The Holocaust and Memory

Edward Linenthal, in Preserving Memory: The Struggles to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, examines the challenges faced by those who took part in establishing the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the ways in which Holocaust memory was defined and determined at that site by ideas, objects, and people. Linenthal begins by detailing the creation of a commission to establish a Holocaust museum in the United States in the late 70s by President Carter’s executive order. This commission had to deal with many challenges in its early years: because it was inherently political, the commission had to walk a fine line and ensure that their work would not endanger Carter’s relationship with American Jews or America’s relationship with other nation-states. Additionally, the commission originally defined the Holocaust as the “systematic, bureaucratic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators,” and many non-Jewish victims took great offense at this definition that seemingly downplayed their own experiences during the Holocaust. Linenthal then describes the process of selecting a site, choosing a design, and building the museum. The Commission had to decide whether to house the museum in DC or in New York City, and after selecting DC, had to select an appropriate location. The decision to place the museum on the Mall met with criticism and support. The commission decided that the museum should be made up of three separate parts: a museum (Hall of Witness), a monument (Hall of Remembrance), and an education center (Hall of Learning). Following that, Linenthal describes the various exhibit plans that were presented to the commission, and the change in leadership that occurred once Elie Wiesel stepped down as chairman. Following his resignation, a design team was hired in 1988, and their plan was adopted unanimously by the commission. They wanted the exhibit to begin on the fourth floor and descend down to the second, and would make use of Freed’s towers. Rather than featuring a redemptive ending, the conclusion of the exhibit would remind visitors of the lessons of the Holocaust. In 1988 the commission called for donations of documents, letters, diaries, works of art, clothes, photos, and other objects created by victims in the camps, ghettoes, and in hiding. They received over 10,000 items, which they termed “object survivors.” Additionally, staff members traveled to Europe and collected other material items to display in the museum. By 1992, the museum had collected 32,000 objects. In order to ensure that the millions of individual deaths that made up the Holocaust would not be lost in a narrative of mass death, exhibit designers personalized the Holocaust. Before visitors enter the exhibit, they are given an identification card of a Holocaust victim, and throughout the exhibit visitors are confronted with faces of Holocaust victims. The exhibit designers also placed small artifacts throughout the exhibit to further personalize the narrative. Linenthal details the struggles over the representation of the perpetrators, the use of hair in the exhibit, and the representation of Armenians and Gypsies in the museum. He points out that the museum does have some surprising omissions, such as the lack of attention to perpetrators who emigrated to the US, and the actions or non-actions of Protestants and Catholics in European nations during the Nazi years.

This is a compelling, incredibly well-written piece of scholarship. While I enjoyed the entirety of this book immensely, there were several parts that particularly grabbed my attention. The first was Linenthal’s discussion of James Ingo Freed’s design of the building. Freed wanted the building to be “expressive of the event,” and designed it in such a way as to communicate disruption, alienation, constriction, observation, and selection. He used steel, brick, and glass to evoke the hard, industrial forms of the Holocaust, and designed the building specifically to disorient visitors in such a way that they feel they are “leaving DC.” Additionally, the section on staff members traveling to Europe to collect artifacts and materials for the exhibit was fascinating. The casting of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, revealed grassroots activism on the part of the man who refused to let the wall be torn down in the years following the end of the war. Furthermore, the agreements reached between death and work camp site staffs and the staff of the Holocaust Museum demonstrated a high level of institutional cooperation–the staff at the death camps agreed that the items borrowed by the Holocaust Museum would never be returned–and the delicacy of the situation–the staff of the Holocaust Museum did not want to buy any object survivors for fear of creating an “obscene market.” Another section of the book that captured my attention was the work of those who archived, cataloged, preserved, and cleaned all the objects for the museum, their experiences doing so, and the debates over how to display such items. Finally, Linenthal’s discussion of the faces of Holocaust victims–and the accompanying pictures he chose to include–was both haunting and transfixing.

Alison Landsberg, in Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, examines a new form of public cultural memory–what Landsberg terms prosthetic memory–which is made possible due to the emergence of mass culture. Prosthetic memories emerge at places like movie theaters or museums where people are introduced to a historical narrative. During the moment of contact, a person becomes part of a larger history, and that person takes on a personal, deeply felt memory of a past he or she did not live through. Landsberg explores the formation of prosthetic memories in three cases: immigrants to the United States in the 1920s and 30s, African Americans after slavery, and the Holocaust. In each of these cases kinship ties were broken, and people needed to form alternative ways to transmit and disseminate memory. Landsberg begins her study of the Holocaust by asking whether it is possible for the Holocaust to become a bodily memory for those who did not actually experience it, and, if it is, how do mass cultural events, institutions, and practices participate in the process of creating such memories? Landsberg argues that mass media has created transferential spaces in which people can enter into experiential relationships to events through which they have no lived experience. These transferential spaces privilege processed, sensual knowledge over cognitive knowledge. The cognitive knowledge of the Holocaust is inadequate, so in this way the accession and acquirement of processed, sensual knowledge is complementary to limited cognitive knowledge. Landsberg details her experiences as a visitor to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. She notes that the architecture of the building as well as the exhibit design force visitors to confront images and objects that they would be able to avoid in other museums. The museum experience itself is physically and emotionally exhausting–she notes that there are only five places throughout the entire exhibit where visitors are able to sit down–which compels visitors to persevere despite their discomfort. Landsberg finds that the power of the Holocaust Museum comes from the variety of narratives it tells and assembles, including newspaper articles, survivors’ testimonies, and historical analyses. She notes that visitors to the museum experience the object survivors, like the mass of shoes or the suitcases, through their absence. The Holocaust Museum, Landsberg posits, is one place where prosthetic memories are incorporated into the body.

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