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

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.

Like many of us, I have been heartbroken to see the news, images and footage coming out of Ukraine over the past week. Despite the foreboding news over the past weeks, I didn’t believe it would come to this; now that it has, it’s hard to imagine how we (Ukraine, Russia, the world) move forward from this. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine and to the people of Russia, millions of whom are now stuck in the midst of a conflict that they did not want and certainly did not vote for. Families on both sides of the border will lose loved ones because of a conflict that no one, save for a very small group of people surrounding Putin, wanted. While I am very cognizant of my privilege of being able to write this from the comfort of my safe home in Duluth, Minnesota, the violence in Ukraine is particularly painful for me because of my personal connections to this country.

A photograph of the author’s father and grandparents fishing along the Dnieper River

Three of my grandparents were born in Ukraine. My Jewish maternal grandfather was born in Artemovsk (present-day Bakhmut), a city within the Donbass region which lies close to the border of the current separatist regions of Donestk and Donbass. His parents spoke Yiddish but, growing up in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), my grandfather would recall his mother proudly saying “we are from the Donbass.” My maternal great-uncle perished during World War II when the Nazis attacked Borispyl airport, the same airport that is now under attack by Russian forces. My Jewish paternal grandmother was born in Kiev. Over a dozen of her relatives perished in Babii Yar during the Holocaust; she and her parents survived because they were evacuated to Kuibyshev (present-day Samara) in the nick of time. My paternal grandfather was born in Kiev and lived there through the Second World War. His parents came from Glukhov (current day Hlukhiv), a town in north-eastern Ukraine on the border with Russia; they were ethnically Ukrainian. My grandfather grew up speaking Russian at home but attending a Ukrainian language school. He lost his father during the Second World War; he has never learned the full story of how his father perished nor where he is buried. He met my grandmother at the Kiev Civil Engineering University and they later moved to Moscow where he pursued graduate study. They spent summers in Kiev and my grandfather’s greatest passion was to go fishing in the beautiful Dnieper river which snakes though the gorgeous Ukrainian capital. When my grandmother was pregnant, she decided to return to Kiev to give birth to her son, my father, so that she could be close to her parents. Thus, my father had Jewish and Ukrainian background; he grew up in Moscow but spent his summers in Kiev, a city he adored.

My family’s story is not unique. In fact, it is typical of millions of other stories of Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish families across the twentieth century. These family stories are marked by suffering, loss, and displacement. At the same time, they demonstrate the resilience of hybrid identities; family members spoke different languages, ascribed to different belief systems, and saw themselves as belonging to multiple communities. In some ways, these stories are iconically Soviet.

The events of the past week have made me think a great deal about these hybrid identities and their untenability in the 21st century. Over the past decade, President Putin and his propaganda machine have worked very hard to construct their own (false) historical narrative, using terms that are familiar to the population and grossly mis-applying them. Putin has capitalized on a historical fact, the alliance of some Ukrainian nationalist groups with the Nazis during World War II, to claim (ridiculously) that the current democratic Ukrainian state (led by a President of Jewish background no less) is somehow a Nazi polity. Putin has used some elements of shared culture, history, and religion between Russians and Ukrainians to claim that Ukrainians have no right to their own nation-state, going so far as to claim that Lenin “invented” modern Ukraine in 1917.

Furthermore, he has used the history of a very real genocide of Jews during the Holocaust to claim that contemporary Ukraine has been perpetrating a genocide against Russian-speakers residing in Ukraine. To be clear, while Ukraine has pursued language policy encouraging the use of the Ukrainian language, there is absolutely no reason to claim that Russian speakers in Ukraine have been subject to a genocide. In fact, as we are seeing on our TV screens, most Ukrainians have been defiant in rejecting Russia’s incursion and Putin’s ludicrous claims of defending Ukraine from a “fascist” regime. Listening to this quasi-historical rhetoric often feels like living in a world of funhouse mirrors. You are able to recognize some of the elements but everything is distorted beyond recognition and, in some cases, these justifications are used to argue for something that is very opposite of what they refer to. A case in point is Putin, a dictatorial leader who has amended the laws in Russia so that he can continue to rule indefinitely and has repeatedly used state resources to attack and imprison his critics, arguing that he is fighting Nazism by attacking the democratically elected government of Ukraine. Yet, Putin’s misuse of historical narratives is rather clever. For those who are not paying too close attention, terms like Nazis or genocide evoke strong associations and emotional responses. 

