Oral History: Steven E. Aschheim

28 November 2014:

8 April 2014:


Narrator: Steven E. Aschheim
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 8 April 2014, 28 November 2014
Transcribed: Pop Up Archive, Melissa Schultz
Total Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (over two sessions)
Format: Audio

Steven E. Aschheim biography:
Steven E. Aschheim is Emeritus Professor of History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem where he taught Cultural and Intellectual History in the Department of History since 1982 and held the Vigevani Chair of European Studies. He also acted as the Director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre for German Literature and Cultural History. Apart from academic journals, he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, the Jewish Review of Books and Ha’aretz. He has spent sabbaticals at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and in 2002-2003 was the first Mosse Exchange Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During September-October 2005 he taught at Columbia University as the Max Kade Distinguished Visiting Scholar of German Studies. He has also taught at the University of Maryland, Reed College, the Free University in Berlin and the Central European University in Budapest. He taught at the University of Toronto in October 2008 and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor from September-December 2009. He served as a Research Fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research in the summer of 2010 and in March-April 2011 was the Stan Gold Visiting Professor of Jewish History at Trinity College, Dublin. In 2013-2014 he was a Fellow of the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice at New York University School of Law. In April 2016 he was a Fellow at the Dubnow Institute, Leipzig and in November 2016 was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick. In 2017 (September-October), he held the first Menasseh Ben Israel Institute Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and also taught at the University of Antwerp. He is married, has three children – and three grand-daughters and two grandsons! He is the author of Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German-Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) which has been translated into German and Hebrew; Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (New York: New York University Press, 1996); In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001); Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), which has also appeared in Italian, and Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad (Princeton University Press, 2007). He is the editor of the conference volume, Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), also translated into Hebrew. His At the Edges of Liberalism: Junctions of European, German and Jewish History (Palgrave Macmillan) appeared in June 2012. A volume, co-edited with Vivian Liska, entitled The German-Jewish Experience Revisited (Berlin, De Gruyter) appeared in 2015. His volume entitled Fragile Spaces: Forays into Jewish Memory, European History and Complex Identities appeared in 2018.

**To access the OHMS oral history page for Steven E. Aschheim, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here.**


Interview Session (28 November 2014)



Tortorice: Okay. Okay. This is John Tortorice. I am in Jerusalem, and it is November 28th, 2014. I’m here to interview Professor Steven Aschheim, professor emeritus of history at the Hebrew University and a George L. Mosse doctorate. So, we’ll get started. So, Steve, where were you born and when?

Aschheim: Oh, boy.

Tortorice: Going back to day one.

Aschheim: If we are talking about when I was born, we have to go into dinosauric history. I was born in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1942, which seems so long away, but that’s it. That’s the answer to your question. Don’t publicize it.

Tortorice: [chuckles] So, when did your family arrive in South Africa?

Aschheim: Yeah, well, the first thing to be said is that all of this is very obscure and vague. My parents who were German Jewish refugees didn’t speak much about this, in fact almost not at all. And I being stupid never pushed them for an answer. So, what I will tell you is an approximation. I think that my father came some time in 1936. My mother came a few months, maybe a year earlier. Her parents, my mother’s parents, left Germany, I think in [19]34. And left my mother as far, as I know, to finish high school with a non-Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Now this is not proved. It’s something that kind of wafted to us, and I think it’s probably true. Then my mother joined them when she finished school, and I think came early in [19]35. Maybe. My father had still not arrived he had gone from Germany to England, was not granted permanent status there, and then took a boat to what he thought was a jungle-laden South Africa. He had been in touch with my with my mother’s parents to rent an apartment because my father came virtually penniless, and German Jews organized a kind of self-help community. And so my father was going to live in my grandparents’ home in a single room with a curtain dividing him from the other guy. At any rate, the apocryphal story is that when he arrived in 1936, my mother, who was seventeen years younger than my father, that means she was seventeen and my father was thirty… Thirty-four? The apocryphal story is they arrived, they went to the station to collect my father, and my father got off the train, looked at my mother, and said, “Doris, let’s get married.” And they got married very quickly after. Now, how true any of these stories are I don’t know, but that’s the mythical background to my family.


Tortorice: So, your father came here penniless?

Aschheim: He didn’t come here (Israel). He would never have dreamed of coming here.

Tortorice: Sorry, to South Africa. Penniless? And yet, you grew up in a very well-off family. How did this happen?

Aschheim: I grew up in opulence, you could say. Half of my life has been a revolt against that opulence. How does that… that’s one of those typical immigration stories, especially of middle-class Jews. My father [Leopold] started off selling eggs from door to door, met this fellow from Zürich, Mr. [Sam] Weil. They decided they were going to go into the dress business, and I think this is in about 1943. Remember, South Africa is untouched by war. It was a time of booming industrialization and economic expansion. They came at the right time and built it up into a massive dress, stockings, and dare I say, brassiere factory. So, by the time I appeared, not when I was born, I think we were still very modestly well off, but over the years, we lived exceedingly well. And part of the reason was of my joining the socialist youth movement had to do with some kind of a fear, of discomfort with it. Now, I deeply regret that stupid attitude. It would be wonderful to have money, but that’s the way it was.


Tortorice: So, did you live in a Jewish enclave? When did you decide to get involved with Zionism?

Aschheim: First of all, you are… not that you are not Jewish; that’s not relevant. But you are American, so you will have almost no idea about the structure of South African, white society. First of all, South African society anyway was organized racially and ethnically. Black-white, blacks-coloreds, blacks-Indians, whites. Even amongst the whites, identity was ethnically or religiously oriented, so you had English speaking non-Jews, Afrikaners, and Jews. And nary shall the twain meet. I don’t think I ever saw a non-Jew in my house, apart from our black servants but they weren’t really “people” you see. They were boy and girl. And so, your whole social life, your whole sense of identity, was enclosed within your particular ethnic community, and so I don’t recall one inter-marriage in our community. Now that’s changed drastically. But at that stage, that’s how things were organized. So, when the time for my revolution came, it was through the Zionist youth movement which defined itself antithetically, but was as ethnically exclusive and bound as everything else was. So, there wasn’t even a question of departure. The only people who really departed from this, and I was too scared to do this, were the people who joined the underground of the anti-apartheid movement where blacks, whites, Christians, Jews all mixed.

Tortorice: But was that a little later Steve? I mean, that was in the after apartheid came in, what about the late forties…?

Aschheim: Yeah, I’m talking about, when I was born in 1942 so the time I came to consciousness was in 1959-1960 and during the Sixties, we did know people who joined the underground and were then kind of disaffected from the community. Ours was an affected-disaffected attitude. It was a kind of… I would call it “pseudo revolution” because we really stayed within the bounds.


Tortorice: So this racialism, which really permeated South African society… I mean, you could say it was British or Dutch, or but it was an imposition on the system that was already there, and permeated all aspects of life. Were you at all in relation with the black community besides… well, I assume the servants would be the…

Aschheim: Yeah. I mean, first of all, you were brought up by black people, and the black people… It’s very interesting: they were “domestic” servants, and the word applies to them. They were domesticated, really. So, they were part of the family. But of course you knew… they knew and you knew what the real status was. There was a great deal of affection there, and I think a mutual kind of liking, but clearly the division was at the quarters. Of course, there were servants’ quarters. They could really go home because of the pass laws: only once every three to four months, they could go home. Their rooms, which were adjacent to our house, just in the backyard, were terrible. Cold water, primitive as hell, and there wasn’t a sense of outrage; in the same place there are vast differences. So I used to enact, from an early age I saw this is absolutely wrong, but from an early… but I was also a good Jewish bourgeois son. And my relation to my parents was an extremely good one so my ideological revolt we used to discuss, but never threatening to the family fabric. But my revolution was going into the kitchen and singing African songs, sometimes Nkosi Sikelel’ i, which became the freedom song of the A.N.C. and then the national hymn. That became my outlet. But that all this is pseudo: This is Mel Brooks, you know? The main source of transportation is fear, that characterizes me. So, I cannot claim that, that in any way I was involved with serious anti-apartheid activity, but it was clear from the beginning that something was dreadfully wrong, including the total self-indulgence of the white community. You would never wash your own dishes. You would never do your own bed. You would… and you would take for granted being served. So…

Tortorice: But you never spoke to your parents about this contradiction, that they came from persecution, racialist persecution, to a place where racialism was embedded so distinctly? This was not something that they talked about, it sounds like.

