Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era, edited by Diana I. Popescu and Tanja Schult

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Diana I. Popescu and Tanja Schult, eds., Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. xiii+309pp., $69.99 (ebook), $99.99 (hardcover).

Diana I. Popescu declares in the introduction to Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era, a volume in Palgrave Macmillan’s “The Holocaust and its Contexts” series, that this collection of essays on Holocaust representation was written for the “post-witness” and “post-memory” generations—that is, for generations whose “culturally and politically mediated memory work” differs fundamentally from the “living memory” of survivors and their families. For these generations, artistic, imaginative representations of the Holocaust are essential in order that the past remain relevant and the memory vivid, rather than being shrouded in silence or distorted through a false sense of closure.

The particular concern of the volume is the phenomenon of what Popescu calls “afterwardness” or, more awkwardly, “post-ness.” With this concept Popescu not only refers to the fact that we are now moving into a “post-witness” era, but also acknowledges the indebtedness of Holocaust memory discourse today to the watershed events, emerging intellectual trends, and seminal cultural products of the past few decades, including, to name only a few: an academic turn to perpetrator studies; public debates concerning memorialization; Austria’s public recognition of historical guilt; the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; the opening of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus; and debates in Poland over Jan T. Gross’s Neighbors. This volume thus ambitiously situates itself from its opening pages as a response to key shifts within Holocaust remembrance discourse emerging from political, historical, cultural, and artistic realms.

According to Popescu, the book’s focus on representations of the Holocaust as an “imaginative discourse” underlies its purpose and the selection of essays, but it also reveals something about the contributors themselves: namely, that the majority of the included essays were written by still-emerging scholars who themselves belong to this generation for whom the Holocaust past is fundamentally mediated and imagined. Alongside essays of established scholars Ernst van Alphen, Tim Cole, and James E. Young, there are many by current doctoral students and early career academics. The essays originated in a conference in Uppsala in March 2013, and the contributors themselves reflect the conference’s international nature, hailing from Europe, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This diversity is also echoed in the topics of the essays, which touch on a range of themes and genres from installation art, memorial art, literature, film, and comics, to the phenomenon of “listing” in Holocaust memorial practice and the Stockholm Declaration.

Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era is divided into four sections. Part I, “Revisiting Artistic Practices of Holocaust Commemoration,” begins with Ernst van Alphen’s essay “List Mania in Holocaust Commemoration.” Van Alphen points to a recent trend in Holocaust memorialization: the creation of new memorials, often in digital form, that consist of lists. On the one hand, this archival memorial mode of listing can be viewed as valuable and respected for its ability to restore individuality to the victims. On the other hand, the genre itself is potentially problematic, owing to the copious and well-known use of listing as a device of control and persecution by the Nazis. Listing as a method of memorialization, therefore, as seen in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names and the Shoah Names Database, as well as in a 2012 memorial in the Netherlands, In Memoriam: The Deported and Killed Jewish, Roma and Sinti Children 1942–1945, can produce uncanny effects, which van Alphen previously designated “Holocaust effects.” His core question, then, is whether the production of Holocaust effects can effectively and responsibly commemorate the Holocaust. By examining the listing practices of Christian Boltanski, Guus Luijters, Serge Klarsfeld, and Georges Perec and by considering the role of photographic portraits in memorial lists as a tool for evoking the enormity of the Holocaust, van Alphen demonstrates how the memorial mode of listing can be effective as a memorial for post-witness generations.

Jacob Lund’s essay, which follows van Alphen’s, is entitled “Acts of Remembering in the Work of Esther Shalev-Gerz—From Embodied to Mediated Memory.” It begins with the question of how contemporary representations of the Holocaust “communicate and transmit” the experience of the Holocaust to the “post-generations” and thereby work against oblivion. Focusing on two installation works by Esther Shalev-Gerz, Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz 1945–2005 (2005) and MenschenDinge/The Human Aspect of Objects (2006), Lund investigates how contemporary artistic memorial works can at once enact and investigate remembrance. Shalev-Gerz’s installations, Lund argues, engage a method of dialogical aesthetics that promotes a discursive mode of enunciation and thus seeks to evoke active participation from the audience. Gesture and silence, Lund shows, are integral parts of testimony and witness, and Shalev-Gerz’s works highlight both of these essential aspects.

The remaining three essays in the first section are by James E. Young, Imke Girßmann, and Tracy Jean Rosenberg. In “Countermonuments as Spaces for Deep Memory,” Young analyzes Shalev-Gerz’s memorial projects in conjunction with the concept of Holocaust survivors’ “deep memory” and the challenges of verbal articulation. The other two essays, Girßmann’s “Sites that Matter: Current Developments in Urban Holocaust Commemoration in Berlin and Munich,” and Rosenberg’s “Contemporary Holocaust Memorials in Berlin: On the Borders of the Sacred and the Profane,” focus on ideas of memorialization and urban space and explore how the two impact and act on each other. Girßmann engages a comparative lens as she examines centralized and decentralized memorial approaches through a study of monuments in Berlin, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nationalist Socialist Regime, and Places of Remembrance in Berlin-Schöneberg, as well as Michaela Melián’s audio artwork in Munich called Memory Loops: 175 Audio Tracks on Sites of NS Terror in Munich, 1933–1945. Rosenberg, in turn, presents the idea of remembrance as ritual and Holocaust memory as partaking of the sacred in her analysis of Berlin memorials. She argues that new memorials in Berlin such as the Stolpersteine and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe “test the borders” of the sacred and the profane by bringing them closer together than was previously possible. By highlighting the tension between the sacred and the profane in memorialization, memorial designers find novel ways to engage a new generation of visitors.

