- Nothing Happens: Three stories in the South Hebron Hills
- New York City Green Revolution Building
- (Contestation of Statements) The US Holocaust Memorial Museum & The Scholars’ Petition
- #Never Again & Other Holocaust Objects Only Addle
- Teaching the Holocaust Again
- (Holocaust Memory) Laura Levitt Guest-Blog (The Evidence Room)
- Fragmentary Colossal Head of A Youth
- Bad Faith & Concentration Camps
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- Telling the Nakba in the Israeli Media
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- Auschwitz + Camp (The Holocaust in American Life in the New York Times Friday Weekend Arts II Section)
- There Is No Friend/Enemy Distinction in Israel & Palestine (May 2019)
- Robert Alter Reads Paul Mendes-Flohr Reading Martin Buber & Drops the Ball on God (A Meta-Meta-Meta Commentary)
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Pretty to look at, this residential apartment building in Morningside Heights is about to be eaten alive by the English Ivy.
Who is a Nazi? What is a concentration camp? The politicians have done their damage throwing Holocaust bombs at each other, leaving the rest of us involved professionally in this line of inquiry to sort through and volatilize further the mess left behind. In the feuding between scholar-colleagues and institutional professionals, I tend to sympathize with the latter. I worry that my scholar-colleagues come to these kinds of discussions from the vantage point of truth and truth alone, and that truths and their expression do not fare well in public sphere politics. There’s the sense too that the institutional professionals have a more keen grasp on how things actually appear in public and they have a more keen grasp on diverse constituencies. And they may have the more professional grasp as to the tempos of discourse online.
A case in point is the recent back and forth between the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the many scholars who petitioned the Museum after Museum spokespeople issued a statement reject in toto all analogies to the Holocaust in the wake of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez calling the border camps separating families in the U.S. to concentration camps. The quick and sloppy statement from the USHMM was too much for the scholars who bridled, pushing back in defense of the comparative and advocacy work that are necessary components to the work of Holocaust scholarship and of Holocaust education, and to the very work of the Museum itself, at which and with which many of the scholars are associated or have worked in the past.
What we saw was mostly online, and what that was was an amazing contestation of statements in the overlap between politics, museum-institutions, university scholars, and the U.S. media.
The statement from Ocasio-Cortez is what started the momentum. On Instagram, she wrote: “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are.” And then she said, “I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something,” she added. “The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the ‘Home of the Free’ is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it.”
Adding to the roil online that this first statement boiled up, the USHMM put out the following statement on June 24 (2019):
“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum’s official statement on the matter – a statement that is reiterated and reaffirmed now. The link to the Museum’s statement is cited below (December 12, 2018). The Museum further reiterates that a statement ascribed to a Museum staff historian regarding recent attempts to analogize the situation on the United States southern border to concentration camps in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s does not reflect the position of the Museum. The Museum deeply regrets any offense to Holocaust survivors and others that may have been engendered by any statement ascribed to a Museum historian in a personal capacity.”
This was the statement that provoked the scholars into what they viewed as the necessity to take immediate action. The scholars’ critical takeaway against the USHMM statement was in opposition to the rejecting of any and all analogies, historical and contemporary, to the Holocaust. In the rush to step in the breach, it would have been a very few who read this statement carefully or followed the link to the earlier statement from December 12, 2018. The first point to note was that that original statement caused none of the public alarm that the June statement did in response to the very public character of the Congresswoman’s Instagram provocation. What also is worthy of notice is the concern expressed by the USHMM regretting any offense that Holocaust survivors and others might have registered by an individual historian at the museum who backed up the analogy drawn by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. In this now very public dispute, the USHMM was, it seems, exercised not by the question of historical truth, but to sympathy for the individual (private) feelings (i.e. interest) of (to put it lightly) a core constituency vital to the work of the institution.
The June 2019 statement referred back to this more detailed statement made by the USHMM in December, 2018 against Holocaust analogies, and which I quote in full.
