Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Evolution of Holocaust Remembrance

Deputy Director Anita Kassof is attending the Association of Holocaust Organizations winter conference in Washington, D.C. Since she is conferring about important Holocaust matters this week, this seemed like the right time to post her blog about her return to the world of Holocaust remembrance. Perhaps we can even get a follow-up post after she comes back.

I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle.

As the first assistant curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I worked from 1988 to 2000, I helped build the collections by gathering materials and stories from Holocaust survivors, some of whom were coming to terms with the past for the first time. In the years since I left the USHMM, I curated an exhibition about refugees from Nazi Germany and co-authored two Holocaust-related books. But they were discrete projects, undertaken within the context of a more general museum career. Since I began working at the MJH in October, I’ve immersed myself in interpretation of the Holocaust, full-time and as my main focus, for the first time since 2000.

And just like Rip waking up from his long nap, I find that the landscape has changed.

Whereas Holocaust commissions and committees and the boards of Holocaust museums used to be dominated by survivors whose vision and drive helped shape those organizations, today the survivors’ presence is often less prominent than that of their children, grandchildren, or others who have no familial connection to the Holocaust. At the Museum’s Generation to Generation Dinner in November, David Marwell asked all of the survivors in the room of 350 people to stand. Only a scattering were there to do so. Two decades ago, most of the people in the room would have stood.

I am glad to be back. The tenor of Holocaust remembrance is changing so rapidly that I think that now, more than ever, we need to renew our energies, to work closely with those survivors who are with us, and to rethink how we remember and interpret the Shoah. That means not only training survivors’ children and grandchildren (“2G” and “3G ” in new lingo I’ve recently learned) to tell their family’s stories, but also innovating ways to find meaning in the Holocaust without resorting to simplistic morality lessons, and using the Shoah to help us understand contemporary tragedies.

And it means figuring out how to make that singular event resonate for future learners who will never have the privilege of hearing first-hand testimony from living survivors.

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