Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy

by Rebecca Clifford

144Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy reveals how and why the Holocaust came to play a prominent role in French and Italian political culture in the period after the end of the Cold War. By charting the development of official, national Holocaust commemorations in France and Italy, Rebecca Clifford explains why the wartime persecution of Jews, a topic ignored or marginalized in political discourse through much of the Cold War period, came to be a subject of intense and often controversial debate in the 1990s and 2000s.
How and why were official Holocaust commemorations created? Why did the drive for states to “remember” their roles in the persecution of Jewish populations accelerate only after the collapse of the Cold War? Who pressed for these commemorations, and what motivated their activism? To what extent was the discourse surrounding national Holocaust commemorations really about the genocide at all?

Commemorating the Holocaust explores these key questions, challenging commonly-held assumptions about the origins of and players involved in the creation of Holocaust memorial days. Clifford draws conclusions that shed light both on the state of Holocaust memory in France and Italy, and more broadly on the collective memory of World War II in contemporary Europe.

137Noemi Schory, a documentary film director and producer, was the Schusterman Visiting Artist in Residence at the Center for Jewish Studies 2013 Fall Semester. Schory taught The Holocaust in Film: Recent Israeli and German Documentaries Compared and spoke at various film screenings and events on campus and in the community. Schory produced the award-winning documentary film “A Film Unfinished” about the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, which was screened by CHGS on November 12th, 2013 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.

How does film play a role in shaping Holocaust memory?
Film, fiction or documentary, has become the most important building block of memory-of historic knowledge. The images remain etched in our minds regardless of their veracity, their origins. The little boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, the emaciated prisoners near the barbed wire in Buchenwald (Margaret Bourke White) are iconic representations universally known.  Fifty percent of all West German citizens watched the NBC mini series “Holocaust” in 1979 that was criticized by Elie Wiesel for being a soap opera. Today, the broadcast is still considered to have marked an absolute watershed in coping with Holocaust memory in Germany. We are now entering a phase without witnesses, where all that will be left are the images, and our common memory will be shaped exclusively by them and by the films, which will withstand the erosion induced by time. 

Are there still limits of representation in Holocaust film?
The limits to representation start from what doesn’t exist. There are no visual documents of the mass, industrialized extermination. It seems that the visual archives are endless; there are only two films, which show the deportation trains and none that show the reality of inside the trains. “The Auschwitz Album,” shot by SS photographers, captures the arrival of deportees from Hungary and some images of the selection, but there are no known images of the daily life of the prisoners in the camps. There is or ought to be self-imposed limit on the use and repeated use of atrocity images(mostly shot after the liberation of the camps), which run the risk of desensitizing the viewer and humiliating the victims (exposing them once more). Repeated use also has the potential of turning the viewers off from dealing with the Holocaust.

How can (especially documentary) films be used for teaching the Holocaust? At what age would you recommend that?
Documentary films are not synonymous with factual representation; they often deal with memory, with the aftermath. Recognizable, three-dimensional accounts of daily life, of coping and the struggle to survive, can contribute to the emotional understanding. One of the neglected fields (partly because of scarcity of visual material) is the life before the Holocaust. I regard understanding the rich fabric of Jewish life in Europe (which was almost entirely wiped out), as of utmost importance but too little touched upon. We are used to see very old survivors telling their memories and are not aware that the experiences they talk about happened to them when they were young, sometimes very young. In a series of short films, which I recently directed, based on diaries, wills and other writings of victims, I insisted on finding voices of the same age as the writers of those documents. I think this brings home, on an emotional level, the enormity of dilemmas, fears and choices. The issue of age is one of the toughest ones to which I have no answer. In Israel since Holocaust Remembrance Day is a national day of commemoration marked by sirens and silence, children are exposed to it from a very young age, often leaving deep scars on their psyches or turning them off from dealing with it.I think that the teaching and for that matter Holocaust remembrance ought to lead to universal, humanistic values and not be its own aim.