Aschheim: Well, first of all, let me preface the answer, I will get directly to answer, but I must preface it by saying, as I told you, there was much too little history, much too little I knew about my parents. The fact that they were German Jewish refugees came up maybe very occasionally and in oblique terms. They never referred to themselves as survivors. They never referred to themselves even as refugees. There was none of that. So, when you say, they themselves were products of racial oppression. First of all, that was never really represented to me. That’s not their self-representation. But equally, I’ve actually written about this, it seems to me that given the fact that they were refugees and that for instance, England wouldn’t take them, their main response was not indignation about their system, but gratitude that South Africa took them in and gave them a chance to succeed fantastically. So, that, and then of course they are good bourgeois people, and you have to be loyal to those who are granting you these rights. So, that was not really an issue. And yet, from the time I was vaguely conscience… conscious, I internalized the Holocaust. I don’t know why or where it came from, but I was intensely aware that it does have to do with my feeling about apartheid and racism, and it has to do acutely with the way in which I believe we are conducting ourselves here (in Israel). So, if my parents didn’t have that consciousness I have it, and I’m no refugee or survivor. I don’t know if that answers you.


Tortorice: So. Yes. So, where did you learn about Holocaust? From your parents or… was it in the Jewish community, because, or from, well we’ll get to your schooling, but it sounds like your schooling was more…

Aschheim: Schooling had nothing…

Tortorice: Nothing to do with it.

Aschheim: Nothing. It’s a good question. Well. I mean, it takes place at different levels. The first level is the subliminal level, which is that if you are Jew in South Africa… American must… you mustn’t have America in mind. It’s very different. If you’re a Jew in South Africa, you are a conspicuous and very, very self-conscious minority. You know you are Jewish, and so you don’t want to stick out too much. So, I always had this consciousness of difference, and I suppose it’s through my parents’ accent and occasionally this understanding they came from Germany, or a movie here or a movie there. Then I began to understand what was going on, but I’m talking here at a very, very young age. This wasn’t a theoretical matter. It was something you kind of imbibed, and that’s why I’m also a Mel Brooks Jew. [JT laughs.] Fear as a mode of transportation. So yes I can’t tell you…it was never systematic or theoretical. It kind of entered into me, and I cannot tell you why because my parents did not dwell on it at all. They sometimes spoke about Germany with contempt and said, “Oh those bloody Germans,” or something, but that’s it.


Tortorice: So, there wasn’t a sense that this in some ways reflected on what was happening in South Africa.

Aschheim: For whom?

Tortorice: For… you as a child. I mean, did… did you make that connection of this… this imposed system of racial characterization in South Africa as you started…

Aschheim: From the Holocaust?

Tortorice: When you started to learn about it, and did you see that it had…..because it seems like what you did was move more towards the Zionist youth organization as your response to this…

Aschheim: I didn’t connect the Holocaust then to apartheid. I did realize that apartheid was shockingly oppressive, but the strength of my Jewishness was probably too strong to make any immediate kind of connection. If you ask me now, that’s a different thing. We are talking about when I was nine years and more. So, it’s a very different thing. So, no, I never and never did make that connection at that stage.


Tortorice: So you went to a rather strict boys’ school from what you were telling me the other night. So, tell me about the school.

Aschheim: I may break out into a rash.

Tortorice: It sounds like an absolutely dreadful place.

Aschheim: South African education at that stage—there were only boys schools or girls’ schools; There’s no mixing, was deeply authoritarian, was disciplinarian. Never taught me a thing. I mean, they must’ve taught me how to read and write, but never taught me anything. And basically, if the teacher would ask a question and I would put up my hand and say, “Sir, I think…” the teacher would say, “Don’t think.” Now, that’s not exactly your ideal institution, and I don’t think I’m going to go over this again, you’ve heard it too often doesn’t have to be, the fact that I was given cuts and caned. And a great deal of… of antisemitism. Clear antisemitism.

Tortorice: In your school?

Aschheim: Yes, absolutely. I think you’ve heard these stories. I don’t want to tell you more. You don’t need it for this do you?

Tortorice: Well, you know…

Aschheim: You need those stories?

Tortorice: You know they’re wonderful stories in showing what it was like to experience that kind of education, but I understand that, you know… maybe one story.

Aschheim: Well, for instance… Yeah, alright. First of all, Mr. Ewell, who was my chemistry teacher, and I can tell you now that in mathematics and in chemistry and physics, I was not a star pupil, as you will understand. But for some reason, every time there was a non-chemistry discussion, Mr. Ewell would turn to me. And in his enlightened way, Mr. Ewell said, “Aschheim.” I said, “Yes, sir.” “Do you know why World War II was fought?” And I said, “No sir.” “I’ll tell you, Aschheim. World War II was fought because of you people.” So, I said, “Sir,” and you couldn’t argue with these guys, “Sir, I can’t really tell you why that’s not correct. But I do not think that’s correct.” And he sent me to the Headmaster for a caning. So you get some idea of what kind of things went on there.

Tortorice: It explains, to me anyway, why you ended up in Israel. Because, you know, I think that kind of experience makes a Jewish homeland all that more attractive.

Aschheim: Yes, now I agree. I’m glad that you’re taking the Zionist side here. But another very important reason for getting here, and it’s also difficult for an American to understand that the experience… Oh, and George would know this, I mean the experience of the youth movement. All my closest friends still are here, and we are still all together.

Tortorice: Zionists, Habonim.

Aschheim: Camaraderie, and ecstasy. It was a kind of mad ecstasy, of singing, of laughing, of sex, of meaning, ideas, ideology. I have intellectually outgrown it, but I haven’t emotionally outgrown it.

Tortorice: It’s very attractive it sounds like.

Aschheim: And now I’m very, very critical of it, you know, and in many ways it was so ecstatically enclosed, that one had pure contempt for anything else outside so if anything brought me here—what you say is correct, there is no question—but the steam, the lubricant was that and I think that still applies and George understood that, I think he really got that, and when he showed me some of the German völkisch movements that were, that opened my eyes.


Tortorice: This group that you met in this Zionist youth organization, Habonim….

Aschheim: I prefer you to call it Habonim even now, to Zionist. Yeah.

Tortorice: You said this was one of the most meaningful things in your life, is that true?

Aschheim: Absolutely.

Tortorice: And that you’re still friendly, dear friends with this group. And it’s really an extraordinary group, the ones that I’ve met, here in Israel and in America. But I’m struck by how close you all are and how you relate still on such an intimate way. You know that you are very funny with each other, you are supportive, it’s really I can see how that…

Aschheim: By the way, I don’t know if we want this recorded, but Za’ev Mankowitz is in hospice, he’s dying.

Tortorice: I’m sorry to hear that.

Aschheim: I don’t know if you knew him at all.

Tortorice: I did indeed, yes. Yes, when I first came to Israel he and his wife gave me a tour, and he was very fascinating.

Aschheim: Wait a minute, what year was this?

Tortorice: Well, it wasn’t the first time I came to Israel actually. It would have been right after George died, which would have been [19]99.

Aschheim: Ah, OK, so that’s… that’s not Jean, that’s Bella. OK.

Tortorice: Yes, Bella, she’s the one –

Aschheim: That’s all true, but I’m not sure what your question is.

Tortorice: Well, I think it was more to enhance what you said about the power of this attachment this association and how it’s carried through your entire life.

Aschheim: Absolutely.

Tortorice: And you know that isn’t so common, for men in particular, to have lifelong group of friends like that …. It sounds like most of you stayed here in Israel even though you…

Aschheim: Most. Many are in the States, or in Canada, or in Australia, but there is a group here that did remain and many… they’ve done well. Including one you met who’s now Vice- head of the Fed in America. Stan Fischer, who is way and above everyone else, there’s no question.

Tortorice: But still very, very accomplished group, yeah.

Aschheim: But it’s not the accomplishment, you have… you know, it’s one of those things you have to be in so it would be silly. It works almost totally. That’s why I was so attracted, amongst other things to George: On humor. Absolutely, do you know, mad humor. And that’s how we do it and I think that’s a big thing. And apart from comedy, I’m sure you have common experiences with friends that you had associations all those other things. But it’s also being foreigners here which keeps us together. English is all our main, it’s our lingua-franca. So there were all kinds of…. all kinds of things, but the reason I took to George immediately. I didn’t know his academic work; It was his hilarity that got me. And then it developed into… into other things, but that was the first thing. Should I tell you the first story when we met, at Za’ev Mankowitz’s house? I think we’ve talked about this. This was in [19]68, when the student revolutions were really going on. And we were aware of it and we said, “Ah, Professor Mosse, how on earth do you deal with the student revolution? There’s violence there’s mad things going on.” and he said “Oh, no Steve! No student revolution begins before two in the afternoon. I teach at ten.” So the moment he said that to me I said, right, this is going to be a good guy.

Tortorice: Well, he didn’t take it all that seriously, unlike some of his colleagues, that’s very true.

Aschheim: He encouraged part of it, and limited other parts, right?

