Since the end of World War II, a worldwide network of sites dedicated to defining, preserving, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust has emerged and evolved. In the public history of the Holocaust, different institutions define the unfolding events in various ways, but for the purposes of this essay, the definition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) serves well:
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority: Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others) Soviet prisoners of war, and blacks. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.[i]
“Race” was central to the Nazi worldview, inextricably linked to the idea of the “nation.” In Nazi racial theory, Germany was an “Aryan” nation, whose people were descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who settled throughout the European continent as well as in Iran and India. Thus, conflating “Aryan” with “German” meant that “non-Aryan” peoples could not be German, no matter how they thought of themselves prior to 1933; and German-speaking “Aryans” living within the post-World War I borders of other nations were German, and thus the territory they occupied must be part of Germany. The internal consistency of this worldview drove the actions of the Third Reich that led to both the Holocaust and World War II.
Efforts to preserve and present the history of the Holocaust launched the ethos of “Never Again.”[ii] Confronted by the reality of the Holocaust, historians and activists hoped that visitors would be inspired not only to prevent genocide, but to combat antisemitism wherever it rebounded in the world.
An Overview of Holocaust Public History
In 1978, driven by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility born from an evolving understanding of the United States’ lack of official response to the warning signs of the Holocaust and its atrocities as they began to unfold, members of Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on the Holocaust began the process that would lead to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This American effort was one among many, and it occurred about thirty years after the first international efforts to preserve Holocaust history.
The landscape of Holocaust public history includes “sites of conscience,” national museums, educational initiatives, exhibits, and archives. The following is a sampling of the variety of these initiatives.
Place-based sites of remembrance were among the first to be preserved and often fall under state administration. These sites include places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland (founded in 1947) and Dachau in Germany (preserved as a memorial in the 1960s). They also include more recent initiatives like the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Memorial, created in China in 1993. Architecture and artifact-intensive sites include Yad Vashem in Israel (founded in 1953, with a modern museum exhibit added in 2005), the USHMM (opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993), and the Memorial de la Shoah in France (2005). Regional museums of significant size and scope exist in many states and provinces and include such places as the Holocaust Museum of Houston (1996) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (1997). Many were founded by survivors. Some, including the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993) and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (2014), take a more broad-based approach to their mission.
Holocaust education initiatives (some of which include museums) exist at many colleges and universities around the world. These include places like the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (CHHANGE) at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (1979), the Shoah Foundation (1994) at the University of Southern California, and the Museum of History and Holocaust Education (MHHE) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (2003).
Traveling exhibits, such as Anne Frank in the World or Remembering Ravensbrück: Women and the Holocaust, allow for portable explorations of sub-topics or introductions to the larger history which can be installed at multiple libraries, museums, and schools. Others with more specific themes, along with artifacts and mixed media, include Vedem Underground about a zine published by boys imprisoned at Theresienstadt/Terezen and Art and Remembrance based on the textile work of Holocaust survivor Esther Krinitz. Finally, there are blockbuster multi-national partnerships such as the 2016 exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, which premiered at the Arte Canal Exhibition Centre in Madrid, Spain.
Temporary exhibits and initiatives at Holocaust museums and education centers allow for deeper exploration of important sub-topics and themes within Holocaust history. With its mission to evoke a sense of responsibility in its visitors, the USHMM has had a number of successful, well-executed temporary exhibits including, most recently, Americans and the Holocaust and Some Were Neighbors. Built with contemporary technology, temporary exhibits can make use of the staying power of digital media to live beyond their physical tenure. Educational initiatives also benefit from Web-based technology. These include Yad Vashem’s Echoes and Reflections, the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program of the Azrieli Foundation in Toronto, Canada, and Facing History and Ourselves, originally launched in 1976.
Strategies for Interpreting the Holocaust
With over seventy years of evolving public history to consider, what should today’s “inclusive historian” count as best practices for interpreting the Holocaust?
Accuracy and Evidence
The magnitude and specificity of the Holocaust tests the limits of human comprehension and credence. It has invited denial and diminishment since people were first aware of atrocities happening in Germany after the National Socialist (Nazi) party came to power in 1933. Efforts to define the Holocaust occurred first in the context of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Notably, the adoption of this convention occurred two years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials for which mountains of evidence and witness testimony against top Nazi officials were compiled. The need to gather evidence and create a criminal narrative during judicial proceedings has led both to the preservation of evidence and to the parsing of precise definitions of crimes committed. Bureaucratic precision can sometimes obscure emotional truths, lead people to doubt witness testimony, or attempt to compare suffering. Thus, definitions of the Holocaust that foreground the Jews as the Nazis’ primary target for genocide, but also mention and contextualize “other” targets, are of paramount importance.
The “other groups” targeted by the Nazi regime must be included in any comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust period. Discussing the unique characteristics and specific humanity of these approximately five million individuals honors their memory. It does not detract from the story of the Jews as the Nazis’ primary targets for genocide. However, it does help contemporary people to grasp the totality and complexity of the Nazi party’s murderous ideology.