How would you define the new/third generation of Israeli films about the Holocaust?
I think that in Israel (as elsewhere) the third generation moves in a more reflective and interpretative direction. The realistic testimonies have been recorded-the survivors are passing away. Emotionally, the third generation moves further away, towards more philosophical interpretations. “A Film Unfinished,”directed by a young director, Yael Hersonski, and produced by me, is an example for that, and so is “Numbered.” Animated films, video art probing the limit of true and false memory – I believe that this is the direction for the future.

Verena Stern is the 2013/2014 BMWF Doctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Austrian Studies/University of Minnesota and a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. She is writing her dissertation on migration of asylum seekers from Somalia to the European Union. Stern´s research interests include Human Rights and transnational migration. 


After concerted efforts by the Economic Community of Central African States, Prime Minister Djotodia, stepped down last week following a two-day summit in Chad. This concluded the shuttle diplomacy by Ambassador Power and concerted efforts by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to raise awareness of what was happening in CAR. His replacement, Mr. Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet is the former speaker of parliament and upon his ascension to office has claimed that violence has largely subsided.

Now the hard work begins. As countries such as Ivory Coast and Mozambique have taught us there is always a risk of an increase in violence rather than a decrease during transitions. As mentioned in my previous article , CAR was about a power struggle that had taken religious and regional undertones. The stepping down of PM Djotodia should not be taken to imply that there is a cessation of this struggle. With multiple players jostling for political power, it is incumbent on the observers to engage those pulling the nation apart.  If all the parties and not actively involved in this transition, we may find ourselves in this very same situation a few months down the line.

A report by Emmanuel Braun and Tom Miles from Reuters stated today that there were ‘Seeds of Genocide’ in Central Africa Republic. To be clear, this same claim had been made last year by John Ging the director of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as well. With in mind, its safe to say that Mr. Braun and Mr. Miles did not make any news today about the situation in CAR, we have heard this before. What we need now is active engagement in the process to ensure peace and provision of safety and food during this transitory period.

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

It is with great sadness that the Center for Holocaust and Genocide announces the passing of Gus Gutman. We recently had the pleasure of working with Gus on the “Portraying Memories” project with artist Felix de la Concha. Gus was an enthusiastic participant, turning what is typically a 2-4 hour session into a daylong adventure involving a trip to the Shalom Home, where he introduced Felix to his good friend Walter Schwartz, so he could participate as well.

Gus was always full of energy, a wonderful storyteller and great to be around. We were very surprised to hear he was ill and extremely saddened to hear of his passing on January 11.

134Although Gus was a child during the Holocaust, he spoke often about remembering the events of Kristallnacht (the Nazi pogrom) that took place throughout Germany and Austria on November 9,10, 1938. “I was just a small child in Hildesheim when my father held me up to see the smoke coming from our beloved synagogue. The experience was so embedded in my memory I even wrote a play, “Guests of the City,” about my return to Germany with flashbacks to that time which was produced and performed in my home town Hildesheim in 2005 (I played my father).”

We are very fortunate that Gus’s story will live on the CHGS website and that others will be able to view his painting session with Felix de la Concha. The portrait will also be on display in an exhibition planned for Spring of 2015, and website dedicated to all of Felix de la Concha’s Holocaust portraits.

Gustav Gutman, 01/20/1935 – 01/11/2014: Obituary

Can memory be a bad thing? Readers must have stumbled over a recent headline that said, “Plan to open a new Holocaust Museum in Budapest faces criticism – from Jews.”Isn’t creating such a museum, as any other project that raises awareness and educates on the Holocaust, always something praiseworthy?

Holocaust memory seems to be at a problematic crossroad. While it is remembered across borders, the story and the messages it entails vary. The Budapest case is a good example of how a memorial project can be motivated more by contemporary politics than by a genuine desire to convey historical truths. The Hungarian Jewish community, among others, fears that – in a context of growing nationalism – the museum will downplay the role of Hungarian collaborators and stress instead the Hungarian rescuers. Moreover, it is likely that the planned museum will put the Nazi genocide of Jews on the same plane as postwar communist persecution. In Eastern Europe, equating the Nazi genocide to Stalin’s crimes is part of a generalized politics of victimization.

