Come for the JDC Archives Blog, stay for Eddie Cantor on Sound Cloud

Eddie Cantor SOS Script, JDC Archives

I’m honored to be featured on the JDC Archives Blog today. I have explored the depths of their collection for many years and am thrilled that they invested so heavily in digitizing the whole of their archival materials. It’s a public assertion of the need for thoughtful engagement with digital objects and I’m thrilled that they see my work as a model for employing digital archives in the classroom and in research.

It’s rewarding for me to think about the many strings of my work – including historical research, Digital Humanities projects, and the daily work of building a DH community and Digital Scholarship center at UCSC – as interconnected. I feel very lucky to build space for Digital Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz – work that is made possible because Jewish communal groups and archives have recognized the value of digitization. Engaging students and the Jewish community at large in the practice of working with primary sources invites them into the process of writing history.

But, mostly, I’m excited to hear the Eddie Cantor ad for SOS from 1948 linked in the article. I vividly remember the day I found a set of ad scripts for SOS in the JDC archive. Before the collection was digitized, I sat for days with a pile of microfilm reels reading reports, memos, and newsletters from the SOS project. Supplies for Overseas Survivors (SOS) collected canned food, clothing, and other goods for three years and sent them directly to Jews in Displaced Persons camps across Europe. The project activated Jews and non-Jews around the country in direct support for the surviving Jews of Europe and the extensive public campaign supported my argument that American Jews learned about the Holocaust through their participation in American Jewish philanthropy. The scripts written for Eddie Cantor, Dick Powell, and Henry Fonda were a particularly rich find as they revealed how JDC transformed the needs of survivors in Europe into appeal narratives for American donors.

Hearing Eddie Cantor, as we can do now, is a thrill. Cantor was a passionate advocate for survivors after the war. He led campaigns for JDC, Hadassah, and UJA. He lent his name and his voice to numerous radio broadcasts and brought his famous friends along.

As I listen to this appeal, I wonder where I can send cans of milk today and how the history of refugee aid – so strongly documented in the JDC archive – should inform our response to today’s refugee crisis.

 

I remember with disorientation and confusion

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day – commemorated on January 27th in honor of the Russian Liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. Museums and organizations around the world honor this day of memory with speeches by dignitaries and survivors, marking moments of silence, and providing space for reflection that can yield insight and memory.

When I think about remembering the Holocaust, I am most profoundly inspired by the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured above). The testimonies of survivors, memoirs, and historical works help me better understand the historical reality of the events we understand as “the Holocaust” and the unbelievable experience of living through the years of Nazi oppression. But, it’s the disorienting structure of the memorial in Berlin that confounds me in a way I think appropriate for remembering these events. When walking through the uneven paths, it’s easy to feel lost. My sense of place and time was blurred as I found myself deeper in the maze than I had realized.

And that sense of disorientation is the one I want to hold on to as I remember the Holocaust, because everything about this history feels perplexing and mystifying. Not in a way that makes the events unreal, but in a way that makes them complex, compelling, and confusing. Even after years of study, as I learn more about individual experiences and historical conditions, I cling to the sense of confusion I feel, because I don’t want the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others and the torture and displacement of millions more to feel understandable. I don’t want to reach a point where I can fathom the scale of devastation.

So, I remember today by remembering my quiet walk in the Berlin memorial. The sense of being in a city and yet removed. Of being connected to a particular past, but also to a particular present and yet disassociated from both.

Special Issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Focus on Refugees

Refugees at the Fort Ontario Refugee Camp, Oswego, New York, August 1944

Looking for more historical precedents to contextualize the current refugee crisis? Check out the special issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies on refugees – made available free from Oxford University Press.

These essays help “narrow the gap between historical facts and rhetoric” and in a year of so much fear mongering, a little history can go a long way.

“People frequently ask whether the study of history can help in managing humanitarian crises. This question is particularly timely given the massive outflow of refugees from Syria and the problems of admitting large numbers of refugees to other countries, including the United States…. Those who speak confidently of a single lesson of the past often mislead their audiences.” – Historian Richard Breitman, in his introduction to this collection of articles

Originally posted on memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com

Digital Humanities & Jewish Studies

I’m thrilled that Memories/Motifs has been featured in the AJS News: Digital Humanities Issue. It’s an honor for the project to be listed as a Resource for Jewish Studies and I hope that scholars explore the site, offer comments, criticism, and suggestions for improvement.

