Staying Engaged & Finding Focus

There is so much news it’s hard to focus. And, it’s hard to maintain focus. But, let’s be honest, this is just part of the strategy: distraction and disinformation. Part of my #30daysofaction is a resistance to the chaos of the current administration. By focusing on one issue – family separation and the plight of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border – I’m trying to cut down on the distortion. Maintaining that focus is difficult. I wrote last week about the emotional struggle to stay deeply engaged in the human rights abuses of this government and recognize that they are being done in my name, with my tax dollars, and with the silent consent of so many Americans. But, it’s also hard to dig in deeply because other issues should also demand my attention.

Even if I overlook the minute to minute coverage of the Mueller investigation and recent set of indictments and the Congressional battle with the FBI, I am still compelled to consider the impact of Holocaust memory around the world, the failure of postwar norms, from the standards of Human Rights to the possible collapse of Western political alliances. For these issues alone, the last two weeks have been rough: Claude Lanzmann died; Trump threatened to pull out of NATO and decried immigration as the end of culture; the Israeli Prime Minister supported Holocaust revisionism in a statement that had to be rebuked by Yad Vashem; and a Holocaust denier is on the ballot in the Bay Area.

So, by way of processing the chaos of the moment and to reflect on my own engagement in the past 2 weeks, here’s what I’ve been reading and listening to. And, because it remains essential, below are a few points of inspiration and optimism.

Reminder: The Migrant Family Separation Crisis IS NOT OVER. Stay loud, stay angry.

To catch up and keep track of the numbers, read this article from Elle Magazine. It’s a reminder that the deadline for reuniting young children with their parents has passed and that only half of the children were reunited. If the government did such a bad job with a small number of children, how will they manage to reunite thousands more?!

Sady Doyle, “The Trump Administration Wants You to Think the Migrant Family Separation Crisis Is Over. It Isn’t.Elle Magazine

“Anna Tarkov, Media and Communications Director of Families Belong Together, says that immigration advocates expect the second deadline to be blown just like the first. She attributes the mess of reunification to the Trump administration’s sheer disregard for the human cost of its policies.

‘The administration, by its own admission, never intended to reunify these families,” Tarkov says. “[There] was no system in place whatsoever to reunify these families and a number of parents have already been deported while their children remain in the US. I haven’t seen this stated as plainly as it should be anywhere in the media coverage of this crisis: the Trump Administration ripped children from their families and had no intention of returning them.’”


MUST READ: A bold, honest, and biting editorial from the Salt Lake City Tribune  

Tribune editorial: “Our treatment of refugee children is a national disgrace

Among other incredibly straight forward statements, the editorial states: “It can be hard for normal people to grasp that their own government — and its individual agents, officers and attorneys — is involved in a heartless and brainless effort to visit so much deliberate cruelty upon asylum-seeking families. We are separating the children from the parents, depositing them in different places, apparently in sometimes squalid, frightening and sealed-off facilities, expecting children as young as 1 year old to explain themselves and their situation in court and not allowing members of Congress or other independent overseers to check up on what is happening…If you want to make people believe a lie, the experts taught us, make it big.”

Not enough? Hang on for this: “This is the kind of behavior that, when carried out by non-superpowers, gets people hauled before the International Criminal Court or some special war crimes tribunal.” Most damning is their recognition that all we can hope for is action from congress who has chosen not to act.


Contemporary events need not be Auschwitz to find meaning in Holocaust History. History matters. But, let’s resist the urge to simplify.

Despite the ongoing debate about whether we should be using the Holocaust as a meaningful reference for our current political and human rights atrocities, the history of Nazi Germany remains valuable. Current events need not be directly analogous to the past to make this historical period relevant. In a recent interview, Richard J. Evans, the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (among other books about Nazi Germany), notes that “it’s very dangerous simply to think in historical parallels.” Nonetheless, a nuanced and thoughtful engagement with history can reveal “echoes” that help us better understand the potential consequences of our contemporary world.

Isaac Chotiner, “Democracy Dies in a Variety of Ways,” Slate

The entire interview is worth a read, but I’m struck, in particular, by two things he says – one, that in many ways the Right wing political leaders of today are in many ways more legitimate than Hitler because they were elected “by majorities of the electorate who approve of their policies.” Evans states: “We have to deal with the situation as it is now, and we have to recognize that democracy dies in a variety of different ways, and it’s not going to die in a coup d’état or through the use of mass violence on the streets. One of the problems, perhaps the fundamental problem of democracy today, is that the mass of the electorate, millions of people in the electorate, are disillusioned. Hitler only ever achieved 37.4 percent of the vote in a free election, but Erdogan, Orbán, and the Polish government, for example, have been elected by majorities of the electorate who approve of their policies. I know Trump lost the popular vote, but he was elected when it was clear that he was no friend of democracy. So that’s the situation we have to deal with. And that is: In some ways, democracy is dying bit by bit. It’s not going to be overwhelmed in some kind of violent seizure of power that happens in a few months.”

And, two, the global nature of his analysis that traces echoes of fascism in today’s right wing political leaders. We must continue to view Trump and Trumpism alongside political movements in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere: “The warning signs now will be different from the warning signs then…If you want to look for warning signs in a leading politician, then that’s easy. You can say contempt for the judiciary and an assault on the independence of the judiciary, and the belief that government can control it, and government is above the law. You can see the warning sign when a leader wants to close down a free press, and that’s already happened to a large extent in Hungary. Opposition newspapers have been closed. The same thing happens in Putin’s Russia. And Mr. Trump has declared his hostility toward the press, but he doesn’t have the means to do it. He’s not able to close down the Washington Post or the New York Times as the Nazis closed down newspapers. You can see it in irresponsible and aggressive nationalist belligerence in foreign policy. Again, Hitler did not believe in international institutions. He got Germany out of the League of Nations. He regarded international treaties as pieces of paper that would be torn up when he wanted to. And again, you can see in Mr. Trump a certain amount of contempt for international institutions and the belief that America should leave them.”


When did Lawyers become the front line of the resistance? 

Gabe Cahn, “Being an Immigration Attorney in the Age of Trump
A story about one immigration lawyer racing to protect one client. In the face of so many asylum cases, this one story reveals the difficulty of navigating the system and the power of lawyers to act creatively. “For anyone who practices immigration law, and in particular Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, this case shows the power of creative, rebellious lawyering,” said Megan Jordi Brody, HIAS’ managing attorney. “In this new world of immigration law,” she continued, “attorneys are having to make some really creative arguments on behalf of their minor clients.”


And, some inspiration:

Julie Orringer, “What Alec Baldwin Taught My Son about Political Activism,” NYT
In Brooklyn, one mom finds a way to talk to her kid about our world and why our voices matter. It’s a reminder that what we say matters, so are we saying what we want other people to hear?

Magnes Pop Up Exhibition: Holocaust Memory, Walls, and Ephemerality

Thank you to the Magnes Museum for inviting me to speak at one of their weekly Pop Up Exhibitions. It was an honor to think about the ephemerality of Holocaust memory and the need to balance memory with activism. The slides from my talk are below. And, if you’re interested, you can join 11 other people (probably more like 9 because I checked out the video 2x) and watch the presentation here.

Deblinger_Magnes Pop Up



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

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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 >

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.

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).


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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 “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

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 >