Eighty-nine years ago, a famine swept Ukraine, a result of intentional policies instituted by the Soviet government. A combination of confiscated harvests and the rejection of aid lead to the starvation of millions of Ukrainians (the exact number is still debated, as reflected in a graduate student panel hosted by CHGS last year). The name given to this man-made famine, Holodomor, means to kill by starvation. 

Although recognized by several international organizations and several nations as genocide, including the United States since 1984, the Holodomor is still little understood, and even less taught in the U.S. In a survey CHGS conducted of educators, less than 6% of teachers had an understanding of the Holodomor, and even fewer included it in their classroom lessons. Much of the shroud surrounding the genocide can be attributed to secrecy implemented by the Soviet government; understanding and awareness were kept under wraps until the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

This veil of secrecy surrounding the Holodomor is the theme of a recent film, Mr. Jones, released in 2019. The movie, starring James Norton as the titular Gareth Jones, centers on a reporter’s efforts to share news of the famine outside the Soviet Union after using his connections in the British government to gain entry into the Soviet Union. Mr. Jones hadn’t intended to cover the famine, but a delayed train to Moscow led to a stop in a rural Ukrainian village. What Jones found shocks him, prompting him to abandon his plans to write about the successes of Stalin’s government and raise the call for humanitarian relief for the people of Ukraine. 

The narrative in Mr. Jones primarily focuses on the efforts of Jones to raise the alarm in the West and the security apparatus trying to stop him. As such, the film focuses less on the grisly images found in most genocide films, instead opting to tell the story of how the genocide was covered up. That’s not to say it’s not without brutality. In one particular scene, Jones comes across a village home, finding two small children without their parents. It’s not long before Jones realizes, to his horror, that children have taken to cannibalism when faced with starvation as a result of the famine. 

Like The Cut or The Promise, both films about the Armenian genocide, Mr. Jones uses its two-hour run time to educate its audience on the Holodomor, opting for a pseudo-historiagraphy rather than delving into artistic expression. The Hollywood treatment of genocide has come with heavy hitters; The Promise cast included Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac and Oscar winner Christian Bale. For its part, in addition to James Norton, Mr. Jones includes Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard. The profile of its cast helped Mr. Jones garner wider attention, including its inclusion in this last summer’s virtual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. While the film itself is based on true events, it’s clear there is a certain degree of creative license being taken. Soon after its release, the family of Gareth Jones complained about certain scenes which they felt were exaggerated for dramatic effect. While this may be true, the film does an admirable job explaining how the orchestrated deaths of millions of Ukrainians could go largely unnoticed for decades. 

While Mr. Jones was screened as part of the 2021 MSPIFF, it is also available to stream on Hulu. 

Recently, the CHGS has also hosted several events focusing on the Holodomor, including a conversation with descendants of Holodomor survivors in 2020 and a commemorative lecture marking Holodomor Remembrance Day last year. In 2019, the Immigration History Research Archive added a collection of testimonies from survivors and their families of the Holodomor. 

Joe Eggers is the Assistant Director at the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.

The Center has been busily promoting the work of Professor David Feinberg, who has retired from the Department of Art after an illustrious 50-year career. A retrospective of Feinberg’s work is currently on display at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery on the UMN West Bank Campus. 

The works on display serve as important reminders, best summed up in Feinberg’s own words: 

“All art comes from the unconscious. The unconscious makes connections between the past and the present. Truth has to be found, not contrived or preconceived. Seeking truth is the way to originality. The only true thing a person has is their unique perception of the world.” 

The exhibition, Divide Up Those in Darkness from the Ones Who Walk in Light, consists of two collections: Voice to Vision and a collection of Feinberg’s earlier works. Upon walking into the gallery, one first sees several of these early pieces on display, encouraging visitors to immediately engage with an overarching theme of the retrospective: the role of art for the individual—not only to shape public consciousness but also larger arcs of history. Subjects of these early pieces include partisans active during World War II, the 1956 explosion at the Brooklyn piers, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the “Day the Music Died” to name a few. 

The multimedia pieces in the exhibition include wood construction, collage, and other materials from photographs, news sources, etc. Extraordinary 2D/3D works depicting interior spaces, along with pieces that echo surrealist trends from the 20th century, stand alongside Feinberg’s “Kaddish for the Immigrant’s Son.” At 82 x 148 inches, the painting prominently features New York landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, with its head and torch trailing throughout the painting, and containing the transliterated words of the Kaddish (one of the central elements of the Jewish liturgy). 

David Feinberg, Kaddish for the Immigrant’s Son, 1987. Acrylic on linen, 82 X 148 in.

Over half of the retrospective is devoted to Feinberg’s Voice to Vision, a groundbreaking “memory project” focused on collaboration with survivors of genocide. Voice to Vision uses painting, drawing, collage, and mixed media to center individual survivors, who can often be lost in narratives dominating textbooks and public consciousness. Oral and visual testimony also takes a central role in the Voice to Vision artwork, which is clear as one walks through the gallery spaces. 

For example, genocide survivors from different parts of the world first share their stories through dialogue, and the stories, in turn, transform into works of visual art produced by the survivors themselves and a larger collaborative team. According to the exhibition program, approximately 200 people have been involved with Voice to Vision. 

