews were able to enter Spain through networks of sympathetic diplomats across Europe and border agents who would take bribes. Refugees from France, for example, required forged exit, entrance and transit visas, money to support the trip and any necessary bribes and passage for specific transportation. Even then, authorities still sometimes caught and arrested them as illegal immigrants.

Linhard initially found interest in this topic because of her grandparents’ story.

“My maternal grandparents were from Berlin. My grandfather left Germany quite early, in 1933, and went to Barcelona, which was kind of a coincidence—he had a friend there,” she said. “I was always curious about that story. There were all these holes in [my grandparents’] stories. I grew up thinking they were the only Jewish family in Barcelona in that period, which wasn’t true at all.”

In her research, Linhard has searched for traces of her grandparents’ history in Spain. Yet, the pressing issue in this is that the successful refugees were those who didn’t get caught and passed without any written traces. One Jewish woman escaped occupied France to avoid deportation to Eastern Europe. She made it across the border but was soon caught. At the time, Spanish authorities weren’t required to return refugees to France, but this woman was an illegal immigrant, nonetheless. So, she was moved around near the border and then prepared to be sent back across the border via Barcelona, where she eventually committed suicide.

“The people who actually made it across Spain, well—we don’t know about them. We only know about those who were detained or [who] died. Their stories made it into the archives,” Linhard said.

We are then left with complex, individual histories that do not necessarily represent average experiences.

“Every single story actually has to be looked at under a microscope,” Linhard concluded.

To be sure,writing a correct or previously unheard history matters in its own right, but why would this matter for someone who doesn’t study history? Of course, Linhard said, our current world crises often center on the experiences and weights of refugees.

“As you know, the number of displaced refugees now is more than in World War II. I think it’s important that we understand the history of the concept of the refugee, which is a relatively new concept, although people have always been displaced,” she said.

She explains that many of these refugees, after escaping through Spain to the Americas, became prominent figures in academia and culture. The negative stereotypes of refugees that some people hold—that they do not contribute anything productive to their adopted society—does not hold historical precedence.

Approaching this subject requires us to come to terms with how humans naturally fracture reality and understand the world. The Jews hiding in Spain simplified stories for some sense of solace and protection from a seemingly scary figure in power.

Some politicians and historical scholars also prefer to reduce history to easily digestible movements, eras and civilizations. Like historian Bernard Lewis, who wrote in 1990 about a “clash of civilizations” between “the West” and “Islam,” these people look for intrinsic qualities, simple definitions, “us vs. them” constructions and strict boundaries.

But this approach is contrary to proper humanities study or public policy. Personal records point toward individual histories, not toward simplicity or reduction. If we look, we find exceptions to rules everywhere.

In Spain, Linhard reminds us: “No one person was ever responsible, but, obviously, it’s better to tell a story that this hero saved all these people.”

With the election a day away (yes, I have to mention it), voters are promised, on one side, certainty, control and authority, protection through extreme limitation. Whether that’s possible—and whether we would ever want this approach to history or individuals—is our decision to make.

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