“Remembering” The Holocaust

Holocaust history, memory and art.

Reprinted with permission from Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.

Some people want to forget where they’ve been; other people want to remember where they’ve never been.

–Eli Cohen and Gila Almagor, from their film, Under the Domin Tree


How is a post-Holocaust generation of artists supposed to “remember” events they never experienced directly? Born after Holocaust history into the time of its memory only, a new, media‑savvy generation of artists rarely presumes to represent these events outside the ways they have vicariously known and experienced them.

This post‑war generation, after all, cannot remember the Holocaust as it actually occurred. All they remember, all they know of the Holocaust, is what the victims have passed on to them in their diaries, what the survivors have remembered to them in their memoirs. They remember not actual events, but the countless histories, novels, and poems of the Holocaust they have read, the photographs, movies, and video testimonies they have seen over the years. They remember long days and nights in the company of survivors, listening to their harrowing tales, until their lives, loves, and losses seem grafted onto their own life stories.

Coming of age after–but indelibly shaped by–the Holocaust, this genera­tion of artists, writers, architects, and even composers does not attempt to represent events they never knew immediately but instead portray their own, necessarily hyper‑mediated experiences of memory. It is a generation no 1onger willing, or able, to recall the Holocaust separately from the ways it has been passed down to them.

By portraying the Holocaust as a “vicarious past,” these artists insist on maintaining a distinct boundary between their work and the testimony of their parents’ generation. Such work recognizes their parents’ need to testify to their experiences on the one hand, even to put the Holocaust “behind them.” But by calling attention to their vicarious relationship to events, the next generation ensures that their “post‑memory” of events remains an unfinished, ephemeral process, not a means toward definitive answers to impossible questions.

Moreover, what further distinguishes these artists from their parents’ generation is their categorical rejection of art’s traditional redemptory function in the face of catastrophe. For these artists, the notion that such suffering might be redeemed by its aesthetic reflection, or that the terrible void left behind by the murder of Europe’s Jews might be compensated by a nation’s memorial forms, is simply intolerable on both ethical and historical grounds.

At the ethical level, this generation believes that squeezing beauty or pleasure from such events afterwards is not so much a benign reflection of the crime as it is an extension of it. At the historical level, these artists find that the aesthetic, religious, and political linking of destruction and redemption may actually have justified such terror in the killers’ minds.

Not only does this generation of artists intuitively grasp their inability to know the history of the Holocaust outside of the ways it has been passed down to them, but they also see history itself as a composite record of both events and these events’ transmission to the next generation.

This doesn’t mean that vicarious memory of the past thereby usurps the authority of history itself, or that of the historians and their research; after all, as they are the first to acknowledge, they inevitably rely on hard historical research for their knowledge of what happened, how and why. But in addition to the facts of Holocaust history, they recognize the further facts surrounding this history’s transmission to them, that its history is being passed down to them in particular times and places.

These are not mutually exclusive claims, or competing sets of facts, but both part of history’s reality. Neither history nor memory is regarded by these artists as a zero‑sum game in which one kind of history or memory takes away from another; nor is it a contest between kinds of knowledge, between what we know and how we know it; nor is it a contest between scholars and students­ of the Holocaust and the survivors themselves. For these artists know that the facts of history never “stand” on their own–but are always supported by the reason for recalling such facts in the first place.

For American artists like Art Spiegelman, David Levinthal, and Shimon Attie whose work I explore here, their subject is not the Holocaust so much as how they came to know it and how it has shaped their inner lives. Theirs is an unabashed terrain of memory, not of history, but no less worthy of exploration. When they go to represent this “vicarious past,” they do so in the artistic forms and media they have already long practiced.

When commix‑artist Art Spiegelman remembers the Holocaust, therefore, he recalls both his father’s harrowing story of survival and the circumstances under which he heard it. In his “comixture” of images and narrative, he is able to tell both stories simultaneously, turning them into a single, double‑stranded narrative.

When photographer David Levinthal was asked by his art teacher at Yale why he took photographs of toys in historical tableaux instead of historical reality itself, he answered simply that the vintage Nazi figurines he collected and photographed were his historical reality, the only remnants of the past he personally experienced. By photographing his imagined recreations of Nazi pageantry, their war‑machine, and murder of the Jews, Levinthal would limit his presentations to an exploration of that which he knows from history books, photographs, and mass‑media images.

Similarly, in his European environmental installations, artist Shimon Attie has projected archival photographic images of the past–his memory–back onto the otherwise amnesiac sites of history in order to reanimate these sites with his “memory” of what happened there. Haunted by what he regarded as the specter of missing Jews in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel, Attie projected photographs of Jews from this quarter taken in the 1920s and 1930s back onto their original sites. Here he has literally projected the “after‑images” in his mind back onto otherwise indifferent landscapes.

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