Tortorice: Yes, he did. He was he was taken with it. I think he saw the potential, and he thought it was great that young people were mobilized in shaping your own future. I mean, he obviously was not too pleased by the direction it went all the time.


Tortorice: Well, we’ve already discussed from the time that you arrived in Israel on, essentially.

Aschheim: Oh, we have?

Tortorice: That tape I have still, so. So we’re at the point when you were engaged with the Habonim and… Tell me how did your… you say that there were no teachers really that engaged you. So how did your great interest and passion for history emerge? Did that come, I mean I know you were at the London School of Economics, but how did you end up going into history?

Aschheim: Well, OK. Well. I did my B.A. in sociology and political science. I did my M.A. in London in political sociology. So, my first two degrees had nothing to do with history. So then you have to look for different, different routes. Again you have to come to the youth movement. Why? Because it is there that you had passionate intellectual debates, discussions, and where your mind was liberated. Where you were encouraged to think. True, it went along ideological lines. It was a movement an ideology but it had intellectual content. I gave for instance, I was eighteen, seventeen I was giving seminars on Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). And I remember the first time I read a serious book is when I was fourteen. I went to the Zionist federation and took [Alex] Bein’s biography of Herzl. This was at fourteen, and at school we never would have… So, it was two tracks when it was school, which had absolutely nothing to do with reality and the other was Habonim, which is where- it wasn’t history, it was thinking, it was ideas; it was ideals. And until I got to university and at university, it was it was liberation. You were opened up to things, and Johannesburg was a reasonable university, but the reading we had, you could read what you want, you could explore. So, it was at university and the youth movement that I started with, and the only reason I became interested in history- history for me until then was what are the four reasons for the Industrial Revolution? Why did the French Revolution occur? Number one, number two, and if you get number two as number one you’ve failed the exam. Dry facts, uninteresting.

Tortorice: It’s a way it’s still taught too much.

Aschheim: Terrible. It didn’t interest me. And yes here the role of George is for history. I tell you… I was going to do my Ph.D. in sociology on de-humanization. But it was all about abstract, impersonal structures. And then comes George. You know, about culture, and I’m attracted to things cultural. George’s critique about German Jews that, you know, they confuse culture with politics, I’m guilty of that to this day. But that’s what set me alight, and so, had it not been for George, I don’t know what I would have done. I wouldn’t. He molded my career; I went to Madison/Siberia for George. And yes, that (history) was where my real passion and interest lies until this day. But I didn’t know that until I met George.

Tortorice: He had this ability to bring out in people what was already there, but they didn’t realize it; he sparked something.

Aschheim: He definitely sparked, but I mean, but the first thing he sparked I’m telling you was not that. It was the… it was his mode, it was his being much more than his actual work. When he walked into dinner, after that evening talking about the revolutions, I went to his class on antisemitism. First class he walks in, looks at the class, “oh, you’re all Aryans. All Aryans.” So of course you’d go for that. Immediately. It was that that got me. It was the human with the eruditene thing coupled for me. So, that’s how I got into history.


Tortorice: Well, we just… we’re talking about a recent event we had in Madison where so many of Mosse’s undergraduate students from the sixties came back. And this was another case of him just having such an impact on undergraduates who didn’t know him that well, and yet they still—forty, fifty years later—are trying to figure out what it was.

Aschheim: What did they say it was?

Tortorice: Well, you know, it was mostly, we’re just beginning to explore this, but my understanding is that he had this ability to pull students in to a thoughtful way of looking at the world. You know, he just pulled them out of what they had done into a critical way of looking at the world. It was like it woke them up. And in a way they’re going back and trying to figure out the trajectories of their life, where the great influences were, and they’re coming back to Mosse, you know.

Aschheim: But then the question is how does he pull them out? And I think part of it, it’s only a part of it, is his capacity to personalize. That is to say, he will relate to you, right? And we didn’t go on, but one of the things, when I was in Israel as I told you, in the second tape which worked, I taught in these various institutions. The leadership thing, (Habonim) and the student thing and when he met my mother, whom he’d never met, he said, “Hello Mrs. Aschheim, do you know your son is the Goebbels of Israel?”

Tortorice: [laughs] What a great line.

Aschheim: My mother was shocked out of her mind. But you see what I mean. That’s the… suddenly… it’s got nothing, I mean, I really was nothing like the Goebbels of Israel. But he gets to… he gets … it’s a kind of… a shock. But a humanizing shock and done with humor too. I’m sure that a lot of people remember the Mosse stories more than they do the intellectual framework of which he’s pretty sure; that’s how it works.


Tortorice: But also I think he took his students seriously. He gave them the compliment of taking them seriously and challenging them, and they remember that too so they do remember that. And also I think there’s an ethical and moral aspect to it that he was able to spark a kind of moral understanding of history and your place in the world and how you have to engage in the world in a moral, ethical, historical way. Yes, I think all of that really you know, at a time when… This whole thing of relevance or whatever, but when people were looking for that as they always are. Yes, but I think he had this ability because he saw history as very much…a life’s calling as a way of understanding the world. I think for him this was, you know, the way of understanding, and its really obvious.

Aschheim: No, no question.

Tortorice: So, I think they understood that. Well, I don’t know that we need to talk much more about your youth unless you have something more to say, but I want to talk to you about…

Aschheim: Well, first of all I admire your ability to ask others questions about themselves. Not… not, you know, you go to the Hebrew University, and you’ll find that virtually every professor is willing to talk endlessly about themselves.

Tortorice: [laughs] That’s not only the Hebrew University, by the way. But, you know I think your teaching style has some relation, more than some relation to George’s style. You have…

Aschheim: It’s dual. It’s double. The first thing is that I was raised in the youth movement, and there you were taught how to keep the interest of kids. It wasn’t an obligatory framework, so you had to keep the kid’s attention. So, the first one is there. If you know how to give one of your talks and to motivate the kids that was all part of the youth movement and then you add George. Right, so although, although. Yes, it’s modeled partly on George, but I would never have the guts or the authority that George did. And I’ll give you one example. The… he was teaching at the Hebrew University in the early years. Is it still working? And he was giving a class… I probably told this in the other interview on Weimar. And there you had old Weimarians in the class, and one Weimarian stood up and said, “Wait a minute, I was there. It wasn’t like that at all.” And George would say, “You are in the valley; I am in the mountain.” Now for instance I couldn’t say something like that. That does take a certain authority. I couldn’t do that. So, in that sense, George… George was unique in that sort of thing. I couldn’t do that sort of thing. There was another thing I wanted to say on this.


Tortorice: Well, it seems like, that your attempt to engage students…

Aschheim: When have you seen me teach?

Tortorice: Well, in Madison, although you wouldn’t let me come to your course too often. But I’ve heard you lecture. You know, you have this ability to reach out to the audience and also to interject humor and to pace your teaching but also to pull them in.

Aschheim: But I never had anything like that impact. Just can’t compare. Well, that’s way it is.

Tortorice: Yeah. Well that brings up your career here at the Hebrew University. So, when did you get hired here? Was it in in the early eighties?

Aschheim: [19]82, I came back. And why did I come back? Because George spoke to [Yehoshua] Arieli (1916-2002), who spoke to the dean and there I was. No interview. No lecture. Nothing. There I was.

Tortorice: This is the way it was in those days.

Aschheim: Not possible today, even with the highest of the high. It’s just not possible. Yeah, [19]82.

Tortorice: So, some of these people and we we’ve already discussed the trajectory of your career here on the other tape. But I was wondering…, from your vantage point of teaching history and modern Jewish history, German Jewish history, I mean from the Hebrew University, you’ve really witnessed an incredible, well parade of the major intellectuals in this field through Jerusalem. You knew so many of them. You still know so many them. I mean, you were in a key position…

Aschheim: Wait, just hang on before you go on just let me just say it really only just applies to one. But there’s something about the camaraderie of George’s students, which is not that different from the camaraderie of the youth movement.

Tortorice: It’s fascinating. Not only the way you and Andy, there are many others, Seymour, there’s you know David Sabean, and many others.

Aschheim: But I’m not in their circle. I’m talking about the nature of the friendship which was formed as a result that may be true for Sy (Drescher) and David.

Tortorice: Indeed, very much so, yes. But did you have that sense here at the Hebrew University that you were part of a community that you were in that really at the center of very important effort to understand German Jewish history, some of the people that you engaged with that you knew


Aschheim: Well first of all you have to do you have to divide into two. I don’t think there was for me a serious intellectual community working together on that question. All of us were doing it. We were reasonably friendly, but there wasn’t a kind of close-knit intellectual community working on these things, although we all did in our own different ways. But the second thing is there’s no doubt that being in Jerusalem, what I wrote and what they wrote has had particular resonance. It may not have the same resonance today. That centrality may be deeply questioned or even over now. That’s another question.