Nazis seem to be everywhere these days. I don’t mean self-proclaimed neo-Nazis. I’m talking about folks being labeled as Nazis, Hitler, Gestapo, Goering — take your pick — by their political opponents. American politicians from across the ideological spectrum, influential media figures, and ordinary people on social media casually use Holocaust terminology to bash anyone or any policy with which they disagree. The takedown is so common that it’s even earned its own term, reductio ad Hitlerum.
This trend is far from new, but it is escalating at a disturbing rate in increasingly polarized times. The Holocaust has become shorthand for good vs. evil; it is the epithet to end all epithets. And the current environment of rapid fire online communication and viral memes lends itself particularly well to this sort of sloppy analogizing. Worse, it allows it to spread more widely and quickly.
This oversimplified approach to complex history is dangerous. When conducted with integrity and rigor, the study of history raises more questions than answers. And as the most extensively documented crime the world has ever seen, the Holocaust offers an unmatched case study in how societies fall apart, in the immutability of human nature, in the dangers of unchecked state power. It is more than European or Jewish history. It is human history. Almost 40 years ago, the United States Congress chartered a Holocaust memorial on the National Mall for precisely this reason: The questions raised by the Holocaust transcend all divides.
Neither the political right nor left has a monopoly on exploiting the six million Jews murdered in a state-sponsored, systematic campaign of genocide to demonize or intimidate their political opponents. Recently, some conservative media figures explicitly likened Parkland, FL students advocating for tightened gun control to Hitler Youth, operating in the service of a shadowy authoritarian conspiracy. This allegation included splicing images of these students onto historical film footage of Nazi rallies, reflecting the ease with which many Americans associate the sound of German shouting with a threat to personal liberties. A state representative in Minnesota joined the online bandwagon in these accusations.
Perhaps most popular this year have been accusations of “Nazism” and “fascism” against federal authorities for their treatment of children separated from their parents at the US border with Mexico. “Remember, other governments put kids in camps,” is a typical rallying cry from some immigration advocates. Even a person as well versed in the tenuous balance between national security and compassion, the former head of the CIA, took to Twitter to criticize federal policies toward illegal migrants using a black and white photo of the iconic train tracks leading the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Nazi comparisons have also been leveled against the federal government in connection with a travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries. Animal rights proponents have consistently decried what they call “the Holocaust on your plate” in critiquing today’s meat industry. The list goes on.
It is all too easy to forget that there are many people still alive for whom the Holocaust is not “history,” but their life story and that of their families. These are not abstract tragedies on call to win an argument or an election. They carry the painful memories of the brutal murder of a cherished baby boy, the rape of a beloved sister, the parents arrested and never seen again.
As the Holocaust recedes in time, some Americans (and Europeans) are becoming increasingly casual and disrespectful to the mass murder of millions. More dangerous, today the internet disseminates insensitive or hateful remarks with unprecedented ease and influence. Online discussions tend to encourage extreme opinions; they allow people to live in echo chambers of their own ideologies and peers. Weimar Germany — the period between the First World War and the Nazi rise to power — is an exemplar of the threats that emerge when the political center fails to hold, when social trust is allowed to erode and the fissures exploited.
Quality Holocaust education may have the potential to bridge some of the divides our nation is experiencing. It enables people to pause. To step away from the problems and debates of the present. To be challenged by this catastrophic event of the past. That is what good history education does. It doesn’t preach. It teaches. It engages at a personal level. It promotes self-reflection and critical thinking about the world and one’s own roles and responsibilities. That engagement is lost when we resort to grossly simplified Holocaust analogies. And it demeans the memory of the dead.
Writing in 1953, the British novelist L.P. Hartley said “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Comparing and categorizing are natural human impulses. We all use categories and analogies to navigate through life. But the nature of Nazi crimes demands that we study the evidence, alert ourselves to warning signs, wrestle with the world’s moral failure. When we reduce it to a flattened morality tale, we forfeit the chance to learn from its horrific specificity. We lose sight of the ordinary human choices that made genocide possible.
Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse. At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever, it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. And we owe ourselves more than that.
