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 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%.

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.

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.

Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

ordinary menChristopher Browning, one of the better known Holocaust scholars today, used evidence from the post-war investigations of Police Battalion 101 to create an image of the “ordinary men” who participated in the massacre of Jews in Eastern Europe. By examining testimony, documents, and diary excerpts, he pieces together a chronological history of the unit’s participation and involvement in the Nazis’ “final solution.”

Even though Browning is writing as a scholar, with the intent of persuading through academic argument, his writing is clear and uncluttered. He approaches the subject with an easy-to-follow framework, providing a balanced look at how the battalion went from routine duties in occupied territories to the violent slaughter of Jewish civilians.

Throughout Ordinary Men, Browning provides a window into the daily life of the unit and its purpose in the hierarchy and structure of the Third Reich. The often personal glimpses demonstrate the slow and methodical change in Nazi policy towards Jewish civilians, as the German leadership shifted towards the Final Solution.

It’s this tapestry of documentation that pulls together a remarkable look at how the extermination of European Jews occurred: through an evolving policy rather than a pre-determined course. Combined with the personal accounts of battalion members, it is easy to see the slow progression of anti-Jewish doctrine, as well as the frequently unmentioned nuances of its executioners, the most revealing of which — the lack of disciplinary action for those who refused to take part in the massacres and “Jew hunts” — reveals a great deal about the make-up of the actual perpetrators.

Afterword: The more recent edition of Ordinary Men has an afterword from Browning dissecting his ongoing debate with Daniel Goldhagen (author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners). Personally, I’ve been surprised at how many people bought into Goldhagen’s rather contradictory and ill-conceived thesis, and yet, because of that, Browning decided to add this clear-cut statement about his own conclusions in order to refute Willing Executioners’ assertion that Germans are anti-Semitic by their very nature.

Mapping the Holocaust

Alberto Giordano, an associate professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, and Anne Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont, have been awarded a $430,000 grant to use computerized models to create a geographic analysis of the Holocaust. The two-year study will be examining “the evolution of the concentration camp system, the deportation of Jews from France and Italy, life inside the Budapest ghetto and the death marches from Auschwitz.”

The survey is hoping to address a number of questions, including:

Were Jews from certain cities or backgrounds more likely to survive?
Could people living near the routes where prisoners from Auschwitz were forced to march have seen more than they have acknowledged of this harrowing experience?
Which restaurants, cinemas and bath houses in Budapest could Jews frequent, and how did the shape of the ghetto evolve?

While the use of geographic representations of the Holocaust isn’t unique, the analysis will take into account variables that have never been examined before — terrain, weather, and elevation.

That’s not to say that the geography of the Holocaust has never been examined. For instance, the historian Martin Gilbert has published an atlas of the Holocaust with 316 maps tracing the destruction of Jewish communities.

Giordano and Knowles plan to incorporate elevation records, quasi-three-dimensional modeling and cluster analysis, a method of determining patterns or groups, in their research and maps.

“By applying tools that were not imaginable even 20 years ago to massive amounts of data, we can study Holocaust history in a way we couldn’t in the past,” said Michael Haley Goldman, the director of the Holocaust museum’s Registry of Holocaust Survivors.

The Holocaust has been studied through various disciplines over the years — psychology, sociology, art, literature, music, and history — but new technologies are allowing researchers to look at events in radically new and detailed ways. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, has been interactive maps for educational and awareness for the last several years.

Auschwitz-Birkenau museum denies artist

The New York Times recently reported that a group of comic book legends — Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Stan Lee – have teamed up to support Dina Gottliebova Babbitt’s claim to the artwork she painted which is currently held by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. During the Holocaust, Babbitt and her mother were transported to the death camp where her skills caught the attention of Dr. Josef Mengele.

By February 1944, Mrs. Babbitt had come to the attention of Mengele, who was dissatisfied with the photographs he had taken of the Gypsy, or Romany, prisoners in his effort to prove their genetic inferiority. He asked Mrs. Babbitt to paint their portraits to capture their skin tones better. She agreed, but only after insisting that her mother be spared from death. (The story reproduces five of the portraits.)

After liberation, Babbitt moved to the United States where she worked as an animator for various film studios. Strangely, the museum released a statement seven years ago concerning the sketchy provenance of the paintings, which arrived with no offer to return them to their original owner.

Auschwitz museum officials, in a statement issued in 2001, indicated that they had bought six of Mrs. Babbitt’s watercolors in 1963 from an Auschwitz survivor and acquired a seventh in 1977. In 1973 the museum asked her to verify her work but did not offer to return the items. The museum has argued that the artwork is important evidence of the Nazi genocide and part of the cultural heritage of the world. (The museum did not respond to telephone calls and an e-mail message requesting comment.)

The museum has claimed that returning the paintings to her might encourage other survivors to ask for their property which would cause a decrease in the number of artifacts on display. Piotr Cywinski, the museum’s director, went one step further in defending their position by stating that Babbitt wasn’t the rightful owner, but rather they belonged to Mengele. Such a claim is inherently contrary to the way in which museum’s (of any type) function; provenance, ownership, and credit has become the rule-of-the-day, and when those principles are questioned, objects are returned to their rightful owners.

Even as lawyers and reconciliation groups fight to get “looted” art returned to its rightful pre-war owners (or their heirs), it seems strange that a memorial museum would wind up on the opposite end of such a fight. Furthermore, the museum’s assertions have been both ridiculous and reckless, especially considering that the purpose of such institutions is to promote education of genocide through the lens of personal history and remembrance.

