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.

At the Center our goal has been to construct a platform to support and promote this spirit, knowledge, and skills, facilitating bridges between scholars, students, educators, advocates, and interested audiences community-wide. Our conference this July, Education after Genocide: Shifting Approaches to Conflict, Prevention, and Redress, the culmination of a year of careful planning, stands in tribute to the CHGS approach and philosophy.   After this conference, I am proud to hand the reins of our center to Assistant Director Joe Eggers who will serve for one year as the Interim Director of CHGS. I cannot think of a better fit for this transitional period than Joe, whose professionalism and commitment to the Center´s mission have proven pivotal for countless programs and initiatives. In addition to his many roles, Joe will coordinate the Center´s public programs with the counsel of the Advisory Board and continue providing opportunities for students, faculty, and educators.

I look forward to seeing the Center grow in scope and impact over the next years under new leadership. I am confident that many new opportunities and alliances await. For the upcoming academic year, I was awarded a fellowship to continue my current research in genocide memory studies at the Department of Social Anthropology and the Centro Internacional de Memoria y Derechos Humanos at UNED University in Madrid. Even though I will be based in Europe, I am only an email away and I look forward to advancing the cause of the Center in a different capacity.   The relevance of Holocaust and genocide studies and education to the realities that are unfolding in the US and globally cannot be sufficiently stressed. In the hopeful words of Spanish Buchenwald survivor and acclaimed writer Jorge Semprún:   The world doesn’t have to be unfair or unbearable…we can fix certain things. I still have those illusions, perhaps more than ever.  

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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)

The medieval Judensau sculpture placed on one of Wittenberg’s churches shows people identifiable as Jews suckling from a pig’s teats and a rabbi peering into its anus. It’s not the only antisemitic carving from ancient times still visible on German churches, but the importance of the Wittenberg relief lies in its direct ties to Luther. An inscription that was added to the sculpture in the 16th century quotes from one of several anti-Jewish tracts by Luther—which today sound like blueprints for Kristallnacht, the 1938 November pogroms in Nazi Germany. No wonder the Nazis had a sweet spot for the great reformer and even displayed Luther’s notorious pamphlet “On the Jews and Their Lies” during their Nuremberg rallies.

In response to a call by a local Jewish man to remove the sculpture, Germany’s federal court of justice agreed that the sculpture is deeply offensive and “antisemitism carved in stone,” but denied his call for removal since the existing memorial and information board enabled “clarification” to help “counter exclusion, hatred and defamation.” So far, so good. One could argue that the inside of a public museum provides a better space for contextualization than the outside wall of a Christian church, but even there, one would think, placing explanations on an information board might put things in perspective. When I first read the supposedly clarifying text, however, I couldn’t help but feel that sometime in the 1930s a spaceship must have landed in Germany, with Nazi aliens who brought the country and its well-meaning people under control (im nationalsozialistisch beherrschten Deutschland). Not exactly what you’d want tourists to read during their tour through Wittenberg, or would you? The memorial was installed in 1988 when East Germany was still under communist rule. Communists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) felt they had nothing to be sorry for. In their view, all the Nazis had fled to West Germany and East Germany was an enchanted garden full of righteous anti-fascists. Which, by the way, strikes me as an early version of the fairy tale Vladimir Putin likes to tell about the anti-Nazi mission of modern Russia. But I digress. The fact that the Wittenberg memorial dates from the late GDR might explain its weirdly detached language, which the court, as a compromise and for the sake of true “clarification,” could have asked to revise and make more explicit, but didn’t.

There are more unpleasant historical facts in and around Wittenberg that have been successfully kept under wraps for decades. It’s no surprise that the university in Wittenberg where Martin Luther taught is named after him. In the 1990s, when I had my first tenured appointment at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, I always assumed that it had carried his name for centuries. Later I learned that Luther didn’t become its namesake until November 1933—with the enthusiastic approval of Hermann Göring, Prussia’s freshly minted prime minister. That the second-highest ranking Nazi in the Third Reich acted, for obvious reasons, as the proud godfather at MLU’s christening wasn’t much talked about at the university. Scientists don’t like to publish negative results, but neither do Hallenser historians.