Yet, there are also memory politics involved where some groups emphasize the Holocausts’ uniqueness. In Italy and Spain (former Nazi Germany’s allies and sympathizers), highlighting the singularity of the Holocaust results very often in self-exculpation regarding the (Fascist and Francoist) crimes. The very uniqueness of the Holocaust, as invoked by conservative politicians at Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies, allows them to draw a radical distinction between Nazism and Fascism (both in its Italian, a la Mussolini, and its Spanish, a la Franco, forms). It allows for memorializing without probing into one’s own past.

The Holocaust, a symbol of absolute evil and supreme infamy, is also all too easily projected as a metaphor onto totally different phenomena. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, has become a catch-all for analogies and equivalences with the Holocaust. Contemporary antisemites now claim that the main victims of the most radical case of genocide (Jews) have turned into the most recent and significant perpetrators. As European scholars have pointed out some of these arguments have now found their way into the Holocaust Memorial Day event itself.

A growing preoccupation in a memory culture gone global is that the Holocaust will be open to all sorts of distortions, abuses and instrumentalization.

But is there a correct memory of the Holocaust? The Holocaust has become the paradigmatic Never Again and the slogan can serve as a monument, a ceremony, a museum, a pledge. In all cases, it transcends time and place and constitutes a moral imperative, an ethics of avoidance. But its true meaning is disturbingly vague. What are the lessons of the Holocaust contained in its remembrance? The EuropeanNever again (“Never again fascism!”) differs fundamentally from Jews’, European or not, “Never again victims!”. The former may urge towards non-violent action and disarmement while the latter may advocate to be on guard, armed or even strike preemptively.

The German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno provided a valuable insight that can lead us out of the quagmire of proper memory. He wrote that Hitler had imposed a new categorical imperative upon mankind. And this imperative was not remembrance per se, but to arrange thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself. In other words, he suggested that we inquire into the forces that gave rise to the evil. Thus, when we commemorate or educate about the Holocaust and other genocides, we may have to take a step back in our identification with heroes or victims and, above all, shorten the distance we put between the perpetrators and ourselves.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology. 

Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places

by Erica T. Lehrer

125Since the end of Communism, Jews from around the world have visited Poland to tour Holocaust-related sites. A few venture further, seeking to learn about their own Polish roots and connect with contemporary Poles. For their part, a growing number of Poles are fascinated by all things Jewish. Erica T. Lehrer explores the intersection of Polish and Jewish memory projects in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz in Krakow. Her own journey becomes part of the story as she demonstrates that Jews and Poles use spaces, institutions, interpersonal exchanges, and cultural representations to make sense of their historical inheritances.

Something insidious, but sadly not unexpected, is happening in the Central African Republic (CAR)-over the past twelve months mass killings have been taking place in the CAR, a former French colony in a very rough neighborhood (it borders the Sudan’s to the East, Chad to the North, and DRC to the South). Things came to a head in March when the former president Francois Bozizé was deposed by a group of Muslim militants (Séléka) whom instigated sectarian killings and human rights abuses against the largely Christian populace. This has resulted in the formation of self-defense groups (Anti-balaka meaning ‘sword/machete’ in the Sango language) formed to protect the victims. This conflict is complicated by the fact that there are claims of the Séléka getting support from mercenaries in Sudan and Chad.

131.jpgOn the 5th of December, the UN voted to allow the French to send 400 troops into the CAR who would augment the already present AU battalion of 3600. The French intend on increasing this number to 1200 troops in the coming days following a sudden outbreak of killings within the last fortnight of women and children by Séléka forces (meaning ‘union’ in the Sangolanguage) that has resulted in 500 deaths and 189,000 fleeing their homes in Bangui. Fears of retaliatory attacks have become more pronounced leading both Burundi and Rwandato pledge to send troops to the country. While the number of deaths might seem deceptively low for a nation of about 4.6 million, it only accounts for Bangui since correspondents have not been able to venture outside that area.

In a letter by Medecins Sans Frontieres to the UN humanitarian system, MSF has accused the UN of indifference to the plight of the victims. It states that in the year that this atrocity has unfolded UN aid officials have done nothing but collect data that is related to the fighting and not provided assistance to the displaced people sheltering on the same compound as the officials.

