Holocaust Remembrance Day, an international holiday that commemorates the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, was commemorated Monday when a variety of artists and academics spoke about the forms that Holocaust remembrance might take in our current political climate. Nine women presented “Holocaust Memory in a Time of Nationalism” at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.
The nine presenters held a panel on a variety of different projects and messages. Each of them gave a seven minute presentation about either a personal story connecting them to the events of the Holocaust or a broader topic they felt was important in today’s discussion of those events.
The relatively small lecture hall was packed full of 42 people, composed almost entirely of middle-aged and elderly attendees. There was one undergraduate student in the audience, who came 15 minutes after the event began.
Karen Frostig, a self-described “public memory artist,” began the presentation by showing some of her work. It included 18 memory panels that she created in Vienna to celebrate her grandparents’ memories of their struggle during the Holocaust.
Karen Rosenthal continued by showing photographs. She began with pictures of possessions that her grandparents had taken with them as they fled Germany for America. She transitioned into darker photographs of a roll call that was held for Jewish men shortly after Kristallnacht, showing hundreds of men who had been made to shave their heads. She spoke about “echoes of Nazi Germany in Trump’s America” and showed a recent picture of a U.S. border patrol agent gleefully dumping out water jugs that had been left for immigrants.
Jutta Lindert described her experiences as a German citizen. She spoke about resurgences of anti-Semitism and a new German committee designed in May of 2018 to investigate hate crimes against Jewish people. She continued by talking about her studies on cultural memories of the Holocaust in descendants of Jewish people that lived through it. She hopes to find funding for a study on these same kinds of “embodied memories” in descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Sarah Swartz followed Lindert by talking about her parents’ experiences during the period of overwhelming nationalism in Germany leading up to the war. She showed photographs of the Fraenkelufer synagogue, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Holocaust. The synagogue was eventually restored and redecorated by her father and is now becoming a safe place for communication between religions and cultures.
Roberta Salper spoke about female perpetrators of the Holocaust. Though men were given all the governmental power in Germany during World War II, Salper’s research showed that women enacted the treachery of the German machine through jobs as secretaries, nurses, teachers, wardens and as wives of officers. In her seven minutes, she flew through horrendous details of atrocities committed by women. She ended by saying, “I’m going to stop here. I’ve got lots more, but I’m overtime, and it’s an exhausting topic.”
Debra Kaufman presented about shifts in the cultural narrative of the Holocaust over time. She spoke of the Holocaust as a “foundational wound” that still roots itself in young Jewish adults. She also said the tone of the conversation includes a larger emphasis on survivors, rather than victims, than it used to.
Laura Leff is a journalist who delved into the history of the “America First” movement that occurred during the beginning of World War II. America was reluctant to help the Jewish cause for a long time. Americans denied visas to many refugees, falsely claiming that German Jewish immigrants posed a national security risk. Drawing frequent parallel to American culture under Trump and his attitude towards immigrants, she spoke about the cultural campaign that portrayed the Jewish population in Germany as being too different from Americans to sacrifice resources for.
Ornit Barkai showed a short clip from a documentary film she had created. The documentary showed a Jewish family talking about the older generation’s memory of anti-Semitism in Germany in the period leading up to World War II.
The last presentation was Rachel Munn, a writer who shared two poems that depicted the experience of Jewish men who were forced to work in factories.
At the end of their presentations, the women sat in a row and answered questions from the audience. Each question had to do with one of the women’s work, but the others chimed in as they saw fit. One woman commented that the presentation was compact, and said that she would love to see each speaker give a longer speech about their topic. Kaufman said that the group was thinking about trying to give a larger, more thorough presentation in Berlin.