Above: “We’re also Part of the Making of the Western World” – Voice to Vision XVII2021. Mixed-media construction. 31″ w x 32″ h x 5″ d
Brenda Child, Steve Premo, Benay McNamara, David Feinberg, Beth Andrews, Reid Luskey, Adolfo Menendez, Stefanie Suhon, Joey Feinberg.
Source: CHGS Elevator Site

Various series from the Voice to Vision Collection also put into dialogue different episodes of genocide and mass violence, thereby emphasizing that individual experiences—even if disparate—can illuminate rather than obscure human rights abuses as they continue to occur across time and space. In one particular piece from Voice to Vision III, “Romania 1941/Rwanda 1994,” draw on memories and sounds of survivors’ pasts that then appear in the multimedia artwork itself. Descriptions beside each work provide background information as well as the forms of collaboration that took place between survivors and artists to make each piece possible. 

Above: Romania 1941/Rwanda 19942006. Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas. 52w” x 44h”.
David Feinberg. Drawing contributions from Romanian survivors Max Goodman and Edith Goodman, Rwandan survivor Alice Tuza and her sister Floriane Robins-Brown, with artists: Caroline Kent, Kelly Frush, David Harris, and Solomon Atta.
Source: CHGS Elevator Site

Each art piece emerged through close collaboration between artists and genocide survivors, all of whom exchanged ideas and made creative decisions together. The accompanying documentaries also feature original scores. This additional level of collaboration with musicians helps to shape the sound surrounding the survivor’s stories. As I walked through the exhibit, it is certainly clear from the screens playing the accompanying documentaries that sound (as well as the visual) plays an important role in public memory. 

The audiovisual recordings of the testimony produce another important effect for the viewer; the convergence of each voice involved in the project becomes part of an interactive journey through the gallery. The video documentaries will allow survivors, respective communities affected by genocide, and future generations to experience crucial aspects of the project beyond the artworks produced. These videos are also available on the CHGS Elevator site. 

Feinberg’s goal of the Voice to Vision project was to inspire others and to use the tools of dialogue and the visual arts to investigate, recover, and protect the narratives and emotional experiences of genocide survivors. The combination of physical art pieces and video documentaries can connect audiences to life-changing moments in history, and will stimulate discussion and education surrounding the events in question. 

The exhibition, Divide Up Those in Darkness from the Ones Who Walk in Light runs until December 11, 2021.

Olivia Sailer is an undergraduate student working for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Sailer is currently a junior and is majoring in Anthropology, with a focus on the sociocultural and linguistic subfields.

Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where he is the educational outreach and special collections coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In addition to being an instructor of German studies, he has also taught Yiddish coursework with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and at the Ohio State University.

The American Swedish Institute (ASI) current exhibit, “Rescuing Children on the Brink of War,” provides various accounts from those who, as children, were sent to various countries to escape Nazi persecution between late 1938 and September of 1939. 

Originally a 2018 collaboration between the Yeshiva University Museum and Leo Baeck Institute (both located at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan), the exhibition created an outpouring of public interest around the Kindertransport’s 80th anniversary and led to the donation of numerous items that have since ended up on companion sites.

Following “Kristallnacht” on November 9th, 1938, the Kindertransport, as it came to be known, relocated approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany (which, by late 1938 included Austria and the Sudetenland), Czechoslovakia, Danzig, and Poland. Most of the children arrived in Great Britain, which had the most open policies regarding refugee children. Sweden and other countries, with stricter quotas, still accepted a few hundred children until the outbreak of the war in September 1939. The Kindertransport is credited with saving the lives of approximately 10,000 children from what would have been certain death during the Holocaust. An estimated 1-1.5 million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. 

Susie Greenberg, associate director of Holocaust education for the JCRC of Minnesota and the Dakotas said in an article for TC Jewfolk, “[The exhibit] was not meant to be a traveling show…We were researching ways to educate more about the Kindertransport. This was an amazing opportunity.”

Because the majority of the Kindertransport children never saw their parents again, it is clear from the letters and artifacts that many of the children were left traumatized — with accounts of painful family separations, harsh immigration policies, and abusive conditions once in countries like the UK — experiences that refugees are experiencing in similar ways all over the world today. It was thus not uncommon for survivors to remain silent about the trauma of child separation and the murder of their parents, and the exhibit points to survivors who rarely (if ever) spoke of this moment in their lives for decades. 

The exhibition consists of the main display located on the ground floor, with additional items located in the Turnblad Mansion that highlight Minnesota Kindertransport survivors. 

The array of items, the Minnesota connections made, and the exhibition design are its main strengths. A wall of blank tags spanning one entire wall of the exhibition space represents the identification documents the children wore around their necks. In addition, personal effects from the children, some of which have never been publicly exhibited before, include prayer books, school supplies, correspondence, and other items. This range of both conceptual art and artifacts speaks to the symbolic and interpretive role such objects play for the stories we impart — as fewer and fewer Kindertransport survivors remain alive.

The exhibition will remain open at ASI until October 31st, 2021.

Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where he is the educational outreach and special collections coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In addition to being an instructor of German studies, he has also taught Yiddish coursework with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and at the Ohio State University.

After 20 years, the Taliban have returned to power in Kabul. Two decades of progress for women and human rights are certain to be completely demolished. One group, in particular, the Hazaras, are especially fearful for what the future holds. 

Hazaras bury their children after a recent school bombing. Photo Courtesy of the NYTimes.

The Hazaras are an ethnoreligious minority in Afghanistan. They are Shia Muslims, claim descent from the Mongols, and for much of Afghanistan’s history have occupied a semi-autonomous region in central Afghanistan called Hazarajat. Making up 10-20% of Afghanistan’s population, they are mostly found in agrarian communities. For much of Afghanistan’s history, the Hazara have been subject to violence. 

This discrimination against the Hazaras goes back at least to the late 19th century. After the second Anglo-Afghan war, the British sought an Afghan leader who would rule the country but allow Britain control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and maintain support for British interests in India. They found such a figure in Abdur Rahman Khan, the son of Afghanistan’s emir Dost Mohammad Khan. Abdur Rahman launched a series of internal wars against the autonomous areas of Afghanistan with the goal of creating a direct, autocratic rule for himself. He set his sights on Hazarajat. 

In the past, the Afghan government controlled only the edges of this region and ruled the rest indirectly. Abdur Rahman’s heavy-handed approach toward Hazarajat led to open rebellion. The “Iron Emir” had the Shia Hazara’s declared infidels, giving free rein to his soldiers to ignore the Islamic laws of war. Many were either killed or sold into slavery; over half of Afghanistan’s Hazaras were killed. 

The Taliban have cited Abdur Rahman’s injunction to justify mass killings of the Hazaras. Members of the Deobandi Islamic revivalist school, the Taliban regard Hazaras and others who do not share their extremist Sunni beliefs to be rafidha, or rejectionists. And as such, the Hazaras stand in the way of the Taliban’s goal of a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan. 

Targeted killings of the Hazaras by the Taliban go back to the 1990s. In 1998, the Taliban killed thousands of Hazaras after taking the city of Mazar-i-sharif from rebel control. A Human Rights Watch report quoted witnesses describing it as a “killing frenzy”–a melee of indiscriminate murders of civilians and combatants. The Taliban specifically searched for male Hazaras. Some of those who were not killed were imprisoned in metal shipping containers and suffocated to death. Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 2,000 people were killed in this violence. Recently, Amnesty International reported that in early July of this year, nine Hazara men were murdered by the Taliban in Ghazni, shortly after the Islamic fundamentalist group took over that province. According to the report, the men were tortured and then shot.  

The true extent of Taliban atrocities may not be clear at the moment. Since taking power in several provinces, the Taliban have cut off phone services and prevented news from reaching the outside world. But the past shows a clear pattern of Taliban reprisals against Hazaras. For example, a hospital of mothers and newborn babies were shot, older men were tortured and dumped into mass graves, and little girls were torn to pieces by an explosion at school. According to GenocideWatch, since 2015 Islamist terrorist attacks have killed at least 1,200 Hazaras. The stories are horrific and too numerous to detail.

Despite assuring the international community that they have changed since the 1990s, the Taliban has yet again committed targeted killings of Hazara, destroyed a statue of a Hazara leader in Bamiyan, and kidnapped Salima Mazari, a female Hazara governor of Chaharkint district in northern Afghanistan. There are also reports that the Taliban have turned Hazara away at the Kabul airport. 

Because the Taliban and other Islamist groups deliberately target hospitals and children, these are war crimes. And because this is directed against an ethnoreligious group, this almost certainly meets the definition of genocide. The question is, with the departure of American forces, will the international community come to the aid of the Hazaras? After abandoning the last holdouts of the Afghan government in the Panjshir valley, the prospects are not promising. The west, after 20 years, does not want to shed any more blood for what they see as a lost cause. 

Will Calhoun is an independent analyst and writer based in California. A 2019 graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, his interests encompass Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, international security, and human rights. 

Rapprochement over estrangement, renewal, and hope, these sorely needed values strengthen our rituals for new beginnings. This applies to the new academic term and the Jewish New Year, which converged as we strive to overtake the pandemic this September of 2021. Sadly, the bright start to our gatherings was soon clouded by the disturbing news about attacks and attempts to cause harm to Hmong and Jewish communities in the Twin Cities.

Racist anti-Asian and anti-Black attacks and antisemitic assaults are very often perpetrated by the same offenders. Undoubtedly, blind hatred and intolerance are motivators of such heinous acts. The importance of collaboration and solidarity in the face of unabashed hostility cannot be understated and it is heartening when diverse communities unite, rally, and respond with a sense of shared purpose. At the same time, we are aware that antisemitism cannot be fully grasped when merely absorbed and understood as just another form of racism.

