"Remembering" The Holocaust

Holocaust history, memory and art.

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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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James E. Young

James E. Young is Professor of English and Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.