I also hope that Jewish Studies folks will see the project and feel inspired to take up more digitally inflected work – not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because using digital tools can help us articulate and visualize new forms of connections and arguments which can lead to new questions about the pasts we study.

Of course, I also hope that more attention on Memories/Motifs will help scholars recognize the postwar period as a moment of intense Holocaust memory construction and spark continued conversation about the longer history of Holocaust memory in America.

Originally posted on memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

Yom Hashoah & the Need for Remembrance

Seventy years after the Allies liberated the camps, we still read about the Holocaust and the other Nazi crimes in part because we are afraid…: We fear that we will start to think of monstrous actions as just the way of the world.
– David Mikics, “Why We Still Read about the Shoah
Today, on Yom Hashoah, we commit to remembering the Holocaust. This day of remembrance has been amplified this week as we also honor the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Bergen Belsen.

These commemorations take many forms: candles will be lit, survivors will address large crowds, and names will be read. But, 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, in a world where anti-Semitism remains a persistent (if surprising) threat, we must also take time to consider WHY we remember the Holocaust. What do these Days of Remembrance offer for understanding this history and the legacy of so much destruction?

The USHMM put together a compelling video to document some different reflections on Holocaust memory. In the video, survivors, staff members, historians, and others account for why Holocaust memory is meaningful for them. These thought leaders remind us of why we study the events of theShoah and why the voices of survivors remain powerful markers of a past we must face and account for. As Raye Farr (Film Curator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) states in the film:

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The fear and freedom of asking anything

Last week, Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser, Founder of the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).

The fact of a Holocaust survivor opening him- or herself up to anything on the internet is a scary proposition. The internet is where the depths of Holocaust denial, revisionism, and anti-Semitism dwell. What kinds of questions would arise in this space, on Reddit, in the wake of ongoing anti-Semitism? What kinds of comments would be posted and upvoted? Would hate or stupidity or love or hope be the prevailing tone?

Turns out the live conversation picked up a bit of each of these – but significantly less hate than might be expected. And a lot of the stupidity got voted to the bottom – like the question of a user who identified themselves as a young student, who asked Lesser if he had “ever met Adolf.” Lesser himself starts from a place of love and hope, using Reddit as a platform to “further the case of tolerance” and express the potential for young people to make change in the world by using their voices and speaking out. In his introduction, he urged the readers/users to do so through a new project of his Foundation – I Shout Out.

By focusing on these kinds of take away lessons – “So my advice to you is choose to live a life that matters” – and on the wonder of America, both as the country of his liberators and his postwar home, much of Lesser’s AMA echoes the tone of other contemporary survivor witnessing efforts (ie. here, here, andhere,) and broader representations of Holocaust survivors in American culture (see: here, here, and (of course) here). But, what does it mean for this kind of dialogue to happen online and for the boundaries of questions to be unbound? As institutions of Holocaust memory start to engage in online spaces, the ability of users to post questions, both historical and intimate, thoughtful and provocative, to comment, sub comment, and vote on these iterative conversations seems even more transgressive.

The USC Shoah Foundation YouTube channel has over 1,000 survivor testimonies available for viewing. And, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has started webcasting their  First Person program, allowing viewers around the world to watch live conversations taking place at the museum in which survivors speak about their experiences under Nazism. While these digital projects invite greater access to the voices and stories of survivors, they still do so within moderated and limited parameters: the set up remains an interviewer and interviewee, the questions are prioritized by the host institution, and internet viewers cannot interact directly with the survivor.

Lesser’s AMA, on the other hand, was not an interview between two people – one of whom had a story to tell and the other an obligation to listen [citation 1]. Rather, Lesser opened himself up to be interviewed by anyone, although he retained the ability to choose which questions to answer and which to leave alone. He responded in detail to some questions – about what he saw, what his worst memory was, what he wishes he could tell his younger self – and left many others without answer. For example, repeated questions about Israel and Zionism and the connection of the Holocaust to ongoing Israel/Palestine politics were taken up not by Lesser, but by other Reddit users.

But, it is not just the openness of the questions that feels different from other models of online Holocaust survivor witnessing. The space of Reddit, the space of the internet itself here, is without limit. There is no Youtube screen, no house plant in the corder of a Shoah Foundation video, no stage or chair or moderator. Lesser’s responses are not visual or audio – they are virtual. This space, one that does not rely on a survivor’s body or voice to authenticate their memories and does not set the boundaries for what should be talked about or how it should be said, feels unsettled and new. Yet, It evokes many of the earliest frameworks for survivor narratives. Survivors, in the wake of liberation, wrote down their memories for court cases, legal documentation, and communal collection projects, like the Jewish Historical Commissions that started in 1944 [citation 2]. These accounts were roughly drawn, written hastily, and sometimes dictated (as Lesser’s AMA was).