In my undergrad course on antisemitism in the Spring semester, students were frequently at a loss when confronted with the complex and contradictory nature of antisemitism. Jews have been despised and attacked for real or imagined religious practices, racialized with other minorities, and put on the bottom of a human hierarchy crafted by pseudoscientific propagandists. They are disliked for their particularism, for embracing Zionism, or for being rootless cosmopolitans. Jews are inferior and corrupted and at the same time resented, perceived as being on top and pulling the strings of power. A flyer posted by Neo-Nazis on our campus not long ago said, “The Jews are destroying your country through mass immigration and degeneracy.” In this type of delusional hatemongering, Jews are the masterminds of a plot to substitute the White population with people of color. Similarly, the infamous Charlottesville torch-carriers chanted “Jews will not replace us.” 

But the inherent difficulty of the subject matter was not the only source of confusion among my students. Perplexity was heightened by the shortcomings of current anti-racist scholarship and anti-racist initiatives to fully address the multifaceted relation of Jews to White majority society and the pervasive nature of antisemitism. Our colleague James Loeffler couldn’t have put it more clearly in a recent blog post:  “The American reckoning with racism has been painful and necessary; the reckoning with antisemitism has been at best an afterthought.”

We are committed to change this. Together with our colleagues at the Center for Jewish Studies, we will host the virtual symposium “Antisemitism and Racism in a Moment of Reckoning” on November 8th and 9th. How do racism and antisemitism overlap and where do they diverge, and why? What are constructive ways we can better deal with antisemitism in anti-racist scholarship and practice? How have antisemitism and the Jewish experience been included or excluded in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on US campuses?

I am grateful for the dedication and hard work of the Center’s team (Joe Eggers, Meyer Weinshel, Jillian LaBranche, and Sailer) and the support of our affiliated faculty members, without whom we couldn’t bring to you such a breadth of opportunities to learn, grow and engage.

We look forward to seeing you online and on-campus this semester.

Alejandro Baer, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Nikoleta (Nika) Sremac is a third-year Ph.D. Student in the Department of Sociology. She received her BA in Political Science – International Relations from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, culture, politics, and collective memory of mass violence in the U.S. and the Balkans. She is interested in the role of cultural production and political activism in processing past violence in the service of post-conflict reconciliation. 

Originally from ex-Yugoslavia, Nikoleta’s family immigrated to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1995 during the Yugoslav Wars. After finishing college, she spent a year serving in a refugee resettlement agency in Worcester, MA. She then held positions at the Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights in Boston and at Harvard University in Cambridge before beginning her graduate career at the University of Minnesota.

Nikoleta currently works as a Research Assistant with Joachim Savelsberg on a project that seeks to understand the role of gender in the establishment of collective memory around the Yugoslav Wars, funded by the UMN Human Rights Initiative (HRI). She also works as a Research Assistant with Joachim Savelsberg and Alejandro Baer on a project investigating the role of digital memory activism in constructing genocide narratives in Serbia. 

She will be conducting fieldwork abroad in Belgrade, Serbia for the fall semester of the 2021-22 academic year. In addition to her research, Nikoleta serves as a member of the graduate editorial board for The Society Pages and as Associate Director of Grants for the Council of Graduate Students (COGS)

One of the most dangerous weapons in the world has been increasing in prevalence over the past few decades. This deadly weapon is not advancing technology, nuclear weapons, nor lethal biological warfare. Instead, it is something that is not immediately seen as a threat, something that undermines our sense of security due to perceived innocence and peacefulness. Women.

Female Chechen suicide bomber (Daily Star, 2010)

Scholars and society alike have long viewed males as the primary perpetrators of crime, specifically regarding terrorist attacks. Women’s roles as perpetrators of violence have often been overlooked. In fact, women have long played primary roles in criminal acts. Over the past few decades, their roles have increased in terrorist attacks, specifically in suicide bombings.

Women and young girls have become more and more frequently chosen as suicide bombers, used explicitly by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Their utilization of female suicide bombers has resulted in the killing of 800 known individuals over only a three-year span, injuring 526 others.

When women commit violent, criminal acts, the media often uses three narrative frames to help explain how women could engage in such violence: Mother, Monster, and Whore. These frames have emerged from the assumption that women are inherently peaceful and innocent and thus do not willingly engage in such violent acts.

The mother narrative suggests that a woman becomes violent in response to the loss of her son(s). The loss of the son(s) (symbolic or real) results in a woman’s need to avenge the death and protect and nurture the rest of the family. Alternatively, the monster narrative presents violent women as psychologically unstable. Their deviant actions are driven by an insane, socially unacceptable version of femininity. Lastly, the whore narrative emphasizes a woman’s inappropriate sexual desires. These desires stray from traditional feminine sexuality and suggest a woman’s capacity for violence is linked to this inappropriate sexual drive.

Some depictions in the media have supported these narratives. The mother narrative has been particularly salient in relation to suicide bombing. These narratives depict women’s participation in terrorist organizations as directly related to their fear of losing or having already lost their children. Representing the whore narrative, alternatively, some women are depicted as being brainwashed or engaging in terrorist activities in hopes of solidifying a marriage. When women aren’t presented by the media as mothers or whores, they are often portrayed as monsters. Female suicide bombers are seen as transgressing gender norms for their violent acts, and as a result, they are presented as abnormal or suffering from psychological disturbance. 

Investigative journalism has compounded these narrative frames. Interviews have emphasized women’s narratives of abduction and forced participation. In some cases, women are presented as having to choose between becoming a suicide bomber and marrying one of the members of the terrorist organization. 