Wittenberg proudly presents itself to the outside world, online and in print, as Lutherstadt Wittenberg (Luther City) and Halle markets itself as Händelstadt because the Baroque composer Georg Friedrich Händel was born there. Although he left Halle at an early age and rose to fame in England, Halle makes enormous efforts to put the Händel brand on pretty much everything you can think of: music festivals, food, merchandise—you name it. Not even Salzburg does that with its very own Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One reason why Halle tries to numb your senses with the constant Händel bombardment may be to distract from its other (in)famous son: Reinhard Heydrich. In contrast to Händel, Heydrich was born into a well-to-do family from the upper echelons of Halle society, and, ironically, with equally high musical ambitions as the Händel family. Heydrich’s father owned and ran the local music conservatory and young Reinhard was supposed to become an opera singer. While the English Wikipedia entry for Halle (Saale) lists him under “notable people” as “Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942), one of the leading Nazis in World War II and main architects of the Holocaust,” you don’t find him at all in the German version, which in fact looks like it was written by the Halle tourist bureau. Heydrich is mentioned on a separate, German-language-only Wikipedia page titled “Sons and daughters of Halle (Saale)” with all his fancy Nazi titles—without comment or reference to the Holocaust. Given its ruling on the Judensau, would Germany’s federal court of justice settle for that level of “clarification” too?

Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

*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.

Nikoleta Sremac in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I was born in Yugoslavia, that country that no longer exists, and my family immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 during the wars. Since then, I have been asking questions about the links between my personal experiences and the broader forces at work in post-conflict societies, which eventually led me to pursue my PhD in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. My research focuses on the relationships between gender, activism, and collective memory of mass violence and genocide.

Here at UMN I collaborate closely with a community of scholars of mass violence and collective memory such as Alejandro Baer and Joachim Savelsberg, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the Human Rights Program. In my first year of graduate school, I was invited to collaborate with Joachim Savelsberg on a project about gender and collective memory in Serbia, which was gratefully funded by the HRI. This funding allowed me to travel to Serbia in fall 2021 and conduct four months of fieldwork through the project “History in Whose Hands? Gendering the Collective Memory of Perpetrators in Serbia.” 

Our project asks about the role of Serbian women in constructing collective memory of the Yugoslav wars. What role do women play in the cultural processing of past mass violence, specifically as members of the “perpetrator people” of that violence? We focused on Serbian women who are part of an organization dedicated to memory issues (Women in Black) and another group of women who are not organized and must process (or avoid) the past in their everyday interactions. We also decided to recruit a small group of six men to conduct comparative interviews, which validated our expectations that there are significant gender differences in collective memory construction in Serbia. I conducted four focus groups, 47 in-depth individual interviews, and ethnographic observations with activists in Serbia and we are now processing these data, analyzing it, and writing up our findings to submit for publication.

This project has greatly contributed to my academic and professional development. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Savelsberg on every stage of the project, thereby gaining skills in proposal development, development of research instruments, and conducting fieldwork in Serbia. I am now involved in processing, analyzing, and writing up the data, which will result in co-authored presentations and publications. Finally, the data collected in Serbia will contribute importantly to the empirical foundation of my doctoral dissertation on gender, feminist activism, and collective memory of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

In addition to the personal and professional benefits, this research has already and will continue to help build academic and practical knowledge in the field of human rights. Though we are still in the data processing and analysis stage and have not yet reached final conclusions about our findings, preliminary analysis demonstrates clear connections between gender and collective memory of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia. The two key dimensions of the relationship are: 1) gendered inequality in access to and participation in collective memory processes, and 2) the nature of the narratives that women and feminist activists interviewed articulate, which are more inclusive, empathetic, and peaceful than the nationalist narratives of the Serbian men interviewed and the Serbian government.

For example, in terms of the first dimension of inequality in participation in collective memory processes, the men interviewed shared that they speak openly and often about the wars in male-dominated spaces such as pubs, social clubs, and public squares. In contrast, almost none of the non-activist women interviewed said that they ever speak about the wars, not even in their families or friendship circles. The wars are seen as a men’s topic, with women having nothing to contribute. When I told men I was speaking to women about the wars, they were astonished and dismayed, saying things like, “Well what are you asking them for!”

In contrast to the lack of participation among non-activist women, the activists of Women in Black and other groups defy these expectations in speaking out against the wars and the ongoing denial in Serbian society, and they are vilified for their activities. They are ostracized, rejected, and attacked partially because, through engaging in their activism, they are not conforming to the gendered expectations in Serbian society for appropriate behavior for “normal women.” While I was conducting fieldwork in Belgrade, the offices of Women in Black were attacked and defiled twice, needing to be repainted. The graffitied insults are always gendered, calling the women witches and even worse feminized insults.