Tortorice: What do you mean by that?

Aschheim: What I mean with the decreasing legitimacy and the perception of so many people of the problems here, I’m not so sure that we’re seen as an authoritative source anymore. At least, nothing like it used to be. Also, I think the last major world-famous historians that came out of here would be [Jacob] Talmon (1916-1980) in general history and Jacob Katz (1904-1998) in Jewish history. Whereas you could say in America the most famous Jewish historian who worked until a few years ago and it was Yehoshua Arieli. So and today I can’t think of any historian Jewish or general-and you know of the silly cut between Jewish and general history, who has a similar status to the greats. Now, the question is, are there any great historians either in Europe or America. That’s another question. But I don’t think we are as resonant and as relevant as we were twenty years ago. And I don’t think that’s romanticizing. But I must say something else here which is ideological, that the longer I’ve been here, my reading of German history, (this I think is something George would understand) is very much dictated by the situation here.

Tortorice: I find that to be the case for many Israelis. Okay, yes.

Aschheim: Okay, so, you know there’s a problem there but maybe also something good I don’t know if George… Did George see my book in which I wrote about [Victor] Klemperer (1881-1960)? Some people were amazed that I basically attacked [Gershom] Scholem (1897-1982) and defended Klemperer who’s an assimilationist. So, you know where does that come from? That comes from my situation here.


Tortorice: You know George had a relation, Eva Noack-Mosse, and her situation was very similar to that of Klemperer. I mean, she married a Gentile and she ended up at Theresienstadt.

Aschheim: How was she related?

Tortorice: She was the daughter of one of George’s grandfather’s brother’s, daughter or granddaughter, and anyways, I am having this memoir translated, but you could read it in German, I can send it to you in German but it’s amazing the similarities between her experiences and Klemperer and also the way she writes. It’s nothing about her in a sense it’s not about making you feel empathy for her or feeling sorry for herself or look what they did…. it’s just very factual. A high level of rational analysis of what happened to her because she… and I think she felt that she was writing as a warning, as a caution.

Aschheim: Where did you get the memoir? Did George have it or did you get it subsequently?

Tortorice: I got it from the Leo Baeck Institute. They told me about it, and actually she corresponded with George, and I think there is something like ten letters. So, I’m going to have those translated, too. But no you didn’t write about Klemperer during George’s lifetime, but that book (Klemperer’s) had just come out, I believe, and your book on Klemperer…

Aschheim: When did it come out?

Tortorice: He knew about it.

Aschheim: It came out in 2001.

Tortorice: Okay, that book came out in 2001?

Aschheim: I think, yeah.

Tortorice: You know because I know I recall that he, he knew about the book, maybe there was two volumes and they were

Aschheim: Saul Friedländer. I asked Saul what he thinks, and he said it’s not complete. He wouldn’t say a word more, I said, “give me a real criticism.” He said, “No, its not complete.” George and Saul, although he, Saul, is younger than George, born thirty-six (1932), right. They can’t take a step that a lot of people who are younger can take. Because they of their respect and correctly so, for the achievement of creating the state at a time when it was crucial. But we were not prepared to say, “Wait a minute. There are some very, very basic things that you have to face. Walter Laqueur (1921-2018) is another.


Tortorice: Well I think George understood this contradiction. He had this romantic idea of nationalism with the human face that in Israel is where it was most profoundly manifested but quickly you know, but hope springs eternal. But I think for him it was a very personal reason and that is you know you know fundamentally he was wounded by his own history and that sense of insecurity deeply and I think that he really did feel a great attachment to Israel and also to in particular to the people. You know, to that group that he knew for George Israel was a group of intellectuals essentially in their families. He didn’t have much interaction with the rest of Israeli society, from what I can tell. Anyways, he didn’t learn Hebrew.

Aschheim: Oh, well, that’s the story of, oh yeah that I repeat everywhere. Yeah right. Adonai to the waiter, Adonai, I get wonderful service.

Tortorice: Yeah but he’s…

Aschheim: By the way when you say his insecurity, I argued with Friedländer and maybe I’m wrong. I said, “George didn’t act as a survivor.” And Saul says, “No he was deeply wounded and therefore insecure as a survivor. I said, “No, I may be wrong…” but I think another part of my attraction to him was that his insecurity accounts for his humanity.

Tortorice: Exactly. He knew that too.

Aschheim: You know, okay, well fine that’s what.

Tortorice: What you know because you know when you think of what a powerful personality George was and he always said that you know exile made him because you could imagine him as a very arrogant, nasty person. He could have been if he had had a very secure childhood and you know grown up as the son of the very wealthy man and I think that that part of his personality might have been more manifested, but when you see what happened to him and his sister, they both became these great humanitarians, and you know this universalist vision they lived that their whole lives. So you know but I think that was because of the experiences that he had. And so, he understood that about himself I think… I think he was deeply wounded. I think that it did make him very insecure, but he had, he had a lot of courage I would say-he kind of was able to overcome that and present himself in a certain way that was very different from that in that I think…

Aschheim: His bodily movements gave him away.

Tortorice: That’s right, yes!

Aschheim: That also was attractive to me. It was human.

Tortorice: Very, he was very human. In a very good way.


Aschheim: So. We’ve done our bit for the Mosse.

Tortorice: Yes, but I am going to say I would like to interview you again at some point to talk a bit more about your work.

Aschheim: I’ll be dead by then.

Tortorice: Well, I will be back in it’ll give me a good reason to come back.

Aschheim: So turn it off, and tell me…

00:50:38         End of Interview Session

 End of Interview #1402



Interview Session (April 8, 2014)


Tortorice: Oh, okay so now we find you in Israel. You are married. Did you serve in the Army?

Aschheim: Yeah, no, wait, I served in the Army, but I said and I’ll get to that later because I served in the Army after I came back from Madison. So, it was not between [19]68 and [19]75. It was after [19]83.

Tortorice: So, we’ll move on now to when and how you met George L. Mosse. And were you affiliated with the Hebrew University in those years at all? So it wasn’t through the university that you met George?

Aschheim: No, so as I said (earlier) at this stage, I was being the Goebbels of Israel and operating in various institutions, teaching students kind of organizations, youth group leaders, and so on. Making a reasonable living, but not part of the university. In fact, the thought of becoming an academic or a researcher was the last thing on my mind. I always read. I was always interested, but I had not found anyone who influenced me or who I admired who could be a model at all. Then I think it was in 1968 at a friend’s house, Ze’ev Mankowitz, who is a close friend of mine, and who is not well at all, was appointed as George’s assistant. When George came to Jerusalem to teach in 1968. So, one Friday night he invited me and he said we’ve got this overseas professor, he’s a nice guy, come and meet him. So, obviously, I went. And at that stage there was… the student revolutions were on and we said to him, “But Professor Mosse, how to deal with this? The campus is on fire. It’s kind of mad what’s going on there.” And he said “Oh no. I teach at ten in the morning. No student revolution begins before two in the afternoon.” So, when he said that, I said “okay, this is the guy for me.” This is somebody I can appreciate. That he was funny, he was warm, he was hilarious. He was kind of non-pretentious. And so, I decided, I think he told me what courses he was giving. So, I said, I’ll go and sit listen to this guy and see what he has to say. So he’s teaching a course on, I think it was the next day or two, a course on antisemitism. And he walks in to that class, and there’s this group of Israelis, and he starts by saying. “You all, all, you all you look like Aryans.” This is how he begins. So, of course you know what he means he’s talking about stereotypes, and he’s talking about the fact that Israelis want to become these kind of blue eyed, blonde, muscular soldier types. So immediately, I said “this is the guy that I can appreciate that… that also talks at a certain level that I like.” So over the years between 1968 and [19]75. I saw him when he came to Israel all the time and we invited him… well, I wasn’t married until [19]73. But even after that we had him over to the house, and we became quite friendly. I’m not sure when I started calling him George. I think until then it was Professor Mosse especially coming from a South African background. And then at one point he said to me, “Oh Steven, when are you going to stop being a boy scout and become serious? Why don’t you come and study with me in Madison?” Now the reason I would never have thought of doing a Ph.D. in Jerusalem is because at that stage you had to do it in Hebrew. To this day I can lecture in Hebrew, I can’t write in Hebrew, it’s unthinkable. I had no idea what Madison was, where Madison was, and nor did George explain to me that by going to Madison in the mid-seventies you’re going to sub-Siberian weather and I’m from South Africa and Israel where the sun shines.

Tortorice: He left that out.

Aschheim: He left that out. So basically, I came to Madison for one reason only and that was for George. And, since then, as you know, and we can develop this. George became the formative influence in my life intellectually, in career terms, in friendship terms, and as I said to you, in a certain way as my second father. So it was one of those cru… that’s 1968 evening with the student revolutions because a very important part of my life. In fact, I’ve held two academic jobs: one in Portland and one in Jerusalem. Both through George. He got me the job in Jerusalem, he got me the job at Reed College. So, yeah.


Tortorice: But (as discussed earlier) that is not usual, Steve, I think in the sense that he did that for a lot of his students. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not as successfully, but it was a different time of course. That’s harder to do now. As we all know. But I’m sure that he put a lot of effort into getting you these positions. I can imagine, especially, the one at the Hebrew University. That could not have been easy. We do not need to go into the reasons

Aschheim: Did he ever speak to you about it?

Tortorice: A bit.

Aschheim: What did he say? You’d know more than me.

Tortorice: Well, he said it was tough, you know, because of course, that is maybe more par for the course in Israel than it is here, in the sense that professors often try to get their students positions at the University, but he was not a member of the faculty in the sense that he was a permanent visiting professor or something who taught only in English. But you know, George was well connected, and he was brilliant, as you know. And then he was charismatic and he had some allies. I know Arieli was supportive, and so, yes, it worked.

Aschheim: Right, that worked. So, in many ways I mean obviously so he’s influenced my life yes basically and of course, when I was here (UW-Madison) the cultural history course that he gave, was stunning, although I must say that, Hannah, my wife came to listen. And sometimes, I had the feeling that he was talking just to Hannah and me because there were times that we were rolling on the floor with hilarity over what he was saying. And a lot of these people from Wisconsin, I’m not sure if they had the slightest idea what he was saying, especially when he talked about Wisconsin farm kids, as the peasants; they couldn’t have been thrilled. But for us there was… I mean, to Hannah thoughts, you know, she learned about art, which is her field, through George. So, George in many ways, you hear when I talk and I speak about George, I speak as George. I have his accent. We’ve internalized George. So, I spoke about a model. George became a model, for all… not just for me, I mean, I think the three of us the most important piece of my generation was Paul [Breines], Andy [Rabinbach], and me. I wasn’t with the Seymour [Drescher] and David Sabean. And so…

Tortorice: And there was even a generation before that that we won’t go into.

Aschheim: Yeah, whom I didn’t know. And I’m sure that the same thing applied. So, in that sense, he was a model. But the teaching that I do doesn’t only come from George. A huge amount does, but the other comes from teaching in Habonim, which had to be existential, which had to be relevant, which had to be alive. Because you had to motivate kids, so it was the kind of combination of Habonim and then George that kind of influenced the way in which I teach. And in that sense, both of those influences are at work, but I don’t know how to exaggerate George’s role in my life, and you said something very moving in your description, when you say here… It’s later… Ah, I’m skipping now. You say, “you and your wife, Hannah, and your children, your home became the place in Israel that George felt most at home. In many ways the center of his intellectual and emotional life there.” That’s a wonderful thing to say.

Tortorice: That’s true.

Aschheim: So, you know, I do know that George was as neurotic as I am. And so if he would be invited for seven o’clock

Tortorice: I can attest to that. No, just kidding.


Aschheim: At seven o’clock, at six thirty, we would look down, and there was George pacing around, waiting to come to up. And I would say, “George, you can come up now.” So, so, yes. And Giddy Shimoni, another person from Habonim, he once wrote, “We in Jerusalem measured time according to before, during, or after George’s.” So, the impact he made on a huge amount of people, even it was for a short time was great. Some of the academics were completely shocked and appalled at him. Because I remember one of them speaking, I think it was [19]69 or [19]70. George was talking about masturbation in his class, and you can’t do that. So, they were absolutely appalled, but of course these were the things that attracted students that he talked about these things. So, almost everybody who came into contact with him either formed a relationship with him or was deeply influenced. And of course, the fact that… we didn’t know that George was gay. But the fact that he was un-married and didn’t have family meant that he had time and even a need to be with these students with whom they developed friendships.

Tortorice: There wasn’t that distance, that… that German milieu at the Hebrew University would have kept and still is somewhat present I would assume.

Aschheim: But I think it’s true here too by the way. When I was in Madison, there were no other professors who sat outside of the Union by the lake and had this big circle of people and George would hold court with them. I don’t remember that being true in Madison either, and… and so obviously, he wasn’t from Jerusalem, so these are the friendships he formed. And so that distance as you say didn’t apply, which made it even more attractive. And then, of course, he befriended my whole family. My wife, who is an Israeli, although she was born in Germany, she came when she was one and a half. When we came to Madison, he’d always spoke in English to her. But when we were coming to Madison, he said to me, “Oh Steve, how is Hannah going to manage? She only speaks German.” And I said, “George, she doesn’t know a word of German; she only speaks English.”

Tortorice: Do you mean was he speaking German to her all these years?

Aschheim: No, I don’t know. It was George. And then he came and we became close in the way that I never quite understood. We never discussed our relationship.

Tortorice: He wasn’t, he didn’t…

Aschheim: There wasn’t a need to.

Tortorice: No. You know. You knew.

Aschheim: Yeah, and I liked that. What are we going to say? I’ll tell you about towards his death, but when we were in Madison, and we had Yoni. Our boy was born in Madison, two things, two stories that… At Eagle Heights, where we lived, George would often come and we had a… is it recording?

Tortorice: Yes.

Aschheim: We had a little… do you call it pram? A little pram, and Yoni was in there and George was, “I really want to get into pram and have Steve wheel me.” You know, who else would say a thing like? It was lovely. And then my son had his brit milah, his circumcision, and we said to George, “you’re going to be his godfather.” And George came along, and we have to hand Yoni to him. Oh he says, “Oh no, no, I can’t hold him. I’ll drop him.” So, George never really held Yoni at the brit. So over that time, we were very close, but still he was my PhD advisor. And there were certain things that he said at the beginning, I said, I don’t really know German.” He said, “well, it’s a technical thing, go and learn it.” And so, he was tough in certain things, but it just deepened and deepened without us ever talking about it. So, let me just say two things, I’ll skip to his death. As you know, I came here a week before he died. Or two weeks, I think it was a week actually.


Tortorice: It was more like a matter of days. Amazing.

Aschheim: A matter of days and we spent the whole weekend talking about everything in the world but not about his illness, not about our relationship just talking wonderfully. He just said two things about his being ill, he said, “Oh I thought I could go on forever.” That was the only thing then he said the most moving thing he’s ever said to me, which was, I said, “George we’ve been talking a long time. You must be exhausted.” And he said, “Steven I can, I can never ever be tired talking to you.” So that moved me deeply. And then he went. So and then there’s the famous story, which you’ve got to tell, about his getting the honorary doctorate. Which that’s your story, that’s not my story. So, it did deepen considerably, and we all loved him for obvious reasons. And he was a kind of, a presence.

Tortorice: Well, and he knew that he was loved I think that is important thing. He understood that. I think there was a great need for him, that kind of nourishment and interaction in a way that as you said is unique and is, for me, such an essential part of education to have that bond of affection. I think that’s… And obviously given the success of his students it makes a difference. You know, it makes a big difference to have that personal connection. So, essentially your graduate work was all done at UW?


Aschheim: Well, I did the MA at London. It was a one-year thing. I got it done in one year.

Tortorice: And so you came into UW…

Aschheim: With a Master’s.

Tortorice: And you were accepted to work on your doctorate.

Aschheim: Right. I, again, I didn’t have to… I would have failed all of those tests that you got to do with math and logic. I never had to do them, which was probably also through George, who then got me a subsidy for my, I became a TA in the second year. I taught at the ILS [Integrated Liberal Studies]. But for the first year he got me a special grant from some Senator at the Capitol. So, I got one-year free tuition and there were some Senator who gave some money, or some congressman, I forget who.

Tortorice: Well, that’s interesting because from what Seymour Drescher and others have told me, George often funded things and said that it came from other…

Aschheim: No, he sent me the first week to go and thank the guy.

Tortorice: Oh, really? Okay.

Aschheim: I wandered around for about two hours, knocking on doors, and he was never around. So, I left a note and that was it. But he wouldn’t have given me a name of somebody without… I don’t remember, I doubt it.

Tortorice: Yes. Okay, never mind.

Aschheim: So, he didn’t fund it and the rest of the time I had a TAship and taught at… not a TA, that’s wrong. I wasn’t a TA. I got a teaching job at ILS where I gave courses on my own.

Tortorice: Yes wow. That’s unusual for a graduate student here. I mean, that is, maybe not in those days but now it would be.

Aschheim: Last week, this is nothing to do with the thing. Last week I get a note from Christopher Hamlin, who taught with me at ILS back in 1976. And we meeting this Friday, the day after tomorrow, in New York.

Tortorice: Really?

Aschheim: So, those from those same days, yeah.


