In May, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and members of the Jewish community, gathered in the St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Pail to commemorate victims of genocide and mass violence from their communities. This gathering appears to be the first time that these three communities have come together to remember their pasts. The event came to fruition over friendship and food, as well as a recognition that supporting one another, especially over similarly tragic pasts, is important for the survival of minority communities.

Speakers from each community emphasized a commonality between all three religions, whether a shared history of victimization or a shared theology. Each community has a tragic history, histories that Fr. Tadeos, the priest of the Armenian Church, wished would remain in the past. However, he emphasized that the Coptic Church continues to experience these tragedies today.


Flowers in a Khmer Rouge jail cell by

In the twentieth century, 40 to 60 million defenseless people were massacred in episodes of genocide. The 21st century is not faring much better, with mass murder ongoing e.g. in Myanmar and Syria. Many of these cases have been studied well, both in detailed case studies and in comparative perspectives, but studying mass murder is no picnic. Scholars have also examined how conducting research, including ethnographic fieldwork, archival investigation, and oral history interviews, can affect the researcher in profound ways. Among a broader set of difficulties that obstruct research on this wretched subject, two stand out in particular: political constraints and psychological attrition.

Political constraints

All social research operates in a dense political field. Of all the political actors constraining research on mass murder, states stand out. They often have a vested interest in misrepresenting the truth, because for many, the memory of a genocide (or its denial), is part and parcel of their collective identity. States that consider themselves heirs to perpetrator regimes, such as Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, China, or Serbia, make great effort to influence the scholarship on episodes of mass violence. They deny access to archival collections and libraries, intimidate and prohibit them from conducting field work. (The opposite is also possible: governments may try to foster or manipulate research by funding politically useful research, by pushing for the establishment of academic chairs at home or abroad, or by offering scholarships.)

Having to contend with the taboos, restrictions, prescriptions, and outright threats of authoritarian regimes keeps scholars working on these topics under permanent threat. Researchers bold enough to travel into these societies to visit sites, uncover evidence, interview witnesses, and have got to fear the security services and intelligence agencies of these states. One consequence of this discouraging atmosphere is that, in general, less research is carried out on those instances and episodes of mass murder, an undesirable blind spot due to the importance of the events. (Some researchers ingratiate themselves with the authorities for privileged access.) A second consequence poses a methodological dilemma: due to such constraints, does one launch a sting operation, like undercover journalism? Or does one use informants, fixers, and mediators on the ground? Does one pay the possible interviewees for taking the risks?


Claude Lanzmann, the French intellectual and filmmaker, has died at age 92. This is an age that suggests Lanzmann was not in a hurry. Instead, he took all his time to make an exit. It is hard to measure his legacy. His film Shoah is one of a kind. It was released in his maturity, in 1985, when Lanzmann was 60. It fell upon the film world like a meteorite. A UFO of cinema. In a world of young prodigies (artists, philosophers, writers and filmmakers), Lanzmann was more tortoise than hare–notwithstanding the title he chose for his Memoirs, The Patagonian Hare (2009).

He was slow, his film is slow–it has the rhythm of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Long, and slow, it demands patience and persistence from the viewer. Shoah is not a documentary–its author called it an artwork. Lanzmann’s purpose was never representation, but rather presence and incarnation. It was not about explaining or understanding, but about reliving by creating a dialectical image in which the Then of the event would collide with the Now of the film.

For those who have seen Shoah and read The Patagonian Hare, the contrast could not be more striking. Shoah, a threnody to the victims of the Holocaust, would suggest that its creator was melancholic, dwelling in the past and possessed by the dead. By contrast, Lanzmann’s Memoirs stage an insatiable hedonist, an Epicurean, a man enamored of life and perilous adventures, a man hungry for new experiences. Hence his films on Israel, and his unflinching admiration for the rebirth of the Jewish people after the destruction of European Jewry. Friend and disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre, Lanzmann toured the young Jewish state for the first time in the 1960s. There he realized that Jews were not merely the invention of the gaze of the anti-Semite.

Shoah seems to be the work of Antigone, but The Hare can be read as the autobiography of Don Juan. Between ethics and esthetics, between mourning the past and embracing the present, Lanzmann’s life was all far from exemplary – it was rather an authentic life, in the Sartrean sense of the word, i.e., a life of his choice and of his own making.