The personal narratives that men and women (both activist and non-activist) shared about the wars also differed across gendered lines. The men repeated the Serbian government’s nationalistic narrative of Serbian suffering and heroism during the wars. They minimized Serbia’s crimes, denying any collective responsibility for them, and justified Serbian military intervention in the other Yugoslav republics as necessary to defend “our” people and our territories from foreign attackers. In contrast, women expressed empathy for the victims of the other ethnic groups and pain regarding the violence that tore apart their country and continues to breed resentment in Serbian society. Several of them expressed fears as mothers for their children growing up in such a society and being taught to practice hatred and violence towards people of other ethnic groups.

These findings are relevant for academic audiences interested in denial and acknowledgement of genocide and other atrocities and gendered power relations in post-conflict societies. But they are also relevant to human rights practitioners who seek to challenge these harmful denialistic narratives, and who can draw on the more inclusive memory practices exhibited by these women interviewees. I believe that women, their activism, and their memories, have important contributions to make towards post-conflict reconciliation if they are more included in official processes. They inspire me to continue producing research that can hopefully illuminate and advance the important memory work of women and feminist activists in post-war societies.

Nikoleta Sremac in front of the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, standing with a fountain of five female figures, representing five peoples of Yugoslavia, produced by Sreten Stojanović in 1947.

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, culture, and genocide and mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.

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.

A cello player in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo, during the war in 1992. (Image via Mikhail Evstafiev/Wikipedia)

What has been the role of music in the post-war transitional justice and reconciliation processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina? 

​Music has been an important element in these processes, both formally and informally, and through several aspects of what we refer to as transitional justice processes: top-down and grassroots inter-group reconciliation initiatives, so-called “individual reconciliation” processes or individual coming to terms with a traumatic past, and public memorialization and commemorations, to name just a few. There are several relatively known examples of such a use of music, such as the case of Pontanima, a Sarajevo-based inter-religious choir that gathers singers from different religious denominations in Bosnia to perform musical works from diverse religious and other traditions in order to promote coexistence and inter-religious reconciliation. In the early 2000s, Women for Women International, for example, featured music as part of their program offerings to support Bosnian female survivors of the war – women would sing or listen to Bosnian sevdalinke as part of their “individual reconciliation.” An oratorio Srebrenicki Inferno, a musical piece commissioned and written to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide, regularly accompanies annual genocide commemorations on July 11. There are also more grassroots practices, including the izvorna commemorative music that has been the subject of my research, which has been used to not only commemorate the war and genocide in Bosnia, but also to comment on genocide denial and specific transitional justice processes and mechanisms, such as the issue of return or the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

You spoke in your talk about how the Bosnian izvorna songs act as a form of survivor testimony and witnessing about the Srebrenica genocide and the ongoing suffering in its aftermath. Do you see these testimonies as a force for countering genocide denial in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or is there any potential for them to do so if they were given more public prominence?

These narrative, neotraditional songs witness about the genocide by narrating about the genocide and its aftermath and, more importantly, by narrating about individual victims of the genocide. However, I would take it a step further and say that we can also observe these songs as a literal witness in itself: they were part and parcel of the wartime life in Srebrenica, during which time izvorna musicians documented the war events and victims in the area. When it comes to genocide denial, this is a complex issue. Rather then saying that I see izvorna songs as a force for countering genocide denial, I would say that I see them as another “tool” among many tools that genocide survivors employ to comment on and counter genocide denial. What is important here, at least in my view, is not so much whether these songs are successful in countering genocide denial (and we know too well that there is no proven tool to do so), it is really what they do for genocide survivors who employ and listen to them. In other words, they provide an important and needed space for expression: expression of pain, sadness, frustration, and anger that plague genocide survivors in today’s Bosnia.

You mentioned in your talk that some perceive the izvorna songs as not the most appropriate way to commemorate the genocide. Could you please say more about why that is the case?

This has to do with the relationship between religion and tradition. As you know, what we today call the Srebrenica genocide refers to the mass murder of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica and its surrounding area in July 1995. The war and genocide in Bosnia had a religious component, which also translated into their commemoration – the annual commemoration of the genocide has strong religious overtones, for example. Many genocide survivors themselves have turned to religion or became more religious after the genocide. The fact that the question of music in Islam is contested (allowed vs. prohibited), and that music does not accompany Islamic rituals, including burial, complicates the way the Srebrenica survivor community perceives the use of izvorna music to commemorate the genocide and its victims. 

