Reflections

There are several towns named Wittenberg in the US, but there is only one in Germany. Growing up in West Germany I didn’t hear much about it because Wittenberg was in the East, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We learned at school that Martin Luther taught there and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. However, that he personally nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg—as the story goes—is just as likely as Walt Disney having drawn the first Mickey Mouse draft himself. After the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain went away in 1989, Wittenberg awoke from its Dornröschenschlaf (Sleeping Beauty slumber), dusted itself off and emerged as a major tourist destination. Today it is the city with the highest density of UNESCO World Heritage sites, four in total and all connected to Luther’s life and the Reformation—must-visits in a Mecca for evangelical globetrotters. One of those sites received a lot of press coverage earlier this month that once again exposed the ugly underbelly of Luther’s teachings and the callousness of Germany’s highest court.

Judensau on display at an outside wall of the Stadtkirche (city church) in Wittenberg, Germany, February 4, 2020. (Image via Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images/ via JTA)

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*Editors Note: This piece was originally posted by the UMN Human Rights Program. Click here to read the original post.

In Serbia, since the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia ended in 2001, another battle has been waged over representations of that violence. Competing interpretations are advanced by state and non-state groups over what happened and who is to blame. This battle can result in denial of genocide and other atrocities, which causes pain for survivors and victims and can enhance risk of future violence. While some research has been conducted on this process, gender has been under-researched as an important corresponding dimension. Women have unique experiences and memories of war and violence which may not be included in dominant narratives. In Serbia, women anti-war activists like Women in Black have been leading efforts for genocide acknowledgment and post-conflict reconciliation between opposing ethnic groups. In collaboration with Professor Joachim Savelsberg and thanks to the generous support of the Human Rights Initiative, we are exploring the role of women in the cultural processing of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

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April 27th is Yom HaShoah, one of several Holocaust remembrance days observed around the world at various points in the year. It is also Genocide Awareness Month, which marks the anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide (which began on April 24th, 1915), the Holocaust (or, namely the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, 1943), the Cambodian Genocide (on April 19th, 1975), and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (on April 7th, 1944), As I mentioned in January, dates such as these mark a need for a collective memory, even as dates and temporal boundaries often fail to account for the long-term effects of genocide and mass violence. 

As a Jew, and at this particular moment during the ongoing war and mass violence in Ukraine, I struggle in 2022 (as in most years) to reconcile the official calls to remember with the more subjective, personalized constructions of memory that inevitably emerge from events such as these. I am reminded that public displays of memory, though central, can be brittle, and often serve contemporary state politics. Yom HaShoah is no exception, as a holiday directly tied to the State of Israel’s larger memory projects. The “complications” this date entails for both Jews and non-Jews alike, who are critical of Israeli domestic and foreign policies, also pertains to my specialized knowledge Yiddish history and culture that often gets left out of Zionist narratives. Days such as Yom HaShoah should in theory be encouraging a broader, more inclusive definition of collective memory, but we know that these calls often fail to reach beyond the limits of nationalism and geopolitics. 

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As far as I can think back, an odd-looking, faceless porcelain bunny has been part of the Easter decoration in my parents’ house in Remscheid, Germany. It has an artistic twist to it with a coat that shimmers in purple, blue and red. Originally it must have looked just like his fellow rabbits, but it no longer does. That’s because it got a second glaze in the early morning hours of July 31, 1943, when the house it lived in was burnt to the ground during an Allied air raid on my hometown. As my grandparents sifted through the rubble a couple of days later, that bunny was pretty much the only thing that emerged intact. 

“Der Angriff” (attack) and how my grandparents miraculously survived the fire under some wet blankets in the backyard became part of our family folklore. My mother who got the bunny as an Easter gift earlier in 1943 still has a hard time dealing with sirens after spending too many nights in bomb shelters as a child. During her first visit to Minneapolis, an unexpected tornado siren test sent her immediately looking for the basement—unfortunately without success since our house is one of the few in Minneapolis that doesn’t have one. That story is now also part of our family folklore.

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“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

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“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.

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January 27th marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the date on which the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945. Although a monumental moment in the history of the Second World War, the war itself did not end in Europe until May, and globally the death and destruction continued in the Pacific theater until August of that year. This simple reminder of the war’s timeline illustrates the ways Holocaust, which did not end on January 27th with the liberation of Auschwitz, is difficult to confine to a set of dates within the larger sequence of global events. 

In the Center’s collections are photographs taken for the UNRRA by Maxine Rude. Rude, originally from southwestern Wisconsin, traveled throughout Europe while on assignment to document the plight of “Displaced Persons” (DPs) living in allied-run DP-Camps. The images include a variety of subjects, from refugees working in trades they occupied prior to the war (or newly learned at some point in the interim), to Jewish war orphans looking after other vulnerable children. One takeaway from these images, is the lack of certainty many faced for years following the war’s end. Liberation might have occurred abruptly, but normalcy and stability did not. Jewish DPs languished for years before receiving entry visas, or the ability to enter the British Mandate of Palestine. Many non-Jewish DP’s were “repatriated” nationals with newly-drawn borders in Eastern Europe, where they faced uncertain fates. As we mark this important day in the history of genocide, we remind ourselves of the provisional nature of liberation. 

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

Female Chechen suicide bomber (Daily Star, 2010)

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

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

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

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 “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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