Sunday, January 3, 2010

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

While in Berlin, I naturally had some inclination to check-out the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The installation itself is impressive. One descends into a field of large concrete slabs, within which one becomes lost, overwhelmed by the enormity of the slabs. The installation effectively creates a strong visceral sensation in which the immovable forces of the concrete slabs dominate the experience of the participant. The expansiveness of the field of slabs reinforces this feeling of scale wherein the individual is clearly subjugated by an inherently cold and unimpressionable surrounding. This sensation forms a strong metaphor with the holocaust experience for European Jewry.

Below the outdoor installation is a very well constructed space which houses a museum. Here, the concrete slabs extend down from the ceiling obscuring one's sight lines. Passages through spaces are narrow and difficult to navigate and the layout of the space is counter-intuitive with rooms stationed in unexpected places. All of this contributes to the feeling of being in a catacomb: an underground maze of the dead.

However, notwithstanding the overall effectiveness of the spacial architecture, the museum exhibition itself prompted my cynicism. While some of the exhibition rooms maintained a discrete and austere quiet, others overtly and deliberately pulled at heartstrings. One such exhibit had excerpts from various letters and diaries of deceased on display for viewers to contemplate. I wished that the gallery had resisted the temptation to indulge this kind of narrative construction.

My response was outwardly profane and I found it hard to suppress a "holocaust crap" commentary. J., my German escort was mortified with embarrassment by my tirade. He was eager to have us leave before we were detained by security.

Outside, I am able to elaborate, explaining my sense that these kinds of exhibitions which distill and synthesize the holocaust into small manageable morsels, give an audience a very mistaken feeling that they have accessed the human tragedy of the holocaust.

My colleague M. asks me if my objection is specifically the ease with which the personal information of the victims is derived. He wonders if the content were stored in some kind of archive, which viewers could peruse, would my objections be minimized?

An interesting question and I think he's perhaps dead on. In visualizing the hundreds and thousands of fragments of letters, notes, diaries, etc that form an archive of the holocaust, I sense an authentic struggle to understand and discern the enormity of the experience. Fundamentally, it is the inherent disorder of the tragedy that properly contextualizes the event as mostly beyond comprehension and assimilation.

But nonetheless, the world over, spectators are served up the holocaust and it is consumed with an eerie homogeneity, as though the holocaust itself were an industry that depended on meeting a consumer need in order to stay in business.

The disturbing implication of the holocaust being bought is that it is seemingly owned. From an ideological point of view, this is certainly true and something that is central to
Norman Finkelstein's writings. The holocaust has become a defining feature of being Jewish: a constant and reoccurring justification for not only the existence of the state of Israel but also its highly aggressive military tactics.

The mainstream Jewish community at-large has wrapped itself in the cloak of the tragedy, granting itself perpetual moral indignation and shielding itself from reasonable criticism. "Never Again!" has become a near deafening rallying call of the Jewish community spawning an extensive conservative movement of self-interested activism.

That an ethnic community should become defensive in the face of an experience of rigorous ethnic cleansing seems to be a reasonable multi-generational outcome. Here, I reflect on the very important work that contemporary abolitionists do with respect to addressing the historical legacy of slavery of African-Americans or the healing and re-discovery work done by Native North Americans. However, there is, in my view, a very crucial distinction between the above rehabilitating movements and the activism of the Jewish community.

In effect, the community that has spearheaded the "Never Again!" movement is the diaspora Jewish community of North America. I do not think this movement is a survivor's movement, not one meant to address the trauma and associated legacy of suffering. Unlike the North American Native re-discovery movement there is no move to understand and/or re-create the underlying culture of pre-holocaust shtetl life. Indeed, within the secular Jewish community that so closely identifies with the holocaust, Yiddish, the language nearly made extinct by said tragedy, is a mostly forgotten relic of the past.

Clearly, I am defensive. My four grandparents were survivors and the internal trauma imbedded within our family discourse runs deep. Thus, it is with much scepticism that I look upon the Jewish community at-large who have adopted and co-opted the experience as their own as a means of galvanizing a regressive political movement.

Amongst other effects, this co-opting of a genocidal experience, outside its own lineage, creates problems in terms of the representation of trauma amongst other ethnic communities. The mainstream Jewish community has become the pre-eminent voice for ethnic tragedy, claimed under false pretences, effectively stifling and diminishing the public voice of those ethnic communities who have indeed actually suffered through slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide etc. Simply put, the tragedies of people the world over are continually marginalized and diminished by the authoritative collective voice of Jewish suffering who reinforce that no trauma can be as great as the Jewish holocaust.

Coming from a place of relative privilege and, continually representing an experience outside of its own experience and lineage further intensifies the disservice the "Never Again!" movement renders upon those most marginalized in the world.

Returning to the exhibition housed at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I can now more clearly understand pedagogy at work in the execution of the museum space. The fragmentation, enormity, and inherent inaccessibility of the actual experience of the holocaust limits the potential consumers of holocaust rhetoric. But like the current trends in social media where credibility is established by the size of one's audience, the marketers of the "holocaust" understand the importance of breaking the experience down into evocative bite-sized chunks that are easily and satisfyingly consumed. Thus, the market for "holocaust" derivative product grows and the owners of the "holocaust" message gain prominence, credibility and moral clout.

At the end of the day, the exhibition is not about those Jews murdered in Europe. Indeed, their experience is too vast to own, consume or even comprehend. Rather, this museum space is a part of the holocaust industry (in partnership with the mass proliferation of holocaust-based films coming out of Hollywood) which reinforces the false association between the Jewish community-at-large and an intangible and enormous experience of suffering.


  1. There was an interesting novel on the issue of who owns the Holocaust called "My Holocaust: A Novel" by Tova Reich. As a book it was only middling but it did broach the exploitation of the Holocaust in a bold manner.

    My issue is the fact that 11 million people died in the Holocaust, not six million. By ignoring the other, horrifically large number of innocent victims, I believe the Jews engage in exactly the type of self-interest mentioned in your blog. It cheapens the tragedy in a way that Holocaust denies never can.

    Who will speak for the other 5 million? The Roma (Gypsies), liberals, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, the black, Poles, Slavic peoples and the people of consciences who were murdered in the same ovens as the Jews?

  2. you raise a very good point. the co-opting of the catastrophe extends directly and specifically to the Holocaust itself. well put.

  3. Hey Zev,
    Did you realize that Der Speigel outed the fact a couple of years back that the company that made the grafitti-proof paint for the Memorial in Berlin was the same compnay that made Zyklon B in the good ol' Third Reich. Ah, Deutschland, it never stops freaking one out. Too bad, I missed you back in the fall, I wouyld've been a good tour guide for you, especially the ex-DDR east in my end of town. All the best to the missus and the kiddies, sounds like all's going well these days, take care----Sean