Of interest in the scholars’ petition against the June 2019 statement was the argument that the position taken by the USHMM in June 2019 was itself anti-historical. It could be argued otherwise. In the December 2018 statement, the contemporary historical context to the resistance to analogies is sharply underscored. Of particular note: if you scroll down the December statement, the USHMM supports careful comparative work. There would seem to be an important but unobserved distinction between a “comparison” and an “analogy.”
Of particular note in the December 2018 statement is attention to the way that Holocaust discourse is especially riled up online. This is to say that the USHMM is keenly aware that their own resistance to analogies does not come out of nowhere and is not made in an absolute, but is politically and historically situated in our current moment, particularly in relation to online communication. About this latter point the scholars’ petition actually says nothing in relation to the current environment of rapid fire online communication and the instantaneous dissemination of viral memes, all of which lends particularly well to the sloppy analogizing resisted by the USHMM in the first place in response to something posted by an inexperienced but prominent Congresswoman on Instagram in the interest of making political hay.
This is the scholars’ petition as it appeared online at the New York Review of Books.
There first is the introduction to the scholars’ petition by the editors at the NYRB:
On June 17, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, posted an Instagram live video discussing the detention camps along the southern US border as “concentration camps” in which she used the phrase “Never Again.” This drew sharp criticism the following day from Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, and others for allegedly misappropriating a slogan associated with the Holocaust. After several days of heated media and political debate, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement on June 24 condemning the use of Holocaust analogies. We received the following open letter addressed to the director of the museum, Sara J. Bloomfield, delivered by the signatories on July 1.
Not a little disingenuous, the editors make it sounds as if only conservative Republicans opposed the analogy drawn by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, when in fact large segments of the Jewish community, including many, but by no means all, liberal Jews were riled up in the wake of the remarks.
And this is what the scholars signed off on:
We are scholars who strongly support the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many of us write on the Holocaust and genocide; we have researched in the USHMM’s library and archives or served as fellows or associated scholars; we have been grateful for the Museum’s support and intellectual community. Many of us teach the Holocaust at our universities, and have drawn on the Museum’s online resources. We support the Museum’s programs from workshops to education.
We are deeply concerned about the Museum’s recent “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies.” We write this public letter to urge its retraction.
Scholars in the humanities and social sciences rely on careful and responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison, and argumentation to answer questions about the past and the present. By “unequivocally rejecting efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is taking a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide. And it makes learning from the past almost impossible.
The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical. It has the potential to inflict severe damage on the Museum’s ability to continue its role as a credible, leading global institution dedicated to Holocaust memory, Holocaust education, and research in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.
Looking beyond the academic context, we are well aware of the many distortions and inaccuracies, intentional or not, that frame contemporary discussions of the Holocaust. We are not only scholars. We are global citizens who participate in public discourse, as does the Museum as an institution, and its staff. We therefore consider it essential that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reverse its position on careful historical analysis and comparison. We hope the Museum continues to help scholars establish the Holocaust’s significance as an event from which the world must continue to learn.
The petition is carefully parsed, although one suspects that the identification of the need to alert the public as being at the “core of Holocaust education” was a result of the quickness with which the scholars’ petition was formed. And to repeat, in no way did the USHMM in their June or December statement come out against comparative work, as opposed to analogies. This was not a fine point picked up in the scholars’ petition. One thing also of note is that the scholars’ petition did not in the process of defending comparative work in principle go on to support the particular analogy drawn by Ocasio-Cortez. Maybe that was the hay that the editors of the NYRB may or may not have wanted to make. But regarding the original statement that began this whole thing there might have been more disagreement, and the scholars were rightly concerned primarily to defend the canons of their own scholarly discipline.
As for the afterlife of a carefully parsed scholarly intervention online and in the public sphere there’s this little epilogue. While the petition said nothing by way of support for Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, that’s not how the media picked it up and reported the story. For example see here, and here, and here. In the version made public by the media, the scholars’ position supports the one made by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. It suggests that maybe scholars, invested in truth and method, pay less attention to what happens to their intervention out in the public where the fine methodological point gets lost. The scholars are easily lined up in support of the calling border camps “concentration camps.” Maybe what we learn is that the Museum officials were more aware and more self-aware than the scholars about the workings of the online lives we lead and the online life and political manipulations of Holocaust discourse.
