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Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow: Zoë Kaufmann '23

December 12, 2023
Zoe Kaufmann at a library desk

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.

Zoë Kaufmann '23
Minors: French and History of Art 
"Memorial Culture and Medieval Jewry: Recovering Jewish History in Paris"

Abstract: While Paris contains many memorials and sites commemorating the lives lost in the Holocaust (including the Mémorial de la Shoah and the Mémorial des martyrs de la Déportation), few museums, historical sites, or historical markers cast light on the medieval Jewish community which thrived in the city for centuries. While it is undoubtedly crucial to remember and commemorate the lives of those murdered by the Nazis and the Vichy government, to focus exclusively on the horrors of the Holocaust without its context—the violent antisemitism of the early modern and medieval past—casts anti-Jewish oppression as a single, aberrative event rather than a long-standing component of European culture. This project analyzes Jewish memorial culture in Paris to unearth the physical traces of Jewish medieval communities and to argue that the French obsession with the Holocaust and with the nation’s own tangled relationship with the Second World War has resulted in a Parisian memorial landscape which elides the complexity of medieval Jewish lives. There is a deep need for new lieux de mémoire, and for extant museums and historical sites to fulfill their own obligations as spaces of memory for the medieval Jews of Paris.

Was there anything surprising about the work you did?

I knew going into this project that there wouldn't be many physical traces of the medieval Jewish communities of Paris, but I was shocked by just how few remnants still exist. It's the kind of thing that you can't comprehend without actually visiting: I would walk down streets where I knew a synagogue or cemetery had existed, and there would be no sign at all of that history. On the flip side, I was shocked by just how many memorials to the Holocaust and the Second World War there were—I felt like I tripped across one that I hadn’t heard of nearly every day. More generally, though, the best surprise of this project was the confidence it gave me. I’d traveled abroad before, but I’d never done research of this kind or traveled on my own, and I felt so much better prepared than I thought I would.

How will you use your research in future studies?

I learned so much while working on my Hanna Holborn Gray project! I wasn’t able to fit everything into my final paper or interactive map, and I hope to eventually make my work more widely available. More immediately, I hope to use the skills I learned working on my Hanna Holborn Gray project working in museums or archives after I graduate. Further in the future, I plan to study museum ethics, French memorial culture, and Jewish history in graduate school.

How did you choose your topic?

I chose my topic after spending last summer studying abroad in Avignon, France, at Bryn Mawr’s Institut d’Avignon. Wandering amidst the Gothic cathedrals of Paris and the South of France, I became intensely interested in how the French conceptualize Jewish history within the nation, as well as the remnants of ancient Jewish life in a country so troubled by its own histories of antisemitism. In Avignon, where Jewish communities have existed since the fourth century, I watched the sun set on a fortress built by Philip IV, who in 1306 expelled the Jews from France; on my 21st birthday, eating falafel in the Place des Vosges in Paris, I couldn’t shake the knowledge that I was sitting on the spot where, in 1242, Louis IX had ordered the burning of every Talmud in France.  In these spaces, I felt a cognitive dissonance knowing that there was an unacknowledged history—my history—hidden in plain sight. That cognitive dissonance fueled my own desire to research and reveal those hidden Jewish communities in Paris.

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences.  The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.


History History of Art French and Francophone Studies