I think a lot about potential ways to foster more inclusive or complex narratives about the Yugoslav wars within the Balkans. Do you see potential in the izvorna music to do this or are you aware of other artistic interventions doing this?

Yes, that is indeed something important to address. However, I am not sure that we have reached the point when this is possible, especially in the region with a long history of competing narratives and victimhoods. Cases from other contexts also point to the danger such initiatives carry with them: the danger of relativization of victims and perpetrators and even the danger of deepening the divide, so this is truly something to be approached in a very thoughtful way. I do not think that izvorna music has this potential, especially because this is a very local practice with a very limited appeal.

Could you please tell us a bit about the new Srebrenica survivor testimonies that have been added to the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive? How did the Shoah Foundation partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to collect the testimonies? 

​We’ve been very fortunate to partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to bring in a pilot collection of 20 testimonies of Srebrenica survivors and witnesses into our Visual History Archive, and we hope to add many more in the future. The Institute has been invested for a long time into acquiring the testimonies about the war and genocide in Bosnia. With the Memorial’s support, we are now in the process of indexing the testimonies and adding English subtitles. By being in our globally-accessible Visual History Archive, these testimonies are now available to educators and researchers worldwide as an important source for expanding our knowledge about the events in Bosnia. I am especially humbled by the opportunity to contribute to this project and to apply my subject matter knowledge in the best way possible: by elevating and preserving the stories of the survivors. 

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, culture, and genocide and mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.

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. 

Over the past few months several parties have asked me whether I could comment publicly on Ukraine. I continue to be reluctant for several reasons, none of which have to do with my unequivocal condemnation of the Russian invasion and the war crimes being committed. I realize this hesitance might also sound self-effacing, and it might appear to some as a form of cynical disavowal or scholarly isolationism. It might also exacerbate the noted absence of the humanities in many of the recent academic roundtables contextualizing the war. It is important, however, to note that the causes for this absence are numerous. The dearth of scholars with stable employment after decades of budget cuts is one reason. There is also a continued belief (wrongly, I might add) among many humanities academics that scholarly inquiry is supposedly divorced from the political forces affecting our (and our students’) work and lives. My hesitance, however, stems from an earnest self-critique of what my biography and expertise mean.

For example, I struggle with the ways my personal profile supposedly serves as a source of clarity when: the brittleness of memory if I’m not careful can serve as a source of power and control. It is why, and contrary to what many of my American Jewish peers seem to believe, I don’t feel my ancestral ties to what is today northwestern Ukraine, where in 1942 nearly all of my ancestors remaining in the multi-ethnic town of Ustile were murdered (along with 90-95% of the Jewish population), provides me with any more than an impressionistic understanding of the suffering we are seeing in 2022. Furthermore, I argue that the doctoral dissertation I am defending in a few weeks does not offer much clarity for recent events either—at least in the way some currently envision. It is true that, in addition to learning an ancestral language of Yiddish to fluency, I have spent years tracing the various ways Yiddishists from what is today western and central Ukraine, hailing from multiple locales and subscribing to differing political ideologies, translated German verse texts into Yiddish throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It is true that this literary productivity was often the product of, or at least indirectly affected by, collective trauma. It might be true that the past hauntingly echoes the present, as regions once part of the Habsburg and Russian Empires remain central to current events. However, I as an American Jew must instead find ways to address the needs of refugees and the victims of war crimes in Ukraine today without centering myself or my intergenerational trauma. I say this as an American citizen, whose sole source of memory politics should not be Ukraine of a century ago. As I write this, I fear that the brittleness of memory in the United States has made our frames of reference so narrowly selective and competitive that it is not sustainable. We are seeing this play out in multiple arenas in frightening, reactionary ways. 

But back to my previous point: these conundra among academics are also directly related to memory politics more broadly. Who gets to speak, and who does not, on issues of local and global importance are central questions to larger institutional and societal reckonings in the United States and abroad. What are we “remembering” currently as a collective, and why? Inversely, and more importantly, what are we choosing to forget? What makes it easier to harken back to a particular genocidal event (i.e, the Holocaust, or even the 19th- and 20th-century pogroms that preceded it) than to more recent violence and human rights abuses in Eastern Europe and elsewhere? What are we claiming responsibility for remembering on national(ist) days of remembrance?