As for the mission statement at the USHMM, it reads as follows:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.
The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
Chartered by a unanimous Act of Congress in 1980 and located adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Museum strives to broaden public understanding of the history of the Holocaust through multifaceted programs: exhibitions; research and publication; collecting and preserving material evidence, art and artifacts related to the Holocaust; annual Holocaust commemorations known as Days of Remembrance; distribution of education materials and teacher resources; and a variety of public programming designed to enhance understanding of the Holocaust and related issues, including those of contemporary significance.
Holocaust objects are widely recognizable and shared objects that convey Holocaust memory and the trauma that Holocaust memory carries. As old technologies, archaic today, they used to set that memory in stone. Examples include iconic photographs, historical sites, monuments, novels and memoirs, and films, persons and persona; they also include charged statements and slogans. As objects that are ready to hand, they were always easy to “manipulate.” For catharsis, one can pick up a Holocaust object, turn it around this way and that and put it to use. A long time ago, experts carefully, even jealously curated these objects, which were housed in specialized sites such as museums, synagogues, schools, the cinema arthouse. It has been decades now that Holocaust objects circulate more freely, let loose and in public on television and at the cineplex, and then finally as streaming digital content, subject to the proliferating logic of copies.
I remember how much energy and thought it took trying with more and less success to push the Holocaust out of the center of Jewish life (and out of the center of Jewish Studies). Once upon a time in the 1970s, only a few twenty-five year after the war, the Holocaust had been the lens with which one looked at everything related to the Jews and to Judaism. While activists on the Jewish left and right appealed to the still raw memory of the Holocaust, it was still (by and large) left safely in the hands of experts and Jewish establishment institutions. Combined with Israel and the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Holocaust was a central pillar to what Jacob Neusner famously dismissed as the “vicarious Judaism” of American Jews and American Judaism. Speaking from personal experience, I can safely say that I was eleven years old when I first saw Night and Fog for the second time at the Tisha B’Av commemoration at Labor Zionist summer camp in 1974.
Beginning already with the Eichmann Trial, a peak moment of first generation Holocaust memory and the creation of Holocaust objects for political consumption may have been in the early 1980s when the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, compared Yassir Arafat hiding from the Israeli army in Beirut during the first Lebanon War to Hitler hiding in a bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II. The statement was symptomatic, and for many critical observers, enough was enough. That moment summed up for those observers what was wrong with turning Holocaust memory into a political instrument. At some point Jewish educators, rabbis, and other institutional directors of Jewish life began to make less and less mention of the Holocaust, to tone it down, and to blunt the trauma. They did so at the very moment in the mid to late 1980s that Holocaust memory was institutionalized at museums, memorials, and events like the March of the Living. It was at the same time that Holocaust objects began to enter mainstream American popular culture. By the 1990s, anti-Semitism seemed to be a thing of the past. Holocaust memory was a safely sanitized topic of cultural grist. American Jews were safe and settled, and the State of Israel was strong and capable of protecting itself against forces that sought its extinction. “Jewish continuity” replaced “Never Again” as a buzzword in American Jewish life. Even as the Holocaust continued to rattle about in Jewish collective memory, Holocaust objects began to cool down for Jewish baby-boomers and Generation X.
Writing off the ideological configurations of institutional American Judaism, what Neusner did not understand is the power of the vicarious to organize collective action, and what he could not anticipate when he coined his phrase in the 1980s was the power of the internet to circulate Holocaust objects in digital form.
