Curating Silences

I started participating in conversations about archival silences during the second phase of digitizing our oral history collection. While creating a quality report spreadsheet, I started to take a closer look at the way the previous staff coded interviews. I noticed a homogony within an otherwise silenced group —  the lack of Righteous and resistance members was particularly disheartening.

But this is a fairly conventional view of archival silences. As we began reprocessing our Record Group collection a few years ago, I started to take notice of how much silence existed throughout. For example, the “persons” listing in the index of the Brodecki Family Record Group:

Piekarska, Joseph (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Piekarska, Marysha (nèe Zylberstein) (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Piekarska, Lolek (b. August 1, 1930, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Monich (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Jacob (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Lola (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Sissman (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Issac (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Sara (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Ellush (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Reuven (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Moshe (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Kubis (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Zosia (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Miriam (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)

This represents the bulk of what we know about Zosia Piekarska’s immediate family. We have no photographs of them. We have no documents from them. We know the bare minimum of what happened to them after the Nazi’s invaded Poland.

We often discuss the cultural destruction taking place within a genocidal event but what is seen in the later archival collection is the physical manifestation of this process. In a real sense, we have collected silences. [1]

As we’ve been reprocessing, I’ve started collecting data from each of the updated finding aids. We will eventually use this information for a spatial representation when we update our Survivor’s Room and Tower of Remembrance exhibits; however, it’s left me with a number of questions about the nature of archival silences in our work (in no particular order):

  • How does curating large groups of “record silences” help inform the larger conversation of archival silences?
  • How might examining the tactics of genocidaires record keeping inform our view on archival silences?
  • What would a comparison of genocidal regimes’ record keeping methods tell us about the creation of archival silences?
  • How do human rights archives fit within Derrida’s violence of the archive?
  • How can the methods we use in curating genocide records be applied to other archival silences?

There are certainly articles dealing with these questions in varying degrees. However, as we’ve been doing the work, I find I’m attempting to address the rather specific interplay between appraisal, processing, silence, discovery, and remembrance in a way that I suspect is unique to human rights work but may be useful in addressing other silences.

[1] At present, the number of people indexed with minimal information is 66%.

Kony 2012

Invisible Children launched a new initiative this week called Kony 2012. The idea is to not only draw attention to the crimes being perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) but to create a movement designed to bring Kony to justice by the end of the year.

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

The movement is particularly timely as the Voice of America is reporting that thousands have fled their homes recently to escape LRA attacks in the Congo.

UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said the most recent attacks took place in the village of Bagulupa, 55 kilometers east of Dungu. “There have been 20 attacks since the beginning of this year. One person was killed and 17 abducted during these incidents,” Lejeune-Kaba said.

“Abducted civilians are often used as porters, while the LRA has forced young women into sexual slavery…According to information gathered by our staff, most newly displaced were already displaced by previous LRA attacks,” Lejeune-Kaba added. “Other civilians could be displaced in areas that humanitarian agencies cannot reach due to insecurity and poor road access.”

Not unlike similar movements by other grassroots organizations of its kind, Invisible Children are attempting to leverage social media and local activists to drive the project.

French denial bill

For months, the media has been stirring with reports and editorials about the French government’s proposed genocide denial bill. There are a few things that have been relatively under-reported about this bill, primarily because the focus has centered on the Turkish and Armenian communities.

If you have read any of the articles you would likely assume that the new legislation is designed to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide and nothing else. The truth is the legislation does not mention any specific genocide. The Sénat posted the commentary for the proposed law which reads:

La présente proposition de loi a pour objet de punir d’un an d’emprisonnement et de 45 000 euros d’amende, ou de l’une de ces deux peines seulement, ceux qui auront publiquement fait l’apologie, contesté ou banalisé des crimes de génocide, les crimes contre l’humanité et crimes de guerre, tels que définis aux articles 6, 7 et 8 du Statut de la Cour pénale internationale, à l’article 6 de la charte du Tribunal militaire international annexée à l’accord de Londres du 8 août 1945, ou reconnus par la France.

Translation (my own):

This bill aims to penalize with one year imprisonment and a fine of €45,000, or one of these two penalties, those who have publicly made an apology, trivialized or denied the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal annexed to the agreement in London on August 8, 1945, or recognized by France.