Working for a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and as an expert in modern Jewish cultures (which, I will continue to emphasize, stretches beyond the specific episodes of mass death and destruction during the Holocaust), I am troubled by the dubious ways various world leaders and cultural figures continue to evoke Holocaust memory and victimhood. Explicitly referencing (or eliding) a historical event serves as a powerful political tool that shapes collective understanding of mass violence past and present. I am disheartened by the casual evocations of genocidal acts. For one, the millions of victims deported and murdered—that include Jews, Roma, Afro-Germans, Queer people, people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and others—by Nazi Germany and its collaborators should neither serve as rationale for further violence (as Russian officials have stated in their supposed quest to “De-Nazify” Ukraine), nor become symbolic pawns in state diplomacy when most acts of genocide have gone untried and reparations remain an open question. States thus fail to provide justice for genocidal acts, even as the memory of past traumas are currently distorted to justify war and human rights violations. This is a sad fact that extends beyond the current war between Russia and Ukraine. 

This all might sound deeply cynical, but I promise there are ways to overcome the challenges we face regarding public memory. Like always, now is the time to make conscious and conscientious political and ethical choices about the media one consumes, and about the stances one chooses to take. It is my hope that, in addition to (paying what is a high price for) sound journalism, if we are to truly engage critically with the humanitarian crises and devastation this war is causing, we can start by engaging in whatever way possible with non-Anglophone sources—either in other languages or in translation. This includes the diverse cultural responses from people in Ukraine. As my own background is in foreign languages, texts, and media, we should engage deeply with individualized responses to the violence unfolding, which in turn complicate the ways memory is already being co-opted and mediated.

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.

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.

What struck me recently is that as often as the “Angriff” story has been told in our family, by either my parents or grandparents, blaming the bomb dropping British or American pilots was never part of it—despite the fact that one of my great-grandparents didn’t make it to the bomb shelter on time and died. The “Amis,” as the Germans would call the US troops, get their first mention in the family folklore as benevolent occupiers when my mother’s younger brother starts making daily trips to their headquarters to get his ration of Hershey’s chocolate and chewing gum. Sounds cheesy and cliché, yet it’s true. To put the record straight, my grandparents were never part of any resistance scheme against Hitler, but deep down they must have realized that 1945 was indeed more liberation than defeat. That denazification had to happen in post-WWII Germany was never questioned by them.

I am writing this while flying from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on Easter Sunday after spending Good Friday in Remscheid with my now 92-year-old mother and her double-glazed Easter bunny of 1943. Here is what I can’t get out of my mind: the absurd notion that a Hitlerian thug like Vladimir Putin who lives in a world of racist, pan-Russian fantasies now assumes the mantle of the great “denazifier.” I doubt that family folklore in Ukraine will have any of it.

Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

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.

Click here to read the rest of this exhibit review at caa.reviews.

View of the exhibition “Envisioning Evil: ‘The Nazi Drawings’ by Mauricio Lasansky” installed in Gallery 262, Gallery 275, and Gallery 276 at Minneapolis Institute of Art. Exhibition on view at Mia October 16, 2021 – June 26, 2022. (Image via Minneapolis Institute of Art)
Mauricio Lasansky, No. 5, 1961, “The Nazi Drawings,” Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation
Mauricio Lasansky, No. 11, 1961-66, “The Nazi Drawings,” Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation
Mauricio Lasansky, No. 15, 1961-66, “The Nazi Drawings,” Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation

Sheer Ganor is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. A historian of German-speaking Jewry and modern Germany, her work focuses on the nexus of forced migration, memory, and cultural identities.

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. 

The Russia-Ukraine War puts Serbia and other Eastern European countries in an increasingly precarious position. This position is being contested both externally, through increasing pressure from the European Union, and internally through street protests and social media as citizens fight over where their loyalties lie and the future of their country. As the pressure mounts, governments and citizens must decide whether to take a strong stance against Russia given the high economic, political and security costs of doing so. 

Pro-Russia protestors march through the streets in central Belgrade, Serbia, March 4, 2022. (Image via REUTERS/Stefan Stojanovic)

Officially, the Serbian government is claiming a “neutral” policy towards the conflict. They have communicated to Ukraine that they respect its territorial integrity, are committed to peace and international law, and stand ready to provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees in Serbia. Serbia also adopted the UN resolution condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but only because this declaration did not include sanctions. Serbia has stopped short of imposing sanctions because of still-fresh memories of NATO sanctions during the 1990s wars (and ongoing sanctions against Bosnian Serb leaders), which Russia opposed. 