Coupled with the Confederate Flag, today the swastika is almost ubiquitous. Back in business, the Shoah has since surged back into the center of American life with the 2015 campaign of Donald Trump and his election in 2016. Almost no one saw it coming, the rise of white nationalism, anti-black and Mexican racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in this country and in Europe with white supremacists and neo-Nazis at large in the world. The Jewish world has been inundated by anti-Semtic memes, hate speech online, cemetery desecration, bomb threats to schools and Jewish community centers, and two active synagogue shootings, all inspired, at least in this country, in some way or another by the President. It has only been since the election of Trump and the hatreds dredged up by him that so many more Jewish institutions seek out the protection of armed guards. Offline and online, it’s in this current environment that Holocaust objects quickly heat up.
Now put into common play and alongside the swastika, “Never Again” is one such object. From Meir Kahane to Menachem Begin, to Benjamin Netanyahu, it has been the Jewish right that perfected the art of manipulating Holocaust objects. The routine weaponization of the Holocaust and the reification of its memory by cheap gestures, the very slogan “Never Again,” all of this used to be met with suspicion by critical thinkers, especially on the left. What’s different today is that the Jewish left, especially young people, and also Jewish academics, put their own hand to it, responding now from inside the seamless object-environment that has developed around the production of Holocaust memory.
With the rise of Trump and the fascist right in this country and in Europe, with asylum seekers and migrants from Central America left to rot in festering internment camps, the horrible urgency of now pushes Jewish trauma and Jewish slogans and other Holocaust objects into the center of American Jewish life. Jews on the right, orthodox and non-orthodox, are at peace with this. According to polls, an overwhelming majority of American Jews feels less safe than ever before and puts the blame squarely on President Trump, from whose person, it would seem, most American Jews recoil with disgust and fear.
That Holocaust objects are hot to the touch is why they demand careful and circumspect handling. But there is no moratorium to memory. Gentile philosemites on the right and the left marshal Jewish memory against each other, while the moral nihilism of the Jewish right (for whom there is nothing but Jewish trauma) meets the moral narcissism of the new-new Jewish left (for whom Jewish trauma is a birthright). In this social free for all, brought to a boil, Holocaust objects freely circulate. Against the common belief that there are “lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust, it could be argued just as easily and with some critical distance that Holocaust objects clarify nothing. They only addle the national conversation, in this country as they have in Israel, ever since Begin spied out Hitler hiding in Beirut.
This post being no exception, indeed being part of the very problem in relation to digital Holocaust objects and Holocaust memory, the word “addle” one can mean something specific in addition to “confuse.” It can also mean “From Middle English adle, from Old English ādl (“disease, infirmity, sickness, pain, languishing sickness, consumption”), from Proto-Germanic *aidlō, *aidlaz (“burning, fever, disease”), from Proto-Indo-European *aidh- (“to burn, shine”). Cognate with Middle Low German ādel (“ulcer, wound, sore”).”
I wrote the following notes after having taught at Syracuse my Holocaust class, the focus of which is Jewish religious response to the Holocaust. This post seems apt and I have since added to it.
While keeping to the basic structure of the course, I did some new things. I fixed the unit on women, I added a unit on Haredi thought, and I read more material, including the Eish Kodesh and other works by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, also the Em Ha’banim Samecha, George Didi-Huberman’s book about the four photographs of the death pit shot by members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, and a collection of interviews with members of the Sonderkommando, that was some of the basis for the script Son of Saul. Also, for the first time, I had the entire class watch Night and Fog together as a group.
For the purpose of the course, I keep the focus on the first generation of Holocaust memory and it’s first impact on religious thought. There is more freshness to the first discourse than the desiccated ways the material is often framed nowadays. Without getting that, there’s no reasonable, critical way forward.
What impressed me the last time I taught the Holocaust and the problem of religion is how all the old figures of speech, all the old tired doxa of Holocaust discourse are intact: incomprehension, sacred (as in set apart) (handle with care) (hedged in by strong moral and political taboo), uniqueness, privilege accorded to survivors’ testimony, the preciousness of catastrophic suffering and mass death, failure of ordinary language, barbarity of poetry, the negative, the meaning of witness. They may not mean exactly what they first meant at their origin of first usage, but the sense they convey have a distinct persistence.
