The Ethics of Teaching at Sites of Trauma and Violence – Student Encounters with the Holocaust (Palgrave, forthcoming)
My current book project completes a period of just over three years in which I tried to grapple with my experiences while leading a Holocaust study abroad program. A program that takes twenty undergraduate students on a five-week long journey through Germany and Poland – 2 countries, 5 cities, 4 camps, overnight at Auschwitz, workshops, seminars, memorials, museums, documentation centers, former ghettos, survivors. I have written about this program in more detail, created in 2012, here; and have also co-authored a related article with Veronica Czastkiewicz, “‘Postcard from Auschwitz?’ Chronicling the challenges of a Holocaust study abroad program”, in D. Budryte and S. Boykin (eds.), Engaging Difference: Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences in Multicultural Environments (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming).
It is also a book that did not begin with a particular theory or expertise about Holocaust pedagogy in general (far from it!) or Holocaust study abroad in particular. Rather, it came to me through a series of, maybe innocent yet somewhat memorable, encounters. By encounters I mean moments when I made particular observations about, and with, my group of students that seemed to repeatedly illustrate for me the ethical complexities latent in the process of teaching at sites of trauma – the complexities of ‘being-there’. This book takes these personal notes and uses them to interrogate existing paradigms of Holocaust education.
There are some clear continuities between my existing research and this book, most obviously my interest in exploring the politics of representation. I have written before about how various forms of representation have helped to render meaningful a specific, in this case, thinking on security. In that particular piece of writing, I developed a systematic account of the linguistic performances that have helped to shape key security policies. Returning to my current project, the question that guides me is the one that similarly asks how, in this case, atrocities are represented – visually and otherwise. Furthermore, and here I speak as an educator: how to narrate, tell, and learn from them? When it comes to the practice of teaching, representations of atrocities appear to pose an inherent ethical and visual dilemma; one, as Rebecca Adleman argues, appears “irresolvable” but “nonetheless demands solution” (2014, 29). The dilemmas come in various forms and can perhaps best be categorized as practical (for instance, the often physical and emotional demands on the students); pedagogical and academic (for instance, the broader questions regarding the impact and purpose of on-site education); and ethical (for instance, the recurring debates of when our being at those sites constitutes trauma tourism).
Some thoughts on this book’s aim and scope are in order. The aim is twofold; on the one hand, I try to synthesize a concrete experiential teaching account with pressing, contemporary debates on Holocaust pedagogy. On the other hand, I offer a critical assessment of the ethical concerns we are confronted with when learning at sites of trauma and suffering. Ultimately, at least in my mind, this book is driven by my search for a more ethically astute model for understanding the Holocaust in particular, and atrocities in general.
By narrating my experiences through an auto-ethnographic approach of a concrete study abroad program, this book stays away from broad generalizations on Holocaust pedagogy; instead, it offers a very focused, unique, and narrative-based insight into the currency of Holocaust teaching for educators, students, and practitioners in the discipline.
What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the chapters in my book:
“Postcard from Auschwitz”. Study abroad meets trauma tourism
Visits to sites of mass killing, battlefields or cemeteries are often termed ‘dark tourism’. There has been an increasing concern about such tourism; it captures not only the fact that we do visit places of suffering and atrocity to begin with, questioning our motivation for doing so, but it also problematizes the modalities of our visit. For instance, visiting Holocaust sites is often incorporated in holiday package deals (morning at Auschwitz, afternoon at Poland’s famous salt mines). Furthermore, there is concern about our role as tourists and its associated practices at the sites themselves: Each year, my students do purchases at the camp museum shop; one can buy postcards, fridge magnets, and one student even bought herself a bracelet at Dachau. We bring packed lunches for Dachau, but decide to eat at the restaurant at Auschwitz; “the prices there are reasonable”, I hear someone utter. There is a post office for your postcards and you can exchange money, too. The juxtaposition of being a tourist only a few feet away from witnessing violence and death, led a German newspaper in 2014 to write that Auschwitz is the ‘Disneyland of death’, where tourists can be ‘comfortably scared and shocked’. No doubt, the complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau represents perhaps one of the greatest and compelling dilemmas of ‘dark tourism’. […]
This chapter will examine the ways in which education on-site is ‘up-against’ the practices of tourism, and to what effect. It will ask if there is a way to sensitively share this space of trauma, violence, and memory.