For people like my grandfather, now 93, and millions of others who have relatives, loved ones, and friends on both sides of the Russian/Ukrainian border, the events of the past week have been particularly painful. The world of hybrid identities, of multiculturalism, of bi and trilingualism in Eastern Europe is being dealt a final death blow. It is worthwhile pointing out that this is particularly the case for Jewish families whose roots span the map of Eastern Europe, through present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and whose family histories do not conform to strict geographical or cultural borders. There is no doubt that Hitler dealt the heaviest blow to the diversity and multi-culturalism of Eastern Europe. Today, Putin, who claims to be fighting against fascism, seems to be continuing Hitler’s campaign.

Natalie Belsky is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her areas of specialization are Soviet history, Soviet Jewry, the Second World War, and the Holocaust and population displacement. Her current book manuscript examines civilian evacuation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

“Our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought Nazism together. Starting a war to satisfy the geopolitical ambitions of the leaders of the Russian Federation, driven by fanciful and dubious historical considerations, is nothing but betraying their memory.”
Appeal By Russian Researchers And Scientists

A month ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, our colleague Catherine Guisan published on the CHGS blog a far-sighted article titled Why the Shutting Down of Russia’s Memorials Should Matter to Us. Prof. Guisan condemns the banning of two Russian NGOs in December 2021 that documented human rights abuses during the Soviet era, advocated for reparations to survivors, and defended human right victims in conflict zones, in and around modern Russia.

Several sites around Minneapolis have been lit yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. (Image via Star Tribune)

Today we watch in consternation the assault on the people of Ukraine and its outrageous justification by the Russian leadership (to “denazify Ukraine” and respond to “genocide” in the Donbas region). In the midst of uncertainty, we are reminded of our urgent mission to uphold truth, facts, and education. We see once and again that deliberate attempts to obliterate remembrance and convince people to disregard or misremember past violence are the prelude for further deadly violence. When lies about the past become a tool of state propaganda and a tactic of oppression, it is an unmistakable sign that that state is engulfed in violence. Czech author Milan Kundera, who witnessed the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, knew well what he was referring to when he wrote his famous line, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” 

Today, and every day, the Center stands for truth and justice, and we stand arm in arm with the Ukrainian people and their loved ones around the world. 

Our friends at the Ukrainian American Community Center in Minneapolis have information about ways to help Ukrainian relief efforts.

“There’s a swastika in the bathroom,” says a high school senior casually as he walks into my classroom at the beginning of the seventh period; “it’s carved into the toilet paper dispenser.” After the class begins working on the day’s lesson, I walk down to the bathroom and snap a photo with my phone camera. Hardly the first, this is just the latest in a rash of swastika graffiti drawn and carved in the boys’ bathrooms at the small school where I teach high school social studies in rural south-central Wisconsin. As a community, we are struggling to understand why swastikas keep appearing in the bathrooms, and, more importantly, we are struggling to respond to this hate speech.

Photo of a swastika carved into a plastic toilet paper dispenser in a boys’ bathroom (Photo by the author)

Why do swastikas keep appearing in the boys’ bathrooms?

In a reflection activity that I conducted in my classroom regarding this latest incident of swastika hate graffiti, many students suggested that the swastikas are being drawn by kids who are either “just trying to be funny” or simply “do not understand what a swastika means.” 

Although most students want to minimize or dismiss the hate speech as juvenile pranks, one sophomore, in response to a reflection prompt asking why swastikas keep appearing in the boys’ bathrooms, wrote: “I think that there are more Jewish students in the school than we know about and they are drawing them.” This statement, suggesting that Jewish students are drawing and carving swastikas, is not simply an innocent misunderstanding; rather, it is part of a set of antisemitic myths that also claim that Jews caused the Holocaust. A recent study found that such beliefs are growing and are held by one in ten Americans under forty. This statement also reflects the pervasive and stubborn antisemitic beliefs of the predominantly white, working-class community in which the school is located.