Bruno Chaouat is a professor in the Department of French and Italian, and is also affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is interested in 19th and 20th century French literature and thought, and has recently published, Is Theory Good for the Jews? French Thought and the Challenge of the New Antisemitism.

Michael Rothberg is the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009). He is also the author of Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000), and has co-edited The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings (2003), and special issues of the journals Criticism, Interventions, Occasion, and Yale French Studies. As part of the Seeking Refuge in a Changing World Series, Rothberg was invited by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide studies to give a talk titled, “Inheritance Trouble: Migrant Archives of Holocaust Remembrance.” You can watch it here.


How did you decide to bring postcolonial studies and Holocaust studies together, and what compelled you to address interlocutions between these two realms of study?

Since graduate school I’ve had an interest in both Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, but I thought about them for a long time as separate projects and interests. Parallel to that, I had an interest in the relationship between Jewish American culture and African American culture. It was reading Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic when it came out in the 1990s that made me realize I could bring these different fields together, and I started to do that in the conclusion to my first book, Traumatic Realism. After completing that book I discovered an essay by W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” which eventually became the origins of my idea of multidirectional memory, although I didn’t have the term at that time. I wrote an essay on DuBois and his visit to post-war Warsaw where he witnessed the rubble of the ghetto and saw the newly-erected Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument. I thought this was a powerful response that had interesting things to say about race — especially in a comparative perspective. At the time, I thought I was working on a project on Blacks and Jews, a topic that is often grounded in an American national framework. I was interested in broadening that out into an international/transnational realm.


Hendrik Witbooi (Chief of the Witbooi Namaqua)

Depictions of colonized African peoples from Southwest Africa (DSWA, present-day Namibia), Germany’s first overseas colony, were prevalent throughout the German metropole at the turn of the twentieth century. Tobacconists catered to the erotic fantasies of colonial enthusiasts with images of Herero girls in their advertisements. Coffee companies used portraits of black African women to affirm the quality of their beans. Youth magazines allowed children to escape into “exotic” domains where their imaginations could wander unhindered by “civilized” social expectations. Anthropologists shifted the paradigms of scientific analysis by studying “natural peoples” as faceless objects. Novelists published romanticized accounts of faraway conflicts, a practice that over time made the realities of colonial bloodshed palpable for a continental audience. Though characterizations like these typified the contemporary discourse on Africa and epitomized Europe’s dominance over the continent, they belie the significant degree to which Africans in turn influenced the evolution of German imperial policy in southern Africa.


This spring, CHGS offered a class titled, “The Armenian Genocide in the Age of Alternative Facts.”  This course was designed to discuss the historical origins, the social context, and the consequences of the Armenian Genocide in a modern key. As such it consisted of three parts: the Genocide itself, it effects on the Armenian and Turkish communities, and the persistent denialist discourse, i.e. the alternative facts angle. In all, the class had about a dozen students, each bringing different backgrounds and knowledge of the Genocide to the class discussions.We read two books, Goodbye, Antoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide and Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide,  by Karnig Panian and Vicken Cheterian respectively. Panian’s book recounted the author’s childhood experiences in the desert of Der el Zor and subsequently in the orphanage at Antoura, set up by the Ottoman government to Turkify orphaned Armenian children. While Cheterian’s work dealt with the historical and political component of the aftermath of the Genocide. Cheterian also guest lectured to the class via Skype from Switzerland. The latter part of the class dealt with academic denialism of the Armenian Genocide grounded in an alternative or parallel interpretational framework that seeks to justify, negate, question, or minimize its reality.


Natalie Belsky is Assistant Professor at the Department of History at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include migration, minority politics in the USSR, Soviet citizenship, and East European Jewish history. She has conducted research in Russia, Kazakhstan, Israel and the United States. Invited by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, she recently gave a lecture titled, “Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish Survival in the Soviet Union.” After her talk, Belsky shared more insights with Meyer Weinshel (UMN Graduate Student, German, Scandinavian and Dutch).


