In Which The Fate of Vanquished Foes Is Debated And The Grant Is Granted

Academics often struggle with showing rather than telling. Imparting our knowledge in the simplest possible language, while still spinning a captivating tale, is an act of excruciating vulnerability. It is too much for some. So much early course work focuses on theory and jargon and the striving for elitism in every turn of phrase. To be told after that indoctrination that once you are truly an expert in your field you ought to be able to explain your subject to a toddler in a way that they can explain it back to you clearly, is to exacerbate tendencies toward impostor-syndrome in people already too prone to such feelings. Because of course it takes a great deal of work to find the right words to explain ANYTHING to a toddler. Explaining our life work can feel beyond daunting. Many never try. Jargon feels more true. But we communicate little by way of specialized speech and abstruseness.

Clarity of thought, purpose, and intention are always preferable.

This is a story of the very first grant proposal I ever undertook. I hid from my intent in my first draft of that proposal if anyone ever has. The grant was a request for travel funds from the Human Rights and Human Diversity Initiative; I needed to go do research in South Africa. I was, I thought, writing completely in my wheelhouse. I was in my specialty. I could not turnout a coherent sentence to save my soul. It was, without question, vague and jargonesq. I managed in multiple pages to communicate nothing at all. I had a moment of deep grief. What was I doing?! How would I ever get the proposal together?

But after taking a break to clear my head I revisited that question. What was I doing? Why did I need a grant? BE CLEAR!

I grabbed a yellow legal pad and wrote the questions at the top: WHAT AM I DOING? WHY?

Then I went about answering them as clearly as possible. I wont try to tell you that a toddler would follow what I came up with. I was not at that level yet. I was brand new to the game. It was the day I began playing. That legal pad was my opening gambit. But I got that grant!

Here is an excerpt of what I did come up with:

Cultural and political influences combine to create different representations of actual historical events, and the representation has the power, not the event. In the case of museum representations, where the museum is located, how it is funded and why it was established effects its content and the story it tells. Museum content has a wide reach. Therefore understanding the forces that combine to create public memory is essential in understanding its influence on current events and policy.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Every individual and every organ of society…shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for [Human Rights]…and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” This is one of the many roles Museums representing the Holocaust serve.

The Holocaust provides one of the preeminent examples of a Human Rights violation. The Nazi regime consistently assaulted the basic tenets of what would eventually come to be considered “inalienable” Human Rights. Every one of the following ideals, stipulated by the Declaration, was systematically violated by the Nazi regime: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude…No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community…” Jews, Roma, Sinti, the disabled, and others in German-occupied Europe routinely were deprived of these rights.

Of course, the Holocaust took place before the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it would serve to inspire that legislation. The impact of the Holocaust (and various narratives of its memory) on Human Rights extends beyond an influence on the codification of international law. The implications of the Holocaust on our “political” understanding of human rights and the need to respect “diversity” are profound. Specifically, the politics of memory in relation to the Holocaust have helped shape human rights legislation and dialogue. Nuremberg, for example, set the precedent for coping with human rights violations through criminal justice. However, justice meant punishment, thus most of the guilty lied, seeking to evade this fate. South Africa looked to the example of Nuremberg as it debated how to move forward and smoothly integrate a society composed of victims and perpetrators at the close of Apartheid. Many advocated justice, but a political compromise dictated that truth and pardons would take precedence. South Africa, like many other nations took the experience of the Holocaust combined with their own unique culture and structured policy around it.

This summer I will be traveling to South Africa to visit the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and the South African Jewish Museum. My research will focus on ethnic relations within the country, specifically the history of the Jewish community. I will examine how that history evolved alongside apartheid and how this unique combination influences the dialogue of remembrance and public policy. I will analyze how the unique history and cultural interplay of this country, with a substantial Holocaust Survivor community, shapes and creates the narratives displayed in the museum. I will also juxtapose these representations with the narratives of the Holocaust that have evolved in the United States and Germany since 1945.

Museum representation plays a valuable role in the teaching of human rights awareness pursuant to the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider[1], memories of the Holocaust offer a framework for interpreting contemporary acts of injustice, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. These representations have had a crucial impact on the consolidation of international human rights and related issues of transitional justice, reparations, and restitution. Samantha Power agrees, arguing, that consciousness about the Holocaust in the US helped mobilize US public opinion in favor of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990's[2].

[1]Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, translated by Assenka Oksiloff, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 2006).

[2] Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).