Similar to the students, many of my colleagues minimize the repeated appearance of hate graffiti, dismiss the idea of punitive measures if the culprits of the swastika carvings were to be identified, and, instead, talk about the need for more education, specifically Holocaust education. “This is a learning opportunity,” they insist. I’m not sure that I agree that Holocaust education alone offers a solution. 

Holocaust Education

Despite having only a small number of Jewish families and teachers in the community, Holocaust education is a widely respected mainstay of the curricula and educational experience in the middle school and high school.

By the time they are high school seniors, my students have likely studied the Holocaust seven times across their mandatory middle and secondary Social Studies and English Language Arts classes: 5th-grade Social Studies; 6th-grade English; 8th-grade Social Studies and English; 10th-grade Social Studies and English; and 11th-grade Social Studies. By their junior year of high school, most have read Number the Stars, The Diary of Anne Frank, Letters from Rifka, The Book Thief, and Night. Most have traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. or the Illinois Holocaust Museum and heard survivors or survivor-descendants speak. 

Indeed, a recent study conducted by Claims Conference revealed that Wisconsin Millennials and Gen Zers (current high school students are part of Gen Z) scored highest in Holocaust awareness in the United States. My students are no exception; they display a basic understanding of the Holocaust. 

While my students have studied the Holocaust, especially the murder of European Jewry at Auschwitz-Birkenau, multiple times over their educational careers, I have found that they rarely learn about European or Nazi antisemitism (and even less about American antisemitism) in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Indeed, in preparation for a unit on the Holocaust in my tenth-grade World History course, many students still do not understand why the Nazis and their collaborators targeted and murdered the Jews of Germany and Europe. “I don’t understand; why did the Nazis hate the Jews?” is a common question. Many students struggle even to recognize or define the term “antisemitism.” 

While the lack of understanding of antisemitism certainly suggests a need to evaluate the scope and sequence and, especially, the content of Holocaust education in the school, I am not convinced that even the best Holocaust education can adequately address the antisemitic hate speech that keeps appearing in the boys’ bathrooms. 

A Culture of White Supremacy

While the swastika graffiti in the boys’ bathrooms is a disturbing sign of an increase in antisemitism across the country and around the globe, such hate speech is also part of a larger culture of white supremacy, which is being allowed to flourish within the school and the community during the 2021-2022 school year. Indeed, experts remind us that antisemitism is the canary in the coalmine of hatred, and images from Charlottesville in 2017 and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol show the clear linkages between antisemitism and other forms of hate and white supremacy. 

Replacing the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats that kids commonly wore during the last school year, white students in the school routinely wear and display “Blue Live Matter” and “Thin Blue Line” sweatshirts and decals. Students who are part of the small but growing number of students of color report that anti-Black and anti-immigrant hate speech goes largely unchallenged in the hallways and classrooms by students and teachers. Unlike in years past, white students’ use of the n-word goes largely unchecked in the current environment. Homophobic and transphobic hate speech is similarly unchallenged and, in some instances, even tacitly or openly endorsed by teachers.

In the past, when troubling instances of antisemitism from neighboring school districts in southern Wisconsin surfaced on social media, there was widespread outrage that teachers, administrators, and community members had failed to address such hate speech. Although, given recent shifts in national rhetoric over the past year, teachers and administrators now live in fear that efforts to combat antisemitic and white supremacist hate speech are increasingly likely to draw attention and condemnation as attempts to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. As a teacher, I fear that my efforts to draw attention to hate speech will result in public backlash. Similar fears have likely caused many teachers and administrators to remain quiet and hate speech to go largely unchecked. 

As of yet, there has been no formal communication from the school about the repeated appearances of the swastikas to students, staff, or the larger community. As I suspect is the case in many schools across Wisconsin and the country in the 2021-2022 school year, the swastika graffiti is quickly painted over and vandalized toilet paper dispensers are quietly replaced. 

