Monday, May 19, 2014

Selfie Control

Jenna Brager, 2013 AJC Fellow

This excerpt is from Jenna Brager’s article Selfie Control published by The New Inquiry in March 2014. Please click the link to read the full article.

The exhibit [“Before They Perished” at Birkenau] compiles photos found after liberation in a suitcase in the vicinity of Kanada, believed to have been brought to the camp by families traveling together from the ghetto in the area of Będzin and Sosnowiec and either forgotten amid the piles of stolen goods or stashed as a souvenir by a member of the SS.

In [one] photograph, a girl, in her late teens or early 20s, kneels in front of a white-painted metal bed and behind a small wooden table. She holds a box camera steady atop a book on the table. She is looking down at the camera, intent on the act of creating the image. Both from the positioning of the camera and a glare of light in the top left corner of the photograph, it’s clear that the picture was taken by the subject herself, in a mirror. Like Roland Barthes scrutinizing the photograph of Lewis Payne, the handsome assassin, I am “lacerated” by the knowledge that she is going to die, by the ‘“defeat of Time’” in the historical photograph. And yet I am relieved of the burden of the Nazi gaze. I look at the photographer as subject rather than the victim, interpolated differently by this looped encounter in which I yearn for our eyes to meet and am frustrated by her lowered gaze, by the historical accident of a too-slow look. The woman looks into a mirror, back at herself, but also (not) at me. The open lens of her camera is pointed at her own image and (not) at me. There is no perpetrator, there is no spectacle. This is the devastating part; our eyes (do not) meet.

I wonder, would the inevitability of the death of this unknown woman be more terrible if I knew for certain that she was a Holocaust victim? Would I be less moved by this photograph if I found it in an antique shop in ¬Bielsko-Biala, or in New York City, instead of in this exhibit of photographs of perished Jews? It is easy to create a romantic fiction for the selfie of the unknown woman at Auschwitz—separated lovers, a cherished photograph in the dismal ghetto—as easy as it is to “like” an Instagram selfie and then keep scrolling.

Is what inspired the unknown woman to turn her camera toward the mirror similar or the same as what prompts smartphone users to rotate their cameras toward themselves? What limited circulation did her ephemeral snapshot find before it became an artifact? How do we compare this to the reach of the approximately 35 million selfies on Instagram? How do we parse through this transient superabundance, to locate what “should” be archived, what images will become history? Should we even try?

Jenna Brager is a doctoral student and artist in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies and a certificate in LGBT Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research looks at processes of veridiction and the establishment of truth after atrocity through narrative testimony, photographic evidence, and transgenerational memory practice. Her writing and comics have been published in the Black Warrior Review, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Shareable Magazine, among others.

Integrating Narratives

Yael Friedman, 2013 AJC Fellow

One of my aims as a Holocaust educator is to teach the complexity of Holocaust history by focusing on individual countries’ narratives. The Fellows program raised many of these complexities and offered the opportunity for our group, as scholars, to discuss and debate the intersection of difficult histories. Throughout the program I returned to the question of how to integrate various narratives about the Holocaust and the broader history of the time period. I believe the Holocaust should be taught within the Jewish narrative as well as the general context of the time period rather than as a separate historical event. Salo Baron, a prominent 20th century Jewish history scholar, studied the Holocaust as separate from the Jewish historical narrative. I worry that if we remove such a tragedy from the cohesive story of Jewish history, then we risk losing an accurate understanding of the history from a holistic perspective and the impact of such a catastrophe. Additionally, by divorcing the Holocaust from the Jewish narrative, it makes the Holocaust more incomprehensible and further detached from attempts to understand how such an event could have occurred.

Throughout the program, we were confronted with the challenges of how to present a cohesive, accurate history. Certain questions in particular sparked lively discussion: From the Jewish narrative perspective, to what extent do we include others? How exclusive can the Jewish narrative remain? At what point does the narrative begin? Is there a division between general Holocaust education and Holocaust education for Jewish students? Why can it not be the same? When focusing on Holocaust education, these are the questions, informed by the Fellows program, that I ask.