The AMA string is still open – other Reddit users are posting about experiences they lived through or their grandparents lived through under Nazism and responses are nested inside other responses. Some of the initial questions and comments that were openly or subtly anti-Semitic were voted down and are now hidden from the front page. The detailed responses Lesser gave to questions about his liberation and his personal experiences with violence in the concentration camps have been voted to the top.

As this conversation continues and the openness of a space for ‘anything’ grows through comments, sub comments, and responses, the nature of a testimony – a direct conversation between an interviewer and an interviewee, already so tangled through an online forum like Reddit, becomes ever more networked. As more voices become part of this conversation, it weaves out in multiple directions, and offers an entirely new way of thinking about Holocaust witnessing – not as the voice and words of one survivor, but as a public discourse that breaks down the limitations of a video taped testimony.

But, what does it mean for Holocaust memory to grow out in these unexpected and unknown ways? Do the possible dangers of this kind of open forum outweigh the value of public engagement? These questions remain open as Holocaust memory changes in the digital age and transforms for the world when survivors are no longer able to answer these questions directly.

———
Citations:
1.   See Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors : Recounting and Life History, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998) and Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York; London: Routledge, 1992).
2.   See Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2012).

 

Originally posted on http://memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

Holocaust History & LEGOs: Learning Achieved (from Memories/Motifs)

In response to a school assignment to illustrate events of the Holocaust, John Denno, a 16-year-old student in Liverpool, UK, built a timeline of key historical events out of LEGOs.

The association of LEGOs as toy meant for play seems to challenge our assumptions about how we should think about, learn, and understand the Holocaust – evidenced by the title of the clickbait article on pixable.com: “The Most Controversial LEGO Creation Ever: Holocaust Timeline Scenes.”

Despite the past 2 decades of scholarly debate about the Limits of Holocaust Representation – it seems that the popular version of this conversation continues. And, the ubiquity and playfulness of LEGOs seems to evoke the limits of this concern.

Yet, Denno’s comments, quoted in Pixable and picked up by Haaretz suggest that the pedagogy was successful. Denno said of building 15 historical scenes from 1933 – 1945:

The biggest thing I realized about the Holocaust through making this project is just how long the persecution went on. From 1933 Jews slowly lost all their rights until they were being murdered in their thousands. – John Denno

Read the rest at http://memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com/

On Immigration, Executive Action, & Holocaust Survivors in the postwar period: What would our forefather’s think?

Yesterday, President Obama used executive action to open the promise of America to 5 million more people. In doing so, he said:

“Whether our forebearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.” via Washington Post

In the postwar period, it was Jews and not Latinos that the fight against immigration tried to bar from entering. And Truman’s executive action, known then as the Truman Directive, opened the doors for 25,000 Displaced Persons, about 2/3 of whom were Jewish survivors, who had not yet been granted permission to legally enter the United States. [For more about the Truman Directive and Jewish immigration in the postwar period, see here (USHMM)]

Reading Obama’s directive, I am reminded not only of the fight Jewish organizations waged to change public perception about who Jewish survivors were and why they needed to come to America, but also about the kind of rhetoric used to make those arguments – and I hear the echoes of that language today. Recalling American history as a site of haven and refuge calls upon the memory of our own family histories and roots an argument for immigration reform in emotion. This kind of personal and national appeal is a powerful way to connect past and present that evokes a moral imperative to act.

Read the rest on the Memories/Motifs blog >

Selfies, Memory Sites, & “appropriate” forms of commemoration

The selfie of San Antonio Spurs’ Danny Green at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (in Berlin) is making the rounds online. The people of the internet are “outraged,” both, it seems, at the picture itself and at the caption Green wrote: “You know I had to do it one time lol #Holocaust.” Undoubtedly, the pairing of “lol” with “#Holocaust” is insensitive, unthoughtful, and shallow. And, Green responded to the incident by issuing multiple twitter apologies and a new caption: “A lot of history here, more than you could imagine…very sad/tragic things happened #holocaust #berlin.”