The bill itself (Assemblée Nationale and Sénat) would add a line to Article 24 of the Law of 29 July 1881 on Press Freedom, which would make it an offense to “downplay…one or more crimes of genocide as defined in Article 211-1 of the Penal Code and recognized as such by French Law.”

The second addition would be a line in Article 48.2 of the same law that applies to criminal procedure. The phrase would read “…or any other victim of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or crimes of collaboration with the enemy.” The interesting thing about this section is that genocide is the only “category” that was not already present in this Article; the reason being that the bill is expanding on the previous Holocaust denial language that used the terms war crimes, crimes against humanity, and collaboration, based off the original Nuremberg court rulings.

Would this criminalize Armenian genocide denial? Yes, as France has previously passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide as such.

The bigger question, and the one that I am actually addressing here, comes from the January 31 decision to send the bill to the Constitutional Council who will determine if the law would be constitutionally sound. If they do rule for this it will likely leave the Holocaust denial portion (war crimes, crimes against humanity, and collaboration) intact.

How then does this impact the survivor communities living in France? Even excluding the Armenian communities, the French government would still be feeding into a schism, which already exists in public perception, whereby the victims of the Third Reich are set apart from those of other genocides.

How do you reconcile these two issues? It becomes even further problematic when you begin to examine the issue from the perspective of Rwandan survivors, who have been attempting to deal with the pains of reconciliation with a country that has been less than forthcoming in their handling of events in 1994 and beyond.

Holocaust museums more than public history

Edward Rothstein has written a number of reviews concerning Holocaust museums and education centers over the last few months for the New York Times. The series includes the Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. In each article, he discusses the complexities of presenting the history of the Holocaust and finds a number of problematic issues as he visits each institution.

Eventually, each of these articles circles back to the trend in Holocaust museums to tie their narratives to prejudice, intolerance, and genocide, rather than merely following a straightforward historical account. For example, during his article on the Illinois Holocaust Museum he comments:

This approach is also used to justify the inclusion of the Holocaust in school curriculums. And it is strange. We wouldn’t expect a museum about World War II to end with lessons about the evils of all wars. We wouldn’t expect an examination of American slavery to end with platitudes about the many despicable ways people treat others as objects. Why then here? Why the reluctance to study history in its context instead of diluting it with generalities and vague analogies? This path also ends up encouraging those always ready to invoke wild comparisons to Nazism and the Holocaust.

As it happens, I was recently at the National World War II Museum, and while they do not attempt a message about the evils of war, they do conclude with a rather somber and reflective look at America’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. In addition, at various points in the exhibit, they discuss how the Axis and Allies used propaganda to represent their enemy as well as the United States’ role in interning Japanese-American citizens. In other words, they do in fact draw visitors into important ethical debates which they hope will challenge and inform their guests.

What Rothstein is missing is that Holocaust Museums in this country are often not founded with the intention of being traditional public history museums. Germany, Austria, and Poland can easily accomplish this, and do so, by providing stark reminders of the dark hour they share while pinning it against the larger backdrop of their respective historical narratives. Instead, museums in this country are often founded as reminders of how societies, even supposedly civilized ones, can devolve into barbarism because of ethnic hatreds.

Which leaves us with the question of “why” give the public a reminder? The answer to that question is simple – because these atrocities continue to take place. This idea is often reflected in Holocaust museum mission statements.

Illinois Holocaust Museum’s mission statement:

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice and indifference. The museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

Holocaust Museum Houston:

Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.

Museum of Tolerance’s mission statement:

The Museum of Tolerance, the Center’s educational arm, founded in 1993 challenges visitors to confront bigotry and racism, and to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts. It hosts 350,000 visitors annually including 130,000 students.

Thus, the real problem Holocaust museums in the United States have been grappling with is the opposite of what Rothstein points towards; even though each hopes to serve as a reminder of what can happen they were often designed around a single event, which provides little evidence for the historical continuum that is genocide. The solution to this for many museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has been a rethinking of how they deliver their message, leading to expansions where instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations are discussed.