These narratives often present women as being victimized by men and the choice to commit violence being forced upon them. These narrative frames assume women’s motives are distinct from men’s. Women are rarely presented as joining these organizations because of their own ideological beliefs and alignment with the organization’s goals and motives.

Women are depicted in societies throughout the world as innocent, peaceful, and virtuous. This representation causes society to not immediately view them as perpetrators. As a result, women are much more likely to bypass security measures and succeed in terrorist activities than their male counterparts. For example, women are less likely to be properly searched for bombs or other weapons, making them able to travel long distances weaponized or enter high-security areas. Thus, terrorist organizations actively recruit women for these reasons.

The presence and growing commonality of female suicide bombers demonstrate that, contrary to common misconceptions, women do play an active role in violence and killing. Their perceived peacefulness and innocence obscures the ability of women to engage in violence. This common perception that women are peaceful and therefore can not engage in violence makes female suicide bombers an unforeseen threat. 

Because of the perception that women cannot and do not participate in mass violence, it is seen as exceptional when they do. And thus, the media attempts to explain this exceptional behavior by using the aforementioned mother-monster-whore narratives. These narratives reify society’s assumptions that women are inherently innocent and peaceful and that only those who are abnormal could engage in such violent activities. We must move away from these narrative frameworks that present women as non-agentic and reduce women who engage in violence to a single category. 

Alexa Cofer is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota majoring in Psychology and Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Deviance. Her academic interests include mass incarceration; mental health of the incarcerated; and prison reform, reintegration, and recidivism. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school and pursue a doctorate in forensic psychology.

Holocaust and Genocide Education Workshop at The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently released the second draft of proposed social studies standards. The draft, part of a mandatory process to review teaching and learning standards every ten years, will not only secure but significantly expand Holocaust and genocide education across the state for years to come. 

The months-delayed second draft follows the release of a controversial first draft in December 2020, which did not mention Holocaust and genocide education. The decision meant not carrying through the three existing references from the current social studies standards, which were adopted in 2011.

This first draft drew widespread criticism from many fronts. A broad coalition called for the inclusion of ethnic studies; the Sikh community lobbied for the inclusion of Sikhism, and several conservative groups spoke out against the shift away from patriotic and whitewashed narratives of U.S. history. The omission of the Holocaust, in particular, became a rallying cry for the conservative Center for the American Experiment, which, however, made no mention of the omission of other genocides and railed against the expanded coverage of Indigenous history in the draft.

As a high school teacher and Ph.D. candidate in Social Studies Education researching genocide education and working with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), I lobbied MDE to reinstate and expand Holocaust and genocide studies, while also supporting efforts to include ethnic studies, absent narratives, and Indigenous histories and contemporary realities in the standards. Genocide education is an important component of these and other efforts to expand social justice via education. 

Along with CHGS and JCRC, I am heartened to see that the second draft of the standards has included all of my suggestions regarding Holocaust and genocide education, which ensures that Minnesota is in line with many other states expanding their genocide education requirements in recent years. I am also encouraged to see the inclusion of an ethnic studies strand, a focus on absent narratives, and robust coverage of Indigenous peoples in the state’s past and more recent history. 

Below is a discussion of how Holocaust and genocide education is framed in the second draft of the standards.

Defining Genocide Education

A careful reader might note that the second draft includes no reference to specific cases of genocide, except the Holocaust and Indigenous genocide. This broader language allows districts, schools, and, importantly, teachers to tailor a study of genocide to meet the needs and desires of their students. For example, an eighth-grade benchmark states: “Examine the Holocaust, genocides, and other cases of mass violence in the 20th and 21st centuries […] and analyze how individuals, groups, and societies around the world have been affected by genocide and mass violence, including communities resettled in Minnesota” (8.4.19.2). Thus, teachers can include in a study of history those cases of genocide that match the lived and community experiences and interests of increasingly diverse students. 

Additionally, the draft standards do not define genocide; instead, teachers and students can explore definitions within their classrooms. This opens possibilities for a broader study of what genocide scholar Alexander Hinton termed “hidden genocides.” Hidden genocides are those cases of mass violence that are either, when they are taught, not labeled or discussed as genocide or simply not taught at all. For example, the events and aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, though taught in sixth-grade classrooms, may not be examined through the lens of genocide. While some cases of genocide, such as the Holodomor, are too often not taught about at all in Minnesota classrooms. The broader language of the standards opens up possibilities for an expansive study of genocide. 

Scope and Sequence of Holocaust and Genocide Education

The proposed standards will include Holocaust and genocide education in both middle and high school. More importantly, Holocaust and genocide education will be scaffolded and developmentally appropriate. For example, a high school benchmark states: “Evaluate historical narratives about World War II and the Holocaust in the United States and on a global scale” (9.4.18.13US7). This builds on a middle school benchmark, which states: “Outline the causes and conduct of World War II […] and the Holocaust” (7.4.18.5). Here, the scaffolding from a study of the “causes and conduct” of the Holocaust at a younger age results in students being ready and able to “evaluate historical narratives” about the Holocaust on a “global scale” in high school. An additional high school benchmark asks students to “describe the responses of individuals, communities, nations, and the world community to human rights violations, including the Holocaust and genocides” (9.4.19.6WH6). As a result of this careful scaffolding, students will not only study the history of the Holocaust, but they will also examine the Holocaust in the context of world history and analyze how individuals and societies respond to mass violence.