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands emphasizes the challenge of creating an inclusive narrative of this time period. As a Jewish Studies scholar, I recognize that the Holocaust carries an additional dimension for Jews. The collective memory that exists for the Jewish people about the loss and the threat of extermination has shaped the way the majority of Jews understand the importance of the Holocaust and Jewish identity in general. For several decades, Jewish and Israeli educators have used the Holocaust as a tool for developing Jewish identity. Snyder’s book highlights the intersection of difficult histories, namely the dual occupation of Poland by two totalitarian regimes. He examines the role of Poles during the Holocaust and what Poland’s narrative can teach us about memory. Additionally, he complicates our understanding and categorization of victim and perpetrator in this particular context.
In education, arguably in Jewish education especially, it is essential to teach the complexity of Polish history in order to avoid associating the actions that took place on Polish territory primarily with the Polish people. 
Some Jews today will not visit Poland because of their beliefs about the role of Poles in the atrocities of the Holocaust. This approach illustrates a lack of depth in understanding the nuances of Holocaust history. It is necessary to have a complete picture of the reality that existed in order to better understand how such an event could have occurred. Our group discussion of Snyder’s book provided a helpful framework in which to place and explore our own experiences in Poland.

Adding another layer to this complex history, our meeting with Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw highlighted the challenges of representing a Jewish narrative in particular. A challenge exists between presenting the lives of Polish Jews within a separate history compared to a contextual analysis of the development of the Jews of Poland. Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett described this difference as an integral history versus a contextual approach, respectively. The Museum, set to open this fall, takes the approach of the former, focusing primarily on the Jewish lived experience without deviating too much into the experiences of other groups at the same time. The exhibition will show the integration of Jews into their surrounding environment, but does not focus on other groups. This discussion helped me create a framework in which to understand the different approaches to teaching about and representing Jewish history.
Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explained: The Holocaust is typically situated in a history of hate, which ends with a discussion of genocide. When the Holocaust is situated within a history of Jewish life, it doesn’t end with genocide. 
Her comment summarizes the difficult task that exists in educating for different audiences and for different purposes. Our discussion with Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett challenged my impressions from our discussion in Snyder’s book about integrating difficult histories in order to get a full picture of the history. I found it extremely helpful to learn about the process of presenting a specifically Jewish narrative and how that compares to portraying a narrative that includes multiple historical perspectives; this includes humanizing perpetrators in order to address the importance of making moral and ethical choices.

In the exhibit People of Kraków in Times of Terror 1939-1945-1956, I appreciated that the exhibition designers included biographies of individuals with a variety of perspectives: victims, informers, and Polish police. The inclusion of all types of people offers a more nuanced picture of life during this time period. It doesn’t make it easier for us to swallow the reality, but it allows us to examine the circumstances more humanely.

On the other hand, there are cases of including multiple perspectives that are jarring and verge on inappropriate, in my opinion. A relatively new addition to the Treblinka memorial now stands on the periphery of the cemetery of stones ranging in size, shape, and color. There are four photographs of Nazi guards, Nazi accommodations, and the process of creating large pits in which to burn the bodies. The images provide a stark contrast between the memorial to the victims and the Nazi role in such inhumane actions. This was an extremely unsettling addition to the site and calls into question the nature of the site. Is it a memorial? To whom? For what? Is there an educational element to including these images? As a memorial site to nameless victims, this doesn’t appear to be the appropriate location for these historical photographs. It is unclear what the purpose of these photographs is and what it contributes to the experience of visiting Treblinka. Instead, there should be a dedicated place to learn about the Nazi mentality and the relationship between the Nazis and their victims, though this does not seem to be the right place or an appropriate means to bring these considerations into the discussion. This juxtaposition underscores the challenge of bridging together multiple narratives in one location. Perhaps a more extensive museum would be able to more adequately address the integration of narratives without marring the experience of the memorial site.

I am still exploring the answers to many of my questions, yet I feel comfortable with that. I feel most inspired when I constantly question why I am interested in the Holocaust and how much I can learn. It is evident that I still have contradictory perspectives on how and when to include different difficult histories, but I firmly believe that the intersection of narratives will help us improve education today. We must continue to question how to present multiple histories and integrate them. I am extremely appreciative for the many tools, examples, and resources I acquired during my Fellowship in order to delve into these issues more deeply throughout my career.