The 1999 NATO aerial bombing campaign against Serbia presents an additional stumbling block influencing Serbian anti-NATO attitudes today. These bombings, whose 23rd anniversary was commemorated in Serbia this week, are still very painful and recent in popular memory. The air strikes killed several hundred civilians, were called war crimes by some human rights organizations and were again opposed by Russia. The bombings cause ongoing resentment and suspicion towards the West among some segments of Serbian society, making them resistant to further alignment with the western powers. In both Serbia and Ukraine, the growing influence of the West and NATO versus the Russian sphere of influence is a crux of the current conflict and the controversies around it. 

To further explain Russia’s influence, Serbia relies heavily on Russian energy sources, and on Russia’s political support in its ongoing fight for sovereignty over former-province Kosovo. Russia’s veto vote at the UN Security Council is crucial in blocking Kosovo’s independence. Finally, Serbia is in the midst of an election season where imposing sanctions could alienate pro-Russian voters of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) seeking to maintain power. 

However, this official policy of Serbian neutrality is subject to increased pressure externally from the EU. On March 15th, EU official Michael Siebert issued a stern warning that Serbia will pay “a price” for refusing to place sanctions on Russia and thereby being “on the wrong side of the conflict.” Serbia is the only European country aside from Belarus that has not imposed sanctions against Russia. Previously, nine Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) called on the European Commission to suspend Serbia’s EU accession talks and cut off financial support unless they join sanctions. As Serbia is an official EU candidate country, it is expected to “gradually align” with its foreign policy and security decisions, including joining sanctions against Russia. Despite these accumulating warnings, Serbia’s parliamentary speaker again reassured the Russian Ambassador on Tuesday that Belgrade will not impose sanctions on Moscow. 

The Serbian official policy of military neutrality is also being increasingly contested internally from two sides of the Serbian public, the political right and the left. On the pro-Russian side, analysts say this policy of neutrality is undermined by Serbian right-wing organizations who are mobilizing volunteer soldiers to join the Russian fight in Ukraine. Though participating in armed conflict abroad is officially illegal in Serbia and condemned by the government, it has not punished individuals for fighting in Ukraine in the past. 

The same right-wing nationalist groups mobilizing volunteers are also holding rallies in Belgrade, claiming that “Mother Russia will win.” They reiterate the long-standing sense of allegiance and “brotherhood” with Russia. Again reflecting the unresolved pain of the 1990s NATO bombings, these Serbs feel that Putin is fighting a justified battle against the West, which “is now facing what it did to Serbia in the 1990s.” They reiterate the Kremlin’s appropriative claims of “genocide” against Russian-speakers and the need to “denazify” Ukraine. Ironically, these same far-right nationalist groups also flirt with neo-Nazism and engage in genocide denial. They criticize Serbia’s official policy of neutrality as not going far enough to support Russia. 

One leftist activist critiqued the pro-Russia side on Facebook, posting ironically that “only in Serbia is patriotism proven through love for another country.” These activists point out that “Mother Russia” has abandoned Serbia again and again, during the ‘90s wars and again today in its fight against Kosovo’s independence. Serbs who declare support for Ukraine on social media are called fascists, Nazis, and foreign mercenaries. 

Activists at a protest, “Stop the war in Ukraine!” organized by Women in Black in Belgrade, March 2, 2022. (Image via Women in Black Serbia)

These pro-Western activists criticize the government’s lukewarm stance towards Russia and its “tacit support for extremists.” Organizations like the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) call for the government to officially condemn the pro-Russian rallies, come out and attend the many pro-Ukrainian protests being held in the capital, and firmly declare that “Serbia’s future is not in Putin’s Russia but in the European Union.” Women in Black Serbia has also organized continuous protests in collaboration with members of the Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Russian diaspora in Serbia. They demonstrate support for Russian and Belarusian war deserters and solidarity with feminists and peace activists in Russia and Ukraine.

The rising controversy over Serbia’s “neutral” stance towards Ukraine reveals how Serbia’s values and political future are also being contested. Following a decades-long balancing act, now that push has come to shove, where do Serbia’s loyalties lie— with Russia or with the West? Though this war presents risks to their national interests, is that a valid excuse for small countries like Serbia not to take a stand against Russia’s aggression and authoritarianism? These tensions raise long-standing questions for the West too. Does the EU want to finally include Eastern Europe among its official member states, or will it leave them behind to sink further under Putin’s influence? These questions determine the future of Serbia and many other countries around the world facing this dilemma, like Bulgaria, Turkey, China, Uganda, and South Africa. Citizens and governments need to make their choices in light of today’s challenges to democracy and the post-WWII global security order. 

