In 2015 I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As a U.S. citizen, I worried about how I would be received. Born in 1968, I grew up hearing Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports of American casualties during what U.S. media accounts commonly called the Vietnam War (1955-1975). I remember the famous 1972 picture of a Vietnamese girl running naked from a bombing campaign using napalm, a slick, sticky petroleum. Napalm had seared the girl’s skin. Her agonized distress while running on a road with other screaming Vietnamese children, followed by armed and seemingly nonchalant soldiers, confused and sickened me. The black and white, Pulitzer-prize winning picture stood in contrast to full-color film clips I also remember of the war, clips shot from U.S. bombers whose payloads created massive, spectacular orange fireballs against the lush green jungle.
At the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, we are both deeply saddened and profoundly angered by the brutal, horrific murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. In the face of the continued murder of Black people in Minnesota, across the country, and in many places around the world, we reaffirm our commitments to racial justice and equity.
We recognize that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the State of Minnesota were established through the theft of Dakota and Anishinaabe land and the genocide of the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples. Indeed, the first sins of Indigenous genocide and the enslavement of African Americans laid a foundation for a society built upon and maintained through violence and white supremacy. While it is rare in academia and education that the Transatlantic slave trade or the institutions and legacies of slavery and segregation in the United States are termed genocide, noted genocide scholar Adam Jones wrote that arguments against the label genocide have too often become a tool for denial, “serving to deflect responsibility for one of history’s greatest crimes.” Last week, civil rights attorney Ben Crump wrote in the Washington Post, “And then we hear that nagging thought that keeps coming back and demanding us to face it: How many more deaths have not been captured on video? How long has this been going on without witnesses or documentation? Is this an outlier or is this endemic? And it starts to feel like genocide.” We recommend Crump’s 2019 book, Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People.
It is almost impossible to put into words how heartbreaking and grim these past days have been, as we watched in horror and distress the footage of Minneapolis police officers murdering George Floyd. The outrage and pain that followed have shaken the foundations of our communities to their very core. The magnitude of this moment cannot be minimized, as protesters have taken to the streets. Young and old alike have cried out for justice.
When I was a youngster back in high school in Madrid I was deeply moved by a drama I read called Biedermann and the Arsonists, by Max Frisch. It is about a citizen who invites two arsonists into his house, even though they signal from the start that they will set fire to it.
“Ever since the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews – among other victims – were deliberately targeted and destroyed, a moral hierarchy of suffering has seized the humanitarian imagination, one in which stories of victimhood are ranked based on the scale of human destruction. Genocide has become a numbers game. In this spectacle of suffering, the bodies of victims literally count” (Meierhenrich 2020, 4).
The figure of 800,000 Rwandan deaths has long been associated with the Rwandan genocide. It has been widely cited in scholarly works, documentaries, museums, and memorials. This casualty figure, while widely cited, is also highly contested. In the most recent edition of the Journal of Genocide Research (2020), this figure is methodologically deconstructed and debated. While the figures modeled in the journal are also contested by scholars, the debates surrounding the politics of numbers raise important questions and concerns about how victimhood is constructed in the wake of genocide and mass atrocity.
Ran Zwigenberg, Associate Professor of Asian Studies, History and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University, was recently hosted by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Center for Jewish Studies. He gave a talk entitled: “Survivors: Psychological Trauma and Memory Politics in Hiroshima and Auschwitz.” I sat down with Dr. Zwigenberg for a wide-ranging conversation covering survivor politics, the gendered dimensions of social work, praxis of care, the notion of social trauma, and other topics related to the global politics of memory.*
Before the trophy went to Adolf Hitler, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II held the award for Most Hated Man on Earth. And while Hitler’s Third Reich has become the ultimate go-to place for much journalistic handwringing about the horrible times we are living in, in reality it feels like we are still stuck in Wilhelm’s Second Reich — it’s Kaiserzeit in America. Donald Trump and the last German Emperor have a lot in common, the vanity, insecurity, the penchant for bombast and persönliches Regiment (personal rule), to name just a few. In Wilhelm’s case the brakes on his impulsive and egotistical personality came off after he fired Bismarck, the experienced chancellor he inherited from his father, and surrounded himself with sycophantic generals and noble toadies who went along with his imperial fantasies and straight into World War I.
Nora Krug is a German-American author and illustrator. Her 2018 visual memoir Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home about WWII and her own German family history, has won numerous awards and has been translated into several languages. Krug is an Associate Professor of Illustration at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. She spoke at the University of Minnesota in February 2020.
This year’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an especially important anniversary. In January, we marked 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Since then, through our programs on and off campus, and in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Studies, we were able to reflect on the scope of the destruction of European Jewry but also on the heroic resistance and the resiliency of the survivors.
In the wake of the COVID19 outbreak, we are confronted with a globally massive threat to our health, where unparalleled measures are being proposed and enacted to counter it. We are chronicling in real-time the heroic actions of those in the field who are putting their lives on the line to make a difference coupled with heartbreaking stories of loss, separation, and suffering.
Medical personnel on the frontlines of this pandemic in my home country Spain are succumbing to illness at an astonishing rate. Currently, Spain is hobbled with the highest COVID19 caseload in all of Europe and reportedly ranks only behind the United States worldwide in terms of sheer numbers of those infected.
Several years ago, I transitioned my high school Holocaust and genocide studies elective course from an in-person class to a virtual one. At the time, I had many questions and concerns about teaching such difficult subject matter in a virtual environment. While there were certainly challenges, the switch pushed me to examine my teaching praxis more deeply, explore a flipped model of learning, and find new resources and technologies to engage both synchronously and asynchronously.
While certainly sometimes the technology seems to be more of a barrier and actual physical distance between us seems insurmountable, rich texts, robust discussions, and a common purpose inevitably bridge the gaps and bring us together as a class. In the end, I am always reminded of the resilience of my students and my own resilience as an educator. While April is going to be a difficult month for both students and educators in Minnesota and across the country, I know that we will find a way to adjust and adapt to the new and uncertain times ahead. The outpouring of support I have received from colleagues, families, and friends, gives me tremendous hope and lets me know that I am not alone.