Tortorice: Yes, that’s amazing. Okay, so you’re in Madison, and you’re beginning work on your thesis.

Aschheim: Well, first you’ve got to go to… Oh, let me tell the following story. First, you’ve got to do prelims. Is that what it was called?

Tortorice: Yes, right, yes.

Aschheim: So, it was two years, and I took (one) with Harvey Goldberg (1922-1987), I took (one) with Sterling Fishman (1932-1997), I took (one) with George Mosse, and I took (one) with Theodore Hamerow (1920-2016) in German history. And I took the prelims, and I did extremely well in three out of the four. But I failed German history. Why did I fail Germany history? I learned later that all of George’s students who did German History with Theodore Hamerow failed in their prelims. I mean, give me a break. I mean, that was it. That was Theodore Hamerow.

Tortorice: Talk about passive aggressive.

Aschheim: So, of course, if you pass three, you can go on. So there was obviously some deep issue between the… between the two of them. Whether it was jealousy- I don’t know what it was.

Tortorice: Well, it could be that subject of your first thesis.

Aschheim: It could be.

Tortorice: Yes, yes indeed. Yes, there never was I think there were political differences, departmental differences, or the whole approach different styles of history, whatever.


Aschheim: Although, you know, when my first book came out Brothers and Strangers, he had a long, critical review of it in Commentary. It was a good review. It was critical and good, but…

Tortorice: He once wrote a critique of George’s career and…

Aschheim: When? That’s interesting.

Tortorice: I will send it to you. It was quite laudatory, actually.

Aschheim: Really?

Tortorice: Yes, So that’s what I mean by passive aggressive. He would flunk the students. He would sometimes throw these roadblocks in George’s path and could be rude, on the other hand he was also, you know, quite laudatory if he wanted to be.

Aschheim: That’s interesting, but that’s a fact I can tell you. And I really didn’t fail that exam.

Tortorice: I can imagine you didn’t.

Aschheim: So anyway…


Tortorice: So you’re in Madison and you’ve spoken a bit about your teachers here and what you did in terms of your early coursework…

Aschheim: Well, let me just say, about the teachers. First of all, remember I was much older than all…I was really kind of a retarded guy. I started the PhD at thirty-three. So, in a way my age group was not that far removed from my teachers, and because I had children, I was married, even though I lived in what I think it was Hamerow called “genteel poverty in Eagle Heights,” in a very, very small apartment, I became friends with my teachers. So two people became very close to were Sterling Fishman, who was very close to George….

Tortorice: Yes.

Aschheim: And very close to Klaus Berghahn (1937-2019). And for both of us it was a very meaningful encounter because here was the first non-Jewish German that I became a friend to, and I was the first Jew with whom Klaus could really become friends. And we became friends first through violent encounters on the tennis courts, which then blossomed into a real friendship. So, although I was also quite close to many people at Eagle Heights, and still am with some of them, it was also because I was older that I became friendly not just with George, but with some of my (other) teachers. And the first time I was ever mentioned in print was when Stanley Payne quoted a paper I had written, a seminar paper for him, in his book on fascism. And the paper was called “The Meta-Politics of Nazism,” and he put it in his book. So these things were also meaningful, and very helpful. Very complementary. And he reminded me of it yesterday. So, yes very positive-completely different to the English experience.


Tortorice: So you in some ways you became part of George’s circle here in Madison, and actually by the time you had arrived in Madison, George had somewhat withdrawn because he was spending more time in Israel, and you know, my feeling is that after the intensity of the [19]60s in Madison and with George’s really intense engagement both politically in Madison and as a kind of figure, both supporting the students and oppositional, and also his immersion in University committees, and overseeing a huge number of doctorates within ten years, I mean, an extraordinary number. ..that his new engagement with Israel meant that in Madison he became less and less engaged, in a way, both intellectually, and in terms of other parts of his life. The first time he went to Israel was in 1951, I believe, and he was part of that group around Scholem…you know he knew all those, Robert Weltsch (1891-1982), people before he met you, so he had a long history there. But I think that this engagement in the late sixties changed his relationships here in Madison, but you have this circle; he had this circle, and you in some ways became part of his circle that he had developed through many years that is… I see the difference between your experience because you were a little older and that of many of the other beginning students here.

Aschheim: Yeah, I think I was considerably older. Okay, I was 33 when I started, 38 when I finished. So, I was just the Packwood kid and so… But I think George had, was very inclusive. Also, the other people with him we were, he always included them. I remember going to his party, he sometimes had parties, that’s the first time I met Jeff Herf and he would say, “oh, he’s into engineering and the Nazis” and he would include everyone.

Tortorice: Oh yes, oh yes.

Aschheim: I don’t know if I was a particularly… I mean, you know, because we came from Israel I suppose he looked after us, but Steve Oren was also here but he left, he didn’t finish and I think.

Tortorice: That’s right. It was I think a regret of George’s that he didn’t finish

Aschheim: Yes.


Tortorice: Okay, so how did you choose your dissertation topic? Was this something that you came up with, or…

Aschheim: My first choice was Hannah Arendt. Which George didn’t want me to do it.

Tortorice: Really?

Aschheim: Not at all.

Tortorice: Did he give you a reason?

Aschheim: He said he said you know it’s not a great and he didn’t really give a good reasons. Not a great topic.

Tortorice: Because that would have been quite a…

Aschheim: Wait, wait… then he reluctantly agreed. Then I started doing research and two things stopped me from doing it. Somebody, I’ve forgotten who it was, had written the kind of thesis that I wanted to write so it had been done. He never published it. That’s why I can’t remember the name. The second was Mary McCarthy held the Arendt papers at the Library of Congress, and I wrote to her…would I have access. Quick as a flash came the reply, “No.” So, that was out. And then I had to come up with another topic. And George said “Oh, why don’t you write about the ghetto?” Now that didn’t have flesh, but I thought that sounds interesting and then it worked out to be what it was, which is The Brothers and Strangers book, which is about the ghetto, but about images of the ghetto. It was also very much in the Mossean kind of tradition, but which I, I think I expanded, it wasn’t just a negative thing it was also a positive thing, and the relationship to German non-Jews. So it worked out very nicely, and I think there was another option. Before I started the PhD, there were two things. I wasn’t sure what I want to do and I was still under the influence of some of these Zionist propagandists, and I was thinking of doing my PhD. in education. And I said to George, “should I do it in education?” He said, “no, no what’s education? Don’t be silly.” Okay, then I went to visit, on George’s recommendation, Uriel Tal (1929-1984), who was then in Philadelphia. And Uriel Tal said, “Do your PhD on Theodor Fritsch (1852-1933),” who was a leading antisemite of this magazine called Der Hammer, and I’d written to George and said, “Should I do it on Fristch?” And he said, “no, no, no, you must do something bigger. You must something more significant.” That’s how I got into the topic. And he was dead right…had I done it on just one figure would have been minor, and the Brothers and Strangers had some resonance. That’s the history. You’re bringing things back that I haven’t dreamed about for years.


Tortorice: So, you knew something of George’s work in those years and the trajectory of his career starting out in constitutional, you know, English constitutional history, and then ending up in German Jewish history and Jewish history. In those years, he was really moving into what became the anthropological turn.

Aschheim: I don’t quite understand what you mean by that.

Tortorice: Well, some people call it the cultural turn, but essentially it … well, you could say it is influenced by a certain German Jewish scholarship that preceded George. It is really very much a part of that tradition… influenced by Jung, but it is it’s really the aesthetics of politics, but also symbolism using these kind of underlying tropes, or archetypes, to explain political behavior, mass behavior, that sort of thing and it ended up, you know in, The Nationalization of the Masses.

Aschheim: It started even with the Crisis book. Well, first of all, I didn’t know. I mean, I only learned very gradually about the English history, the constitutional history, the kind history that puts me totally to sleep. In fact, George writes somewhere about somebody who said to him “Oh George, You’re such an interesting person. Why do you write such boring history?” And I would say that’s true for English constitutional history, but there’s another story, too. I didn’t know that he’d done this theological work. At that stage, being a naïve guy, I was very much under the influence at that stage of Emil Fackenheim’s (1916-2003) Jewish theology and starting to speak to him and spouting away on this and I said to him, “Oh George, you know a lot about history; you don’t know anything about theology.” So, he didn’t say anything, it’s just that the next day on his desk were those books that he’d written on theology. So, then I swallowed my heart. So, I didn’t really know much about his prior work. What I knew…I don’t know what year “the crisis book” [The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (Madison, 2021)] came out.

Tortorice: Sixty-four.

Aschheim: Okay, so when I met him, I read the Crisis book. So, for me, later I wrote about George but that was much later, about the trajectory. It was then that I learned about his English history, the theology, the Reformation he’d written on, but for me George was the Crisis book on and that still is the George for me. Which is not to denigrate his other… I know the Reformation book or the culture book, one of them is with [Helmut] Koenigsberger (1918-2014). Still sells today.

