Emotional detachment and difficult histories

I had the opportunity to attend another lecture tonight, this time at NMAJH, about the Holocaust and memory. It was delivered by Jeremy Black, a distinguished professor at the University of Exeter and, at 90 books, one of the most prolific historians to date. He spoke about how different aspects of the era, such as killing sites and the participation of non-Nazi citizens, have been represented both over time and in different countries. He also spoke about how the Holocaust fits into, or doesn’t fit into, the national narratives of various countries such as Hungary, Finland, Japan, and India.

Black was clearly well-researched and I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear him speak, but as he lectured, I could feel myself getting more and more upset. Afterwards, I got a drink with some classmates and coworkers to discuss the talk, and they had similar reactions to Black’s talk. They criticized his methods, his arrogance, and his avoidance of certain subjects such as personal memory and how to actually interpret this topic in public. But while I agreed with their criticisms, what truly bothered me was Black’s tone.

The Holocaust is a peculiar subject. It’s getting further away from us – 71 years since the camps were liberated – but it’s still so present for a number of reasons. Of course we still have people among us who lived through it, but also people still deny various aspects of its existence, or use it to support hateful and dangerous mentalities, or even make jokes about it. This means that we cannot talk about, or interpret, the Holocaust without also affirming that it happened and that it had a debilitating effect on so many people. It’s a raw and extremely personal thing for so many people. Historians must recognize this – you can’t talk about the Holocaust without acknowledging that your audience may still be processing this trauma, or living with the aftermath of it, even 71 years later.

Jeremy Black failed to do this. I could have forgiven his constant arrogance (maybe it was the British accent??). I would have overlooked his penchant for generalizations, as much as I disagreed with his use of them. But there was one audience interaction that I just can’t get over…

While discussing various groups’ responses to the Holocaust, Black was not kind to the Catholics. Referencing things like the Pope’s indifference and the Vatican’s post-war role in helping Nazis escape to Argentina, Black generalized about how the Catholics were a harmful element during the Holocaust. Towards the end of the Q&A session, a middle aged woman asked about best practices for people carrying on their survivor parents’ stories and, on the verge of tears, mentions that her mother survived the Holocaust and was taken in by nuns. It was an incredibly powerful moment, because you could tell the immense courage she had to muster to stand up to this man who, for the past 45 minutes, had been insulting the Catholics as a whole. Black didn’t even pause before exclaiming, “Good! Well…” and launching into a technical description of how to record one’s story. Maybe it was just me, but the tension in the room during his answer was palpable – he eventually thanked her for her question as a formality, but he never addressed her comment about the nuns. I can’t imagine how painful this must have been for that woman: to endure a whole lecture of invalidating her mother’s experiences, a moment of anxious self-advocacy, and immediate dismissal.

History is so difficult. There are so many subjects that are hard to do fairly, to interpret them critically while still being sensitive to others’ complicated relationships with that subject. I certainly struggle with that myself, such as when I’m interpreting immigration history to children who are immigrants themselves. How do you discuss your audience’s experiences without taking advantage or misinterpreting their stories?

I don’t think there’s a single right way to do this. But whatever this might look like, I certainly didn’t see it tonight. I got the impression that, for Black, the Holocaust was just Another Thing to Study… Sure, he spoke of it as a horrifying tragedy that we must maintain in our collective memory, but his generalization and his focus on statistics over individuals, his treatment was more clinical than anything else. Which might be okay for other subjects, like 18th century British politics (his apparent specialization), but absolutely not the Holocaust. You just can’t.

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