The comic (pdf version): Comics for a Cause

UK honors disabled Holocaust victims

Even though Holocaust education often centers on the plight of the Jewish people, a greater number of museums have been memorializing the other victims in recent years. This past week, the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire unveiled a memorial plaque, the first of its kind in the UK, to remember the disabled victims of the Holocaust.

Survivors, celebrities and disability groups were at the event, where a rose and plaque were dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust’s disabled victims.

Plans for a permanent sculpture were also revealed at the Holocaust Centre in Laxton, Nottinghamshire.

Artist Alison Lapper said it had been “an amazing day”.

Ms Lapper, who was the model for Marc Quinn’s statue that occupied Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, added: “It is so important that these people have finally been put on the map.

“It has been an excellent day, I hope it has opened people’s hearts and minds.”

The centre’s Stephen Smith said there had been “little recognition” of the persecution the disabled suffered.

The prejudice that drove the Nazi’s hatred of the Jews was equally to blame for the policies against the handicapped.

Forced sterilization began in earnest in 1934, where an estimated three to four hundred thousand mentally ill patients were given vasectomies or tubal ligations. By 1939, Hitler had enacted “Operation T-4” which authorized a euthanasia program against the handicapped, resulting in the deaths of 200,000 – 250,000 people.

Denial is endemic

While Holocaust denial gets the lion’s share of press when it comes to the subject of “genocide revisionism,” it’s certainly not the only case. In fact, in recent years, as the United States has contemplated recognizing the Armenian genocide, the voices of angered Turks has been added to the cacophony of those who strive to paint history in a different light.

In fact, Gregory Stanton (the president of Genocide Watch) included Denial as the eighth, and final, stage of genocide in the briefing paper he presented to the U.S. State Department in 1996:

Denial is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them.

The best response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts. There the evidence can be heard, and the perpetrators punished. Tribunals like the Yugoslav, Rwanda, or Sierra Leone Tribunals, an international tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ultimately the International Criminal Court must be created. They may not deter the worst genocidal killers. But with the political will to arrest and prosecute them, some mass murderers may be brought to justice.

While Stanton was primarily speaking about “active” cover-ups immediately preceding a genocide, its fascinating (and depressing) that such acts quickly move from action into mainstream discourse. Even when trials have taken place, evidence has been presented, and testimony has been gathered, the crime is still an on-going source of controversy years after the fact.

David Irving is no doubt one of the better known Holocaust deniers, but he’s only one example of the plethora of those who seek to diminish the crime through the guise of scholarly debate. As academics and researchers alike begin to dig deeper into the origins and events of other modern genocides (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, et al.), a stream of fresh deniers are following along with their own versions of what happened in each of these cases.

For example, it was recently announced that one such group of deniers (called negationists by allAfrica) are heading to a conference later this month — The Media and Rwanda: The Difficult Search for the Truth. The event is being sponsored by Les Editions les Intouchables, who published a book by Canadian Politician Robin Philpot entitled Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali (“It did not happen like that in Kigali”). Based on the reported speakers, the sphere of discourse is going to be largely limited to those who are attempting to revise as they revisit what took place in Rwanda.

Even though Stanton did an excellent job of outlining the various stages of genocide, it seems like the eighth needs to be expanded beyond the immediate vicinity of the crime. As denial is constantly expanding with the pace of scholarship, and it often grows rather than diminishes over time, it seems apt to address the problem, particularly considering the rate at which the information age has accelerated the course of such specialized revisionism.

Holocaust surviving Congressman passes away

Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust Survivor ever to serve in Congress, passed away on Monday at the age of 80 from complications of cancer.

A champion of civil liberties, Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and supported human rights struggles against both right-wing and left-wing regimes in China, Russia, Myanmar, Darfur and wherever official pressure could, as he put it, “prevent another Holocaust.” He also was passionate about animal rights, working to stop seal hunts, dog killings in foreign countries, and horse slaughter, bear baiting and the operation of puppy mills at home.

He also used his post as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to highlight human rights violators. He argued that nations with bad records had no place on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, that Beijing should not be awarded the 2008 Olympics because of its human rights record, and that corporations had an obligation to protect individuals and press freedoms. When executives of Yahoo Inc. appeared before the committee last year to defend their role in the jailing of a journalist by Chinese officials, Lantos said, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are Pygmies.”

The first legislation Lantos sponsored upon being elected in 1980 was to give honorary American citizenship to Raoul Wallenberg, the diplomat who saved thousands of Jews, including the Congressman and his aunt.

Numerical Holocaust Denial

Udo Voigt, the leader of the (Neo-Nazi) National Democratic Party, recently made a statement saying that he did not believe the number of Jews killed at the hands of Nazis was correct.

“Six million cannot be right. At most, 340,000 people could have died in Auschwitz,” he said in an interview with Iranian journalists.

“The Jews always say: ‘Even if one Jew died that is a crime.’ But of course it makes a difference whether one has to pay for six million people or for 340,000.”

I’m not certain if this is one of those facts that the media is simply getting wrong or if Voigt is speaking of the total numbers killed during the Holocaust and attributing all of them to Auschwitz. Current figures put the total number of Jewish prisoners who died in Auschwitz at 1 million, along with 75,000 Poles, 20,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 10,000 members of other nationalities.†

The Holocaust Encyclopedia, ed. Walter Laqueur (Yale University Press, 2001), p. 44.