Holocaust memory honored on campus

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote Theodor Adormo, a German philosopher who wrote extensively about society and Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust in 1949. The question he raises is clear—after such a horrible deed as the Holocaust has been committed, how can those involved simply go back to living a normal life? How can life regain some sense of order and peace and yet still pay justice and homage to those who suffered and died? Can it simply be forgotten and left in the past, as a terrifying skeleton in the closet of the human race?

The answer, as Associate Professor of German Studies Silke von der Emde, of the German Studies Department , put it, is that one cannot simply forget what happened in the German concentration camps—it must be remembered and memorialized. She said, “There is the need to remember the Holocaust and its consequences in order that we can prevent it from ever happening again.”

And, to that end, Vassar has maintained a strong tradition of creating programming memorializing the Holocaust. Vassar has been heavily involved with Jewish communities in and around Poughkeepsie, sponsoring Yom Hashoah, or Day of Holocaust Remembrance, in past years. There is also much support for the Vassar Jewish community to bring in speakers and to screen films on the Holocaust if and when they so chose.

Professor von der Emde, who is heavily involved in Holocaust memorial studies, believes there is reason beyond mere remembrance that keeps the Holocaust relevant and worth keeping within the public sphere.

Von der Emde said, “It [the Holocaust] also vastly changed the discourse pertaining to many different subjects, such as the need during the Nuremberg War Trials for the creation of the category of offenses called ‘Crimes against humanity’ and the application of law towards those who have committed genocide. It also opened wide the field of memory studies, which is fascinating because it is so interdisciplinary. For these reasons and many others it is imperative to study the Holocaust.”

Living her words, von der Emde gives many speeches and attends many Holocaust memorial events every year. Coming up soon, she will be speaking at a project facilitated by a local library in conjunction with Vassar that will involve the reading and discussion of Holocaust-inspired literature. Over Freshman Parents’ Weekend, she gave a speech and screened a film for her class “Holocaust Memory In Germany and the US”, which is a joint project between the Media Studies and German Studies Departments.

There are many classes that students can take if they are interested in learning more about Holocaust memory and the effects it has had on Jewish, German and global culture. Every year there is a Holocaust Memory seminar, in which students study the way in which the Holocaust is remembered in the United States and in Europe. The Media Studies Department  offers a class, the “Holocaust Memory In Germany and the US” that von der Emde teaches, which focuses on the Nazi regime’s use of propaganda to turn the general population against the Jewish population and coerce them into turning a blind eye to the atrocities being committed within the concentration camps. Another course examines the way that Jews have been represented and portrayed in major films over the years.

Several years ago, von der Emde from German Studies, Professor Hoehn from History, Ron Patkus from the Vassar Library’s Special Collections and Professor Moore from the Religion and Jewish Studies Departments came together in an effort to begin a greater dialogue on Vassar’s campus regarding the legacies of the Holocaust and its effects on the modern day.  One result of this was an interdisciplinary class that examined every aspect of the way the Holocaust is presently thought of, from the way it is taught in schools to the way it is memorialized on a nation-wide level. This class was run jointly with a similar class being taught at the Moses Mendelssohn Institute just outside of Potsdam, Germany. Students from both schools used video-conferencing and other technology to hold debates and work on projects together from across the Atlantic Ocean. Over October Break, the students exchanged with one another, Vassar students going to Germany and vice versa, to visit Holocaust memorial sites and events in their counterparts’ nation. Because of the expenses involved in offering such a huge class involving so many professors, not to mention the plane trips across the Atlantic, the class has not been offered to students again. But the faculty who were involved in the class hold out hope as they are planning on bringing together funding and interest to offer the class once again.

Vassar, over the years, has provided many opportunities for both students and people unaffiliated with the school to familiarize themselves with the events of the Holocaust and how it affects the world today.  As Professor von der Emde said, the Holocaust is remembered because it is essential that something of equal horror never happen again, but also because of the continuing discourse it has opened on such a broad range of subjects that we must study it and its effects.

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