But this selfie scandal, if we want to over-estimate its importance in the world, touched a nerve around Holocaust selfies more generally and renewed a conversation about behavior at Concentration Camps, memorials, and other sites of Holocaust memory. Lilit Marcus from the Guardian has published a piece today about Holocaust Selfies and Holocaust Tourism. In the article, she argues:

“For some people, a visit to a place like Auschwitz isn’t about paying respect or learning about history – it’s simply yet another “must-see attraction” they’re checking off in their guidebook, a thing to be Instagrammed, like the Mona Lisa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

While she makes a compelling personal case for not wanting to visit these sites and instead visiting places Jews lived before and after the Holocaust, it seems like there is more to be said here about travel, Holocaust memory, and social media.

Read the rest at the Memories/Motifs blog >

Turning Witnessing into Action (on Digital Learning Day)

photo (1)When I was asked to lead a discussion section about turning engagement with Holocaust memory into action on February 5th, I didn’t know the day was designated Digital Learning Day (#DLDay). So, it was fortuitous that I had planned an hour about the relationship between witnessing, activism and technology.

For 4 weeks in the 10 week Winter Quarter, about 150 UCLA undergraduate students meet with local Holocaust survivors for lunch. Throughout the quarter, the students share more than kosher Hillel lunch with these survivors, they share stories that reveal the past.  The Bearing Witness program has been bringing students and survivors together for lunch since 2007 and has evolved from a small student led initiative to a credited-class and has become so popular that there is now a lengthy wait list. Half the students enroll for university credit and meet on off weeks with Professor Todd Presner. The other half voluntarily meet with survivors and on the off week, gather to discuss the experience. A former student of mine invited me to lead one of these volunteer discussions and it happened to be #DLDay.

I started the discussion with a traditional question for considering Holocaust memory in any context: what does it mean to be a witness? And, I challenged them to consider their participation in the Bearing Witness program as a kind of responsibility. The conversation was slow to start, it seems not many of them had thought about the responsibility of passing on a survivor’s story and the act of witnessing that they were engaged in.

But, when I turned the discussion to the use of social media as a response to “What can I do?” things picked up. We debated multiple points of view, thinking about the value of twitter for non-profit organizations engaged in advocacy work, the “passive” activism of tweeting news links, the power of tweeting at your elected representatives, and the potency of twitter and Facebook in places like Syria and Egypt. Just as I had hoped, our conversation circled back to considered if twitter could be a site for witnessing and I was happy to see that, although they agreed that social media (YouTube included) could offer access to first hand accounts of human rights violations, more than a few students were skeptical about whether that access translated into action or political will.

In learning about the Holocaust (in particular) and genocide (broadly), we often associate technology with systematic murder. In the stories these students were committed to hearing every other week, they would learn about trains and gas chambers – two examples of technological modernity that facilitated a death machine. They could also study the way the telegraph facilitated organized deportations during the Armenian Genocide or how the radio inspired hatred and violence leading up to the Genocide of the Tutsis (a name change which I learned about on twitter). But, instead, we learned about how the digital world can help us stay informed and become active voices not only in the fight against genocide, but in the fight against bullying and aids and in the fight for refugee aid, all of which allow us as individuals to transform stories of past injustices into present day action.

There’s a lot I can say about the thought students gave to what they should or could take away from a concerted dialogue with Holocaust survivors, but since I’m honoring #DLDay here, let me say one final thing about how we thought through the possibilities for witnessing and action through technology: We looked at George Clooney and John Prendergast’s Sudan Satellite Sentinel project as both a bold attempt to use technology to prevent genocide and as an example of how the relationships between technology, witnessing, and celebrity resonate as modern approaches to “never again.” The project (which documents violence in Sudan by satellite in order to “sound the alarm” for intervention) employs technology as a watch dog, but the students pointed out that having documentation of violence doesn’t change the interest of governments to get involved. However, the access to this kind of documentation – made public on the project’s website and made popular by George Clooney (who, in fact, talked about the project Tuesday night on the Late Show) – could convert public interest into political advocacy. And, that relationship is what makes the project powerful and the students responded to the project’s own tag line: The world is watching because you are watching.

We ended with this idea that acting as witness, whether its through talking with Holocaust survivors, watching YouTube videos, or checking in on satellite imagery, can be an form of activism and that using technology to do so can empower individuals in their everyday lives.

This discussion was inspired by this video, created by the last year’s Bearing Witness participants that raises questions about witnessing and documents action pledges of student participants.