Tortorice: Europe in the Sixteenth Century.

Aschheim: Europe in the Sixteenth Century.

Tortorice: That was a whole other aspect of his work.

Aschheim: Right, for which I cannot speak because that was not my George. George for me is everything he wrote post nineteen… post “Crisis of German Ideology”. But let me make one thing clear, and I tried to make it clear in an article I wrote about it. People talk about the “cultural turn” when they speak about the cultural turn, now they don’t mean what George did. They mean the deconstructionist moment. The linguistic turn. George was not that at all that he was about introducing as you say symbolism, irrational, the masses, all of these things, but it’s not the cultural turn in the same way people talk about.

Tortorice: Yes, exactly yes.

Aschheim: And that’s important because he wasn’t like that.

Tortorice: Although, I think in some ways he influenced that we don’t have to…

Aschheim: I don’t know.


Tortorice: Well, in terms of the study of literature and in popular literature, not methods… but he opened up certain approaches to cultural history that I think resonated. I mean, most of that it came of course out of the French school, Foucault, and others, but

Aschheim: George said, you know I don’t like wobbles. I don’t like fruit that is soft. And these guys are soft and wobbly. So there’s this real difference.

Tortorice: There’s a very big difference.

Aschheim: I think there’s a difference.

Tortorice: Oh, indeed.

Aschheim: He may have influenced them, but I think George did, and that’s why I think it’s important to stress that the Peter Gay’s (1923-2015) and the Walters Laqueur’s, and George’s are not the same kind of thing as what happened later.

Tortorice: Oh, indeed. Completely different, and I know George was resistant and somewhat appalled by the direction. I remember once he says that “all evil emanates from the English Departments”, which I’m sure had something to do with this, this turn. But okay, so we have some idea of how you came to your topic and I think you were probably one of the first students that worked on a specifically Jewish, I mean maybe, one of the first students that went specifically into Jewish history because that was also happening at this time that he taught his first course in [19]71 on Jewish, and specifically Jewish history, and he also was embracing his Jewish identity in the Sixties in a way that he hadn’t before then…. it was a kind of transformational period for him. Part of it evidenced in his embrace of Israel, but also his Zionism that he developed because he did always say that he was a Zionist, of course. A Zionist of a particular kind, but… So, you came at a very rich time for him intellectually, culturally, just you in terms of his work it was a very, very productive time.

Aschheim: What he, what was he doing, he was doing, oh you know I mean it was always “the crisis book,” or “the masses book,” or “the sex book,” or “the death book.” All of these things were happening at the time. But I did do Jewish history, but you must remember that when I went to the history department at the Hebrew University, which divides between Jewish history and general history, I went to general history; very glad that I did so because if I approached Jewish history, it was from the outside in, not from the in-out which is to this day true. And I was told that for my second book, it must not be Jewish history. So, that’s when I did the book on Nietzsche reception in Germany. Had to be non-Jewish. I had some Jewish things in there, but it’s about five percent of the book. So, that was important, and I’ve always stressed I don’t want to say I’m just a Jewish historian. I’d like to say, you know, I’m in German and Jewish cultural and intellectual history, which is just basically what George did.

Tortorice: Very much similar to his…

Aschheim: Yeah.


Tortorice: Okay, so now shall we move on to your post-Madison career are we ready? Is there anything else you want to say?

Aschheim: Where are we now? What are we doing?

Tortorice: You’re, you have studied and UW and, you know…

Aschheim: Oh, what was George like in the classroom.

Tortorice: Yes, we didn’t really talk about this, and also, as a dissertation advisor, we…

Aschheim: Separate things. Let’s talk about that.

Tortorice: Yes, I think that’s a good idea.

Aschheim: Well, George in the classroom was George everywhere in the classroom, right? George you could hear George, there’s no question. There was no mumbling, and there was booming when George was there. And of course, that was part of his technique that he would he would come out and it would be all powerful and his technique apart from being also he was funny, he was outrageous. The difference between him and Harvey Goldberg is important because I went to Harvey Goldberg’s thing. And with Harvey Goldberg, there’d be lots and lots of people and it would be like at a political meeting. We all come out with the same opinion and ready to riot in the streets. And with George, George would provoke you and make you angry. So, he’d make you think. That there was a clear difference between them, and I went for the George, I wasn’t going to go to the streets. So, I didn’t really learn anything from Harvey, to tell you the truth.

Tortorice: He was more of an entertainer in a sense.

Aschheim: Yes, but so was George. George was always entertaining, but there was a point. And of course, one of these techniques which I’ve never done was “repeating”. You know, you know, he always came out and did this, “Always. Always. Always. Always.” That’s how he talked. And of course he had something, which I couldn’t have, which was a kind of a natural authority so in Jerusalem when he was teaching, you have in Jerusalem probably the biggest percentage of “besserwissers” that there are in the world, “besserwissers” are people who know better than you. So he’s teaching a class on Weimar, and a guy stands up and says, “No, it wasn’t like that; I was there.” And George’s as a teacher: “Oh, you’re in the valley. I’m on the mountain.” Now, I could never say that, but he could say that.

Tortorice: I bet you could.

Aschheim: So, as a teacher he was magnetic, he was funny, he was provocative, he was powerful.


Tortorice: He also demanded your attention. He didn’t appreciate it if you didn’t take his… didn’t give him your attention or didn’t take what he was doing deadly seriously. So, there was this entertainment part of it, but it also was a very, very important serious matter that he was discussing, and he didn’t expect you to be there reading a paper.

Aschheim: But it never happened with me. I was always reading.

Tortorice: In terms of the classroom, he controlled that. He controlled it very… I recall that. And being somewhat intimidated when I first went to his classroom because of that, you know, that he was aware of the students, and he expected you to give him your full attention, that this was a serious matter. You know, I recall that very, very vividly, and he did train the classes. He trained them because he would snap at them if they did, if he felt that there wasn’t a level of engagement that he wanted or discipline. You know he had that kind of German sense of discipline about this subject you know he really did…

Aschheim: I never experienced that because I was interested, I was interested I didn’t and I don’t even remember him doing that to the class, because the class seemed to me to be listening, although I think a hell of a lot they didn’t understand.

Tortorice: Well you’d be surprised, people…. You know, it may take some time but I recall first being in his class- I didn’t know anything about the subject… some, you know, I’d taken some courses, but it was amazing how much you could absorb from his classes at a very high level of…

Aschheim: When did you hear him first?

Tortorice: I think it was, [19]71 or [19]72, I think. So, you were still here in Madison?

Aschheim: No, I came in [19]75.

Tortorice: Oh, you came… that was even before you.

Aschheim: You heard him before me. I heard him in Jerusalem at that time.

Tortorice: He… I recall had a brace on his neck he was having some terrible…

Aschheim: In [19]71?


Tortorice: Yes, he said of the spinal issues and you know he didn’t sometimes didn’t seem in the best of moods, let us say. He had some structural issues in those years that he overcame somehow.

Aschheim: Because in 1978, he had that same brace.

Tortorice: Really?

Aschheim: But he was… Remember we were talking yesterday about this drug?

Tortorice: Yes.

Aschheim: It was quite clear that he couldn’t really go on, and I took him home and helped him out.

Tortorice: You mean, he in front of the classroom, he was on…

Aschheim: I walked up to him. I said, “George, I think you should stop now.”

Tortorice: Really?

Aschheim: Yeah.

Tortorice: Because he was on a medicine because of the pain?

Aschheim: Couldn’t go on.

Tortorice: Yeah, I think he… he had some medical challenges in the course of his life that he overcame.

Aschheim: Prussian will. Iron will.

Tortorice: You know, he once said to me, he said, “Oh my, my arm, my arm hurts here.” I said, “but what is that?” He said well, “I’ve had this here since I was a teenager. I’ve always been aching and in pain you know?” And I thought, gee, you know that’s…

Aschheim: This is the Prussian side of (George).

Tortorice: I would have you know…not survived such a level of you know.

Aschheim: And it happened once, and I took him out and left.

Tortorice: That’s amazing.

Aschheim: I don’t remember the year it was… [19]76, [19]77, [19]78, I don’t remember. So, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Tortorice: So it’s about eleven thirty; do you want to continue or…

Aschheim: Yeah, unless you don’t want to.

Tortorice: No, I just wanted to check in with you to make sure that…

Aschheim: What is the right time?

Tortorice: Well, my time is 11:30 here.

Aschheim: So, is mine slow or is yours…

Tortorice: Well…

Aschheim: I can tell you, hang on, before we go on… Steve Aschheim is correct. 11:26.

