For living men, the units of time always have a value, which increases in ratio to the strength of the internal resources of the person living through them; but for us, hours, days, months spilled out sluggishly from the future into the past, always too slowly, a valueless and superfluous material, of which we sought to rid ourselves as soon as possible.
Primo Levi, from Survival in Auschwitz
Numbering days is a large part of Jewish observance. Strength is gained through accumulated experience and increased understanding. Indeed it is the value of living life that is perhaps cherished most, and the lives lived when paying tribute to the memories of the departed. It is the very shortness of life, so many lives, that is one of the great tragedies of the Holocaust.
We count the year that passed, marked by holidays, Holy Days, fast days and days of remembrance. This week it is Yom HaShoah — Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism”).
How does humanity confront one of the greatest tragedies perhaps of all time within the lifetime of the tragedy? In fact, we learn in Torah an entire generation was to pass in the desert, right? Perhaps because they needed distance and that the same generation cannot properly tell its own story, or enter the Holy Land with all that “baggage.” And so now with the Holocaust we may be on the brink of the greatest burden – the passing of the generation that knew these events first hand.
I was at a lecture recently at GTU as part of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies there and organized by Shana Penn entitled The Future of Memory: Holocaust Education in the 21st Century with Dr. Debbie Findling. Findling authored the book Teaching the Holocaust together with Simone Schweber. Dr. Findling’s lecture centered around this pressing issue. With Passover coming up, I thought about how the Seder codified a strategy of storytelling from which Holocaust telling could profit, and that maybe the right strategies for teaching the holocaust were yet to be developed, as Findling suggested.
And Francesco Spagnolo of the Magnes has developed the significant, on-line project entitled Jewish Digital Narratives to address and build upon this question, amongst others. Using the Magnes collection as an accessible springboard for reflection and feedback and having the collection available on-line through Flickr sets a new precedent that has been acknowledged on a national level.
The more we look at Jewish history and culture, the more we hear the resonance of the ancient term, haggadah. Narration is at the heart of the Jewish experience, and the holdings of the Magnes, which span archive, library and museum collections, tell many stories from the four corners of the world.
Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, Magnes Director of Research and Collections on the creation of Jewish Digital Narratives
The Jewish Digital Narrative project that is perhaps most relevant in this case is On Hitler’s Balcony: Koppel Pinson and the Rescue of Jewish Books in Post-War Germany. The telling of Koppel Pinson’s story in the new medium is one of several recent Magnes programs that represent the breadth and depth of a strategy that takes responsibility for the need to lay a foundation for Holocaust remembrance and education now and for generations to come.
Within the past year the Magnes co-published the story of 18 year-old partisan “Sonia” Shainwald (Orbuch) who joined a Soviet partisan brigade in 1942 and went to war without basic training, without equipment, without food or any of the essentials necessary to fight the German soldiers who used her native Poland as a proving ground on their way to conquer mother Russia. This amazing memoir is created by Sonia herself, as told to Fred Rosenbaum.
Another program of-note occured at Timken Lecture Auditorium of the California College of the Arts in San Francsico on Sunday, January 25, 2009, presented in partnership with the Holocaust Center of Northern California entitled The Holocaust Effect in Contemporary Art.
The panel discussion brought together three Bay Area artists — all CCA graduates — whose recent projects have been infused with the theme of the Holocaust, an art historian and a curator in an attempt to define the new visual parameters of the Holocaust effect. Based on the idea that the effect of the Holocaust on the literature of late 20th-early 21st century has been well documented and that its effect on visual representation and the art of the second and third generations only has come to attention more recently.
The artsists included Gale Antokal, Lisa Kokin and Naomie Kremer. Dora Apel, author of Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (2002) spoke along with Alla Efimova, Chief Curator and Acting Director of the Magnes. The entire program was devised, introduced and moderated by Magnes research intern Analisa Goodin. The entire event is available on-line and can be viewed at FORA.tv by clicking here.
They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, organized by the Judah L. Magnes Museum, will open at The Jewish Museum, New York on May 10, 2009 and remain on display through October 01, 2009. The exhibition has been made possible through a grant from the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and thanks to the generosity of Magnes Board members Jean and Sandy Colen, Varda and Irving Rabin, and Katie and Amnon Rodan.
Mayer Kirshenblatt has made it his mission to remember the world of his childhood in living color, lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived. This unique project is a blend of memoir, oral history, and visual interpretation. Intimate, humorous, and refreshingly candid, the project is a remarkable record — in both words and images — of Jewish life in a Polish town before World War II, as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive boy. Further information can be found at www.mayerjuly.com.
Holocaust-related educational programs have been made possible by the Alfred Manovill Holocaust Studies Program at the Magnes, funded by The Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation through a gift from Dr. Ingrid D. Tauber and Frank B. Taforo. Dr. Tauber named the fund in memory of her mother’s father, who perished in the Holocaust.
In the year ahead — following this year’s Yom HaShoah — Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism”), and before we reach the next — They Called Me Mayer July will have opened in New York and the Jewish Historical Museum (Amsterdam). And the Magnes intends to create a symposium about Holocaust education with the help of Dr. Findling and others.
The work is year-round. It is foundational at the Magnes. And it is also ever so important that there are Days of Remembrance by which we can count the years we live and stop to commemorate those lives cut short.