Friday, June 29, 2012

Thoughts from Berlin

Jewish Museum

Berlin´s Jewish Museum does a great job of documenting historical anti-Semitism. The exhibits helped me understand that when Hitler came to power, he wasnt introducing new ideas √≠nto his society. He was simply re-invigorating them and concentrating them.

Does Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust need to add this historical context?

Upon Arrival

My first thoughts on German ground went towards the classic German Stigma. German Stigma, defined: the persistent questioning, from a Holocaust perspective, of every interaction or thought of Germans, Germany or aspects of both. E.G.: looking at a very old man and thinking, ´What did he do during the war?´ Or, as I walked down a boulevard, ´Did Hitler ride through this street?´

Where does that get me? Is it commemorating the victims? Is it asking mature questions in pursuit of historical insight? Or is it seeking to continue to explore victimization?  Is to NOT fall prey to the German Stigma to ignore history? Is it time to move beyond the German Stigma?

One answer that came to me in baggage claim: at some level it suggests that Germans and Germany were different. But were they, really? The French could not give up their Jews fast enough. The Dutch caved, tulips under jack boots. Was the historic anti-Semitism in Germany any shorter or less dangerous than that in Ukraine (think of the pogroms).

There is something dangerous and comforting -- yes, comforting -- in clinging to the German Stigma. It is dangerous because it masks the evils at the heart of the Holocaust that knew no border, no culture, no language. And it is comforting, because it gives us a place to hide: the idea that some people are different. Are they?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Different Conversations with Different Audiences - AHO – Day 3

At the Association of Holocaust Organizations Conference, Detroit, MI

The two sessions today seemed to have little direct connection, but at a certain level they were completely connected.

Dr. Wulf Kansteiner, a SUNY Binghampton professor specializing in how the Holocaust is depicted particularly in the German media, started the day. He walked us through several examples, going back to the 1950s, of how German TV presented the Holocaust. Several features persisted for decades. Most significant was the lack of attention; over 30 or more years there were only a handful of programs engaging the Holocaust. Perpetrators were never named or depicted, even when the program was about the specific crimes of a specific perpetrator.  Even the most mature depictions focused on the personal and emotional traumas of all involved. This last characteristic created the sense that all of German was victim to Hitler, regardless of whether one was a Jewish inmate or member of the SS.

Two colleagues, Dallas Holocaust Museum CEO Alice Murray and St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center Director Jean Cavender, followed. Sarah Weiss, Director of the Cincinnati Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education , lead them through a series of questions about the future of Holocaust centers and museums. The critical discussion came when Ms. Weiss asked for a description of the factors critical to survival into the future besides money. The participants described ways their institutions were expanding programs, rotating exhibits, reaching out to new constituencies, and finding collaborations, among other strategies.

The conversation about the future reminded me Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust must learn to engage the multiple cultural. ethnic, and religious groups within the mosaic of communities comprising Los Angeles.

And this is where I saw the connection between the two seminars. They provide two examples of two different conversations. In Dr. Kansteiner’s seminar it became clear we needed to continue to examine how the Holocaust was presented. This examination couldn’t include only Germany; one of the themes of the conference included discussions of how American culture presents, depicts and refers to the Holocaust. The conversation should be extended to include media throughout the world.

This conversation goes on largely amongst ourselves. By ‘ourselves,’ I mean all of us professionally engaged in teaching about, studying, and memorializing the Holocaust.

Then there is the conversation to be had with LAMH’s visitors and,– because we must be a museum for ALL of Los Angeles – our potential visitors.

The first conversation goes on in the academy. It’s conducted in journals, anthologies, new scholarship, and conferences. It includes polysyllabic words such as ‘interlocutor’ and ‘contextualization.’ It has tremendous potential to influence how its participants understand their world.

The second conversation isn’t really a conversation in any traditional sense. It’s more of an action-and-reaction communication. And it goes like this. Museums such as LAMH act. We mount exhibits and hold programs and we publicize them. We send our message out into the world. The only way we know it’s been received and that it has any meaning for those we’re talking to is when they react with their feet. They show up at our exhibits, at our programs.

The first conversation, in the academy, will undoubtedly sustain itself. But when we talk about the future of institutions such as LAMH, I don’t want to settle for just sustaining itself. I want to find a way to break the conversation wide open.

David Koker - Voice from the Abyss - AHO Day 2

At the Association of Holocaust Organizations Conference, Detroit, MI

What was it exactly that so impressed me -- no, blew my doors off -- about Professor Robert Jan van Pelt's presentation of his research and book about the concentration camp diary of David Koker? Here are the top 11 reasons:

1. The simple fact of a camp diary, kept on scraps of paper and scribbled with whatever stubs of pencil David Koker, a young Dutch Jew, could find;

2. The details David included about camp life, not just daily but sometimes minute-to-minute, continuing even as David's responsibilities in the camp, Frits Phillips, expanded to include influencing the names to be included on the lists of those to be deported to Auschwitz;

3. David's reaction -- as recorded in the diary -- when he faces what Auschwitz really means;

4. The struggle to maintain moral clarity in the depths of the abyss;

5. The significant literary skills of this young man, still in his early twenties, who had already edited a Zionist publication, written poetry, and had his own essays published, thus increasing the meaning of his diary;

6. The emergence of a love triangle between David, an 18-year old woman in the camp, and his girlfriend in hiding in Amsterdam;

7. The fact that David's strategy to preserve the diary actually succeeded;

8. The fact that Professor van Pelt's work includes multiple layers: a thorough biography of David Koker, a new translation of the diary (which was first published in Dutch), over 700 footnotes in the diary entries clarifying the events described, and brief biographical sketches of each of the individuals mentioned in the diary;

9. Professor van Pelt's painstaking and thorough research; 

10. Professor van Pelt's humble, careful but transfixing presentation at the conference, allowing the power of the material to speak for itself; and,

11. Professor van Pelt's use of editorial cartoons from the era (at least in his conference presentation) to provide background for the political and historical changes that ultimately brought David into the abyss.