Tortorice: Okay, yes, so I’m a little… I’m at 11:27.


Aschheim: OK, I think we’re going to finish. We don’t know…

Tortorice: Well, alright. We can always decide if we’d like to do a little bit more in the fall, we’ll see. Okay, so…

Aschheim: In the fall?

Tortorice: When I’m visiting Israel, but…

Aschheim: I still don’t think of myself as a New Yorker then, I mean I’ll be in Jerusalem.

Tortorice: You’ll be back, Steve you, know. Okay so, what were you… you were in Madison actually, you were one of George’s final students that he accepted. There were only a couple more after him, after you.

Aschheim: Michael Berkowitz.

Tortorice: Yes, and there were some at the Hebrew University. There was Judy Donnerstein?

Aschheim: Donnerson… where is she? I don’t know what she.

Tortorice: She passed away at a fairly young age I think in her early fifties or something, mid-fifties. Yes, it was rather sad. And then, well, Arye Carmon who is currently the head of the Israel Democracy Project. Was he a…

Aschheim: Switch that off, and I’ll tell you the story. I won’t tell on there.


Tortorice: Okay, we’re back. But yes there were some students at the Hebrew University that got their PhD’s under George’s direction. I don’t have the list with me, but there were some. And of course, he had a major impact there just in terms of his public persona, but also with specific undergraduates and graduate students that were studying there that he influenced through his teaching that have gone on to positions in the Israeli government and culture and really in the US, Europe, and in Israel. So, there was a major impact outside the classroom because I know he was often on the radio and he had that wide circle of friends there.

Aschheim: He had his friend, Scott.

Tortorice: Oh yes, I remember. Scott Elder.

Aschheim: Scott Elder, who worked for the radio and with whom George was quite close. And with some other people, so yes absolutely.

Tortorice: Scott and Rivka, I think. I’ve lost contact with them.

Aschheim: Me too.

Tortorice: And I think they’re probably retired now but…

Aschheim: I don’t know. I saw him a few years ago the only topic that we have in common is George. Yeah.


Tortorice: Okay. So, well, maybe should we move on now. Do you want to say any more about George as a dissertation advisor in terms of… he just basically usually just said go and do the work, you know?

Aschheim: Well, once we agreed on the ghetto topic, he said, “Just go.” And we were together a great deal, but we never talked about the dissertation, and I gave him chapter one. He looked at it. Read it. Made one or two very, very minor suggestions and then I gave him the whole thing and that was it. There was never much… It was clear that he liked it. He was not at my dissertation defense. He was in Israel, and for my dissertation defense, it was on a Sunday morning, and Stanley Payne was chairing it, and he forgot about it. So, they had to wake him up, or round him up specially, and he ran in with short pants, and there was Sterling, Klaus, Stanley, and this man who… the only one who was critical and asked me good questions from education, not Fran Schrag.

Tortorice: Herbst?

Aschheim: Not Herbst. Herb… Herb…

Tortorice: Not Jurgen Herbst. Not Castle.

Aschheim: Herb… I’ve forgotten his name. Herb somebody. He asked critical questions, it was over in an hour, and they said, “Congratulations.” And then they all took me out for a lovely dinner and off I went to Reed College. So, as dissertation advisor… but you know, what else is he supposed to do? You do a dissertation, you’ve got to do it on your own. You can’t be fed.

Tortorice: I think some students don’t understand that, and rather resent it when their professors… especially now when, you know, universities are much more service oriented, you know, that the students expect, “we’re paying this money, so therefore we should get all of this attention.” I do… I do think that’s changed somewhat, but anyways we won’t go into that.

Aschheim: But it’s difficult. I mean, if you’re doing a dissertation, you really… you know much more than any advisor will know. It’s working?


Tortorice: OK, so you are now, you have your degree, you’re starting your family. You said George helped you get this position at Reed College. So, tell me about that.

Aschheim: Reed College?

Tortorice: Yes.

Aschheim: I’ll tell you one thing about Portland, Oregon, apart from it being beautiful. You got the best bookstore in the world, Powell’s bookstore, which is one of the great things I liked about Portland. I did not enjoy Portland, Reed College. My wife loved it, painted there and loved it, didn’t want to leave. For me, Reed College was… the students were good, but it was a puny place. I remember offices were next to each other and faculty members were very busy writing negative letters about the colleagues in the next-door office. It was like Peyton Place; it was not for me. And then they learned that I was writing this book Brothers and Strangers set to come out in 1982. No, it came out in 1982, so I was writing or finishing it at Reed and word went out- “Aschheim is trying to go national by writing a book.” Writing a book means you are not teaching properly. So, I felt, you know, well what the hell am I doing here? It’s just too small; it’s too provincial, and they don’t encourage you to write. So, my experience there was not a great one, although I gave a lot of lectures to the Jewish community, and I had some… the best student I’ve probably ever had in my life who was a farm boy from Iowa named, who’s not Jewish, Jason Weeks, who wrote a paper on Martin Buber that blew my mind. And I thought, he is bent for greater things. Never ever heard of him, or from him again. So, there was some light; I made some friends. But I’m very glad I didn’t stay there.

Tortorice: It doesn’t sound like a good fit… so you were there for how long?

Aschheim: Two years.

Tortorice: Two years, okay. And then how did this position in Jerusalem come about? I know we spoke a bit about George helping with that, but…


Aschheim: Well, George knew that I had lived in Israel. He knew that at some stage, I wanted to go back. I came to Madison, and told George, “you know, I’m not really happy in Reed.” And he said, you know, “Well, let’s see if we can get you something.” And the next thing I knew he said “We’ll get you a job, I’ve got you a job in Jerusalem.” And he’d spoken to Arieli, and at that stage just two or three guys got together and gave you an appointment. Now, there’s a real question because now at the Hebrew University, there must be at least four committees that you go through. Which one is the better system? I can’t tell you, because it’s on one level, it’s very corrupt, you know? Mosse speaks to Arieli and says, “Let’s bring Aschheim.” And that’s it. On the other hand, I don’t think the quality of the old system is worse than the quality of the present system because the present system has a leveling kind of fit. So, whereas I couldn’t possibly say anymore, “Let’s bring back the old system.” But it worked for many people. So, basically yes, George got me the good job with the support of Arieli and maybe one or two other people, which was deeply resented. So, when I came to Israel, the word was out amongst colleagues—it took at least two, three years for me to break through the ice—I was clearly the outsider. I came together with two other people Gabby Motzkin from the outside and Robert Wistrich (1945-2015). And the word was, they have been parachuted in. These are alien invaders brought in by people of power that have got nothing to do with us. So, it took some time for me to break through and to be accepted. I remember the day I became friendly with this particular guy, about two months after being there I get in the mail, a book arrives and I open it up and there is Brothers and Strangers, which I had never seen. It’s my first book. Deeply excited wonderful. So, he’s in my office and show it him, and he says, “That’s nice.” And he walks out. It was so deflating. So, I had a lot of that to negotiate. And then the question is who’s inside and who’s outside. Most of the people that I thought were deeply inside, and I was way on the outside, I got my full professorship before they did. So the whole question of who’s in, and who’s out is a very fluid and subjective thing and that I learned. In one way, I’m still deeply outside because Hebrew is not my métier. It’s not my language. So, I’m schizophrenic. I teach in Hebrew, I research in German, and I write in English. And that’s the way it’s been. That’s more or less…

Tortorice: And you’ve survived and flourished in a challenging situation. So who was… Who was in the department when you arrived? Was Talmon still there?

Aschheim: No, Talmon what was gone, but Arieli was there, and who was a fantastically decent man. And a man George very much admired. He dedicated… God, what is the book called? It’s books of… a book of essays. Not Nationalism… [Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism]

Tortorice: Masses in…

Aschheim: No.

Tortorice: OK.

Aschheim: Something of Nash…

Tortorice: Nationalism… the one that he did… well, it doesn’t matter, I guess.

Aschheim: Why have I forgotten?

Tortorice: I remember that yes.

Aschheim: And so, Arieli was the person for me. Over the years he really encouraged me and he was extremely positive. Then there was Michael Heyd, who just passed away, who was very nice to me, and I was friendly at that stage with Gabby Motzkin We came in together. And then there were some absolutely autistic people-half crazed, I won’t mention names: totally unencouraging. Some people who one day you’d be talking to and have a lovely conversation, the next day they wouldn’t look at it you.

Tortorice: Typical.

Aschheim: That’s the academic.

Tortorice: It really is.

Aschheim: The autistic kind. But gradually, I integrated to the degree that, as you know, I made very close friends with people not in my department, with the late Jonathan Frankel, who’s a wonderful man, and as you heard from my Festschrift, with Ezra Mendelsohn, with whom I became extremely close.

00:59:12         End of First Interview Session

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