Part II, entitled “Sites of Struggle with Haunting Pasts,” includes essays by Tim Cole, Tanja Schult, Jan Borowicz, Erica Lehrer and Magdalena Waligórska, and Ceri Eldin. Tim Cole’s essay, “Holocaust Tourism: The Strange yet Familiar/The Familiar yet Strange,” explores changes in Holocaust tourism over time, from the first Holocaust tourists—Wehrmacht ghetto tourists of 1941—to the tourist today who travels to former ghettos and concentration camps. Cole also considers the unique experiences of an additional group of visitors to such sites: returning survivors. The next essay in the volume, “To Go or Not to Go? Reflections on the Iconic Status of Auschwitz, its Increasing Distance and Prevailing Urgency,” by co-editor Tanja Schult, focuses on three artistic works: the series of drawings Sensmoral or Death by Patrick Nilsson; the series of drawings Auschwitz through a Train Window by Aleksandra Kucharska; and the photographic work Auschwitz—What Am I Doing Here? by Mikołaj Grynberg. As Schult demonstrates, all three works “deal with how we handle and relate to the memory of the memory of the Holocaust.” They raise for us, finally, the question of the legacy of memory and, ultimately, of why we should continue today to learn about the Holocaust and to visit its sites. The following three essays, entitled “Holocaust Zombies: Mourning and Memory in Polish Contemporary Culture”; “‘A Picnic Underpinned with Unease’: Spring in Warsaw and New Genre Polish-Jewish Memory Work”; and “The Limits of Forgiveness and Postmodern Art,” carry further the examination into representations of the Holocaust in Polish and Swedish contemporary culture, in the realms of Polish literature, public performance, and Swedish video art.

Part III, “Rethinking Representation in Literature and Popular Culture,” includes essays that cover a range of topics in literature (Hampus Östh Gustafsson’s “Auschwitz, Adorno and the Ambivalence of Representation: The Holocaust as a Point of Reference in Contemporary Literature”), film (Elizabeth M. Ward’s “Questions of (Re)Presentation in Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz, 2011, and Ingrid Lewis’s “‘Ordinary Women’ as Perpetrators in European Holocaust Films”), and comics (Christine Gundermann’s “Real Imagination? Holocaust Comics in Europe”). The essays in this part of the volume address issues of genre and narrative, memory, and audience through theoretical and formal lenses.

The final section of the book, Part IV: “Memory Politics in Post-2000 (Trans) National Contexts,” includes three essays that address political questions of Holocaust remembrance and public memory. In “Austria’s Post-Holocaust Jewish Community: A Subaltern Counterpublic between the Ethics and Morality of Memory,” Christian Karner focuses on the Jewish community in Austria today and representations of the Holocaust in a range of genres and contexts, including literature, public debate, academia, and public media. Above all, he is concerned with the relationships between popular and subaltern culture, memory, morality, and ethics, and he brings a perspective sharpened by the theoretical writings of Katherine Biber, Nancy Fraser, and Avishai Margalit. The final two essays, Kristin Wagrell’s “Cosmopolitan Memory in a National Context: The Case of the ‘Living History Forum’” and Larissa Allwork’s “Holocaust Remembrance as ‘Civil Religion’: The Case of the Stockholm Declaration (2000)” address, respectively, art exhibitions of the Swedish Living History Forum and the institutionalization and sacralization of Holocaust memory as a civil religion.

Revisiting Holocaust Representation in the Post-Witness Era offers its readers an impressive range of texts on Holocaust remembrance and commemoration today from the particular perspective of the post-witness generations. Theoretically informed and rich in detail, this thought-provoking volume suggests many new directions for future research and engagement with the topics of memory, representation, and mediation. One might wish for a more in-depth, thorough, and thoughtful introduction to the volume—one that could have explained in a deeper, more detailed way the reasoning behind the selection of texts and how they might complement and draw on each other. Moreover, the index (five pages in relation to the book’s 304 pages of text), is sparse to the point of being symbolic. The burden of finding coherence and resonance among the different parts of the volume falls on the reader and it demands at times a considerable effort, but, given the many excellent contributions, it is worthwhile. To the corpus of existing literature on Holocaust representation, this volume adds a specific, methodologically sharp, and insightful point of view: the perspective of the “post-witness” and “post-memory” generations. This perspective will increasingly inform Holocaust discourse in the future; this volume, therefore, offers a timely contribution to our continued engagement with Holocaust remembrance and commemoration.

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