The proposed standards do not include Holocaust and genocide education in the elementary grades. Holocaust and genocide education scholars Simone Schweber and Samuel Totten have each written out against teaching this content to younger children, finding that these lessons necessarily trivialize the history of the Holocaust and genocides and can potentially traumatize students. 

Indigenous Genocide and Settler Colonialism

The second draft includes several references to Indigenous genocide in Minnesota and North America and settler colonialism. Beginning in fifth grade, students will “explain how Indigenous nations responded in different ways to settler colonialism” (5.4.21.2) and “analyze how rivalries among European nations and the search for new opportunities led to the exploitation and genocide of indigenous peoples and the theft of indigenous lands (5.4.21.1). Significantly, under the proposed revisions, students will study the “genocide that occurred within the land that is Minnesota today” (6.3.17.2). Such language is a powerful call for truth-telling regarding the history of Minnesota. 

While I laud the work of the committee in securing and expanding genocide education in Minnesota for years to come, I also recognize the limitations of the state’s teaching and learning standards. Despite the new language, districts and, especially, classroom teachers acting as curricular gatekeepers will ultimately decide what and how content is taught within their classrooms. Once these standards are finalized (expected in late 2021), the work of supporting educators across the state to implement them begins. CHGS is already working with university and community partners to expand its resources and educational outreach.

Note: MDE is seeking comments from the public on the second draft of the social studies standards through August 16, 2021. 

George Dalbo is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. George’s research broadly centers on how the Holocaust, genocide, mass violence, and human rights are taught in K-12 classrooms. George is also a full-time high school social studies teacher in rural south-central Wisconsin. Entering his 16th year of teaching, George has taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and private schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin and two years in Vienna, Austria.

The CHGS collections include not only a diverse array of papers and physical objects but also many of the Center’s past lectures and events, as well as a backlog of oral testimonies from survivors of genocide. Not to mention: CHGS partners with the UMN Libraries to promote the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which includes 55,000+ oral testimonies from genocide survivors. 

Although this rich set of materials is used by faculty, students, researchers, and K12 teachers alike, there are obstacles to managing the collections. Arguably central, and accessioned at various points over time, are under-utilized parts of the collections that include artworks, photographs, materials from Center-sponsored exhibitions, and rare items from private donors. Two such collections are the focus of this blog post. 

One of the Center’s most prolific photojournalist collections is that of the images captured by Maxine Rude for the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). Although the images are available on Elevator, and some are also available via the UMN LIbraries through their digital conservancy platforms, the images are in the process of being rescanned. Furthermore, a lack of item-level descriptions and cataloguing reflects the challenging curatorial decisions at play. Does one strive for clearer distinctions between disparate collections and media (thereby preserving as much as possible about the items’ materiality and provenance), or should one try to thematically link various materials at the risk of overdetermining their relation to one another? And most importantly: if similar materials are found elsewhere through larger archival and library databases, how to best link these materials together and make them accessible to larger audiences?

Eleanor Roosevelt at Zeilsheim DP Camp, German after the death of her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

These dilemmas emerge in Rude’s photographs. Although most of Rude’s subjects appear only once, there are a few exceptions. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited the Zeilsheim DP (“Displaced Person”) Camp in the American Zone of occupied Germany, appears in three separate photographs, and each photo reflects different geopolitical phenomena present in the camp. 

In one photo, Roosevelt and GIs can be seen listening to a male figure, perhaps a DP, although we are unsure based on the limited captioning of the photograph. Professor Alejandro Baer, CHGS Director, has also written about the challenges prior curators faced with this collection, namely: what subject(s) appear? What should viewers glean from an image, and when photographs themselves are incomplete snapshots of a larger scene? One can glean a lot from Roosevelt’s body language as she earnestly listens to her subject, as well as members of the Allied forces looking on, especially as they played outsized roles in the postwar German landscape for decades.

In another photograph (that is currently only available through the Center’s Elevator site) Roosevelt walks past what is presumably the Polish repatriation center that operated in DP camps. A notable early tension between Soviet and American forces was the question of DP repatriation to the Eastern Bloc; should repatriation be forced or voluntary? In this mediated, stylized snapshot, larger political moments are taking center stage, and become part of a larger discussion of world history. 

#9 Eleanor Roosevelt in the Zeilsheim Jewish Displaced Persons Camp, near Wiesbaden Germany

There is one other photo of Roosevelt that caught my eye as a Yiddish speaker. Barely recognizable in the left background, Roosevelt is part of a larger, chaotic scene. Almost in the center of the image is a post with the name of the port city of Jaffa (Hebrew: יפו) and in the background: a banner in Yiddish and English.