To be sure, these doxa get pushed and shoved in the scholarly literature, which forms at a more critical historical and mental distance from the first moment of Holocaust discourse. There are new questions and perspectives, more knowingness about discourse and about how representations get framed and manipulated.
Now under Trump and with white supremacists and neo-Nazis out in the open online and in public, suddenly it seems, non-Jews and Jews today talk more openly about “using” Holocaust memory and the “lessons” we should be drawing from it. Colleague Joshua Shanes recently wrote a column to this effect at here at Ha’aretz in English about how we must use the Holocaust as a lens with which to view politics. According to a just as recent scholars’ petition, which you can read here, “The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”
What is the “core” of Holocaust education? The fundamental argument about the Holocaust Today is ontological. Is the Holocaust and its memory, in fact, a critical instrument and political apparatus with which to look at other primary things, a repertoire of slogans with which to motivate action? Or is the Holocaust and Holocaust memory its own grotesque thing, a primary object whose overwhelming gigantism does moral and psychic damage to any thing that comes anywhere close to its morbid body? In our expressive culture, the Holocaust is the ultimate rhetorical foil with which to contest good and evil. That the Holocaust in Israel, Europe, and the United States is a monster that has always been put to this or that political effect is a descriptive truth that scholars used to interrogate with critical suspicion, not necessarily a normative mission to embrace openly.
Like any discipline, the best Holocaust scholarship brings the student deep into a historical field and problematics particular to it. Returning to the urgent light one’s own political place and and time, the moral and political lessons tend to be extra-curricular and speculative. For all that we must submit them to skepticism, we can circle back to the old doxa. We can test them, like hitting a clay pot with a stick. The doxa stand up in their essentials. The Holocaust is not everything. We see it today from a further distance. It remains out there, a moral, political, and theological black hole from which no good will come.
[[With profound thanks, JPP is delighted to host as a guest-blog these reflections by Laura Levitt on “The Evidence Room.” About the exhibition, you can get your bearings here and here in this review that appeared in the NYT, and here. Among the keenest and cool-minded scholars writing on Holocaust memory and on the arts in Jewish Studies, Levitt follows the exhibit from the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, to The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, to its current location at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. The key concepts in this analysis turn around the invisible and visible, the placement and setting, the stark appearance of truth, ethical indictment, shadows and the material texture of memory.]]
“The Evidence Room” was built around the key forensic evidence Robert Jan Van Pelt presented in the British High Court as part of the 2000 libel case brought against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. It was made for the 2016 Architectural Biennale, a stark, all white room, walls made up of plaster casts of key documents, and scale replicas, monuments to this horrific legacy. The room offered as a powerful critique of the ethics of architecture.
By now, I have seen “The Evidence Room” many times. I made pilgrimage to Venice to view it as a part of the 2016 Architectural Biennale. I then went to Toronto where I saw it on exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and recently I went to Washington, DC to attend its American premiere at the Hirshhorn Museum. In these shifting venues the piece has taken on a range of textures and meanings moving between architecture, history, art, memory and commemoration.
Although placed at the center of a key pavilion at the Biennale, in many ways, its subtleties were not fully realized in that space. Given the contours of the room with large openings cutting through its center, many visitors just passed straight through. They moved quickly to the louder and more color-filled exhibitions that surrounded it. Nevertheless, in the Biennale, its message was unmistakable. “The Evidence Room” was an indictment. It raised powerful ethical questions about all of those professional architects, engineers, and craftsmen who created this horrific architecture of destruction at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The piece carries this message forward in all of its subsequent venues.
In Toronto “The Evidence Room” became more overtly about the Holocaust. At the ROM it was surrounded by additional antechambers. These included a space for reflection on the legacy of survivors, a quiet room across from the exhibition, and two additional chambers. The first of these presented a replicate of Auschwitz-Birkenau done in white with new casts of newspaper headlines announcing the outcome of the 2000 trial. The second offered more newspaper casts and a short video about the piece. But perhaps the most important innovation at the ROM was a reconfiguration of the room. Visitors could not walk straight through this version of the room. At the ROM the entry ways were now on a diagonal. This made the actual room feel more contained.
