Philip Spencer gave a keynote introductory address at CHGS’ International Symposium on April, 2017 entitled Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence. Following the symposium, he and Bruno Chaouat (UMN, French and Italian) gave a book talk (recorded in full here), where Spencer introduced the book he co-authored with sociologist Robert Fine, Antisemitism and the Left. On the return of the Jewish question. After his talk, Spencer sat with Wahutu Siguru (UMN PhD Candidate, Sociology), Alexandra Tiger (UMN undergrad in Sociology), and Demetrios Vital (CHGS Outreach Coordinator), and offered thoughtful, warm, and inspiring answers to a range of questions on topics in his book and talks. What follows are three of those questions and answers.
On April 6-8, 2017, CHGS held a symposium in celebration of its 20th anniversary titled, “Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence”. Timothy Snyder, a professor of History at Yale University gave the keynote on “The Politics of Mass Killing: Past and Present”. Joe Eggers was able to sit down and talk with him.
CHGS: What drew you to studying the Holocaust?
I became an eastern European historian because I was interested in intellectual history, and I was interested in the history of diplomacy, and the history of power. The late 80’s, early 90’s were a time when suddenly one could see those two sets of interests coming together, which is eastern Europe. It was only becoming an east European historian that I realized that the Holocaust and other mass crimes, German and Soviet alike, were the responsibility of east European historians. The problem with the Holocaust, or one of them at least historiographically, is that it’s not quite Jewish history because the Jews are of course the victims, but the perpetrators are from many other places. It’s not quite German history either, because although it was a German policy, more than half the perpetrators are not German and it takes place almost entirely beyond the borders of pre-war Germany. So it has to be both Jewish and German history but it also has to be east European history because that’s where it happened.
What I tried to do was write about the Holocaust that brought together these various historiographies. It was out of a sense of responsibility and then out of a sense of trying to make different things make sense together. How can we make sense of the fact that the Germans and Soviets were present in the same territories, juxtaposed or overlapping? How can we bring these things that we know are important – nationalist history, German history, Soviet history, Jewish history together? That was Blood Lands. Blood Lands was a kind of clearing of the deck, saying that these things happened at the same place and the same time. As I was talking about Blood Lands I thought ‘Okay, can I actually develop the arguments that I made in there about the Holocaust and not just say, as I do in Blood Lands, that if we know that all these events happened in the same place and time, are contemporary events that only bring so much sense.’ That led to Black Earth.
I think of myself as a historian, and not as a historian of the Holocaust. That is to say I wrote about other things and I intend to write about other things.
You talked about the differences of living in and recognizing the memory of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe, especially in terms of the reluctance of some Eastern European countries to acknowledge their role in it. Could you expand on that?
In terms of East European memory, there’s an inherent plurality that we don’t necessarily see in the West because the average person living in Warsaw or Kiev is going to be thinking of not just a single German crime. An American memory of German crimes is going to be mostly limited to the Holocaust, but no one in Eastern Europe will be thinking of it that way because there was a plurality. The Germans also executed the intelligentsia, they also deported people, and they also had millions of forced laborers, so it’s not possible from an East European perspective to see the Holocaust as the only crime. Then the Soviet Union is also present, which we don’t like in the West. We would like for it to be like France, where the Germans came and people righteously rose up; something like that – we like that. We want for it to be sort of simple and dramatic. As Americans, we want for the Americans to provide the muscle.
The whole Eastern Europe story where the Soviets commit some of the crimes and the Soviets are some of the liberators is very hard for us to handle. From an East European point of view, you can’t just come in with the idea that the Holocaust is the only thing that happened, which is a bit more like where our memory is.
You’ve talked about your reluctance to use the word ‘genocide.’ Why do you feel like it is a problematic term?
In the East European context, the idea of genocide becomes very problematic. On the one side, you have people who understand that genocide is the coin of the realm morally. They therefore say the execution of the Poles at Katyn was genocidal, which legally speaking I think it was, but I fear the reason they say it is that it will be compared to the Holocaust. Or people say the Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine, was genocide, which I also believe that legally it was but I’m also afraid that the reason they say it is so people see it as equal to the Holocaust.
Then the response is that you have many more people who are in Eastern Europe who say they’re defending the memory of the Holocaust by saying the Holocaust is the only genocide. Which is legally speaking totally wrong, but in some political sense they are playing the same game as the other side, because the other side say genocide when they mean Holocaust, and so when this side says Holocaust they’re trying to say genocide. It ends up going around and around and around. The only way that I’ve been able to find some way of building out some kind of historical understanding of the various crimes in Eastern Europe is to just not use the word [genocide] because the word is like a roadblock in every chapter and you cannot write a sentence without people saying “what about this?” or “what about that?” and genocide becomes the only thing you can talk about, and so in my own work I don’t use the term.
Joe Eggers is a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota. His master’s thesis explored the cultural genocide of indigenous people through the boarding school system.