“But this does not look like Schindler’s list”. A lesson in authenticity – Film and the Holocaust
Each year, I take my students to the museum at Schindler’s factory in Krakow. It is a very small museum, busy with many visitors. “This does not look anything like the movie”, is what I hear repeatedly each year and I can sense the disappointment. I know that the ‘not looking like the film’ is meant twofold; on the one hand, students’ visual expectations are let down – “this is much smaller”. On the other hand, students lament that the museum is not exclusively about the persona of Schindler. True. In fact, the museum focuses only marginally on Schindler but more so on the context of the Holocaust more broadly. There has been extensive debate among scholars regarding the role of film – cinema and television – in shaping our understanding and memory of history. This debate has especially caught traction at the time of Schindler’s List, whose success on a global scale has surpassed all expectations. There is much to be said about the limits and problems associated with the ways in which the movie represents the Holocaust, often culminating in arguments on desacralizing and trivializing the Holocaust, but also in terms of the often counterfactual historical elements.
In this chapter, I seek to discuss in particular the ways in which films, mostly popular movies, underpin the role of a symbolic memory culture, which in turn affects my students’ expectations of the sites they are visiting and experiencing. There is a selection of movies that intersect with our experience abroad; those include The boy in the striped pajamas, Anne Frank’s Diary, The Pianist, Life is beautiful, and others, many of which are staged at the places of our program.
“We didn’t know there was a women’s camp”. The political economies of memorial sites
Since the 1970s, Auschwitz has eclipsed most, if not all, concentration camp sites and museums as the most widely recognized symbol of Nazi atrocities. This first and foremost affects the political economy of camps – visitor numbers, revenue, public and private funding for maintenance and preservation of the camps and museums but also strategies for educational programs. But this unequal distribution of attention – financial and otherwise – is productive elsewhere.
When we visit Ravensbrueck women’s camp an hour north of Berlin, it is the first time my students learn that such camp in fact existed. It is not easy to reach the camp, and we have to walk through small neighborhoods of the adjacent village to get to the camp. There is no ‘famous gate’ when we enter the camp and we find ourselves in empty, open spaces, characterized by an absence of symbolic representations of violence. The camp is empty, no tourists or long lines; conversations with guides and seminar leaders are personal and not rushed. The camp is calm and quite, and offers an unusual opportunity to feel not horror but emptiness, sadness, and melancholy. It is nothing like the thick symbolic representations that meet us at the museum at Auschwitz.
This chapter seeks to demonstrate the differing experiences in witnessing history on sites. I am particularly interested here in the possibilities of disrupting habitual memory – and the compulsion to repeat or engage in known and presumed practices for remembrance and memorialization.
“My therapist told me not to visit Auschwitz”. Bearing witness today
Research shows that Holocaust education, especially when outside the classroom, produces emotive and powerful reactions, and can even be extremely emotionally traumatic. But when one of my students – at Auschwitz – admitted that her therapist had cautioned her against visiting the death camp, for he was concerned as to the impact it may have on her state of mind/heart/soul, I thought this was a strong response to that research. It became clear that the said therapist discouraged this ‘opportunity’ for feeling overburdened by the stress, anxiety, sadness, shame, and even responsibility that the student may experience. To argue that instances like these can unleash a challenge for educators would be an understatement. My concerns were met by a recent New York Times blog that debated the prevalence of anxiety in US college students today; a phenomenon that is increasingly noticeable on college campuses nation-wide.
Against the backdrop of studies that speak to the emotional impact of being exposed to sites of trauma, in this chapter I begin questioning the framework of mixing Holocaust education with study abroad: How much do I have to alter the components of my program so that it lessens the possibly ‘mounting pressure’ on my students? Holocaust ‘lite’? But how far can I go in creating as gentle an environment as I possibly can, without perhaps failing as an educator to convey the real depth of the horrors of the Holocaust?
“And now you are going to see something shocking”. The role of atrocity footage in Holocaust education
Recollections from our tour guide at Auschwitz: “Look at the shoes [piles of shoes of former prisoners, on display at the museum], look at the size of the shoes [making reference to the children’s shoes]. But now we are going to see something even worse”. This was not all. He also tells my group, in a sultry voice, I may add, prior to entering the camp prison ward: “Be prepared – now we are going to see something really shocking”. I notice myself tightening up – I gaze at my students who stare at the tour guide, eyes wide open. One student immediately asks me if we are “going to have this tour guide for the whole day”, because she cannot bear his way of speech (and this is merely 20 minutes into our 6 hour day). This is not an argument about guided tours. But this is about the concept of horror, visual and otherwise, that seems to persist in the education about the Holocaust.
In this chapter I revisit the debate on ‘compulsory viewing’ as a framework for analysis. It was used as an education tool, implemented immediately after the end of WWII, in which German citizens were forced to watch, and engage with, atrocity footage taken from the liberated camps by US and British soldiers. I will use this debate as a backdrop against which to think through the ‘value’ of atrocity footage for our understanding – and lessons learned – in experiential education.