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.