While Rothstein makes a number of good points in these articles, it is important to note that these museums are not designed as traditional public history institutions and frequently blend history with education and activism. This should not be seen as a flaw though as the message they are attempting to impart is an important one.

Turkish Coalition sues over website

The University of Minnesota is currently facing a lawsuit from the Turkish Coalition of America. According to the Minnesota Daily, the University is facing seven charges related to freedom of speech, due process, or defamation.

The University of Minnesota faces a federal lawsuit after displaying on one of its websites a list of sources deemed “unreliable.”

Until Nov. 18, the list of sources, designated “unreliable” because of their views on the Armenian Genocide, could be found on the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Web page. The Turkish Coalition of America was the first site on the list.

The real crux of this problem is how it might shape academic discourse. Even putting aside the troubling ramifications for the Armenian genocide, scholarly debate should be proven through convincing argument of facts rather than lawsuits.

A similar case was brought against the Massachusetts Board of Education for not including Armenian genocide denial sites on its list of recommended websites. The suit was eventually dismissed, finding that the Board of Education had the right to judge what was appropriate for the State’s curriculum.

The Destruction of Texts

As part of Banned Books Week, I thought it might be appropriate to share a brief list of the libraries that have been destroyed over the centuries.

303 Diocletian decrees the burning of the scriptures.
644 – 656 All Qur’ans are destroyed by ‘Uthman.
1281 The Taoist libraries are burned by Kublai Khan.
1515 The Lateran Council ratifies the burning of all erroneous books.
1529 All Aztec books in Mexico are destroyed.
1789 The Bastille library is captured and a book massacre begins.
1814 The Library of Congress is burned by the British.
1914 The Louvain Library is burned by German soldiers.
1933 The Nazis burn books in Berlin, followed by several other sites.
1981 The Jaffna Library in Sri Lanka is burned.
1992 The Sarajevo Library is burned by the Serbs.
1998 The Pul-i-Khumri Library is destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This listing comes from Lucien X. Polastron’s Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History.

While almost everyone might know about the book burnings carried out by the Nazi regime, other genocides include the destruction of books and sacred texts as part of their assault on a given “victim” group. As I often discuss during my lectures, genocide is not simply an attempt to kill a people, it is an attempt to eradicate entire cultures. This is why we often see book burnings during genocidal massacres.

Obfuscating on genocide

STAND posted a message today reporting that Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are sponsoring new legislation that calls for “the development of an interagency genocide prevention strategy.” The bill’s short title reads:

Recognizing the United States national interest in helping to prevent and mitigate acts of genocide and other mass atrocities against civilians, and supporting and encouraging efforts to develop a whole of government approach to prevent and mitigate such acts.

The emphasis is my own and was added in order to draw attention to the soft wording. If you read the entire resolution you will see that it carries no force and effect; rather every subsection begins with urges, encourages, affirms, or supports which leaves it fairly toothless. Compare this to S. 1067 (Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009) which was also sponsored by Sen. Feingold:

SEC. 4. REQUIREMENT OF A STRATEGY TO SUPPORT THE DISARMAMENT OF THE LORD’S RESISTANCE ARMY.

(a) Requirement for Strategy- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the President shall develop and submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a strategy to guide future United States support across the region for viable multilateral efforts to mitigate and eliminate the threat to civilians and regional stability posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As you can see, S. 1067 has a defined action required within a specified timeframe.

From the proposed language, it’s difficult to see how this will change the government’s approach toward genocide. While Feingold’s efforts on this and past legislation should definitely be applauded, true progress in preventing genocide is only going to come if we make combating it a priority rather than a sound bite.

Genocide and the Second Reich

We just completed the last of our Teacher Education Institute classes. As the modern genocide instructor on staff, I wind up covering as much of the 20th and 21st century as I can, though seldom do I have enough time to truly provide our students with a firm grounding on the broader concepts of genocide.

Since we mapped our curriculum to follow a chronological pattern, I wind up teaching the Herero/Nama genocide and Armenia on the first night. I rather enjoy this format; not only does it make sense intellectually but it provides the majority of our teacher/students with something of a shock as they’ve never been exposed to Germany’s annihilationist policies in modern-day Namibia.

