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September 19, 1999 -- Vol.4, no.1

Not a Useable Past?
The Holocaust and American Society
by Michael Nutkiewicz

The Holocaust Museum as Sacred Place and Public Monument

In Eastern and Central Europe a vast Holocaust iconography exists: its lexicon consists of the former concentration camps, memorials, unearthed and yet-to-be-unearthed mass graves. In addition, the post-war generation lives with what the German writer Michael Schneider calls the "Hamletesque sense of life", in which every child fears or suspects that the kindly Christian-Democratic father or grandfather before him was a very different person fifty years before. [1] This legacy ensures an encounter with the past, and many national and personal choices in Germany are debated against the background of the Holocaust. The high rate by which the young elect to do alternative service to the military, the relatively liberal asylum laws, and the willingness to recognize national and ethnic demands for autonomy are all legacies of the Holocaust.

In America, by contrast, it is not clear what the Holocaust means to society. This is a country where every place is equal in that there is no center from which associations are made; where hotel chains use the identical atriums, color schemes, and menus for sites as diverse as Los Angeles, Dallas, Cleveland, New Orleans or Florida; and where history is disembodied and reconstructed in "theme" restaurants and parks.

Will Holocaust museums by themselves be rich enough lexicons to elicit memories in the minds of Americans of the Holocaust one hundred years from now? Will there be enough of them scattered throughout the United States to matter? I do not believe so. It is very likely that the dozens of smaller museums and resource centers that are not free-standing or financially independent will eventually be dismantled when a Jewish community relocates to the suburbs or beyond, or when budget cuts have to be made, leaving at the most three or four Holocaust-specific institutions in the United States. The question is whether these remaining institutions can serve as the vehicles for collective memory about the Holocaust.

In pre-modern times, urban space was designed to convey religious and political values, and collective memory was "encoded" in the artifacts and objects of public space. In our age, by contrast, museums do not expect visitors to have common responses to what is being presented; nor do they claim to present particular points of view. Like the modern artists, they too were emancipated from history and values. Museums self-consciously attempt to be value-free. Distinctions are made between history (which is regarded as objective and contextualized) and memory (which is regarded as subjective and ahistorical). Memory is considered bad history.

Holocaust museums in the United States, however, are paradoxical institutions. They represent a strange mixture of history and memory. They are only built by Jews, and so serve as a kind of "sacred space" where annual secular rites of collective mourning are held. Unlike other institutions, Holocaust museums have an iconography, but one that is unabashedly "Jewish": its monuments and symbols are not transparent and accessible to everyone. They tell the story of a particular people, and in the attempt to make that story unique, clash with the principle of autonomous, value-free public institutions.

At the same time, to be successful, the Holocaust museum must be an institution for a mass audience. A universal approach is required. This approach is not only necessary to deflect the charge of parochialism, it makes good pedagogic sense. History is understood when students find parallels to their own experience, weave new connections, and find patterns in complexity.

Herein lies the paradox of what I have called elsewhere "the paradox of sacred spaces and public access". [2] The more accessible the Holocaust museum, the less "Jewish" it will be; conversely, the more "Jewish", the less accessible. The more accessible the museum, the greater is the chance that the uniqueness of the Holocaust will be lost; the more uniqueness is stressed, the greater the chance that the Holocaust will be seen as irrelevant. Although the question about the universality and the uniqueness of the Holocaust is still unresolved in the academic literature, virtually every Holocaust museum has decided in favor of a more parochial approach that stresses the event's uniqueness.

There is a greater force, however, that will continue to transform Holocaust remembrance in America, namely, the changes in this country's demography. This sociological reality seriously diminishes the relevance of the Holocaust because schools are simply overwhelmed by the educational challenges and social and cultural concerns that "new Americans" bring to society. This situation is compounded by the fact that what is missing even in the best museums is not a matter of any particular artifact or photo or architecture. Rather, the problem is that we who are engaged in reflection and study of the Holocaust, have failed to make the case for its relevance. It may already, I believe, be too late.