Yael Friedman is currently the Gallery Education Coordinator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. She graduated with a Dual Master’s in Education and Jewish Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University as a Jim Joseph Fellow, with a concentration in Holocaust Education. She holds a B.A. in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies from Washington University in St. Louis where she received the Steven S. Schwarzschild Prize for Overall Excellence in Jewish Studies. Yael has worked in various capacities at several Holocaust museums and educational non-profit organizations as well as at the U.S. Department of State for the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. She focuses on curriculum and professional development for Holocaust Studies.

Eastern European Memory and Reflections on Romania

Grant Harward, 2013 AJC Fellow

When I was applying for the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program, I was interested in better understanding the complexities of the Holocaust in Poland. I knew it would be an invaluable opportunity to learn about the German government and Nazi regime and gain a comparative perspective for my own research into the Romanian army and government and their involvement in the Holocaust under the regime of Marshal Ion Antonescu.

During the Fellowship, I found myself drawn to the issue of Polish post-war memory of pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust. This topic captured my attention and was probably the issue that I learned most about and changed my perspective most profoundly. I dealt with memory in my research usually in the form of sources: journals, memoirs, and oral interviews. In carrying out oral interviews with veterans from the war, memory was a key issue. Books such as Maria Bucur’s Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania and Gavin Bowd’s Memoria razboiului (The Memory of the War), 1941-1945, introduced me to some of the ideas of memory in the context of the Second World War in Romania.

As I was confronted with different examples of memory in Poland, I began contrasting them with my previous experiences when I was conducting my research in Romania, where the actions of the Antonescu Regime, independent of German pressure or direction, resulted in the murder of at least 300,000 Romanian and Soviet Jews. This is not taking into account the Jews of Northern Transylvania, which was under Hungarian occupation during the war. Still, none of my experiences in Romania prepared me for some of the things that I learned in Poland.

One of the first exhibits we saw during the Jewish Culture Festival was Souvenir, Talisman, Toy, an exhibit on contemporary Jewish figurines and images sold in the main square of Krakow, and elsewhere in Poland. I had read about these figurines tangentially in The Pages In Between before starting the program, but had not really thought much more about these examples of post-war memory. The exhibit on the figurines was well done and engaging, but overall I had an increasingly unsettled feeling as I made my way through the different parts of the exhibit, particularly as I watched the interviews with Poles about the figurines. Average people were asked why they had bought or sold the figurines and what was the significance that they held in their view. I was extremely disturbed when I heard some comments from shop owners selling the figurines that one person who saw the figurines said they looked like they were “lined up for the gas chambers”. I had a strong reaction to these figurines, as did many in the group who went to see the exhibition. However, these objects forced me to reflect on memory of Jewish life in Poland compared to what I had experienced, or, rather had not experienced in Romania when visiting cities, which once had large and thriving Jewish populations.

During our reflection session on the figurines, we talked about their appropriateness and the continued strength of particular stereotypes today. Throughout the Fellowship, the diversity of the fellows’ backgrounds served to help me understand more about this complicated aspect of historiography through engaging discussions. We explored the reality that many Jewish visitors feel their own stereotypes about the Polish people are confirmed when they see stereotypical representations of Jews in Poland. Poles are often stereotyped as being anti-Semitic because of bitter memories of interwar Polish nationalism, events during wartime Nazi occupation, and Communist era politics. Therefore, many believe that anti-Semitism is somehow an innate part of the Polish character and see the figurines as proof positive. However, as I was mulling over these things in our reflection session, I thought of my visits to cities in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine, which had formerly been major centers of Jewish life and culture; cities such as Bucharest, Iaşi, Cernowitz, Chisinev, and Odessa. When I visited them, these cities lacked any provoking visuals representation of their former Jewish populations, such as the ones we saw intermittently in Poland. In those cities, there is a marked absence of memory of the Jewish culture that once had flourished in them and played a major role in their respective histories. Yet the physical absence of images that can be labeled offensive does not mean that stereotypes or anti-Semitic feelings do not exist in those countries. In fact, I know from personal experience that such sentiments are still prevalent. This led me to wonder:
Is it better to have a skewed public memory of the past rather than a general amnesia? 
The informal dichotomy that I considered was that of bad memory versus no memory. One of my colleagues suggested that the actual physical remnants (synagogues, cemeteries, memorials) should comprise the public memory of Jewish communities and not misrepresented stereotypes. She had a good point, except that we know that usually only a handful of these physical remnants survived the Second World War. It was made clear during visits to various cities how much was destroyed, so that even what physical remains of former Jewish life are left are often remote, hidden, re-appropriated or ignored – leaving only memory behind.

