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



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.

70 Years After Hiroshima: Remembering the power of personal narrative

On August 6, 1946, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 people died immediately and thousands more in the aftermath. On that day, the world learned the devastating power of nuclear weaponry.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of that event, it’s worth reading (or rereading) Jon Hershey’s essay Hiroshima, published in the August 31st, 1946 issue of The New Yorker and digitally republished today.

The essay offers a way to look back on the shock of that event and to reflect on the still felt repercussions of that decision – on an individual scale and a global one. It is also an opportunity to consider the unprecedented rupture caused by the nuclear bomb as we imagine a world without the knowledge of that kind of destruction.


Story via The Verge | Image via BBC

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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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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 >

Instagram, Memory Making, and Leaving LA

The last few months have been all about change. In May, I submitted my dissertation. In June, I received my PhD from UCLA. In July, Adam and I moved from LA to Santa Cruz, CA. Next week, I start a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz. After 7 years of graduate school and living in Los Angeles, a new adventure has begun.

As we started packing in June, I realized that I wanted to document what we were leaving.  The idea started by wanting to keep a record of the most ridiculous aspects of LA life: celebrity spotting, juice cleanses, hyper-local/organic/food culture, excessive gym going, etc. (All clichés. All somewhat awesome.).  So, I planned to instagram (yes, as a verb) my last month in LA and used the hashtag #30moredaysinLA to do so.

Things I learned pretty quickly upon starting this project:

1)   Taking generic “LA” pictures is not very interesting: Far away shots of tv/commercial celebrities are of no interest to anyone. And, in the long term, was that really what I would want to remember about my 7 years in LA?  It wasn’t. So, the project, instead, was about my last 30 days in LA – what I was doing, what I would miss, and what I loved about my life there.

2)   It’s not that easy to define a consistent Instagram “voice”: creating visually engaging and communicative photographs everyday was a challenge.  I had to focus on taking good pictures with my phone. Not pictures that reminded me where I parked or what books I wanted to buy, but composed shots that could document a moment, a feeling, an idea and convey that to a virtual audience. Pairing the visual image with a caption also took some thought. Did I want to be snarky? Did I want to be sincere? How could I be both?

3)   Sharing pictures of my life everyday dictated what I did each day: Some days, I took a picture of the boring thing I was really doing, like working or packing boxes. And, some days I relied on older pictures that spoke to something I really loved about LA. But, most days, I felt motivated to do things so that I could take a picture of it. On the one hand, I did things I had long been meaning to do, like stroll the Venice canals and hike at Topanga Canyon. On the other hand, I felt the pressure of making public a life that was more active and exciting than the one I normally lived (which generally consisted of shuttling back and forth between UCLA’s campus and neighborhood coffee shops).

4)   Some basic social media lessons: (1) People “like” pictures with people in them more than pictures without people. (2) If you take pictures of food, use lots of hashtags if you want get people you don’t know to “like” them. (3)  I am susceptible to craving “likes” and obsessing over them!  Why did people like some pictures and not others? Was it the time of day I posted? The nature of the caption? Even though this project was mostly for me, I was still concerned about what would be popular. This was compounded when I started sharing the posts on Facebook, where family members, childhood friends, long lost acquaintances, and friends of friends could also see, “like,” and comment.

As a historian particularly concerned with memory, the whole experiment felt overly meta. I was creating, editing, captioning, and sharing pictures about my life as a way of curating my own LA memory.  By choosing the images that best conveyed what I wanted to remember, I elided moments of loneliness, sadness, and frustration. This should not have come as a surprise because this is fundamentally what social media does. We share the best versions of ourselves and our lives. But, it struck me, as I tried to encapsulate 30 things I loved about LA, how easy it is to construct memory not only for our social media “friends” but for ourselves.

Looking back through the hashtag now, I’m glad that I included mundane days as well as exciting days, and my favorite shots are the ones that evoke a complex emotional moment, many of which were prompted by the process of packing and moving. The picture of old CDs that reminded me of so many past musical moments is as provocative as the one of me dropping off my very last UCLA library book, which still (over 6 weeks later) prompts a complicated feeling of melancholy. By looking at the images as a whole collection, I also notice a few things I didn’t anticipate: like how often I wear the same outfit (black jeans, black t-shirt, jean jacket), how beautiful LA can be, and how absent the people that populated my LA life are from this record.

Thinking about the relationship between social media and the construction of both a public and private memory made the effort more exciting for me. And taking stock of what kind of memory it created makes me excited to try it again. So, I’m going to document the first 30 days of my new, post-graduate school, post-doctoral position. This time I hope to add a bit more text to some of the posts on this blog so that I can reflect on the new things I’m learning and the moments when my training as a historian is in tension with my new position in the library. But, already, this goal seems devoid of people, so let’s see if I can change my own impulse in memory making.

Stay tuned. And, follow my new hashtag adventure: #30SantaCruzfirsts