Dear Simone Veil,
Your passing on June 30, 2017 barely made a ripple in the American news media; and yet even far away, there is so much we can celebrate and learn from you. Your many gifts and accomplishments do not inspire envy or a competitive spirit. You are one of the most beloved public figures in France. You never made me say in the usual resigned manner: of course, she is just a politician.
When I first saw Fritz Hirschberger’s paintings in art storage, I was struck with cognitive dissonance. In the time that I’ve worked for CHGS, I looked at Hirschberger’s paintings and read about the artist quite a bit, but only in print or online in CHGS’ digital collection.
This was my first encounter with a Hirschberger painting in its physicality. Five feet tall, painted in translucent layers of bright oils, there, before me, stretched a saturated orange and purple canvas filled with the a war horseman brandishing deadly weapons. Hirschberger chose the Fifth Horseman precisely because it could not be discerned through physical senses,* yet here in my first encounter seeing this piece in person, it was arresting precisely because of its physical nature.
Weeks later, the paintings were installed and ready as part of [Re]Telling, an exhibition of Holocaust art, narrative, and contemporary response, held in the Tychman Shapiro Gallery at the Sabes JCC. Yehudit Shendar, retired Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator of Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, gave remarks at the opening reception of [Re]Telling featuring seven paintings by survivor Fritz Hirschberger selected from the CHGS permanent collection.
What follows is a statement given by CHGS Outreach Coordinator, Demetrios Vital at the 2017 Twin Cities Jewish Community Yom HaShoah Commemoration, coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, and hosted at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
Demetrios spoke as a son of a survivor on the process of transferring memory across generations. Following his statements, he read the text of his father’s testimony as published in the 25th anniversary edition of Witnesses to the Holocaust, a book containing the testimony of Minnesota Holocaust survivors and liberators produced by the JCRC. That text is included below.
I am deeply honored to be here with you all tonight. Thank you for having me and my father here.
I am the youngest son of Victor Vital. I am one of three children along with Rachel Vital Davis and Joseph Vital, and stand generationally between Victor and three grandchildren.
Victor Vital survived the Holocaust.
I’m one of many here who are children of survivors, or have family who survived, or who didn’t, and indeed even if we’re not directly related to those who experienced the Holocaust, we might all find access to stories and truly feel the impact of this history.
In March 2006, performance artist Santiago Serra constructed a homemade gas chamber inside a former synagogue in the Cologne area and invited Germans to be symbolically gassed. Exhaust pipes from six cars were hooked to the building, which was then filled with deadly carbon monoxide and visitors entered the space wearing protective masks. What was the artist’s intention? Serra said his aim was to give people a sense of the Holocaust. The Jewish community was furious. It was considered a provocation at the expense of Holocaust victims, an insult to survivors and the whole community. “What’s artistic about attaching poisonous car exhaust into a former synagogue?” said writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano (1923-2014), “and who gave permission for this?”
The following is an open letter to the organizers of an African Trade Forum event, who have announced that Maowia Osman Khalid, Ambassador of Sudan to the US, will be on campus for a panel co-hosted by the Carlson School of Management.
USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research has decided to endorse the initiative of a group of seven scholars from different Latin American countries to study Holocaust Survivors in Latin America as part of its Interdisciplinary Research Week. Not an alien in the context of terrorscapes and transitional justice, Latin America has been a space of contested narratives regarding mass violence.
In countries like Colombia, realities of forced displacement, illegal prosecution, and war narratives have been ongoing historically, which has been widely documented and studied. However, there is still much to be discovered, especially as these narratives coexist with narratives of survival from the Holocaust. In this regard, Latin America has been related to the Holocaust mostly as an important space for refuge after WWII.
One of the many key moments that led me to love the United States and its people happened in 1986. I was at a gathering of international students in Palo Alto, most of them with a European background just like me. The mood was very much anti-American, not the least because Reagan had just tried to kill Gaddafi by bombing Tripoli. He had missed the target but managed to create a lot of angst that WW III was about to break out. Everybody in the room was lamenting the ignorance of the Americans and political naïveté of their leaders in the harshest terms. I felt bad for the only American student in the group who got an ear full of unabashed Eurocentrism. After all, he was representing the host country and we didn’t really behave like guests, or, for that matter, like visitors from countries that had benefited from US protection as long as anybody in the room could remember. After everybody had unloaded, he just said, “You are probably right, the US is a big country, a lot of Americans don’t travel and don’t really know what’s going on outside the country, and sometimes we mess up.” He was the only one in the room who talked calmly, without drama and with a healthy shot of self-confidence. Back then, most Americans I talked to shared my fellow student’s relaxed and self-reflective form of patriotism. Possibly, because the lessons of the Vietnam War were still on everybody’s mind and the Cold War had not been won yet.
This year at the Sociological Research Institute, hosted by the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies took home a few awards. Congratulations!
The Genocide Education Outreach (GEO) program was awarded the Public Sociology Award, an annual award to acknowledge the work of individuals reaching beyond their research to make change outside the university. CHGS’s GEO program pairs graduate students based on area of expertise with community organizations in need of genocide education support in that area.