This summer my tenure as director of CHGS comes to an end. Since the moment I arrived in Minneapolis from Germany in August 2012, I have marveled at the intellectual vigor, ingenuity, and enthusiasm for learning at the University of Minnesota. I feel honored and humbled to have worked alongside and with so many wonderful colleagues. What we have achieved here at the Center over the last decade in essence is due to the special bonds and partnerships forged between our inspiring faculty, tirelessly dedicated staff, and superb student scholars. Collaboration and timely exchanges at the local, national and international levels have also enabled us to develop an exceptional range of scholarly, teaching, and public engagement programs.

I truly take heart in the manner in which our team has upheld the Center’s strong tradition of outreach to educators and the public at large, affirming the legacy of the Center’s founding director Stephen Feinstein. To that end, it was imperative that we expanded the Center’s resources on the Holocaust and other genocides, including those that occurred on North American soil.  

These past ten whirlwind years have been a time of intense learning for me. I have been touched by survivors and descendants who confided in me their stories of loss and pain, but also resilience and hope. I was privileged to learn from artists whose work illuminated the past in powerful new ways, and from teachers seasoned in engaging creatively, learners with the difficult truths of the histories and lasting legacies of mass violence. In my classes, I was heartened by students who shared their deep convictions in ending hatred and embracing humanity’s fullness.

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There are several towns named Wittenberg in the US, but there is only one in Germany. Growing up in West Germany I didn’t hear much about it because Wittenberg was in the East, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We learned at school that Martin Luther taught there and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. However, that he personally nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg—as the story goes—is just as likely as Walt Disney having drawn the first Mickey Mouse draft himself. After the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain went away in 1989, Wittenberg awoke from its Dornröschenschlaf (Sleeping Beauty slumber), dusted itself off and emerged as a major tourist destination. Today it is the city with the highest density of UNESCO World Heritage sites, four in total and all connected to Luther’s life and the Reformation—must-visits in a Mecca for evangelical globetrotters. One of those sites received a lot of press coverage earlier this month that once again exposed the ugly underbelly of Luther’s teachings and the callousness of Germany’s highest court.

Judensau on display at an outside wall of the Stadtkirche (city church) in Wittenberg, Germany, February 4, 2020. (Image via Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images/ via JTA)

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*Editors Note: This piece was originally posted by the UMN Human Rights Program. Click here to read the original post.

In Serbia, since the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia ended in 2001, another battle has been waged over representations of that violence. Competing interpretations are advanced by state and non-state groups over what happened and who is to blame. This battle can result in denial of genocide and other atrocities, which causes pain for survivors and victims and can enhance risk of future violence. While some research has been conducted on this process, gender has been under-researched as an important corresponding dimension. Women have unique experiences and memories of war and violence which may not be included in dominant narratives. In Serbia, women anti-war activists like Women in Black have been leading efforts for genocide acknowledgment and post-conflict reconciliation between opposing ethnic groups. In collaboration with Professor Joachim Savelsberg and thanks to the generous support of the Human Rights Initiative, we are exploring the role of women in the cultural processing of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

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The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the UMN School of Music had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Badema Pitic in March for a talk titled “Remembering Through Music: The Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnian izvorna Songs.” Watch a recording of the talk here. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pitic about her research on music, transitional justice, and reconciliation in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dr. Badema Pitic is a Head of Research Services at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 2017 from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the intersections of music, memory, and politics in the aftermath of war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her research interests also include oral history and testimony, transitional justice, and perpetrators’ music.

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April 27th is Yom HaShoah, one of several Holocaust remembrance days observed around the world at various points in the year. It is also Genocide Awareness Month, which marks the anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide (which began on April 24th, 1915), the Holocaust (or, namely the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, 1943), the Cambodian Genocide (on April 19th, 1975), and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (on April 7th, 1944), As I mentioned in January, dates such as these mark a need for a collective memory, even as dates and temporal boundaries often fail to account for the long-term effects of genocide and mass violence. 

