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Choosing to Remember/Choosing to Forget: Shaping legacies of a violent past

By news editor, on 13 May 2013

How do victims cope with the atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust? What’s more, how do the perpetrators?

This Festival of the Arts panel session on 9 May addressed different elements of how people struggle to remember or forget their experiences of the Holocaust. It was not, as I had expected, about the psychology behind memory loss or recall following traumatic events; rather about how strategies of coping can manifest itself in various forms such as film, literature and discourse.

Holocaust Memorial Berlin
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, courtesy of Daniel Foster on Flickr

The speakers were Professor Mary Fulbrook, Dr Stephanie Bird, Dr Christiane Wienard, Dr Julia Wagner and PhD students Gaelle Fisher and Alexandra Hills, together covering post-1945 literature, film and history. As each of the six speakers had time for only a snapshot of their area of research, you got the distinct impression that each merely scratched the surface as they tried to condense years of work into eight minutes each. However, each talk was thought provoking and concise, and generated a lively discussion at the end of the lecture.

Dr Stephanie Bird spoke about literature and film, and how we approach films and books about periods of violence. Her main interest is that of spectatorship; how we look at the shipwreck of other people’s lives and the ways in which it can even evoke pleasure. According to Dr Bird, we often sense pleasure at historical violence, but if it is too evident then we can become anxious and often use comedy as a coping mechanism. Here she drew on the example of Hilsenrath’s satirical novel Der Nazi und der Friseur (The Nazi and the Barber).

It became apparent in the discussion after Stephanie’s presentation that this analysis isn’t restricted to those reading historical books about the Second World War. We can all relate to a fascination we might feel when watching a particularly gruesome battle scene or visiting a war museum, yet this is taking enjoyment from someone else’s suffering. How do we justify this to ourselves? Somehow, making light of these tragedies makes it more acceptable.

Dr Christiane Wienand is a historian who is interested in young people’s discourse of reconciliation. She has a very different area of research: looking into how young people bore the burden of their parents’ responsibility for their actions during the Second World War.

Dr Wienand studied a small group of young Germans who went to Israel to atone for their parents’ crimes by undergoing reconciliation activities. Here they met Holocaust survivors and learnt about their day-to-day life throughout the war. The young Germans constantly reflected on their own guilt, and responsibility for their generation and those to come. They wanted to ask Jewish people for their forgiveness; even though legally they were without guilt, they were still implicated by an older generation’s actions. Questions arose of whether reconciliation is possible, and if so, shouldn’t it be the perpetrators who engage in it?

Professor Mary Fulbrook discussed the degree of ‘choice’ in forgetting; for example in Berlin there is a huge Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg Gate that cannot be missed, and is an everlasting reminder for generations to come.

The overarching message that I got from all of the research and discussion was how troubled Europeans are that a supposedly progressive and forward-thinking Western country could act in such a way. We as Europeans struggle to differentiate ourselves from the past of a country that we are in such close proximity to, not just geographically but economically and culturally. The generation of today still has to come to terms with others’ actions that occurred during the Holocaust.

Thea Cassel is a UCL Geography graduate and currently works in UCL Communications

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