At the ROM that I got to spend substantial time in the room with Robert Jan van Pelt and some amazing docents who helped make vivid the complicated tale the room tells. I also got to meet other members of the Waterloo School of Architecture’s team. Through them I came to understand how the process of making the casts itself makes what is invisible visible, the negative space of the mold filled in by the plaster. I also came to appreciate more fully how in the stark whiteness of the room, light matters, some images and texts become more or less visible and learned that I could touch the casts and feel the weight of the door, hear the slam of its heavy functioning metal lock.
At the Hirshhorn “The Evidence Room” is presented more starkly, in a setting unto itself. Here the work seems strangely to fit into the modernist aesthetics of the building. It is also in conversation with the kinds of critical questions posed by many of the artistic works around it. This was a point powerfully made here by the director of the museum as she introduced the artists at the opening forum
The Hirshhorn exhibit includes a newly commissioned video at its conclusion and only a brief description of the work as viewers enter the room. This show marks the inauguration of The Evidence Room Foundation and its efforts to preserving and exhibiting this work.
The story Robert Jan van Pelt, Anne Bordeleau and Donald McKay—the artists at the heart of the Waterloo team—told in the room and at the opening forum at the Hirshhorn were more about truth, evidence, and legal matters than what I heard at the ROM. They spoke about the plaster casts as an ancient practice used at crime scenes. Plaster has long been used to capture, for example, the trace of a footprint. And they talked about the wire of the gas column as well as the other ways that the room echoes a police property room, simple and utilitarian. But they also stressed again the crimes this evidence attests to–how the Nazis created with their own hands, this architecture of destruction. They used all of their skills and training to make these horrific things.
The artists stressed the evidence, the need to prove, without a doubt, that the Holocaust happened. They reminded all of us that the room is made up of the forensic evidence, blue prints, plans, drawing, memos showing how carefully planned the gas chambers and the crematoria were. And, as hard as it is to take this all in when in the room, we were reminded that the room’s walls are formed by those plaster casts of critical documents that point directly to the specifications for the monuments at the heart of the room. The gas column, the door to the gas chamber, and a gas hatch, those full-scale reproductions were built from the evidence collected on walls of this room.
As the artists explained at the Hirshhorn, the evidence at trial was all about not allowing the deniers to chip away at the veracity of our knowledge of the Holocaust.
Bone white, “The Evidence Room” is a stark space of Holocaust commemoration where light makes visible, from different angles, the texture of these horrible memories even as they cast large shadows. Remembering, learning about this legacy is neither simple nor direct. It is not easy and neither is “The Evidence Room.” How could it be.
This colossal head Greek head from the 2nd century BCE found in a gymnasium at Pergamon in western Turkey and brought by way from the Pergamon in Berlin where he is still on loan in New York at the Metropolitan Museum.
I googled his name “Fragmentary Colossal Head of A Youth” and found this about him here at Hyperallergic, “There’s speculation,” writes Allison Meier, “that Alexander the Great is the subject of Head of a Youth,’ the seductive visage similar to many of the idealized portrayals of the young conqueror. This piece was found in a Pergamon gymnasium, the shelter protecting the marble from decay. The soft milkiness of the face is interrupted by a break in the sculpture, severing the head at an angle right below the eyes. Its beauty and violence is a fitting embodiment of the spread of culture by war in the exhibition, and will linger as a striking example of Hellenistic marble after its close.
Assuming that the identity of the youth is, indeed, Alexander the Great, there more about that in this review by James Romm of the exhibition Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World here in The New Yorker also from 2016. Romm writes about the “interconnectedness of this age, in which ease of travel and trade, and rising levels of wealth, created a market for fine art and luxury goods across large stretches of three continents.”
“Classical” and, at the same time, “surreal,” The marvelous thing about this figure as he appears to us in his current manifestation is the combination of fresh marble, sheer volume and the damage done to it.