As a Jew, and at this particular moment during the ongoing war and mass violence in Ukraine, I struggle in 2022 (as in most years) to reconcile the official calls to remember with the more subjective, personalized constructions of memory that inevitably emerge from events such as these. I am reminded that public displays of memory, though central, can be brittle, and often serve contemporary state politics. Yom HaShoah is no exception, as a holiday directly tied to the State of Israel’s larger memory projects. The “complications” this date entails for both Jews and non-Jews alike, who are critical of Israeli domestic and foreign policies, also pertains to my specialized knowledge Yiddish history and culture that often gets left out of Zionist narratives. Days such as Yom HaShoah should in theory be encouraging a broader, more inclusive definition of collective memory, but we know that these calls often fail to reach beyond the limits of nationalism and geopolitics. 

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As far as I can think back, an odd-looking, faceless porcelain bunny has been part of the Easter decoration in my parents’ house in Remscheid, Germany. It has an artistic twist to it with a coat that shimmers in purple, blue and red. Originally it must have looked just like his fellow rabbits, but it no longer does. That’s because it got a second glaze in the early morning hours of July 31, 1943, when the house it lived in was burnt to the ground during an Allied air raid on my hometown. As my grandparents sifted through the rubble a couple of days later, that bunny was pretty much the only thing that emerged intact. 

“Der Angriff” (attack) and how my grandparents miraculously survived the fire under some wet blankets in the backyard became part of our family folklore. My mother who got the bunny as an Easter gift earlier in 1943 still has a hard time dealing with sirens after spending too many nights in bomb shelters as a child. During her first visit to Minneapolis, an unexpected tornado siren test sent her immediately looking for the basement—unfortunately without success since our house is one of the few in Minneapolis that doesn’t have one. That story is now also part of our family folklore.

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Visitors facing the entrance to Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky are offered only one glimpse of what they can expect if they choose to enter: a decorated Nazi officer raises his arm in a Hitler salute while blood-like drops fall from his wrist and smear the page. On his head is a terrifying bestial skull that appears both fixed and projected on the man’s scalp. A close look reveals smudges, partial erasures, hard pencil strokes, and tears to the paper. This work is steeped in rage.

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While Serbia does not share a direct border with Ukraine, it is close enough that when the fighting broke out I immediately called my Serbian relatives on Viber to ask what they had heard about the conflict and what was happening on the ground. In contrast to the overwhelmingly anti-Russian reactions shared on Western media, my Serbian relatives expressed a more lukewarm attitude towards the Russian side. They explained reasonably that Ukraine is growing closer to the West and Putin does not like that, so he is trying to persuade Ukraine to come back over to his side. My relatives repeated the Serbian government’s narrative that Serbia is a “neutral country” that does not want to take sides in the conflict, a position they view in a positive light. This narrative of neutrality is being used by the Serbian government to justify its refusal to impose sanctions and take a stronger anti-Russian stance. 

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When compiling resources for Women’s History Month, in a country where reproductive rights and gender justice initiatives are in grave peril, I found it necessary to highlight numerous strands of interrelated histories. The socialist origins of International Women’s Day, and the role of Jewish immigrants who later fell victim to state repression and genocide, are just two legacies informing contemporary feminist and gender-based activism. 

Crucially as a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, we must also confront how gender always dictates the lived experience of victims and survivors of mass violence, both during the events in question and following. We are painfully aware of the ways individuals become targets in specific ways due to their gender. Furthermore, political decisions and humanitarian relief often fail to take gender into account, keeping women, genderqueer, and other non-male-identifying individuals away from negotiation tables and policy action. 

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“As I am sitting in the kitchen of complete strangers who have opened up their home to me, gave me food, shelter, and a brief feeling of safety, I am holding back my tears… We take a shot of alcohol in the name of the fallen. We take another shot in the name of our soldiers. We take another in the name of Ukraine. We whisper our little speeches. We share our gratitude. We share hope. And I realize we are… unbeatable. Because we do not lose our strength. We just can’t. We wouldn’t be Ukrainian if we did. As long as we whisper in unison “Слава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine), we are strong… I shed a tear when I say, “воля або смерть” (“freedom or death”). I am glad they don’t see in the dark. I think of all the people for whom this familiar phrase became too real.” – Alexandra Markova

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