Demography and the Problem of Relevance

In the United States, the Holocaust serves no tangible function. As a junior high school teacher once asked me during a public presentation: "Why should I teach the Holocaust? Given the ethnic composition of my class (Latino, Black, Asian-American), the Holocaust does not serve my social studies needs." These are better served, he concluded, by a study of the genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, and so forth.

Given the demographic reality in Los Angeles as an example, his question was not inappropriate. In 1991-92, the student population of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system consisted of 64.4% Latinos, 14.8% Blacks, 13.1% Anglos, and 5.2% Asians. Further, the typical public school teacher has to worry about very basic educational issues: forty-one percent of students were designated as "limited English proficient." The drop-out rate in grades 10-12 is about 15%. Currently (1997) the high school drop out rate in Los Angeles is 150 per 1,000 children. Nationwide the rate is 90 per 1,000 children.

Beyond the demographic reality, a broad reassessment of the disciplines which began in the 1960s has had great impact on how we think about the social sciences. Increasingly, critical subjects and topics are approached through specific gender and ethnic frames of reference. The debate in American academic and educational circles over Martin Bernal's Black Athena, subtitled "The Afroasiastic Roots of Classical Civilization" encapsulates the issues surrounding ethnic approaches to history. In a review in the New York Review of Books, the premier intellectual journal in the United States, Emily Vermeule characterized Bernal's evidence for the African roots of Egyptian and Greek civilization as "a gigantic chess game without an opponent; the author places his pieces on the world board where he wishes, not constrained by any rules. Would you like an Egyptian conquest of Anatolia around 1900 BC, and especially of the epic town of Troy?....Would you like the Scythians and South Russians to be black?" [3] Bernal marshals the arguments, but apparently not the evidence, that uncovers the link. A somewhat more sympathetic reviewer, Molly Myerowitz Levine, invokes the following cautionary note at the conclusion of her essay in the American Historical Review: "Today--an ocean of reviews, symposia, and speeches later--I still am not much smarter, but I am more afraid and more cynical. Does Bernal's new paradigm for Greek prehistory synthesized from disparate and varied strands of evidence represent a truer version of 'the way things were'? Or is The Fabrication of Ancient Greece [Volume II of Black Athena] itself the adroit fabrication of a skilled storyteller to be used for still more fabrications? And is it too late to plead for all fabrications to yield to a truer version of historical reality?" [4]

Reverse ethnocentric education is not only a problem in discipline of history. There are serious philosophers who argue for "female philosophy", claiming that reason and objectivity--including the rules of logic--are "male" constructs. And in many large urban school districts, "Afrocentric" science material is being used in grade schools.

Curricular Approaches to the Holocaust

I want to briefly turn to the curricula which is used to teach the Holocaust because I believe that current approaches are deeply problematic and do not encourage "mainstreaming" the event into the social sciences. Generally, Holocaust curricula are either purely historical or psychological. The psychological approach is couched as "issues associated with the exploration of values". In this approach, the "bottom line" is the need for "tolerance". Advocates postulate that people react negatively to others because individuals do not see the commonality or humanity of all human beings. For these educators, the solution is a kind of "working through" the intolerance by role playing activities, simulation, and psycho-drama (what Elaine Scarry calls "generous imaginings"). [5] The goal is to get the student to face and feel intolerance as a means of seeing the painful consequences and absurdity of intolerance. This technique is exemplified by a popular museum in Los Angeles, and in the much-utilized educational film, The Wave, a dramatization of an incident in a high school class in northern California where the students literally took on fascist identities while role playing for a class on the Third Reich. The psychological approach, however, does not deal with questions of ideology and other forces that shape character, motivate people, and inform public policy.

The purely historical approach, sometimes labeled "empirical", focuses on telling the story well. The best are comprehensive, a blend of social, political and economic history. These curricula draw heavily on the scholarly works and follow some version of the social scientific method.

Both approaches generally do not draw analogies from history that allow the student to confront the "hard" moral and social issues in contemporary society. The historical is detached from values and public policy thinking; the psychological or values approach is divorced from history. Curricula and Holocaust museums created in the Jewish community are particularly guilty of this separation. "Memory" became an end in itself and does not bring the past and present together. Memory/Remembrance must always be in the service of self-awareness, building the ethical community, even planning concrete programs of action.