Why in English? Certainly, the American lingua franca was ever-present in the DP Camp within the American Zone and among GIs who did not usually have language skills beyond that of English. But more notably, the propagandized English appears alongside Yiddish, which was the lingua franca of 10-12 million Eastern European Jews worldwide prior to the Holocaust and spoken by roughly 4.5 million of the 6 million Jews murdered. The Yiddish (מיר װילן גײן! מיר מוזן גײן! און מיר װעלן גײן קײן אַרץ־ישׂראל /  Mir viln geyn! Mir muzn geyn! Un mir veln geyn keyn Erets-Yisroel!) matches the English: We want to go! We have to go! We will go to Palestine! 

Much of this information is irrelevant to the average viewer of this photograph, and especially within the larger context of the dozens of photographs taken by Maxine Rude in the collections. And too much curation leads to overdetermined description and information. I can’t help but ask: what do I glean from this photograph? There is certainly too much to say within the span of one blog post, and more importantly: others will have different readings of this image. But my first reaction upon seeing the Yiddish: can I take the banner at its word? Does this image represent DPs’ mass exodus to Palestine following World War II?

It is certainly true that life in DP Camps was not easy, and it took years for foreign governments to allow DPs to be resettled in other parts of the world. For many Jewish survivors from Eastern Europe, many simply waited to go to the British Mandate of Palestine (either with or without the British government’s permission), even if for political reasons, not all wanted to go, according to survivors and children of DPs recounting their postwar journeys out of Europe. 

In fact, many personal accounts point to the complicated feelings DP’s had for the destinations in question. Many certainly believed anything was better than languishing in camps on German soil. But as was the case with resettlement in Palestine, many were uncertain of their prospects in the US, having been active in Yiddishist or leftist politics in the interwar years.

What we do know, however: DP resettlement was often arbitrary, and it echoes various trends that continue to play out today in harsh refugee policies playing out globally.

In this grainy digitization, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, barely visible on the middle left, is greeted by internees at the Zeilsheim DP Camp.  (Even in the Center’s and UMN Library description of the image, there was no mention of the Yiddish text).

These photos, taken by Rude, are just a few examples of the rare historical images in the Center’s archive. In addition, the digitizations, descriptions (or lack thereof) etc. I have included in this blog entry represent insights as well as challenges for community archives when permanently preserving and curating these collections for in-person and online use.

Usable item descriptions (or even a lack thereof) can, however, lead to additional problems with categorization. As a Yiddish speaker interested in any other Yiddish artifacts I could find, I was thus surprised to find a photo album, out of place among various materials related to the Third Reich. The photo album did not appear to have been donated with the Nazi-related items in question.

Above: In a page from the photo album, an excerpted commentary on H. Leivick’s Der Goylem (The Golem), as it was staged by the Yiddish theater group in the Landsberg am Lech DP Camp

The album was a personal item from Kenneth and Jeanette Frank, two donors who lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They had been active in Yiddish theater in the Landsberg am Lech DP Camp after having survived the Holocaust. The two did not have any children, and at some point in the 1990s prior to their deaths had donated the object to the Center or its former director, Stephen Feinstein. Kenneth Frank is in several of the pictures, cast as the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Loew) in H Leyvik’s well-known play, Der Goylem (The Golem). The troupe also produced Yankev Gordin’s “Der vilder mentsh” (The Wild Man). 

Other materials with the photo album that are equally important to contextualize and preserve for educators and researchers: handwritten notes (it is unclear by whom, presumably to detail images and documents in Yiddish that are difficult to decipher without someone fluent in the language), and a large pamphlet given to passengers onboard the USS Muir, a navy transport ship used for a time in the fifties to transport DPs to various corners of the globe. 

Also included were announcements from the U.S. Displaced Persons Commission in Frankfurt (am Main), translated into Yiddish for passengers on board the ship regarding U.S. Customs regulations.

Image of US Displaced Persons Commission HQ Document in Yiddish

Also available are laminated scans of Yiddish newspaper clippings from the DP Camps published in transliterated Yiddish, reflecting the lack of Yiddish typesets available at the time. Many of the typesets were “unavailable” (i.e., they had been destroyed during the war), and Yiddish journalists had to resort to transliteration for publications. Although some of the materials inserted into the photo album use Yiddish orthography, many use Latin fonts, which reflect this reality. 

An example of Yiddish text in Latin script, due to the lack of Yiddish typesets after World War II (when many of them had long been destroyed)

Apart from the find itself (i.e., that this photo album existed in the collections in the first place), I can’t help but note what it depicts: the memory of genocide survivors who, even after losing their homes and much (if not all) of their extended family, a continued act of resistance came in in the form of cultural production (i.e., staging masterpieces of Yiddish theater. The photo album, initially categorized as restricted, is now publicly available on the Center’s collections site.

Meyer Weinshel is the center’s educational outreach and special collections coordinator, and a PhD candidate in Germanic Studies. He is completing a dissertation on translations of German poetry into Yiddish before and after the Second World War. In addition to teaching German Studies coursework at the University of Minnesota, he has also been active in Yiddish language pedagogy and revival. He helped pilot the Yiddish Book Center’s new language textbook in Twin Cities, and worked for the Yiddish Book Center’s intensive summer language program for undergraduate students in 2020. In addition to working for CHGS, he was also a visiting lecturer of Yiddish Studies at the Ohio State University in 2021.