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, and collective memory of mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.

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. 

As activists both past and present push for equal rights across gender identities, while repressive regimes around the world continue to curb various rights with frightening success, it is important to understand how equal representation and a working understanding of gender justice are vital to memory politics. 

Below are links from the Center’s webpages, as well as third-party resources we encourage you to consult. 

Materials from the Center’s Archive:

  • The portraits and interviews with artist Oscar De La Concha include: 
  • Voice to Vision, a collaborative project that captures the experiences of genocide survivors, victims of mass violence, as well as their descendants. Subjects (in dialogue with project participants) use oral testimonies to collaboratively create mixed media artworks. 
    • Voice to Vision Series V centers survivors of gender-based violence; also features survivors of the Cambodian Genocide; Genocide of Indigenous Peoples; the Holocaust; Rwandan Genocide and Sudanese Civil War
    • In Voice to Vision Series VI highlights the lives of descendants of genocide survivors 
    • Voice to Vision Series XVII features Professor Brenda Child, and Professor Child’s daughter, Benay McNamara, interweaving personal and collective stories  that recount their family’s forced removal from Anishinaabe lands in 1889 by the Nelson Act
“A Ladder and a Stop Sign” by Christine Stark, Native American sexual abuse survivor and Mark Biedrzycki, sculptor, with contributions from David Feinberg and artists Ali Abdulkadir, Bonnie Brabson, Stephanie Thompson from Voice to Vision V

Armenian Genocide: 

  • The Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive contains approximately 600 interviews relating to the Armenian Genocide in a variety of languages covering various subjects; many have been fully indexed and are searchable through the Shoah Foundation’s website. The full database is available online to university users and the general public through on-site access in Wilson LIbrary (UMN West Bank)  

 Bosnia and Herzegovina – Massacres in Srebrenica and Visegrad: 

Indigenous Peoples in North America

Jewish Life prior to and following the Holocaust:  

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.

“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

As war rages on in Ukraine, I sit in my own kitchen in the United States over a cup of tea in the morning. The sun rises over frosty fields. It is calm. I scroll through my phone, switching between the live updates on Kyiv Independent and the live map as I do for most of the day. My phone battery has never drained so fast as it does these days. Are my family and friends okay? I never know for sure as nothing can update fast enough. I remain skeptical of the accuracy of the news I do receive, as my host town is comparatively small when it comes to cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv which are the main focus of media reporting. If something happens in that small town, will the news lag in reporting? Will I know too late? Uncertainty is the hardest part of war. Every message I receive says “I am safe for now,” knowing that things may change at a moment’s notice.

On January 24th, my former students in Ukraine practiced evacuations in the event of war. I put off contacting my friends, afraid of what they would say about the increasingly worrying situation. On February 18th I reached out to a handful of my closest Ukrainian friends who told me how they discussed what to pack in their go-bags if they had that option, and for those who didn’t – where they might possibly find shelter locally. They commented that on the 16th, there were bombs that could be heard from their homes but shared rumors that the 22nd would be the “date of invasion.” Even among these discussions, we kept things light-hearted. After Putin’s speech on February 21st which disregarded the centuries-old history of Ukraine and instead referred to it as a result of “crude” decisions made by “Lenin and his comrades-in-arms,” we traded memes comparing the history of Kyiv and that of Moscow. We tried to make light of an increasingly darkening situation.

On February 23rd Putin declared war. Many of my friends do not have the means to leave our town, even if they wanted to. Some of them packed bags, just in case, but many were instead prepared to stay in place, my host parents included. I worried as my small town is on the direct path from the Russian border to Kyiv. I would watch for the tank icon to show up on the live map and they said my city was under attack. I waited to see if it would turn red – signifying Russian occupation. It didn’t. For now, my city remains unoccupied but completely surrounded and cut off from receiving aid and supplies. Nothing can go in, nothing can go out. After one of these invasions, I asked my closest friends and family if they were okay. My host dad simply replied “все норм” (“everything is normal”) even though I knew this was not the case as my friends told me of the destruction surrounding the city. 