The Politics of History

In order for an historical event to take a permanent place in history textbooks, it must be accepted by both the professional and general audience as authorized, or in Thomas Kuhn's phrase, "normative". The authorized version in any particular discipline, is the example one looks to for explanations, both empirical and theoretical. It is from the historical events that have been accepted as normative that we learn the lessons of history.

How a historical event is "packaged" and then ultimately "bought" as normative or authorized is a complex and fascinating story. The study of history brings a passion not found in other disciplines. In a discipline where everything is interpretation it is not surprising that governments, ethnic and national groups are sensitive to how their story is portrayed in fiction, reportage, and scholarship. They sometimes are willing to use any weapon to preserve the authorized version--censorship, lies, even violence. History, it has been said, is politics projected into the past. It is easy to claim that we learn from history. But if history is the politics of special pleading, can its study ever be a useful past?

I was witness to the politics of history. In September 1985 the governor of California signed into law Assembly Bill 1273 which directed the State Board of Education to develop a Model Curriculum on Human Rights and Genocide. I was asked to be a member of the Curriculum Advisory Committee. For the next two years, the California State Board of Education was subjected to intense lobbying from ethnic communities and special interest groups that wanted their versions of genocidal history canonized in the state's new Model Curriculum.

The lobbying proved too intense for the professional staff. The original draft consisted of introductory essays on the Model Curriculum's objectives, a rationale, a summary of the types of resources available to educators, and sample course standards on the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Because of the pressure from these outside groups, the original writing group was disbanded, and the State Board of Education took the matter directly in hand, becoming the primary focus of public lobbying. The staff, including the Advisory Board became irrelevant to the process.

At a public input session in Ontario, California in August 1987 sixty-three scheduled speakers, as varied as representatives from the Gay Lesbians Youth Advisory Council, the Catholic League for Religious Civil Right, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Estonian Central Committee of the United States, the Arab community and, most prominently, leaders from the Turkish and Polish community addressed the members of the State Board of Education. The speakers were direct and forceful. "You must not approve this curriculum," said the representative from the Polish-American Congress. "Why? Because it is missing a recent and major episode of genocide. Some have called it the 'forgotten' holocaust: namely, the Nazi murder of approximately 3 million Poles during World War Two." The Turkish community was particularly aggressive in fighting the Model Curriculum, and placed ads in newspapers calling the proposed document a "hate-provoking propaganda that fuels terrorism... and social ostracism."

In this episode, where everyone was a victim, and victims jousted with other victims, moral authority was liberally employed. "The process of untarnishing our ethnic image and fighting for the restoration of the good name of Poland and the Polish people is taking place, "editorialized Alert, the newspaper of the Polish American Congress. "We cannot allow the people who hate us to dictate history and holocaust studies in public schools." [6] In this statement the author portrays Poles as the victims of history now victimized by other victims, the Jews. For many Poles, it is simply historical bad luck that Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis on Polish soil; Polish suffering has consequently been overshadowed by the genocide of Polish Jewry. Worse, some Jews and Jewish organizations consciously ally the Nazi and Poles as perpetrators. Thus, according to this view, the Poles are twice victimized: by the Nazis and by the former victims, the Jews.

If a group can incorporate the term "genocide" into its history or cause, it can invoke the moral authority attached to the experience. At the Ontario meeting, for example, a representative from the Pro-Life Nurses Association stated that "abortion is genocide in our country." In this case, not only is the fetus given moral authority as a potential victim, but the historical and sociological meaning of the term "genocide" is altogether lost. A more recent example of how values, academics and politics co-exist in education is the debate around the National History Standards prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Given the demographic factors and their challenges, the new approaches to the social sciences, and the "balkanization of genocide" do Holocaust educators and museum professionals have any chance of arguing the inclusion of Holocaust units in the state curriculum? Can textbook publishers be persuaded that the Holocaust addresses the needs of these students? Is it even possible that the Holocaust will obscenely be labeled a "Eurocentric" event, more stories about "white dead Europeans"?

