Monday, May 16, 2011

The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Altruism in Extremes

Introduction

With the passing of more and more elderly direct survivors we who are spiritual survivors of the Shoah must assume greater-than-ever responsibility for the character and impact of the Holocaust Narrative we pass along. For nearly 70 years since the war’s end we have emphasized the Nazi Story, one of unforgivable Horror. At great cost to our grasp of history and our self-esteem we have minimized attention to the Jewish Story, that of the remarkable effort of victims to help one another despite fierce Nazi opposition to any evidence of the humanity of “sub-humans.” It is time to rebalance attention, and renew Holocaust education and memorialization content; we owe this to the 6 million, to our progeny to our religious faith, and to posterity. – Art Shostak (Bio)

Summary by Theresa Willingham

In his essay “The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Altruism in Extremes” (Philadelphia Jewish Voice, April 2011), Dr. Arthur Shostak, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Drexel University, calls for a new, more powerful and sustaining way to frame the Holocaust story, one that puts a higher emphasis on the strength of character and spirit that guided the Jewish people through the atrocities of the time.

Dr. Shostak’s work focuses on “Stealth Altruism,” also the title of his upcoming book, which looks at the myriad ways that concentration camp prisoners and others defied the inhumanity thrust upon them in countless subtle but powerful ways. He cites examples of people shielding one another from capture, at risk to their own lives; of teens in Terezin who, despite sure death sentences, created a literary magazine that focused on everything but life in the concentration camp; adults who created an informal university with over 500 lecturers (of whom less than 200 survived) and more than 2400 “courses.”

These instances of human perseverance and strength of character under the most inhumane of conditions, Dr. Shostak believes, create a far greater and more enduring story on which to build and sustain a religious and cultural future. Without refocusing the Jewish collective memory on a more positive and uplifting story of the Holocaust, Dr. Shostak believes the Jewish community is in danger of what Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse calls “substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah's insistence on life.”

Dr. Shostak believes Rachel Korazim, director of Education at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, sums the problem up well when she says, “We’ve managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images. This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history.”

“In the very near future the last of the direct survivors (and perpetrators) of the 1933-1946 Holocaust will pass away,” Dr. Shostak writes. “In the aftermath we will inherit responsibility for shaping a fresh telling of the greatest crime of the 20th century, a persuasive re-telling that should lend a special meaning to 21st century life. We could break with memorialization tradition and adopt a new approach, one that emphasizes not the Horror of Nazi insanity, but instead the Help that victims shared with one another. Were we to do so Jews here and elsewhere would finally understand how very much we have to be proud of in the record of our co-religionists in extremis.”

Relevant Links

The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Altruism in Extremes
The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Reimagining the Museum at Auschwitz

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