Representing the Holocaust

In the United Kingdom, representing the past is a collective responsibility. The fact that the government has a duty to maintain and promote museums and national archives shows the importance of heritage in this country. But independent museums and other historical institutions, schools, and individuals are responsible for this too.

We have a tendency to think that history is primarily important because, to paraphrase countless politicians, learning from it gives us a chance to make the future better. This is true, and it is fair to say that one of the central aims of historical institutions should be to inform and explain. Beyond this, however, remembrance is important in its own right: looking at the past should not just serve to selfishly inform us on future decisions, but as a mark of respect for what has gone before. Understanding is inherently valuable.

This dualism behind the first part of the looking-back-to-look-forward dichotomy is something that historical institutions tend to struggle with. Arguably, remembering and looking forward are not mutually exclusive, but the tactics behind education are rather different than those behind preservation of memories. Add a sensitive topic that people are wary of commenting on, and it becomes almost impossible. The classic example of this is, of course, the Holocaust. Although it “happened” all over central Europe, its impact on our consciousness is on a global scale, and consequently there are Holocaust museums and memorials all over the world.

In the UK, two approaches tend to be taken: institutions either focus on the stories of individuals, or try to explain the social and political context in which the Holocaust could, and did, happen. In some cases an exhibition will attempt to do both, but the two ideas are still distinct within that and come from different aims. The former is fundamentally about preservation; the latter is about education.

The Imperial War Museum’s “Holocaust Exhibition” space does both. It attempts to explain the historical context of the Holocaust, including objects which illustrate such themes such as the political climate of Germany and the perversion of science to justify Nazi beliefs: viewers are shown objects such as tools used to measure skull shape, for example, in an attempt to rationalise – or at least adequately represent – the Nazi’s ideas about race. It also features the personal testimonies of eighteen individuals, with the aim, it says, of creating an exhibition that is “haunting and moving”.

This implication of emotional engagement is also present – more explicitly, perhaps – in my other example: the Jewish Museum, also in London. It tells the story of Leon Greeman, who survived six concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The collection is focused on his and his family’s personal collections, including his wife’s wedding dress. There are also films of other survivors’ testimonies. The aim here is clear: to create an emotional impact based on a human capacity and tendency to feel empathy for individuals. There is less emphasis on the broader historical context than in the Imperial War Museum.

There are a number of organisations in the UK promoting both of these ideas, and working closely with the heritage industry to do so. Two examples of this are the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Holocaust Learning.

Representatives of the HMDT sign a declaration, one of the statements in which is “We believe that the Holocaust must have a fundamental place in our nation’s collective memory”. They embrace the duality of representing the Holocaust, saying that they aim to “provide a national mark of respect for all victims of Nazi persecution and demonstrate understanding with all those who still suffer its consequences” but also “ensure that the horrendous crimes, racism and victimisation committed during the Holocaust are neither forgotten nor repeated, whether in Europe or elsewhere in the world.”

Holocaust Learning, based in Leeds, put an emphasis on teaching and learning about the Holocaust. They speak about the importance of using individual testimonies, rather than “shock factor” images, to educate. Their reason for this is that “much of the photographic evidence of the Holocaust was produced by the perpetrators. If we focus on this material, then the images the perpetrators had of their victims will be the same ones our students see. Shock doesn’t create a worthwhile learning experience, nor does it help the students explore the important issues that surround the Holocaust.” This idea counters my suggestion that personal testimonies are more about remembrance than learning – or at least highlights the different responsibilities schools and museums have.

In Scotland, there isn’t currently a permanent Holocaust memorial or exhibition. Efforts have been made: Edinburgh hosted HMD in 2003, there was a temporary exhibition organised by Heartstone in 2006 at Dynamic Earth, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre ran events for HMD in 2011 – but none of these add up to fixed national remembrance. It seems, however, there was some hope that the 2006 exhibition would be made permanent.

The Scotsman reported before it opened that Heartstone’s commission had been from the Scottish Executive and had specified permanence. But nothing came of it despite the efforts of the Association of Jewish Refugees. At the time, their spokesman Michael Newman hoped that it would be an “important exhibition that will shape the way the Holocaust is taught and remembered throughout the country.” As it stands, teachers rely on National Curriculum guidelines and the advice of organisations such as Holocaust Learning.

Learning can be hampered, however, by the need for sensitivity about the Holocaust. This is probably felt most keenly by those who would suffer the most if they caused offence: politicians. When the Heartstone exhibition opened in 2006, Scotland’s Community Minister at the time, Malcolm Chisolm, said “We know that some young people today are not aware of this atrocity. History teaches us powerful, important lessons and we must ensure that we are not complacent.” Though this echoes the aims of the HMDT, it also represents the consistent failure of this country to talk about the Holocaust in a meaningful and discursive way. It was an atrocity, of course, and he’s right – we mustn’t be complacent – but discussion and explanation facilitates understanding of the issue far better than reliance on the “lessons of the past” trope.

Of course memory is crucial, and the aims of the museums and organisations discussed here are clear and important, and they profitably go further than this model. But society as a whole – and particularly people like politicians, opening events and exhibitions – really seem to struggle to talk about it, whichhighlights the importance of the roles of organisations such as museums and schools. If they can teach a generation to be capable of sensitive discussion and thought, then we will be in a better position to facilitate understanding. This will allow for more significant remembrance, by saying that historical atrocities warrant informed reflection rather than blind – or scared – “respectful” comments. We can look back and move forwards at the same time.

Originally published in The Student, 29 November 2011.

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