Obsession as Praxis

In his book Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman expresses his outrage at the inability of the social sciences to say anything new about the Holocaust or extract anything useful. For Bauman, the Holocaust is nothing less than "the test of modernity", and offers the social sciences the opportunity "of assimilating the lessons of the Holocaust in the mainstream of our theory of modernity and of the civilizing process and its effects." [7] His sentiments echo those of a now little-read sociologist, Robert Lynd, who argued passionately in a book written with the events in Germany as the background, that the social scientist (and I would add the historian and educator) is not a seismologist observing and describing a volcano. "The responsibility," Lynd wrote, "is to keep everlastingly challenging the present with the question: But what is it that we human beings want, and what things would have to be done, in what ways and in what sequence, in order to change the present so as to achieve it?" [8]

It has been said that Jews and Germans, perhaps others, are obsessed with the Holocaust. I do not think that they are. A real obsession with the Holocaust would constantly interfere with--and so organize--our experiences. It does not. We compartmentalize. Thus, Social Education, the official journal of the National Council for the Social Sciences, devotes its October 1995 issue to "Teaching About the Holocaust", and three months later, its January 1996 issue on "Teaching Controversial Issues" fails to link any "hot" issue to the Holocaust or to any other historical event. In this example, the Holocaust is "history"; the contemporary questions are the "issues". We have the examined past, but do we have a useable past?

We discuss the Holocaust but do not contribute to a plan of action to oppose mass murder, ethnocide, expulsions, and deportations. We discuss racial hygiene and the role of doctors in the 1930s and 40s but do not raise key questions about medicine and medical policy itself, or note that physician-assisted suicide and voluntary active euthanasia--recently permitted by American courts--raise anew questions that are ultimately eugenic. We are outraged by the selective quotas against Eastern and Central Europeans immigrants in the 1920s while Congress seals American boarders along the Southwest, and the United States interdicts and forcibly returns Haitian refugees. We discuss the role of bystanders yet we are bystanders in relation to Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia. We have the examined past, but do we have a useable past?

The museum trustee and designer, the school board and the curriculum writer must be fearless in utilizing the Holocaust to engage people in contemporary moral and social values. The Holocaust has something to say about law, medicine, and technology, the efficacy of international law, the treatment of refugees, among other topics. This goal is difficult to achieve, in part because there are many people who insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust to the exclusion of comparative study and universalizing, and because of the demographic and contemporary approaches to the disciplines that I have mentioned. Perhaps it will take another generation before the correct balance is achieved. If we cannot make history a useful past, employing it in the service of constructing the ethical community, people will continue to ask, as Robert Lynd did in the title of his book published in 1939: knowledge for what?

[1] Michael Schneider, “Fathers and Sons, Retrospectively: The Damaged Relationship Between Two Generations,” New German Critique No. 31, Winter 1983.

[2] Michael Nutkiewicz, "Holocaust Museums: The Paradox of Sacred Spaces and Public Access," The Forum (North American Jewish Forum) Summer/Autumn 1993, pp. 18-20.

[3] American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 2 (April 1992), p. 460.

[4] New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 6 (March 26, 1992), p. 40.

[5] Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People, in Martha Nussbaum (ed.), For Love of Country. Debating the Limits of Patriotism (Beacon Press: Boston, 1996), pp. 98-110.

[6] Unfortunately, I have lost the newsletter from which this quote is taken. However, a recent statement on the web site of the Polish-American Congress echoes these sentiments: There have been numerous comments in the past from Jewish leaders about the need for "sensitivity," yet they feel no need for that quality on their part. Neither the devotion of Poles to church and cross, nor the weighty symbolism of the papal cross at Auschwitz appear worthy of their consideration. Those who believed the removal of Christian symbols from the Auschwitz site would satisfy Jewish demands have now uncovered the insatiable appetite of the historical revisionists. The cross, the Pope, Polish martyrdom are mere objects to be buried and forgotten to the self-possessed extremists. The reader can read this statement at

[7] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1991), p. XIV.

[8] Robert Lynd, Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Sciences in American Culture (Grove Press, Inc.: New York, 1964), p. 250.