Communication Currents

Remembering the Holocaust

April 1, 2007
Critical and Cultural Studies

April 15, 2007 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. This and other remembrance days are a time for celebration, reflection, and understanding. This is a period when we can remember the indomitable spirit of those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto against impossible odds, the survivors who rebuilt their lives, and the national communities who accepted refugees during exigent times. Our cumulative knowledge about this negative period of our history may be pale reflections of the realities of this catastrophic affair. But critical examination of Holocaust archives, testimonials, photographs, museums, scrapbooks, texts, radio messages, architecture, speeches, and other materials serve as reminders, and hopefully, provide lessons for now and the future.

Communication scholars have contributed to these reminders and lessons in three ways. The first contribution that communication researchers have made to the study of the Holocaust is that they have helped alter the ways that we think about the artifacts that were involved with that tragedy. When some of the first prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials collected evidence on the perpetration of the Holocaust they focused most of their attention on the material that circulated in German archives and other written text. Now scholars understand that these types of items are only some of the sources of information on these tragic events. Communication scholars who are interested in the Holocaust invite us to think of how survivors' testimony, textbooks, museums, scrapbooks, photographs and other artifacts have also been purveyors of symbolic meaning. This broadening of our modern notions of evidence and documentation has meant that we no longer just think of proof as material that can only be found in musty archives.

The second contribution that communication scholars have made in the study of the Holocaust is that they have highlighted the role that audience reception played in the perpetration of this catastrophe. Some of the earlier post-World War II study of messages and propaganda gave the impression that research needed to focus on individual speakers and single messages that were given in a single instance, but since that time some scholars have asked us to concentrate on the synergies that can be created when audiences work at message creation as well as reception. This type of Holocaust consciousness-raising has complemented the earlier type of work that tried to emphasize the role that individual intent played in the perpetration of the Holocaust. Audience centered research invites us to view ordinary citizens as active participants in the communication process, and we now have rhetorical histories that investigate how certain individuals or groups had to make agonizing decisions about whether to be perpetrator or bystander in key rhetorical situations.

The third contribution that communication scholars have made in the study of the Holocaust is that they recognized the survivors themselves were not the only individuals or communities who suffered from these tragedies. Now we have studies of second and third generations of members of survivor families, and both social scientists and humanists have recognized that traumas, remembrances, and forgetting are complex communicative processes. Various communities now have to contend with vicarious public memories, where those who identify with the trials and tribulations of individual survivors may be involved with 21st century remembrance projects.

For some researchers involved in this type of civic engagement, scholars become active public intellectuals who are doing more than retrieving material about the World War II pasts—they are also collecting material that may be used in the Holocaust trials of this century.

The horrific human loss of life and spirit that took place during the Holocaust still haunts us today, especially when scholars debate the specificity of the Judeocide or the universality of the genocidal lessons that may or may not come from the study of historical events. Today there are researchers who are interested in studying the symbolic links that can be made between national identities and Holocaust remembrance, and several investigators are worried about the suffering of second and third generations of those who vicariously identify with survivors. Both social scientists and humanists within the Communication discipline have invited us to think about the role that remembering and forgetting play in the ways that recall the Holocaust.