Featured Film/Book

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

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

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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the virtual Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival, specifically a showing of short films about activism. While I watched several shorts, it was the gut-wrenching work of Director E.G Bailey in his film “Keon” that still has me reflecting on anti-Black violence in the United States and the racial climate in Minneapolis.

Film Poster for Keon, directed by E.G. Bailey

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Until We Find Them (2021) is a short documentary film directed by Hunter Johnson that premiered at the 40th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. At first glance, it is an intimate portrait of the affective and working relationship between two journalists residing in Guadalajara, Jalisco. But as we look into the lives of Darwin Franco and Dalia Souza, reporters for ZonaDocs, we experience the way in which the journalists interact daily with the universe of disappearances in México, which, in the context of The War against Drugs, has generated more than 80,000 disappearances. 

Film Poster for Until We Find Them

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Harry Harootunian is a Detroit born Armenian-American distinguished historian of Japan and scholar of Marxist theory at the University of Chicago and New York University. Born to a family of Armenian Genocide survivors in 1929, Harootunian achieved renown in academia for his pathbreaking studies of early modern Japan and Japanese cultural and intellectual history. 

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Genocide studies has always been characterized by its interdisciplinarity. The consolidation in the last few decades of visual studies (including film and media) as academic fields, has allowed for a far more rigorous analysis of images of genocides that rests upon formal and semantic expertise specific to audio-visual representation. Thus, it is no longer a matter of invoking images as illustrations, but rather of wondering in what ways they contribute both to the knowledge of events and to the transmission of memory, whether individual or collective.

To interpret images of genocide consequently involves a double competence, which puts genocide specialists (historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, among others) and image analysts (semiologists, film or photography historians, new media specialists) in a separately delicate situation. The task demands the command of theory and methods within multiple scholarly fields, including specific instruments for the analysis of visual texts. The question continues to be: what can the image contribute –as iconography and as a visual narrative– to the comprehension of genocide and mass violence that could not be gained from other available documents which were traditionally studied by the discipline of history. This is a far reaching and complex question, and therefore its answers must be both ambitious and open to discussion and contestation.

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The roots of today’s racial and religious structures can be found in late medieval Spain and its colonies. It was in the Iberian Peninsula, during the fifteenth century, that terms like raza (race) and linaje (lineage) went from being used to describe horse or dog breeding to being applied to Jews and “Moors.” This switch coincided with the appearance of anti-converso ideologies, which would turn theological categories (like Jew and Muslim), into biological ones (limpieza de sangre).

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Teaching about Genocide (Volume I), the first of a two-volume series edited by well-known Holocaust and genocide education scholar Samuel Totten, provides cogent, practical advice for those wishing to bring this difficult topic into their classrooms. The book builds on Totten’s previous work but is unique in its specific focus on combining insights from both secondary and post-secondary educators in each volume. Roughly half of the chapters were written by secondary educators, with the remaining composed by post-secondary professors and instructors. This combination helps to bridge the persistent gap between academic genocide studies research and secondary classroom teaching about genocide. Indeed, as a high school teacher of a semester-long comparative genocide studies course, I have often struggled to find ways to approach various aspects of genocide with my students. This volume both reaffirms the importance of genocide education while providing practical support for classroom teachers.

The necessity for such a work at this moment is clear. While the Holocaust, especially since the mid-1990s, has become a mainstay of American K-12 school curriculum, teaching about so-called “other” genocides or “genocides other than the Holocaust,” has become increasingly common across the country. Though, despite this trend, few resources exist for educators, who, are often left to teach such difficult topics with little content or pedagogical support.

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Film, since its inception, has played a significant role in capturing history. It has given us ways to explore events in the past while contemplating the present. Art (it would seem) is ahead of politics, especially in matters of examining the painful realities of World War II in Eastern Europe. In recent years there has been a dangerous trend in Poland and Hungary in revising history to fit a political narrative.

Both Poland and Hungary have been trying to balance Democracy and the rise of right wing political parties, who are determined to use the Holocaust to rewrite historical narratives to create nationalistic pride, directly contradicting their past and present. Poland and Hungary along with Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, are all experiencing revisionist movements. Historian John Paul Himka believes part of the problem is how these once double occupied countries (by Germany and the Soviet Union) dealt with false historical narratives or “myths” they were told under post-war Soviet occupation, once they were free of Communism. Himka states in their hurry to join the West, they did not take the necessary time and care to explore their wartime roles, allowing for a division between memory and fact.

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“Zooming in” is clearly trending in the field of Holocaust research. Since the onset of the new millennium, scholars have increasingly favored a narrower perspective. The number of sound biographies and prosopographies of “ordinary” men (and women) is growing, as is that of studies on the impact of the Holocaust on local communities. Moreover, the “spatial turn” in Holocaust studies is leading to important new research projects, such as those by Tim Cole, Albert Giordano, and Anne Kelly Knowles, that explore the use of geography for Holocaust studies and further narrow down the scope of research—to a city, a ghetto, a single building block, or a concentration camp.

Many of these recently published studies of applied scale-reduction are not simply examples of traditional local history or traditional biographies. They are “microstudies,” that is, small-scale studies of a specific place, of people in that place, and of their relations and encounters in their everyday lives. More than four decades after Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg published his The Cheese and the Worms (1976, Italian; 1980, English), microhistory has clearly made its entry into the field of Holocaust studies, yet it is remarkable how few of these new microstudies are conceptualized as such. How can microhistory aid in our understanding of the Holocaust? How should we define its methods of research and its rules for data collection and interpretation? How do we deal with the issue of subjective individual experiences? To what extent do our sensibilities as researchers affect the exploration of individuals and their particular stories, rather than the general historical events? Most scholars agree that macroprocesses translate into experiences on the microlevel. There is also general agreement that studying the Holocaust from a grassroots perspective may be beneficial to our knowledge of the Holocaust. Yet reflection on microhistory as a research method or perspective is minimal, and specific questions that microhistory raises for Holocaust research are barely addressed.

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As a middle and high school history and social studies teacher, I have taught about the Holocaust and other genocides for many years. At the beginning of my career, students in my classes would have encountered only the Holocaust, but, recently, I have broadened my curriculum to include many additional examples and aspects of genocide. Despite growing efforts to expand the field of genocide education, there is still a gulf between academic scholarship and curriculum and practice within secondary classrooms. Scholarship, often inaccessible for secondary educators, is slow to make its way into course content. Understanding Atrocities: Remembering, Representing, and Teaching Genocide (2017) is the latest among recent efforts to bridge this gap and recognize the role of educators at all levels and community organizations in conversations about genocide education. This collection expands the conversation to include many voices, especially concerning the teaching of genocides other than, or in addition to, the Holocaust.

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