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“We give it breath…”: THE POWER OF SUBJECTIVITY IN THE STUDY OF HOLOCAUST HISTORY

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As an Australian secondary school history teacher with post-graduate qualifications in a number of areas including historical studies, my immediate instinctive response to writing on the topic of Holocaust history was to write regarding a topic of historical content in a style that I was comfortable with – the style of an “objective”, analytical, historical essay. It didn’t take me long to conclude, however, that such a traditional approach would not be the best means by which to convey my understandings of how the Holocaust could / should be studied. The lectures by Kenez and Baumgerten (see bibliography) challenged my predisposition to the objective study of history and the work of Braun (1994) pushed my thinking further as it challenged the very notion of objectivity in the meaningful study of the Holocaust. As I reflect upon teaching the Holocaust to students I have found a new appreciation for the power of subjective first person literary texts in the study of history. This theme was encapsulated by Professor Baumgarten’s use of the phrases “bearing witness” and “giving breath” during his lectures.

In Lecture 1.2 (Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 2), Professor Baumgarten, while acknowledging the importance of Holocaust studies to be interdisciplinary, explores the important differences between “literary writing” and “historical writing” (capital H “History”) (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a). In particular, Baumgarten focuses some attention on the power and purpose of the use subjective first person rather than the use of the objective third person voice. The third person voice is a significant convention in the historical writing genre. Baumgarten suggests that the power of the first person voice creates a “chain of witnessing” from the events as they occurred in a historical context, through the author’s words, to a new place where it rests in the audience’s empathetic consciousness (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a). Through first person, the audience can gain an understanding and empathy which transcends the cognitive processes of third person History. Baumgarten and Kenez build a powerful case that, in order to truly develop a deep knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust both a study of literature and history are required. This case is echoed by Braun who points out that: “Analysis shows that the content and form of historical judgement, the limits of historical narratives, and the referential connections between “facts”, “representation”, and truth” are more problematic than historians… would like to believe” (Braun, 1994, p.172). Braun concludes, therefore, that a “pragmatic” approach to studying events such as the Holocaust should be “accepting [of] historical representation [as occurs in literature] as a tool” for understanding the past (Braun, 1994, p.197). While the traditional tools of objectivity in historical writing remain valued, literature may well “serve our understanding of identity, community and culture better than other means” and can serve to “establish a human solidarity” as we engage in an open encounter with the voices of past experiences (Braun, 1994, p.197).

In Lecture 1.3 (Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 3), Professor Kenez clearly points out the strength of both literature and history as disciplines for comprehending the seemingly incomprehensible events of the Holocaust (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Kenez, at one point, convincingly contends that both history and literature, despite “operating under different constraints”, seek wisdom through an exploration of human experience. I found this a particularly powerful insight (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Despite some disagreement on the nature of wisdom itself, both Kenez and Baumgarten appear to accept this view. As a teacher of secondary school history in Australia, I found myself drawn to the view that it is through literature that students might most readily begin to understand the events of the Holocaust. Through structured explorations of Holocaust literature in which writers who seek to “bear witness” to their real life experiences students can gain powerful understandings. In future classes that I teach, I will certainly be endeavouring to expose students, not only to historical texts, but also to literary texts. I believe that it is through careful consideration of both disciplines that true deep and empathetic understandings of the Holocaust may be developed. Through exposure to literary texts, students of history may “give breath” to history as the experiences of others in an increasingly distant age come to life. While students need to accept the constraints and limitations of both disciplines, they may learn best through an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the Holocaust; an interdisciplinary approach that works to bear witness to events, seeks to transcend the constraints of traditional historical study, and attempts “gives breath” to voices that the Nazis attempted to silence forever (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a).

An excellent example of the power of literature to convey historical understandings is the poem Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car by Dan Pagis (Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, 2013). Pagis is a clear example of a writer who seeks to provide testimony to the events – to bear witness to the events – of the Holocaust. Through Pagis’ use of a subjective first person voice, his voice becomes our voice and we are transported into the place of his experience. This poem is a powerful example of the way in which first person voice can be employed as a device to transcend the constraints of historical time and place in such a way that an audience is made an empathetic witness to the events being recalled. It is the very subjective and personal nature of this poem that brings the events of the Holocaust to life for the reader in a way that traditional history writing cannot do. By reading in the first person, the audience is transported and positioned within the historical event on a deep level beyond documentation of a “black and white image of types and stereotypes” (Braun, 1994, p.190). The reading audience becomes connected to the author and his experiences. The reader becomes a witness to the events of the Holocaust being shared in the literature. The reader begins to identify with the victims of the Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. As the events of Holocaust literature become articulated and real in the minds of audiences, a “chain of witnessing” is created and through, what Baumgarten calls, “the magic of culture” new and deep understandings of history are born (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013a).

The place of Holocaust literature in the classroom teaching of History becomes a powerful tool when one makes plain to students that the Nazis intended to make even the very memory of the Jewish culture extinct. Literature strikes a powerful blow against this genocidal intent and preserves the historical memory. Baumgarten argues that by allowing students to experience the power of first person Holocaust narratives, the students themselves share in the cultural experience of the Jews and become empathetic witnesses to the atrocities of Nazism that were perpetuated upon European Jews (Kenez & Baumgarten, 2013b). Such a transformative experience thereby defeats the Nazi intention of a cultural erasure of European Jewry. The History student who studies Holocaust literature as a part of their coursework helps to build the cultural memory of the Jewish experience during the 1930s and 1940s. Australian secondary school students exposed to Holocaust literature can, therefore, in their present day lives, continue the fight against the historical Nazi attempt to exterminate the memory of Jewish Europe. By embracing an interdisciplinary approach to studying the Holocaust, history students who are exposed to Holocaust literature might “save some value from the debris of history” in which the personal experience is subjugated to a tentative objective and documented reality (Braun, 1994, p.196). In at least a small, personal and subjective way, these novice students of History can strike a blow against Nazi crimes and perhaps contribute in some small way towards building a world in which such crimes might never again occur. By rethinking notions of objectivity in historical study and by being prepared to embrace the subjectivity of historical representation in Holocaust literature, teachers might be able to “bear witness” to the experiences of the past and “give breath” to history.

Bibliography:

Braun, R. (1994, May). The Holocaust and Problems of Historical Representation. History and Theory, 33(2), 172-197. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:ScGdKAPpu-AJ:www.upf.edu/materials/fhuma/genocidis/docs/braun.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjzBa4EFZCc5Hv4cOstf9Hux7weU92sS1jPv6ZkZyf_t19QYxYK5bPXbPa4OKtUjj1whs1XgV2ZozNFyBGxskwdkC–DzOYFjnIV5Sv6NW15n1qL4OS

Kenez, P., & Baumgarten, M. (2013a, July). Module 1.2 Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 2. The Holocaust. Santa Cruz, California, USA: UC Santa Cruz – Coursera. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from https://class.coursera.org/holocaust-001/lecture/27

Kenez, P., & Baumgarten, M. (2013b, July). Module 1.3 Dry Tears and Personal Witnessing Part 3. The Holocaust. Santa Cruz, California, USA: UC Santa Cruz – Coursera. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from https://class.coursera.org/holocaust-001/lecture/27

Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. (2013). Five Poems by Dan Pagis (1930-1986). Retrieved August 2, 2013, from The International School for Holocaust Studies: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/lesson_plans/dan_pagis.asp#5

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