Unfortunately, there are few resources available to the public on this particular genocide, which is why I always make a point of recommending a BBC documentary called Genocide and the Second Reich. You can find the film in its entirety through Google Videos.

Obama, not likely to stop genocide

The Museum started a sort of book club — which is really more of a topic-based discussion group — and during our first meeting (last night) I made a comment that I don’t think went over well. The subject of this first meeting was Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell, and in a broader sense the United State’s lack of involvement in cases of genocide.

During this discussion, I commented that I suspect that very little is actually going to be done by the Obama administration to curtail the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The reason for me saying this is actually enumerated in Power’s conclusion:

Knowledge
Obama is certainly coming into the job with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the current situation. Even if he weren’t receiving an intelligence analysis, it would be hard to overlook the various national activist groups that have organized around stopping this particular genocide. Nonetheless, for reasons I’ll discuss a few points down, I suspect this administration will wind up hiding “in the fog of plausible deniability.”

Influence
As Power points out, perpetrators are often keeping their eyes on Western reactions in order to gauge if they should take the next step. Having seen little reaction from Washington over the last five years, it’s unlikely that Sudan is going to suddenly reverse course because of a new administration. If the United States decides to do anything less than overt (which I think is highly doubtful) Khartoum is going to continue unfettered.

Will
This is, without question, the real problem. Regardless of whether Obama’s administration has the “moral will” to act, his policy makers are going to have an incredibly tough time convincing Congress to commit to ending this, or any other, genocide. Even if they could, the real crux of a solution in Darfur lies with China.

Basically, no force, sanction, or relief is going to be successful without the backing or cooperation of China and, unfortunately, the United States has little leverage to apply in order to make this happen. Not only has China rebuked any attempt through the United Nations, but their continued oil interests in the region makes force and sanctions utterly untenable from a diplomatic and economic standpoint (to say nothing of the physical).

Accountability
This last point is probably not even worth mentioning. No sitting President has been held politically accountable for inaction and considering the economic and domestic problems, it certainly won’t be starting with this administration.

Truly, this is one of those times when I’ll happily be wrong. I hope that Obama does intervene in Darfur; and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t voted for him with the hope that he would reverse our position on stopping genocide. But at the same time, I approach this from the long lens of a genocide researcher, and it’s from that vantage point that I suspect no real impact will come from a new administration.

Five “must read” Holocaust books

As the director of a Holocaust and genocide library, I’m often asked for advice on what to read. If you have an interest and don’t know where to start (or would like to know more), here are five Holocaust books I think everyone should read:

War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust by Doris Bergen.

Doris Bergen does an excellent job of distilling the history of the Holocaust into a readable, easy-to-understand text. Not only does she demonstrate the progression of the Nazi genocidal movement from the rise of the Third Reich to liberation but she manages to put everything into a broader historical context.

The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942 by Christopher Browning. [1]

In my opinion, this is the definitive guide to the Nazi’s evolving policy towards the Jews of Europe. While not easily digested in a weekend, it is well written and provides a detailed account of each of the stages that lead to the “Final Solution.” If you’ve already read Origins (or a similar survey[2]) you may want to try Browning’s The Path to Genocide instead.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

Sadly, Levi has never attained the same level of popularity in the United States as Anne Frank or Elie Weisel. But for those who have a real interest in the Holocaust, Survival in Auschwitz is actually a far richer memoir, as Levi presents a detailed description of his time in Buna.

Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 by Raul Hilberg.

Hilberg has long been recognized as one of the preeminent Holocaust scholars. While he’s best known for The Destruction of European Jews (a comprehensive three volume set), Perpetrators Victims Bystanders is a series of essays that provide an amazing amount of detail about each group in a fairly concise manner.

The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them by Eugen Kogon.

While dozens of books examine the concentration camp system, few approach the subject from the operational focus that makes Theory and Practice an important piece of Holocaust historiography. Kogon, a political prisoner from 1939 – 1945, used his experiences and knowledge to give the reader an objective snapshot of life in Buchenwald.

[1]If you have difficulty with Browning’s Origins and would like something slightly easier, I would suggest Yehuda Bauer’s A History of the Holocaust.

[2]Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination Kershaw’s Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, for example.