Henri Lustiger Thaler is senior curator at the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and professor of cultural sociology at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His new book, Memory Unbound: Holocaust Representation and the Origins of Memory, is scheduled for publication in April.
Lustiger Thaler is also the senior curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, scheduled to open in Brooklyn in late 2017 or early 2018. He said it will be the first Holocaust museum with an Orthodox Jewish perspective.
He spoke to The CJN about his recent trip to Toronto as part of Holocaust Education Week to screen Memory After Belsen, a feature-length documentary he co-produced that explores the lives and memories of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
Can you tell me about the film you recently screened in Toronto?
I was part of the curatorial team at the Bergen Belsen Memorial Museum in Germany. I worked specifically on the displaced persons phenomenon from 1945 to 1950.
My experience was, the day of the liberation on April 15, survivors would come back with their children and when the survivors weren’t coming any longer, it was the children of survivors that were coming and they were coming with their own kids. The idea for the film came from that experience, just watching that generation coming to Bergen Belsen to commemorate that day of liberation.
The film I made was Memory After Belsen, which is an investigation of the memory of three generations related to Bergen Belsen – the survivor generation, the second generation and the third generation. We based it in Toronto because the third generation individual we were following – her name is Robyn Thaler-Hickey – is from Toronto and we followed her to Germany and she was our central character, the detective trying to find out about her grandmother’s experience.
Do you have a personal connection to Bergen Belsen or the Holocaust in general?
One of the things that drew me to work at the memorial was that my mother was liberated from Bergen Belsen. This film is actually about my mom. Robyn is my niece. Working with the producer of the film, we were trying to get that story, that human story. We did not start off with this idea that the film would be about my family. Not at all. It was more going to be a film that dealt with the passage of memory. We wanted a lot of different experiences. When the director and the producer met Robyn, we all realized it was the story.
Now that the film has been out for about a year, I think my mother has become an every woman survivor where people are looking at her story and really connecting with it because it reminds them of their own parents or grandparents.
Having spoken with children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, what are some of the more interesting or surprising things you’ve learned from their approach to Holocaust memorial compared to what you’ve learned from survivors themselves?
That’s a really good question. I think there is a diversity of opinion there. I think that what I’ve learned from the third generation is that the importance of making Holocaust relevant to discussions that are going on in the world today about atrocities, human rights abuses, etc. – that connection was certainly there in terms of the first generation, survivors. Elie Wiesel spoke strongly about Darfur and I think the second generation was a complex generation with many different opinions in that generation. They have strong opinions about the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the reticence to universalize the lessons of the Holocaust to other atrocities.
I think the second generation struggled with that and I think to a great extent, the third generation has been beneficiaries of a lot of those debates, but I see a very strong interest in the experiences of their grandparents. There is personal and biographical thirst for knowledge for their grandparents’ stories and I also find amongst the second generation that their parents didn’t tell them much. There is a whole cohort of second generation who didn’t get a lot of information from their parents but the third generation is curious about that biography and they are also curious about how that biography is relevant to the world today.
I think there has been a lot of reticence about that amongst Jews and Jewish scholars and Jewish historians. I think the future will be about the nimbleness and the ability to think about difference and similarity in one sentence without anyone taking away from the specificity of the Holocaust.
Will there be a change in the way we study the Holocaust in the years to come?
I think a shift is what will keep the specificity of the Holocaust out there very strongly. It puts a very unique and specific event but again, there are a lot of similarities with other acts of atrocity. In a sense, the Holocaust is everywhere. The very language of atrocity is Holocaust language. The language of unspeakability is Holocaust language.
It’s not an accident that when the 9/11 museum was looking for a way to memorialize, they went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and tried to understand how they presented the tragedy of the Holocaust and how it might reflect on how atrocity is presented in the 9/11 museum. The Holocaust kind of created a visual language and also created a narrational language of atrocity. The Holocaust is already there and it is already embedded – for example, the entire phenomenon of testimony is Holocaust-based.
There are testimony projects now taking place in many countries – Latin American countries, African countries where atrocities and genocides took place and testimony becomes a venue for capturing that.
The Holocaust is already a kind of a global phenomenon in terms of how it is interpreted. The tremendous event of the Jewish genocide, which is two out of three European Jews were murdered and the number of children is even more devastating – six out of 100 survived. Children were targeted and it occurred in 30 countries. It wasn’t cultural, it wasn’t political.
Thinking of similarity and difference in one sentence without creating moral equivalency in terms of the magnitude of an event, etc. – there are so many more lessons to be learned from the Holocaust rather than the universal or uniqueness debate. I really think that is a second-generation debate. I don’t see that as a third generation debate.
With the last of the survivors aging and dying, will the study of the Holocaust shift its focus?
There already is a shift in representation. I think that with the survivor leaving the historical stage, I think it does open up many different venues for representation of the Holocaust. That’s already occurring. I think the next generations have to be vigilant about what’s going on out there and have to connect it to the personal stories that are first and foremost important. If there is a familial relationship to the Holocaust, it is important to know that story and to use that story as a kind of beacon, as years go and new representations appear. The representation of the Holocaust, I think it is going to be changing. I think it is already changing and I’m not sure what it will look like but I do think there needs to be stewards who will keep those personal stories and the black history of the Holocaust, of what occurred.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.