It is important to note that this is not “another Rwanda” as has been suggested by some. This is a power grab by a cabal of rebels that seeks to control the vast minerals that are present in CAR. It is not an attempt to rid CAR of its Christian population but rather an attempt to instill fear and submission by a belligerent group. While there may be what some UN officials have called the seeds of genocide this does not ipso facto mean that “another Rwanda” is at hand. It is however, an atrocity that is fast degenerating and a humanitarian catastrophe that is getting worse. The international community finds itself at a crossroads like it has on several occasions (Syria and Mali being the most recent). The French and the AU have taken a proactive role in trying to mitigate the situation but more is needed. The UN humanitarian system also has to step up and rise to the challenge.

This weekend the first signs of hope appeared. Michel Djotodja, the current president and former leader of the Sélékaleader said that he is willing to negotiate with Anti-balakaforces. The only problem is that he barely has control of the capital city and some of his former fighters have gone their own way. This is coupled by the fact that no one is sure how much control the faction of Anti-balaka that is willing to negotiate is representative of the movement itself. All of this is compounded by the fact that Anti-balaka has no recognizable structure further throwing into doubt who the president is actually going to negotiate with. Is it simple? No. Is it hopeless? No. It will require some rolling up of sleeves by the UN, AU, France and possibly the UNSC. This development is, however, a small but positive step that has to be fostered and natured by the international community, the sooner the better

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

Who was Benjamin Murmelstein? Why would Claude Lanzmann dedicate over 3 hours to him in his latest film The Last of the Unjust? Murmelstein was a rabbi and teacher from Vienna, third Jewish elder of the Thereseinstadt ghetto, and the only surviving Jewish elder of any of the Jewish Councils set up by the Nazis. Condemned by many in the Jewish Community as a traitor and a Nazi collaborator he was tried and acquitted by the Czech authorities after the war settling in exile in Rome where he lived until his death in 1989.

126He testified at the trial of Thereseinstadt Commandant Karl Rahm and wrote and published a book of his experiences in Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann (Theresienstadt: Eichmann’s Model Ghetto), in 1961. He submitted the book to Israeli prosecutors to use at the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann, SS officer in charge of the deportation of the Jews of Europe) a submission that went unused.

Murmelstein had much valuable information to offer, especially on Eichmann So much so that if Murmelstein’s testimony had been used it would have dispelled any notion of the dispassionate Nazi bureaucrat who only followed orders as defined by Hannah Arendt’s term the “banality of evil.” Instead we would have seen Eichmann as a man who loved his job and pursued it with zeal and passion above and beyond what was required by his superiors. We would also have seen a corrupt man who lined his own pockets with Jewish funds for both personal and professional gain, as the extra money afforded him the financial independence to run his department apart of the bureaucratic machine and away from the eyes of his superiors.

So why is Murmelstein’s story coming to light now and why did Lanzmann wait nearly 40 years to make this film? Possibly the world was not ready for such a controversial and ambivalent figure. In 1975 Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein for a project he was working on which later became the critically acclaimed 9-hour documentary Shoah. The interviews show that Murmelstein lived in the center of what Primo Levi referred to as the “grey zone” in his book The Drowned and the Saved. Levi’s theory is that those of us who did not experience the lager (camps) and ghettos cannot place ourselves in a position to judge those that were there, nor can we view the Holocaust as something that is black or white, good or evil. We simply cannot know what we would do to survive under the circumstances.

Murmelstein is clear that he was no saint and that he loved power, danger and adventure that went with the job of being a Jewish community leader and later elder.  But he also speaks in terms of the expectations that others had in times that were not ordinary. Murmelstein towards the end of the film tells Lanzmann that in Thereisenstadt there were no saints. “There were martyrs, but martyrs are not necessarily saints.”

Murmelstein points out that many people tried to conduct life as they had under normal circumstances but there was nothing normal about Thereseinstadt, the model ghetto the Nazis had created to fool the world and the Jews imprisoned there about the “Final Solution.” While Murmelstein claims his intentions were to save as many Jews as he could, others viewed him as a tyrant, a collaborator, and a man who only cared about himself. Yet many times in the interviews Murmelstein speaks of the opportunities he had to escape with his family to England and to Palestine, but he remained feeling it was his responsibility.

