November 12, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 4

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    Conference speakers will discuss Holocaust’s meaning as century ends

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    “The Holocaust is on the cusp of passing into history,” said Froma Zeitlin, a scheduled speaker for the University’s Holocaust conference titled The Meaning of Catastrophe: Rethinking the Holocaust at the End of the 20th Century.

    Zeitlin, a Princeton University professor, studies what she calls the “haunted landscape of Holocaust memory,” particularly with respect to modes of representation, including responses of the second generation.

    “As more and more eyewitnesses pass away, there has been a rush to record, to break the silence of a lifetime in direct testimony,” said Zeitlin. “At the same time, the imperative to confront and remember the legacy of trauma by those who were not there, in new and sometimes startling ways, seems on the increase. Imaginative literature is an essential key to the future of Holocaust memory,” said Zeitlin.

    She will be joined by scholars from Israel, Germany, England and the United States, who will grapple with fundamental questions concerning the Holocaust during the three-day conference from Nov. 14 through 16.

    Eric Santner, the Harriet and Ulrich E. Meyer Professor of Modern European Jewish History in Germanic Studies and the College and a conference organizer, said, “The task of the conference is a paradoxical one: we are trying to understand processes, events and actions that together represent a traumatic rupture in the fabric of human history.

    “We have brought together a remarkable group of scholars doing path-breaking research on the genocide itself, its place in the history of racism and vio-lence in our century as well as on the problems of how we might live with what we know.”

    Santner said some of the questions experts will answer include: Where do we locate individual agency and moral responsibility? How do we situate the Holocaust within the logic of 20th-century history? What are the tasks and imperatives of memory and memorialization?

    Dominick LaCapra, associate director of the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, said he studies the way in which historians examine events and eyewitness testimonies.

    Facts and analyses are important, but testimonies show the role of empathy in history, he said. LaCapra is critical of revisionism because he believes it normalizes the past and makes it fit contemporary society and social thought. “Revisionists try to air brush history,” he said.

    DebŪrah Dwork, another scholar who will add to the discussion, emphasizes the importance of individuality. “When we start denying the specificity of people–men, women, children, religious, wealthy, poor–then we are beginning to look at the Jews the way the Germans looked at the Jews,” said Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and the Rose professor of Holocaust studies and modern Jewish history at Clark University.

    “I insist on the importance of maintaining the individuality of the victims. I refuse to see them as the Germans saw the Jews, as undifferentiated masses. I see them by age, class, gender, degree of religious observance, political involvement,” Dwork said.

    “We bring our own assumptions, presumptions and stereotypes to bear on our analysis of the past. The way that we interpret the material sometimes tells us more about who we are than about the events themselves.”

    Catastrophe and Meaning: Rethinking the Holocaust at the End of the 20th Century is free and open to the public. The conference will open with a keynote address by Saul Friedlander, Maxwell Cummings chair in European history at Tel Aviv University, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, in Breasted Hall, Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th St. All other events will take place at Swift Lecture Hall, 1025 E. 58th St.