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Conference uncovers new angles on the Holocaust

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The Auschwitz memorial as seen through an Instagram filter

TORONTO — Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, researchers are still coming up with new areas to research and study.

A conference titled “The Holocaust: New Scholars – New Research” brought more than 150 people, most of them scholars, from around the world to the University of Toronto for two days of learning on Oct. 6 and 7.

“It’s a chance for [scholars] to interact and learn from each other,” said Doris Bergen, chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto.

“We’re trying to showcase the vibrant research that’s been done on the Holocaust all over the world.”

In addition to scholars, attendees at the semiannual meeting included members of the general public and members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization that encourages political and social leaders to support Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

The panel discussions often raised more questions than they answered.

For example, the first panel focused on journalistic reporting of the Holocaust, or the lack thereof.

Norman Domeier, an assistant professor of modern European history at the University of Stuttgart, spoke about “What Did the Global Public Know? Foreign Correspondents in the Third Reich, 1933-1945.” He said the fact the atrocities didn’t dominate the front pages of world newspapers can only be attributed to “insensitive, unprofessional journalism.”

Some of the presenters showcased modern ways of looking at the Holocaust, including Stephanie Benzaquen, whose talk was called “Hashtag Holocaust: Social Networks, Production of Images, and the Cultural Memory of the Holocaust.”

Benzaquen, a PhD candidate in art history and a researcher at the Centre for Historical Culture at the School of History, Culture and Communication at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, focused her discussion on Instagram, the photo-sharing site that lets users add filters to make pictures appear like heritage photos.

Benzaquen said her research involves collecting Instagram photos that relate to the Holocaust, such as the Auschwitz death camp museum, and categorizing the filters used on the pictures, examining whether they’re black and white, sepia, soft-toned or vibrant.

Such information can’t shed more light on the Holocaust, but it may help understand how the public relates to the Shoah, she said.

Alexander McPherson, a graduate student at Trent University, said Benzaquen’s presentation was particularly interesting, because it suggested new ways of looking at memorialization.

“Already I’m thinking of things in ways I haven’t thought of before,” he said.

The IHRA provides funding for scholarship on the Holocaust, and Bergen said she hoped a delegate might learn about a research topic and decide to help fund a project, especially from countries such as Italy, where research on the Holocaust is not very well funded.

Peter Staudenmaier, an assistant professor of history at Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee, said he doesn’t normally study the Holocaust, but he happened to be researching a small anti-Semitic institute in fascist Italy when he heard about the conference.

He didn’t know what to expect when he agreed to be part of a panel, but he said he saw the gathering as an opportunity for historians to share what they know and to look at old information in new ways.

“One of the most impressive, striking things is how much we still don’t know, how much there still is to learn about events that are 70 years in the past and we’re still discovering new information, forging new interpretations and new understandings of how it happened, how it could happen, why it happened,” he said. “It’s a remarkably fertile area of historical research right now.”

 

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