As the film begins we watch the now 87-year-old Lanzmann read from Murmelstein’s book in Prague, Nisko, and Theresienstadt.  One might wonder if this is an egotistical ploy by Lanzmann, but as the Murmelstein interviews unfold and the 3 1/2 hours go by we realize that Lanzmann has a real affection for Murmelstein, so much so he has become a surrogate witness. Lanzmann has become Murmelstein’s voice, reading passages of his beautifully worded testimony in the places that Murmesltein describes, thus collapsing time, bringing past and present together in the same space, much as he did in Shoah.

Here amidst the past and present we hear Murmelstein in his own words, we are drawn to Murmelstein much like Lanzmann is by his bold storytelling, his intelligence, knowledge of mythology, literature and history.  He seems to be telling the truth about his experiences, admitting to his flaws and the perceptions of his decisions.

The Last of the Unjust will not be remembered as a landmark documentary about the Holocaust like Shoah. Still, it is an important work that represents a different approach to Holocaust documentary. Lanzmann acts as a surrogate witness, in this case representing an extraordinary and at the same time flawed character steeped in moral ambivalence. Lanzmann offers the viewer a much more complex and deeper understanding of humanity during the Shoah by giving a voice to a survivor whose testimony was silenced by those who were not yet ready to hear what he had to say.

Jodi Elowitz is the Outreach Coordinator for CHGS and the Program Coordinator for the European Studies Consortium. Elowitz is currently working on Holocaust memory in Poland and artistic representation of the Holocaust in animated short films. 


Last month, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a comprehensive study on the experiences of antisemitism among Jews in 8 European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom)-whose Jews comprise 90% of the EU’s total Jewish population.

The FRA study indicates that two-thirds of Jewish respondents consider antisemitism to be a problem today in their countries. Three-fourths believe the problem has gotten worse in the past five years, and 68% percent say they at least occasionally avoid wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public.

A distinctive feature about this study is that it is centered on European Jews’ experiences and perceptions, rather than on “counting” antisemites -who nowadays often reject having an antisemitic standpoint or motivation- and antisemitic incidents, which often go unreported. Is there seepage of antisemitism into the European mainstream? Yes, according to Europe’s Jews.

The study offers what classic sociologist W.I. Thomas labeled the “definition of the situation” by social actors – in our case: Jews in Europe, who increasingly feel uncomfortable, pressured and even threatened as Jewish citizens in their respective countries. And, as Thomas wrote in his famous theorem, situations defined as real are real in their consequences. Almost half of those surveyed in Belgium, France, and Hungary indicate they have considered emigrating because of the situation.

These results, which confirm findings of earlier studies done by outside organizations, state agencies and local Jewish communities, are disturbing. They should serve as a wake up call for policy makers, educators and researchers.

While the issue of antisemitism is very often downplayed in academia, CHGS takes that call with the importance and the rigor it deserves. On December 5th we hosted, together with the Center for Austrian Studies, an interdisciplinary panel discussion on antisemitism: then and now. We brought together scholars from the United States and Europe and explored continuities and discontinuities in the history of antisemitism, its current intellectual sources and expressions in different contexts. This event -which will be soon available on our YouTube channel – laid the foundation for what we expect to be an ongoing and much needed scholarly discussion on this topic.

Best wishes for a happy, productive and healthy 2014.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology. 

Kristallnacht: Violence, Memory, and History

Edited by Nathan Wilson, Colin McCullough

41eYkEPdVXL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgWhat did people hear about Kristallnacht outside of Germany in 1938 from governments and media sources? How did governments and ordinary people respond to the plight of the Jewish community there? How have lives been affected by Kristallnacht in the seventy years since its occurrence? This interdisciplinary study of erasure and enshrinement seeks to answer these questions, exploring issues of memory and forgetting (in both the material and symbolic sense), and how the meaning of Kristallnacht has been altered by various actors since 1938.