While calls for “more Holocaust education” remain a popular solution to the growing antisemitic hate speech in schools, as a Holocaust and genocide educator and researcher, I am beginning to wonder about the limits of Holocaust education when confronting and educating students about the broader culture of white supremacy remains largely off-limits. I am, however, confident of one thing: with little response to the swastikas that appeared in the boys’ bathrooms this week, there are sure to be more drawn or carved next week. 

George Dalbo is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota and a former 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. In 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.

On January 27th, Professor Jelena Subotić delivered the Center’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day Lecture, titled “Yellow Star, Red Star: The Appropriation of Holocaust Memory in Post-Communist Eastern Europe.” Watch a recording of the lecture here. I had the opportunity to interview Professor Subotić on her 2019 book on this same topic, how it fits into broader remembrance contexts and debates, and her upcoming book project.

Jelena Subotić is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University. Her most recent book, Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism was published by Cornell University Press in 2019 and translated into Serbian in 2021. Her first book, Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans, published by Cornell University Press in 2009, has been translated and published in Serbia in 2010. She is also the author of more than 30 scholarly articles on, among other topics, memory politics, transitional justice, and politics of the Balkans.

How has your research been received within the region of Eastern Europe? Have there been any positive or negative reactions?

East Europe is just as polarized politically as other regions and this polarization influences how scholarly works are perceived. My book is no exception – depending on what political perspective the reader has, the book was perceived either positively or negatively. There are groups in Serbia, for example, that are very sensitive to any criticism of Serbia’s remembrance practices, and they probably found the book to be too critical. There are other groups, many affiliated with new research centers on the Holocaust, that have been incredibly supportive and complimentary. I have given a number of lectures – some in person, some virtually – in the region since the book came out, and especially since it was published in Serbia in 2021.

How might your thesis in Yellow Star, Red Star on Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe be situated within broader contexts regarding memory politics and cosmopolitan memory? For example, how might European Holocaust remembrance compare to the ways that post-colonial countries frame their memories of colonial crimes?

The relationship between Holocaust remembrance and colonial remembrance is very important and has historically not been sufficiently studied. This is changing, however, with scholars taking a closer look at how one influences the other. The work by Dirk Moses, for example, very explicitly argues that what keeps Germany from more comprehensively dealing with the memory of its colonial crimes is its Holocaust memory, which is not supposed to be compared to anything that came before or after. But, histories of colonialism and reluctance to acknowledge colonial crimes or provide any restitution for colonial violence is related to reluctance to deal with collaboration and complicity in the Holocaust in the West, for example in France. There is a firmly established national narrative that claims that because France (or the Netherlands, or Belgium) resisted the Nazis, a nation so virtuous should not be accused of mass crimes, such as crimes of colonialism.

How does anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, related to memory politics of the Holocaust, fit with strong diplomatic ties to Israel for countries like Poland?

The relationship between antisemitism against the local Jewish population and foreign policy towards Israel has become almost completely decoupled, not just in Eastern Europe and Poland, but also elsewhere. Part of the reason for this is the politics of Israel itself, as Israel has increasingly cared more about how other countries support it in international organizations (such as the United Nations, for example) and whether they support its domestic policies or policies regarding the Palestinians, than how diaspora Jews are being treated. In other words, Israel cares much more about Israel and Israeli Jews than about diaspora Jews. It may issue complaints or stern warnings about an antisemitic incident here and there, but it is much more important if Poland continues to support Israel’s foreign policy at the UN. This is not necessarily a new issue as the tension between Jews in what was then colonial Palestine and diaspora Jews predates even the formation of the state of Israel. For countries like Poland, Hungary, and others, where there is clearly existing antisemitism, and even official antisemitism from the countries’ leaders, constantly pointing to the “friendly relations with Israel” serves to inoculate the country from criticism about antisemitism. In a sense, this state of affairs serves the political needs of both Israel and these countries, while it leaves local Jews very vulnerable.

At the end of Yellow Star, Red Star you call for “memory solidarity” across identity groups of Eastern Europe. Could you please share a bit more about what this more inclusive, alternative memory of the Holocaust might look like? Is there an Eastern European alternative to the “Western cosmopolitan memory” of the Holocaust which can account for local complicity but also non-Jewish suffering during World War II?