In Romania, the situation is similar, in Iaşi, only one synagogue of nearly one hundred survived the war. In Bucharest, the four remaining major synagogues are hidden behind huge Communist blocs, literally out of sight and out of mind. While it is clear that Romania had a much smaller Jewish pre-war population, around 800,000, in comparison to over three million in Poland, it still seems strange and disturbing that very few remnants of the Romanian-Jewish culture remain, particularly because Romanian Jews were notably visible minorities in urban settings. All major Romanian cities in the interwar period had large Jewish populations whether in the southern region of Wallachia or the western region of Transylvania with their largely assimilated, Reform Jewish populations or in the eastern regions of Moldavia and Bessarabia with its more Orthodox and Yiddish speaking Jewish population. In fact, Iaşi was the birthplace of modern Yiddish theatre. The Jewish past of Romania was vibrant and influential, but during the war much of the population of the eastern provinces was decimated by the Antonescu regime, yet the Jewish population of Wallachia and southern Transylvania survived deportation and death; numbering around 350,000 in 1945. Therefore, in Romania, unlike Poland, the Jewish population survived the war much more intact and Jewish life actually continued until the late 1970s, when most Jews were allowed to immigrate to Israel by the Communist regime. Nevertheless, despite the survival and continuity of the Jewish community in Romania, today, unlike in Poland, there is basically no memory of that past, flawed or otherwise.

There are certain public examples of that memory in Romania, such as the Romanian Holocaust Memorial, which was only inaugurated in 2009. There are a few memorials in Iaşi and other towns created after the war by the Jewish community. The Jewish Yiddish Theatre still exists in Bucharest. There are synagogues in almost all the Romanian cities I have ever visited, usually dilapidated and vacant, but there nonetheless. More distressing to me is the absence of a public discussion or debate about the complicity and role that Romanians played in the Holocaust. This is in stark contrast to the situation that I experienced while in Poland during the fellowship program. It became evident to me as I read the required readings, listened to lectures, and talked with our Polish guides, that there has been an extensive, ongoing discussion about Polish collaboration and responsibility in the Holocaust. In Romania, in contrast, this debate is nearly nonexistent, even though Romania remained unoccupied by Nazi Germany and independently partook in deportation and murder of the Jewish communities of the eastern provinces of Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transnistria.

Despite the varied opinions on representations of Jews and post-war memory, it seems to me that no memory may be worse than bad memory. Despite the issues Poland still faces, its open space for dialogue should be a model for many countries. In Romania, without public debate or organizations addressing post-war memory, there is no forum to inform the public, help people learn from the past, and, hopefully, begin healing wounds. Instead Romanian academics working in the United States try to confront the issue of the Holocaust in Romania, but the debate is limited to Romanian academics in Romania writing in response justifying the actions of Antonescu and his regime against Romanian Jews. The government is officially supporting Holocaust studies and funded the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest, but it seems largely lacking motivation other than to placate the European Union in order to receive funds and support. The government has done the official minimum required of it to remember the Holocaust. The more important goal, and the much more difficult one, will be to expand the debate to include more than a narrow strata of government officials and academics to include the general public.

My experience with the many forms of commemoration and memory in Poland during the fellowship affected me greatly. It offered me a new perspective of my own research and motivates me to make sure that I properly address the Holocaust and its issues in my own work. I returned from Poland with a largely optimistic outlook on developments. The debate over the Holocaust continues to raise awareness of tolerance and understanding. The Jewish past in Poland seems to be steadily more recognized and important, as evidenced by the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews that we visited in Warsaw. I hope that I can contribute in the future to the ongoing debate and scholarship on the Holocaust in a meaningful way, which will help our understanding of the events as well as change the attitudes of people in contemporary problems of intolerance and prejudice.

