New Research on Genocide, Memory, and Place

Yesterday I spent the day at the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, at the site of the one-time Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin. I was there with my dear wife Colleen, who earned high spousal merit points for exposing her sensitive soul to the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s police state. More on that experience tomorrow, but for now I want to tell you why we went. In short, I was there “for work,” since I’m fleshing out a book chapter on “The Memory of Genocide: Evil Places as Sacred Spaces,” and want to use Sachsenhausen as a test case for my ideas.

Since I’m planning for the project to grow into a book, I’ll share what I’m trying to accomplish. It all stems from a paper I gave at Mount Royal University’s “Understanding Atrocities” Conference this past February, in which I began to grapple with a question that’s been dogging me for some time. Here’s the introduction and first few paragraphs from that paper, which should set things out clearly, I hope:

As a historian who writes and teaches in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies, I am often challenged to find language with which to properly conceptualize, describe, and explain the atrocities I study—particularly because the academic context normally privileges rationalistic, emotionally-detached modes of discourse which often seem—to students if not to me—to fall short. Simply put, atrocities such as genocide present an enormous challenge to modernity’s desacralization of space and time. This paper is an initial foray into what is, for me, largely uncharted territory. It is nothing more than a search for sufficient (legitimate? true?) language with which to talk about genocides and related atrocities. In the spirit of the scholarship of integration, I intend to browse the work of scholars in a variety of disparate fields, considering ways in which their theories and approaches might enrich my historical capacity to conceive, describe, or explain atrocities such as genocide. In this paper, I will focus on the topic of place, exploring sites of atrocity as locations at which survivors, witnesses, and visitors struggle with public and private memory and memorialization.

Practically speaking, the questions which animate my quest are: what is it that is so powerful yet so inscrutable about sites of genocide? Why are we drawn to these sites? What is the power they possess? What makes them meaningful or transformative for us?

For me, nothing captures the mystery of the relationship between genocide sites and memory as dramatically as the opening scene from Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour epic, Shoah . In it, Lanzmann accompanies Simon Srebnik back to the site of the Chelmno Death Camp, where at least 150,000 Jews and Roma were murdered. Srebnik, one of only two survivors of Chelmo, we’re told, stares into the empty landscape where the camp once stood, and as the memories of that place fill his mind, he begins to nod and says, slowly and calmly, “It’s hard to recognize, but it was here. They burned people here. A lot of people were burned here. Yes, this is the place. No one ever left here again.” A minute or so later, in the course of describing the killing process, he adds, “It was terrible,” and as he walks around the one-time killing site, where only the foundations of buildings remain, he struggles to find the words to describe Chelmno. His conclusion? “No one can describe it. No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible! And no one can understand it. And now, I believe that, even I, I cannot understand it. I can’t believe I’m here. No, I just can’t believe that I’m here again.”1 It is part of the power of Lanzmann’s film that he begins with Srebnik’s assertion that the Holocaust is inexplicable and undescribable, but for those of us who teach and write about such atrocities, explaining and describing genocides and mass killing is precisely our task.

In this paper, I would like to do two things. First, I’d like to reflect a little on the scholarship of memory, memorialization, and place, in order to understand how sites of genocide come to mean something important. Then, I’d like to pull together insights from several disciplines—cultural studies, education, geography, and religious studies—to consider how other discourses might enrich the ways historians conceive, describe, and explain sites of genocide and mass murder.

I’ll unpack this research over the next few months, but first I’ll post some thoughts on my encounter with Sachsenhausen … tomorrow.

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