Importance of Individuality
An event of such magnitude and darkness as the Holocaust (or Shoah—the Hebrew word for annihilation) invites understanding through statistics. Six million Jews were killed, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe and forty percent of the Jews in the world. More than 200,000 people, about one-quarter of the European population of Roma and Sinti, were killed in what the survivors recall as the “Porajmos” (Roma for great devouring). An estimated 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed during the “Zaglada” (Polish for destruction).[iii] On their own, such numbers provoke an intake of breath, a shaking of the head, but they do not do justice to the people who suffered and died or to the cultures that were erased from the great story map of the world. When people encounter and retain historical understanding, they do so through relating to the unique journeys of individuals both like and unlike themselves.
The ways in which these individuals’ stories are both like and unlike those of the public historian’s contemporary audience depends on the make-up of that audience. The years 1933-1945 are significant to the entire world. They encompass the Great Depression and World War II. Thus, the reality of the Holocaust is sometimes best understood through juxtaposition of other historical moments and events that may be familiar to visitors. In 1935, African American track star Jesse Owens was training for the 1936 Berlin Olympics while the German government was passing the Nuremberg race laws, based in part on the Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws of the American South.[iv] In the winter of 1942, American paratroopers were learning to jump in Georgia, preparing for deployment overseas, Japanese American civilians were being herded into concentration camps across the arid American West, and the architects of the “Final Solution” were planning for the destruction of the world’s Jews from the comfort of a classical villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin.
Similar to the importance of juxtaposition for people to find resonance in this history, relatability is especially important to people who have no direct connection to the story. For these audiences, it is important to emphasize that just because the Holocaust happened in a particular time and place does not mean it was only experienced by “foreigners.” It is also important to counter stereotypes that people might hold about European Jews. The Jews of Europe were by no means monolithic. They were rural, urban, rich, poor, multi-lingual, gay, straight, Zionist, assimilationist, political, and apolitical. Underscoring the diversity of the targets of Nazi ideology is also an important way to increase relatability. The Nazi regime cast a wide net. They imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses who would not bow to the power of the state. They targeted gay men for incarceration and “annihilation through work.” They pitted German political dissidents against Poles, Slavs, and Russians in their complex of prisons and concentration camps. They targeted Afro-Germans (the so-called “Rhineland Bastards” of World War I) for forced sterilization, murdered people with disabilities, and rendered “asocials” like Roma and Sinti invisible before “liquidating” their family camps.[v] Each group targeted by the Nazis remembers the horror of the Holocaust years in their own unique way. All of their stories are human stories.
So, too, are the stories of the witnesses, the bystanders, and the perpetrators. Those who encountered the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath are as diverse as those who encounter it today. They include the African American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and the women on the home front reading newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts. They include the children who learned about the events through hearsay, and then through published diaries and memoirs, and, if they were lucky enough, through the testimony of survivors. They include the soldiers of the USSR whose testimony and experiences were buried in the snow of the Cold War for fifty years after they liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, they include people whose minds had been poisoned by years of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery; people whose nationalistic goals were better served by the fantasy of Jewish conspiracy theories than by the reality of the Holocaust.
In the rhetorical universe of “Never Again,” it can be challenging to balance historical accuracy, reflection, and memorialization with inspiration of civic and moral responsibility, especially in a time when acting on behalf of human rights and against racism, antisemitism, sex and gender discrimination, ableism, and xenophobia seems increasingly urgent.[vi] Studying the Holocaust has helped us to codify the warning signs and conditions that can make genocide possible. It helps us recognize failures of the state and failures of individuals. It has helped us to understand the importance and the limitations of human choices. Under the “right” set of conditions, it is possible to shrink the universe of choices available to people over time until it seems there are no choices left at all. And, even when there are some choices left, they may be what theorist Lawrence Langer termed “choiceless choices.”[vii] Studying the Holocaust points out the limits of ethics under abnormal conditions. Placed in terrible situations, some people make decisions that seem to benefit them at the expense of others, but they may also feel that maintaining their power might allow them to intervene on behalf of a loved one, or simply to survive. The dilemma of “choiceless choices” leads some Holocaust educators to ask visitors, “What would you have done, had you been there?” Instead, however, we should consider the moral imperative of Holocaust education differently, asking people to consider their actions today. Everyone has a responsibility to use what power they have for good.
The “Echoes and Reflections” paradigm of Holocaust pedagogy cautions educators to avoid traumatizing their students by guiding them “safely in and safely out” of study. Of course, triggers are going to be different for different students, depending on their unique personal histories and sense of their heritage. Some strategies will work better for some than for others. It is also important to note here that simulation exercises and other forms of Holocaust reenactment, although they can foster empathy, are highly problematic and should only be attempted with the utmost care, if at all, by highly trained Holocaust educators.
There are problems as well with Holocaust heuristics. It is easy to portray the Holocaust as the ultimate in large-scale human cruelty. Characterizing the Holocaust as “the ultimate,” however, can lead people to try to compare suffering, in some cases diminishing or dismissing the suffering of some in order to gain attention for the suffering of themselves or their group, or others for whom they feel sympathy. History is not a zero-sum game, but the events of the past do compete for attention from teachers and students, governments and activists. Such a powerful story as the Holocaust lends itself to being politicized. Of course, historians need to be able to reference the present in discussions of the past in order to advance understanding, but this must be done with an eye toward precision and accuracy.[viii] It is similarly problematic to see Holocaust history only as a means to transmit a moral message. The story can be told extrinsically to support a particular agenda (such as genocide prevention, anti-bullying, claiming that everyone bears some responsibility for evil or, equally and oppositely, absolving people of responsibility within an oppressive system). Although learning from the past is important, problems occur when people perceive the agenda as supplanting the intrinsic importance of the story.
Problematic Holocaust pedagogy can be particularly burdensome for survivors and their families, because they can feel personally implicated or used for a purpose that might not be their priority. Thus, it is important for public historians to respect the rights of survivors and their descendants to speak or not to speak, to educate or to disengage. Historians must also treat testimony with respect even when using it to illustrate specific themes that may resonate with particular individuals or audiences. This responsibility grows ever greater as the generation of survivors and witnesses reach the end of their natural lives.
What, then, is the ultimate responsibility of public historians of the Holocaust? Tell the story simply enough that your target audience can understand the narrative, but don’t oversimplify or eliminate complexity. It is always possible to go deeper. Talk about the limits of choice in an increasingly oppressive situation, but talk about resistance and resilience too. Tell stories of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators, bystanders, and the people who played more than one of these roles at different moments in their historical journeys. Know the value and the limits of empathy. Place the story in context. Describe antisemitism, eugenics, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. Chronicle xenophobia and restrictive immigration policy. Discuss leading and following, militarism and conformity. Contemplate censorship and the spectacle of cultural unity, media and propaganda, scapegoating and dehumanization. Set the scene of the aftermath of World War I and the onset of World War II. Include discussions of communism and nationalism, isolationism and appeasement, and soldiers and strategy. Finally, talk about witnessing, gathering evidence, and preserving testimony. Narrate human resilience and compassion. Consider power and responsibility, memory and (re)membrance. Acknowledge your own unique subjectivity, and endeavor to understand that of your audience.
Public history is rooted in traditions of storytelling—gathering and sharing, telling and retelling. There are always new listeners. Every day, we ourselves, are new listeners. Our work is never done.
[i] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/introduction-to-the-holocaust.
[ii] Emily Burack, “‘Never Again’: From a Holocaust Phrase to a Universal Phrase,” The Jerusalem Post, March 10, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Never-Again-From-a-Holocaust-phrase-to-a-universal-phrase-544666. See also, NeverAgain.com and the #neveragain hashtag.
[iii] Luis Ferreiro and Miriam Greenbaum, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away., ed. Robert Jan van Pelt (New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019).
[iv] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[v] During World War I, soldiers from parts of Africa under French colonial rule fought on behalf of France. After the war, a number of them occupied German territory along the Rhine river, the “Rhineland.” Although many German women married soldiers from the occupying forces, some had children out of wedlock, opening the rhetorical door for the “Rhineland Bastards” moniker that would first be used as a derogatory term to refer to Afro-Germans in German newspapers in 1919. For more details, see Iris Wigger, The “Black Horror on the Rhine”: Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender, and Class in 1920s Germany (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017).
[vi] The rise of right-wing regimes in Europe with a predilection for Holocaust revisionism has also given Holocaust educators a sense of increased urgency. For example, see “Hungary’s New Holocaust Museum Isn’t Open Yet, But It’s Already Causing Concern,” NPR.org, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/08/690647054/hungarys-new-holocaust-museum-isn-t-open-yet-but-it-s-already-causing-worry.
[vii] Lawrence L. Langer, “The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps,” Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 53-59.
[viii] For a discussion of recent scholarly debates over the use of Holocaust analogies in political speech, see Liam Knox, “Scholars Push Back on Holocaust Museum’s Rejection of Historical Analogy,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 3, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Push-Back-on/246615.
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Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Third edition. Lanham ; Boulder ; New York ; London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016.
Ferreiro, Luis, and Miriam Greenbaum. Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away. Edited by Robert Jan van Pelt. New York ; London: Abbeville Press, 2019.
Hersh, June Feiss. Recipes Remembered. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2013.
Linenthal, Edward. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 1st edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Reprint edition. New York, N.Y: Plume, 1994.
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Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. First PB Edition, First Printing edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
~ Adina Langer has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, since 2015. A 2009 graduate of the MA program in Archives and Public History at New York University, she has focused her career on interpreting traumatic historical events for diverse audiences while emphasizing the dignity and individuality of the people who experienced them. You can follower her on Twitter @Artiflection and find her on the web at www.artiflection.com.