Grant Harward grew up in Orange County, California and earned his B.A. from Brigham Young University, where he researched the Communist takeover in Romania. He lived in Romania for two years, studying Romanian history during the Second World War and becoming fluent in the language. He earned his M.A. in History of the Second World War in Europe from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Modern European History at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on the motivation of Romanian soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front against the Red Army and in perpetrating atrocities against the Jewish population under Romanian administration.

Reflections on the American Service Academies Program at the United States Air Force Academy

Jessica Adams & Nathan Orrill, USAFA 2014 / 2013 ASAP Alums

In March 2014, Jessica Adams and Nathan Orrill, two participants of the American Service Academies Program (ASAP) presented at the National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS) at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Here, they share their experiences with us during a Q&A.

What is the NCLS? 
NCLS is a one of the nation’s premier symposia in the field of character and leadership development, bringing together distinguished scholars, military leaders, corporate executives, world-class athletes, and others to explore a character-related theme based on the United States Air Force Academy’s institutional outcome. It is held annually at the Air Force Academy and this year’s theme was: “Character Overcoming Conflict: Individual Stories, Global Impact.”

What was the topic of your presentation?
We were invited to speak at this event as members of a cadet panel, to provide the “cadet” perspective on the Holocaust and ethical leadership dilemmas. Drawing upon the lessons learned during the program and our experiences throughout the trip, we presented on a wide array of issues to an audience of over 120 people. In attendance were USAFA department heads, visiting students and professors, and the Surgeon General of the Israeli Defense Forces, Brigadier General Kriess.

What were the highlights of the presentation?
The panel sparked both insightful and relevant discussion among the audience members. Much like the experience of cadets and midshipmen participating in ASAP, the audience encountered many of the same difficult questions and dilemmas. Though time was limited, we were successful in recreating the environment of sharing, critical thought, and forthright discussion, which was so essential and beneficial during the ASAP. There were two moments in particular that spoke to the credit and value of the ASAP and Holocaust education in general. The first was when a Jewish sophomore cadet expressed awe that the talk was standing room only. He said that the crowded room brought him close to tears, impressing upon him that so many of his fellow classmates and teachers cared about the Holocaust.

The second moment was when General Kreiss’ son publicly thanked the panel for his father, and then later personally expressed his gratitude, saying that as a Jew and an Israeli the Holocaust is an obvious, integral part of who they are. However, he and his father did not come to America, and the USAFA, expecting to hear a talk about the Holocaust. They were touched, saying they would never forget this talk. The impact on the whole audience was noticeable and profound; many listeners came up after the talk expressing their gratitude and thanks.

How did doing this panel tie into your ASAP experience?
One of the most important aspects of the program is continuing education and increasing public awareness, and we can say confidently that our participation in this panel met this goal. We wish to thank the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Auschwitz Jewish Foundation for sponsoring ASAP and allowing us the opportunity to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to our peers, colleagues, and superiors. 

Jessica Adams is majoring in English Literature with minors in Arabic and Spanish at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Originally from outside Atlanta, Georgia, she plans on attending the University of Virginia after she graduates to pursue a Master’s Degree in British Literature before beginning her Air Force career as a Public Affairs Officer. 

Nathan Orrill is a senior cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy majoring in political science and minoring in Arabic language. After graduation in May 2014, he will commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and will attend Intelligence Officer School in Texas.

Public Reminders

Molly Greathouse, 2013 AJC PSA Alum

Whenever I reflect on my trip to Kraków and Oświęcim, this is always the image that pops into my head. Although it isn't the typical photo to describe the kind of journey we took through Poland, the message I captured in the image indicated that the history of World War II is still poignant and present for the people of Kraków – impossible to ignore. In America, there are no daily reminders of this time period, but by having simple street art akin to this, the memory of victims and the dangers of discrimination are kept alive though daily reminders.

One of the things I like about street art is that it is able to convey great ideas through a single image or a simple sentence. Public art, such as street art or graffiti, and public initiatives in general have a great effect on those who see them. Because of the fact that these types of expression are open to the public, it is up to the viewer to interpret the message how he or she wishes. This gives great power to the art while also allowing the viewer to participate in creating the message.

Molly Greathouse is a senior at the University of California, Irvine where she is pursuing an International Studies major and French minor. Her professional focus is digital and online media and is pursuing a career for new artists in the music industry. She currently is writing about her travel experiences on her own blog, as well as on The College Tourist.