A Jewish mandate to act: 60 million refugees around the world

World Refugee Day is tomorrow (June 20). In recognition, HIAS has released this video that calls on Jews to remember their history as refugees and to help those still displaced. The video is powerful and compelling.

In particular, I am struck by two connected through lines that position HIAS within a history of Jewish displacement and the contemporary refugee crisis:

(1) The connection between Jewish values and the work of rescuing and resettling refugees around the world today. Their mission is no longer to save Jews, but they are still informed by their roots as a Jewish organization. As they define their goals:

Guided by Jewish values and experience, HIAS is working to address the global refugee crisis.

(2) That the organization chose to tell the history of Jewish displacement as part of a long history of displacement is inspiring. They empower Jews to act today not because Jews are in danger, but because we were once refugees and HIAS was there. In telling this connected history, the video jumps from Nazi concentration camps to the Jewish exile in North Africa to Darfur and Refugee Camps across the world. In each case, HIAS was there:

We were the ones at the docks…and we are still at the docks, in the deserts, and in the cities and camps and lands where people no longer have a home in their homeland.

The argument that Jews should care because it is a Jewish mandate is powerful and speaks beyond World Refugee Day – it speaks to how Jewish values can be part of political concerns that are not just about Israel or just about antisemitism.

This history is at the heart of the Memories/Motifs project and I am proud to be a supporter of HIAS today.

 

Reposted from Memories/Motifs in honor of World Refugee Day

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/