 “Beautiful feelings make for bad literature.” French literary tradition has proved André Gide’s assertion wrong, of course. “Beautiful feelings” of empathy and commitment to equity infuse Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Emile Zola’s Germinal, which have remained on the international bestseller list for over a century.

Photos of three books: (left) Rachel et les siens, (middle) Apeirogon, (right) The Holocaust and the Nakba

Curiously post-1945 programs for reconciliation, another “beautiful feeling,” among European formerly enemy nations, and which led to the establishment of the European Union (EU), have not inspired a Transeuropean literature. Robert Menasse’s widely translated novel Die Hauptstadt is an exception. 

The Austrian writer and enthusiastic supporter of European integration by his own admission, pens a darkly satirical tale in which self-centered EU bureaucrats invent a “Big Jubilee Project” around the theme of “Auschwitz” to mark the 50th anniversary of the EU Commission. Historical facts are wrong, this is, after all, fiction, but the novel provoked heated controversies in the German-speaking world. Critics felt that the novel “cheapened” the Holocaust by distorting its role in the foundation of the EU.

It may be that “beautiful feelings”make for good literature only when catastrophe is involved. But how to invoke empathy and peaceful conflict resolution in the midst of an ongoing catastrophe such as the Israel-Palestine conflict? 

Three recent and very different books provide a similar response: look to literature. The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History is an edited volume of social science;  Apeirogon and Rachel et les siens are novels based on historical facts.

Half of The Holocaust and the Nakba consists of comments on literary works, with pride of place given to Lebanese-born Elias Khoury searing novel Children of the Ghetto, the fictional memoir of Palestinian expatriate Adam Dannoun, who was born during the all too factual Lydda massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Co-editors Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, who presented their book at CHGS in October 2020, acquaint their readers with a much lesser-known Jewish Israeli literature also, which reflected in the late 1940s and 1950s “the feeling that the plight of Palestinians refugees bore a remarkable resemblance to that of the European Jews.”Mendel Man’s An Abandoned Village (1956), written in Yiddish and published in Hebrew, exemplifies this feeling, which was not confined to radical left-wing Zionist publications.  

Metin Arditi’s novel Rachel et les siens (only available in French) offers a passionate and highly readable account of Jewish Israeli and Arab Palestinian’s intertwined fates under 70 years of Ottoman rule, the British mandate, and Israeli rule. Rachel, an Arab-speaking Sephardi Jew, grows up with her adopted Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi sister in a middle-class home shared with a Christian Arab family in Jaffa. Already as a child, Rachel writes a theater play, which highlights the growing rivalry over land between Arabs and Jews and pleads for cohabitation. Multilingualism is both a practical necessity and a norm to be cherished. In 1937 she loses her daughter and her husband, a philosopher trained by Martin Buber, to a terrorist attack committed by Arab Palestinians. 

To hide the identity of her second daughter’s father, she moves from Tel Aviv to Istanbul and then Paris, where her plays are staged to critical acclaim. But she scolds herself for her “lies.” Eventually, she returns to Israel to help raise a beloved handicapped grandson, whose genetic make-up includes Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israeli ancestry. The melodramatic plot stretches credibility at times, and yet self-reflective accounts of the protagonists compel the reader to identify with many Others.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon is part novel and part factual account of two tragedies: Jewish Israeli Rami Elhanan lost his 13-year-old daughter Smadar to a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem in 1997 and Muslim Palestinian Bassam Aramin his ten-year daughter Abir in 2007 to an Israeli soldier’s bullet in front of her school. Rami and Bassam had become friends well before Abir’s death through the organization Combatants for Peace, and they have spoken together against the vicious cycle of occupation and revenge in Israel and across the world many times since. The book draws the reader into the lived experiences of Palestinians and Israelis powerfully, although its 1001 narrative sections, several of which have no obvious relation to the main story, weakens emotional connection with Bassam, Rami, and their families’ heart-rending stories occasionally.

Arditi, Bashir, Goldberg, and McCann refuse to recommend a specific political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, be it a confederation, a federation, a one-state or two-state solution. Their books express, however, similar “beautiful feelings”: No, to nationalism and Occupation. Yes, to a binational solution for a joint Arab Israeli democratic dwelling. No, to the objectification of the other and silence. Yes, to speaking up authentically and listening. No, to conflating the Holocaust with the Nakba. Yes, to “empathic unsettlement,” which transforms “otherness” from a problem to be disposed of into a moral and emotional challenge. And yes to flawed political compromises and even reconciliation between the two peoples. 

Considering the tragic renewal of violence last May in Israel and the occupied territories, isn’t this all pie in the sky? Renowned Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron acknowledges that books have little immediate impact. “Changes are made slowly and by small bits.” His advice to the writing profession: Be humble and keep writing.  Arditi, Bashir, Goldberg, and McCann need not be reminded. 

Catherine Guisan is an independent scholar and Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Her research interests include European politics, politics of reconciliation, social movements for democratization, political theory. To read more of her work see: Un sens à l’Europe: Gagner la Paix (1950-2003), A Political Theory of Identity in European Integration: Memory and Policies, “Of Political Resurrection and ‘Lost Treasures’ in Soviet and Russian Politics.”