Memory solidarity is an idea, an aspiration, and I build here on the previous work on memory solidarity by Michael Rothberg. The idea is to have space in our memories – at the individual but also at the societal level – for the memories of others, and to make memories of other groups also important. This call for memory solidarity is a result of the observation that so much of political memory is memory of our own suffering, and that memory does not leave space for memory of the suffering of others. As I discuss at length in the book in the case of Lithuania, so much of Lithuanian political memory is the memory of Soviet occupation and deportations of Lithuanian citizens to Siberia. But that memory – however legitimate and important – is so overwhelming that it does not leave space for memory of the suffering of Lithuanian Jews, who were almost all murdered in Lithuania before the Soviet occupation. Memory of both should co-exist, even if the majority population is drawn to remembering only their own suffering.

Are you aware of any activism or other efforts to perform such memory solidarity in Eastern Europe? Are there any lessons activists or practitioners might take from your research?

Yes, there are a number of local groups that are trying to bridge this divide. In Lithuania, for example, there were civic groups of ethnic Lithuanians who wanted to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust and organized marches in small towns and villages in the Lithuanian countryside from where Jews were taken to be shot. These kinds of actions point to the possibility of memory solidarity – where one group remembers the suffering of the other and pays respect and memorializes it in a way that is inclusive.

In your talk, you mentioned a project you are working on now related to looted Holocaust art in Europe. Could you please tell us a bit more about that or any other upcoming projects for you?

I am working on a new book project that will be the history of international art restitution. Specifically, I will look at how restitution of art looted during the Holocaust has changed since WWII, with new understanding of art provenance and new norms about return to owners. I will then explore how these changing norms about art restitution are influencing current debates about return of art looted during colonialism.

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.

Tibisay is a PhD candidate in the History Department. She was born and raised in the city of Barcelona, Spain, and obtained her BA in History from the University of Barcelona (UB). During her bachelor’s degree she had the opportunity to spend a semester abroad in Mannheim, Germany, where after noticing how differently modern history was taught in Germany as opposed to Spain, she started to become interested in the ways in which past events of mass violence are remembered and taught in different countries. 

Tibisay moved to the United States in 2017, and after completing a MA degree in Anthropology and Archaeology from Rutgers University (New Jersey), she moved to Minnesota where she is now pursuing a PhD in History with a minor in Heritage Studies and Public History. 

Tibisay’s research interests focus on the emergence and development of politics of historical memory after events of mass violence, genocide, and violations of human rights. Her dissertation explores specifically the politics of historical memory around state-managed boarding schools for orphans and children of political prisoners during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. The generalized abuse that took place in some of these boarding schools is not well-known by most Spaniards, and she is interested in analyzing the different avenues of transmission of historical memory that the victims have had to communicate their experiences. 

In the Spring semester of 2022, she is working as an RA for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and collaborating with the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, while she prepares to conduct a year of archival research in Spain during the fall and spring semesters of 2022-2023. 

On January 17, 2022, the book The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan was published in a worldwide media campaign. In it, a self-proclaimed “Cold Case Team” identifies a new prime suspect in the alleged betrayal of Anne Frank and her seven housemates of the Secret Annex. Very soon after initial news reports faithfully reported on the team’s findings, a strong backlash arose from historians and others criticizing the study and its firm conclusion, based on empirical, epistemological, and moral grounds. To understand both the book’s findings and the criticism of them, it is necessary to outline the unique circumstances of this book and its research.

Image via HarperCollins Publishing

The “Cold Case Team” documented in the book was created in 2017 at the initiative of Dutch film and television producer Thijs Bayens. He gathered an international group of investigators led by former FBI agent Vince Pankoke to make another attempt to clarify the circumstances surrounding the arrest on August 4, 1944 of Anne Frank and the other people in hiding. The Frank and Van Pels families and dentist Fritz Pfeffer had been in hiding for over two years at the time of their arrest, and there were some indications that an informant had been responsible. On the morning in question, the police were informed of the people in hiding in the Amsterdam building via an anonymous phone call. A few burglaries, of which Anne writes in her diary, may also have led to the secret of the hideout getting out. A third possible source of betrayal lies in the intimate network built up to aid the people in hiding. But an unfortunate coincidence could not be ruled out either. Two police investigations, in 1946-48 and 1963-64, two biographies of Anne Frank and the 2003 book Who Betrayed Anne Frank? by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom did not establish a conclusive informant. It was clear from the start of the new book The Betrayal of Anne Frank that the Cold Case Team found the irresolute outcome of the earlier investigations “unsatisfactory,” which may have led to an over-desire to identify a prime suspect with great certainty.

