Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Institut für Europäische Ethnologie


Current Project


ERC-Consolidator Grant: PLUNDERED LIVES // Intimate Dispossession: The Afterlives of Plundered Jewish Personal Possessions in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

This project aims to write the history of the great plunder of small things—everyday household objects, and personal items, including clothing, looted on a mass-scale by local non-Jews during, and in the aftermath of, the Holocaust. While historical research has focused on the top-down and centralized Nazi state’s takeover of Jewish financial assets, real estate, businesses, or art objects, we know nothing about the afterlives of unmarked objects of daily use that changed hands in the course of the Holocaust and continued being used for decades in the small local communities of East-Central Europe. The main objectives of the project are to document different modes of how Jewish personal possessions were appropriated by non-Jewish local populations of East-Central European shtetls; examine how they have been redeployed, adapted, and misused by their new owners; and assess the social and psychological trans-generational impact of this kind of plunder on the communities of both the beneficiaries and the victims. Breaking with the top-down view on Holocaust dispossession, this project focuses on eight microstudies of communities located in three different administrative units of German-occupied East-Central Europe. PLUNDERED LIVES’ novelty is in a combination of a microhistorical analysis with qualitative approaches of social studies and social psychology; extending the typical time frame (1939-1945) to include dispossession practices that continued after WWII; and experimental outreach strategies of digital crowdsourcing, curatorial interventions in public spaces, and cross-generational interviewing to elicit responses from the implicated communities and document hitherto inaccessible material in private possession. Highly interdisciplinary, PLUNDERED LIVES will open avenues for future research into the fields of genocide studies, anthropology of conflict, social psychology, economic history and forensic studies.


Past Projects

Polish Folk Art and the Holocaust: Perpetrator-Victim-Bystander Memory Transactions in the Polish-German Context (financed by the DFG & NCN Beethoven Programme, 2020-2024)

Holocaust-themed folk art from Poland constitutes an important and as-yet-unexamined source that offers a unique perspective on the “dispersed” Holocaust that took place outside of the death camps, in full view of local “bystander” populations Created throughout the postwar decades, carvings and paintings of Holocaust scenes by Polish vernacular artists, who remembered pre-war Jews and witnessed the atrocities against them, have been largely forgotten in the holdings of Polish ethnographic museums or reside in private (mostly German) collections, without ever having been systematically examined as a source of knowledge about post-traumatic memory processes.

This project, funded by the DFG and NCN’s joint initiative “Beethoven,” focuses on such vernacular representations of the Shoah, and their impacts and instrumentalizations in East, West, and reunited Germany from 1945 until today, examining their role in Polish and German memory cultures. The study seeks, further, to determine to what extent German collectors stimulated memory of the Holocaust among Polish artists, and whether Germany’s “orientalist” gaze on Poland influenced the way this art was produced and received in the German states. Finally, the project will yield insights into the ways that Poles and Germans have negotiated their respective collective statuses as victim, witness, and perpetrator.

The project was carried out jointly with Roma Sendyka (Jagiellonian University in Kraków) and Erica Lehrer (Concordia University Montreal).



Mapping the Archipelago of Lost Towns: Post-Holocaust Urban Lacunae in the Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian Borderlands (financed by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, 2020-2023)

While urban centers across East-Central Europe suffered unprecedented damage and population losses during WWII, with some of them entirely wiped out and many others depopulated, it was the archipelago of smaller towns often with a substantial Jewish majority—the shtelts—that faced a complete demise. This project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, looks at the long-term consequences of systematic population exchange at the epicenter of the so-called “Holocaust by bullets,” in the “lost towns” of the Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian borderlands. It examines both the strategies of obliterating or adopting (and adapting) “disinherited heritage” after 1945, applying both historical and anthropological methods. In focus are three interrelated phenomena of: overwriting, “displaced memories,” and the revival of Jewish heritage after 1989/1991. By mapping the fate of “lost towns” across state borders, the project offers a contribution to our understanding of not only the economic, social and cultural ramifications of the process of appropriation and repopulation of vacated spaces, but also of space-related practices of remembering and forgetting.

More on the project on Jewish Heritage Europe: “In Search of the Lost Shtetl