Even so, Ukrainians have a spirit that I feel cannot be broken. During an onslaught of Russian force, Ukrainians played the national anthem from balconies. Русский корабль иди нахуй (“Russian warship, go f*** yourself”) has become a rallying cry for many. Ukrainian forces continue to stand up bravely against Russian forces despite being outgunned and outmanned. Civilians stand united against Russian forces in whatever way they are able. While many make Molotov cocktails to throw at passing infantry or take up arms, others offer support through acts of civil resistance as one man offers “a ride back to Russia” for some Russian troops whose equipment broke down, a woman offers sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers to “allow sunflowers to grow where they fall,” and some farmers even stole Russian tanks using tractors. While these acts continue to inspire and unite communities around the world to stand with Ukraine, they do not erase the destruction caused by war.

On February 27th, I woke up to a message from my host siblings “Rose, please call us today when you are able.” Worried that something had happened to our parents in the surrounded village, I called them as soon as I saw the message. They asked me to help them evacuate Ukraine, to send any information about seeking asylum anywhere. They want to come to the United States, but my friends working at UNHCR say this would be difficult. They do not have visas and I am the only American they know. 

I became a refugee asylum expert overnight – researching any information I could find on countries accepting Ukrainian refugees. The UK doesn’t allow Ukrainians who are not family of citizens – a dead end. But for every dead end I found, I found twice as many open doors. Poland, Germany, Ireland all were options that would be faster than the US which still had a visa requirement in place. Okay. Next step, who do I know in each of these countries who can help house my siblings – one who is 17 and considered an unaccompanied minor? By chance, I find someone who studied in the US when I was in high school. We hadn’t talked in 6 years, but she immediately messaged back saying she would contact her sister and other family members who still lived in Poland to see who could help. I reached out to people who I knew were in Ireland and Germany, just to see what else I can find to support them if they move further beyond Poland. I found another friend who lives in Germany and is already housing another Ukrainian family and a Peace Corps volunteer from Ukraine who offered to be a point of contact there. I sent over any information I could find and told them to let me know when they were able to cross the border.

I spent most of the 28th waiting to hear from them that they had arrived in Poland. I let my host parents know and asked them if there was anything I could do to help them in their surrounded city. My host dad sent back a text in Ukrainian: “Thank you Rose. You already help us a lot because you are helping our children. For us, their lives and future are the most important thing. We are doing relatively well. Don’t worry about us. We love you, hug you. Take care of yourself.” I cried in my office at work, a place I’m somehow still going to for eight hours every day. 

I asked my coworker if they were interested in speaking with a Ukrainian school about their experiences and they told me how “cool” it is that I know teachers in Ukraine. I can only think how sad it is that my coworkers can speak about war with enough distance that they think it is “cool.” They don’t consider the conditions under which these students and teachers are volunteering to speak to our class and advocate for their situation. I wonder if they will still think it is “cool” after the talk. I wonder if it is possible for our students to imagine tanks within 100km of their house or calculating carefully every time they go to the store how much food, water, and gas, they may need if their city is bombed. I donate even more money to Ukraine because I would rather be broke than in a world without this country I grew to love so much.

Ukrainians are fighting this war not only for themselves but for all those of us who believe in freedom and democracy. When I think of Ukraine, I think back to 2019 when I first arrived in the country to teach. I think of playing the card game, Дурак, by the lake as the sun sets in Zhytomyr. I think of spending days in October and early November winterizing my host family’s dacha (cottage), of them graciously accommodating my vegetarian diet to always make me feel welcome and included. I think of birthday parties, laughter, and classes that left me inspired and hopeful about the future of the world, not just Ukraine. Now as I listen to CNN and scroll Instagram to find resources posted by Ukrainians that I might be able to act on, I can’t help but think about what a bright future my students predicted in our lessons. A Ukraine with green energy sources, beautiful architecture, thriving art and culture, technological advancements even Elon Musk hasn’t dreamed of. I think of our Human Rights Day lesson when my students said over and over that they wanted just one thing – world peace.

As my host brother told me, Ukraine does not want this war. I hope the future my students dreamed of and believed in still exists out there somewhere. I believe in the future of Ukraine – I did then, and I do today. Слава Україні. Героям слава. 

Students gather around outside during classroom break time at a school in Ukraine. Credit: Geoff Kronberg Photography

Kristalena R. Herman was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2019 to 2020. She worked for CHGS in 2018-2019 and her focus area was on the framing of homosexuality and misinformation in Russian state media.