While the author of The Betrayal of Anne Frank, Rosemary Sullivan, was not actually involved in the Cold Case Team’s research it serves as the basis for her book. As such, it is on this basis that historians should judge the research findings. The book takes the form of a loosely written report on the research process and its results. The investigators “Vince,” “Thijs,” and “Monique” are the main characters in this book. The book follows their investigative process in chronological order, but at the same time seems to be structured towards the revelation of the prime suspect. For example, the main piece of evidence, an anonymous note with a name on it, is only presented in the later chapters when in fact it logically must have been known about at a much earlier stage of the investigation. The desire for a dramatic book structure may have influenced its design, at the expense of faithfully following the research trajectory.

In the book and in the press release, after ticking off a series of “suspects,” the team determines the Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh to be the most likely informant, based on a triad of possessing the right 1) knowledge, 2) motive, and 3) opportunity to commit the betrayal. At that point, the reader is surprised because the team has brushed aside many other suspects due to inconclusive evidence. But with even less “evidence,” the notary was suddenly put forward as the prime suspect. In fact, the only evidence is the anonymous note with a name and address that Otto Frank seems to have received in 1945, but of which only a copy, retyped by himself much later, has survived. The rest of the argument is based on speculation and, above all, on the cessation of further investigation into the many remaining open ends.

To keep it short: There is no evidence that Van den Bergh knew about the Secret Annex. He, therefore, had no knowledge. Surprisingly, the team did not investigate whether the notary himself and his wife went into hiding. It now appears that they did, in the village of Laren. The notary, therefore, had no motive to reveal the hidden housemates of the Secret Annex. Due to the special circumstances of the phone call that fateful morning, the team claims the informant must have had some high-level connections to the German police or high-ranking officials. Van den Bergh had no special connections whatsoever. He was a member of the Jewish Council, but that did not give him privileged access to the officer who had been notified of the hideout. The notary therefore also missed something that you could reasonably call an opportunity.

Soon after the publication of the book, a storm of criticism arose. The historians Bart Wallet, Laurien Vastenhout, and Bart van der Boom, journalist Natasha Gerson, and Ruben Vis, the general secretary of the Dutch Israelite Church Association, were among the first to offer substantive criticism. The critics provided more biographical insights and other information that was widely available but not consulted by the research team. Partly via social media, many of the team’s findings were undermined within two days.

However, criticism also extended beyond the problematic empirical findings. Three weeks later, this additional criticism seems to focus on the following points:

  1. The research team lacked a broader historical perspective, first and foremost with regard to the Jewish context during the war and in post-war Netherlands.
  2. Partly due to the set-up and ambition of the investigation to reveal a prime suspect, the team suffered from a narrow “tunnel vision.”
  3. The team was too focused on garnering media attention from the outset, partly due to the need to generate funds, which may have influenced their findings.
  4. The prime suspect concerns a Jewish notary and a member of the Jewish Council. To what extent does this result depend on the reproduction of outdated stereotypes of the Jewish Council? In particular, experts have now falsified the assumption that the Council maintained a list with addresses of Jewish hiding places (Der Spiegel, January 25, 2022).

There is thus every indication that the investigation documented in The Betrayal of Anne Frank is far from definitive. A project in which financing and secrecy are more important than knowledge production is highly questionable. It is also problematic that in this project, the narrow question of “betrayal” is made central instead of a wider understanding of human figurations in times of genocidal violence. Just one day after the great media spectacle, the Dutch satirical website De Speld headlined: “New Research: Nazis probably responsible for Anne Frank’s death.”

Remco Ensel (Radboud University Nijmegen) has written in the field of Holocuast Studies, antisemitism and memory studies. He recently published Anne Frank on the Postwar Dutch Stage. Performance, Memory, Affect (Routledge, 2022).