The multilingualism central to Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe is fascinating, especially as it was shifting over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Can you speak to how Jews fleeing to the interior of the Soviet Union fared linguistically? Could they continue speaking the languages they knew, or did they have to adapt to their places of exile?

Soviet Jews are a particular case. Before 1939, Soviet Jews were relatively assimilated. But more broadly my research also includes Polish Jews, who had some knowledge of Russian but lived in rather multilingual communities. One of the things that I look at, is the encounter between Soviet and Polish Jews. In some cases, younger Soviet Jews found Polish Jews to be somewhat exotic, and it was difficult to see them as Jews like themselves. Over the course of those twenty years [between the Russian Revolution and the outbreak of the Second World War], the divergence taking place was profound. On the home front during the war, Central Asian languages factored into the equation as well. Jews who only spoke Yiddish, or who did not have the linguistic skills to navigate the Soviet system, faced additional challenges.


Six years have passed since I joined the University of Minnesota and in a few weeks I will be starting my first sabbatical research leave.

In keeping with its founding goals, the Center has kept busy over these last six years.  We have welcomed new graduate students, hosted captivating scholars, developed new outreach initiatives, and built a robust intellectual agenda around the vital theme of responses to, remembrance and prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes. Through lectures, symposiums, courses, exhibits, and teacher workshops we have been privileged to learn, teach, disseminate research findings and expand the community of engaged students, researchers and genocide educators. We have built new partnerships – at the U of M, nationally, and internationally — and nurtured fruitful relationships with community organizations, schools, and cultural institutions in the Twin Cities.

I have immensely enjoyed being part of the exceptional CHGS team, comprised currently of its terrific Program Coordinator, Jennifer Hammer, Outreach Coordinator Joe Eggers, Research Fellow Artyom Tonoyan, and graduate students Miray Philips (Sociology), Brooke Chambers (Sociology) and George Dalbo (School of Education). The team also includes an outstanding board of affiliate faculty members, whose continuous input and collaboration is instrumental in making CHGS a major academic center in the country, distinguished both by its international scope and local sensitivity.

This newsletter celebrates the achievements of the Center in this academic year. I look forward to following the continuation of outstanding work of the Center next year from afar, and to rejoin my colleagues in the fall of 2019.

We are fortunate and grateful that Dr. Klaas van der Sanden, Program Director of the Institute of Global Studies, will serve as CHGS’s interim director during the academic year 2018/2019.

Thank you for the many ways you support the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Alejandro Baer is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Ali Ahmida is Professor at the Department of Political Science in University of New England. His research interests are in political theory, comparative politics, and historical sociology. His scholarship is cross-cultural and focuses on power, agency and anti-colonial resistance in North Africa, especially in modern Libya. He is currently working on two books, one about genocide in colonial Libya and the other a biography of the Libyan freedom fighter Omar al-Mukhtar. Ahmida recently gave a lecture titled, “When the Subaltern Speak: Researching Italian Fascist Colonial Genocide in Libya, 1929–1934” as part of the African Studies Initiative Symposium on Reframing Mass Violence in Africa: Social Memory and Social Justice. After his lecture, Ahmida shared more insights with Miray Philips (UMN Graduate Student, Sociology).


What happened to the Libyans during 1929-1934 at the hands of Italian fascists?

110, 000 were interned in concentration camps for four years as a strategy to cut the base of support for the anti-colonial resistance. They were starved and denied medical treatment, and only 40,000 came alive after 1934.

Why is this genocide unknown?

The fascist Italian government denied any international media access to the camps. The allies covered up any trail of war crimes, and the fascist government was never put on trial. Libya remained a colony until 1951. However, since the foundation of Libyan Studies Center in 1977, there has been Libyan scholarship and documentations of the genocide in Arabic. The Center collected archival material and oral history from that year until 2000.


For the past few years, CHGS has been engaged in a research project on newspaper accounts from over 155 years related to the 1862 US-Dakota Conflict.

Through an analysis of more than 400 articles from newspapers of the Twin Cities and from towns in the Minnesota River Valley (Mankato and New Ulm), we trace how different generations of Minnesotans remembered, or in some cases chose to not remember, the six-week conflict itself and its dramatic consequences for the Dakota community.