I was pleased to know at the end of the session I was not the only participant who used the WiFi in the conference hall to buy the book even before the presentation was over. 

Read Tablet Magazine's review.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lost in the Spiral of Intolerance - AHO Day 1

At the Association of Holocaust Organizations Conference
Holocaust Memorial Center, Detroit, MI

The opening presentation from Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The End of the Holocaust and the Beginning of a New Anti-Semitism, focused largely on the tremendous anti-Israel propaganda in the Arab world that also expresses itself as virulent anti-Judaism. In the vernacular these views can be recognized as the 'we'll destroy Israel and push all the Jews into the sea' variety.

Dr. Rosenfeld has his share of critics who voiced their concern that this wasn't particularly new. His main source of evidence for his analysis was a survey of books or articles published over the last few decades, the historical anti-Zionism of political leaders such as Nasser and Sadat, and the possibility Iran will one day launch a nuclear strike creating a second Holocaust. (The facts that Nasser and Sadat are long gone from the stage, or that Sadat made a historic and bold peace with Israel, received no ken.)

While I agreed there was little that was engaging in his analysis, Dr. Rosenfeld did shift my thinking a little bit. I told him I didn't find it shocking that countries and people that had always been the enemy of the Jews and Israel going back at least to the 6 day war and even the War of Independence are still our enemies. But what I would like to know is whether in a future paper he would be talking about the extent of anti-Semitism in Western Europe today. That information would be new.

In his response he told me about a study that analyzed the attitudes towards Jews harbored by Muslims living in three European cities, including London. The results showed a strong degree of disturbingly negative attitudes.

I didn't find this response wholly satisfying; the study Dr. Rosenfeld cited only shifted his focus from Muslims in Muslim countries to Muslims in European countries. He said nothing about the attitudes of the much larger numbers of non-Muslims in Europe. But here is where the shift in perspective occurred. European anti-Semitism is going to be increased through Muslim immigrants moving there and bringing with them the attitudes of their home countries. I sympathize with Muslims who been victimized by intolerant as minorities in Europe. But how do I separate out my support of these victims when I know they are intolerant themselves? This spiral of intolerance makes my head spin.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"The Three Stooges" -- To Laugh or Not To Laugh?

First, a confession.

When I was on the crew team in college, I spent a significant amount of time doing stair workouts in a building officially named Altschul Hall. If you've ever done stair workouts, you know there are few training techniques more punishing. So when members of the team referred to Altschul as "Auschwitz," I laughed.

So now, whether you have lost all respect for me for trivializing the Holocaust or see the humor as well, you probably won't be surprised that I was not offended by the name of Larry David's character in the newly released Three Stooges movie: Sister Mary-Mengele.

There are strong reasons why some may argue I should have been offended.

Dr. Mengele's role as the angel of death, choosing which victims at Auschwitz head left or right -- which to the gas chambers, and which to forced labor -- may be a patently humorless sub
ject. Worse, Mengele's evil doesn't stop there. He of course also conducted sadistic medical experiments on twins. Holding a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Munich and a medical degree from Frankfurt University, where his mentor was an expert in twin studies, Mengele turned the Hypocratic oath inside out. "Do no harm" became "harm as much as he can imagine." If Dante Alegari wrote The Inferno today he'd have to invent an entirely new circle of hell for Mengele.

I can see why some would say Mengele's circle of hell is beyond the reach of comedy. To make light of Mengele is to risk separating us from understanding the true nature of his evil. Even more damaging, it could give the impression we are callous to the profound, indescribable suffering of his victims.

I can also sympathize with those who say that incorporating Mengele into a joke is part of a troubling trend overexposing the Holocaust. Data points in this trend range from the Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" to the charges made on the floor of the House of Representatives that the national health care law is a Nazi plan. Over-use of references to the Holocaust, whether intended to entertain or to malign, bleaches the Holocaust of its true significance.

But to make the Holocaust sacrosanct is to circumscribe it in a way that will also lead to a fundamental disconnect from its meaning in our lives. If we can only engage it in hushed or stentorian tones of solemnity, we limit our access to it. Placing it on a pedestal reduces our ability to be affected by it in ways that could truly change our lives. Humor knocks a subject off its pedestal. Yes, at times this reduction can go too far and we must be suspicious of it. But it can also increase interaction, and curiosity, and openness, all of which lead to that teachable moment where we find true understanding and the empathy at its heart.

From this perspective, I'm tremendously excited by the possibility that some people in the audience for The Three Stooges might be provoked to ask, "'Sister Mary-Mengele'? What does that mean?" Such questioning worked for me; this Jewish boy learned a lot more about Catholicism by taking apart Tom Lehrer's song, The Vatican Rag, than I ever would have learned without it. Tom Lehrer's parody of sacraments such as confession or transubstantiation didn't diminish them to me. It prodded me to understand them. Parody relies on the tension between the joke's exaggeration and the reality behind it. I couldn't truly 'get' The Vatican Rag until I understood the sacred truths at its heart.

There's another, very important reason I can't rebuke The Three Stooges Movie. The horrors of the Holocaust can own and control us. These horrors can continue to victimize us. Ask anyone who's had a Holocaust nightmare as a result of reading or watching a movie about the Holocaust. To knock a subject off its pedestal is to own it or to control it, to some degree rob it of its dominating power. Ultimately, through humor, the Holocaust can stop victimizing us. And when we are no long punished by it, we can return to it and glean new understandings, in ways that we never could have before.

And that's no joke.