April 17, 2001

Conference Addresses Holocaust Narratives

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With a mission to promote the cutting edge of scholarship that has arisen in controversial narratives about the Holocaust and the Third Reich over the last 20 years, Cornell hosted an international conference called “Tales and Taboo” last week.

Held at the A.D. White House, the conference gathered students, faculty and other scholars from as far as Israel and Germany in a setting which Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin described as “highly intellectual, intimate, and enormously stimulating.”

Martin said that a major aim of the three-day conference was “to work against outdated assumptions about the Holocaust by opening up a whole set of interpretations for review,” including everything from the problem of memory to the power of trauma in personal narratives about the Holocaust.

The conference opened on Thursday evening with welcoming remarks and a session titled “National Narratives in Comparative Perspective.”

The session was an appropriate beginning to a weekend of controversial scholarly discussions, because it sought to show how different countries have their own unique way of using the Holocaust as “a political, myth-making, cultural source of identity,” said David Bathrick, conference co-host and chair of the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.

Two speakers, Gulie Ne’eman Arad from Ben Gurion University in Israel and Peter Novick from the University of Chicago, spoke from their fundamentally different backgrounds about the changing images of Judaism. Arad discussed how post-Holocaust culture in Israel initially avoided discussions about the Holocaust horror and downplayed the memory of “the Jew as victim.”

Novick then challenged traditional thinking with the proposal that there is no true “national Holocaust narrative” in the United States, but rather a collection of Jewish-style narratives. Some audience members pointed out that the existence of a Holocaust Museum in the nation’s capitol may contradict her claim.

On Friday, the sessions studied political narratives and discussed whether the Holocaust should be used as a civil and moral religion in contemporary European politics, according to Bathrick.

Next, two visiting scholars, Gertrud Koch and Sigrid Weigel, used Freudian-style psychoanalytical narratives to examine the meaning of the words “trauma” and “taboo,” respectively.

Throughout the talks, members of the audience contributed their views about the role of “melancholia,” which allows one to revisit trauma and “mourning,” enabling one to overcome trauma. Participants discussed how different societies and individuals deal with these two aspects of trauma.

On Saturday, Andres Nader from the University of Rochester read poetry written by Jews under Nazi oppression. One such poem was composed at Vilna ghetto on Jan. 18, 1943; it reads:

“the snowy first holy day,

and you will sink

like a splinter of dusk

into the quiet depths

and bear greetings from me

to the frozen little grasses.”

Prof. Nelly Furman, romance studies, and moderator for the session, said that the reading resurrected “the truth of the words” of the poems, which she characterized as “profoundly moving.”

Following the poems, Bathrick discussed Nazi visual culture and the ways that “historical events are presented and re-presented in media — artistically and culturally.”

Using Hitler’s autobiographical work, Mein Kampf as a platform for discussion, Bathrick spoke of “the text as a rhetorical performance.”

He characterized the book as a “long persuasive speech” and a “bildungsroman,” which is a class of German literature that deals with the formative years of the individual.

After the conference, Bathrick also touched on ways in which the Holocaust has become a symbol in the cultural realms of theater, film and dance.

“Some will argue that you don’t reduce the Holocaust to Hollywood, because the movies don’t really get at the true horror of the experience,” Bathrick said.

“But some people take the opposite interpretation that commercializing the Holocaust with movies, such as Schindler’s List, is worthwhile because it raises consciousness about the tragedy,” he added.

Martin observed that one of the factors that made the conference so successful was the audience’s active engagement in the debates and discussions.

“The audience members were faithful participants,” Martin said, explaining that they helped shed light on the ever-evolving interpretations of the aesthetics of Nazi culture.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts