Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust

Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust – Research Forum: The Anthropology of Memory – Carol A. Kidron

IMG_3097Dapim – Studies on the Shoah, is the inter-disciplinary academic journal of the  Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research.  We are privileged to be part of the same institute as this peer-reviewed bi-lingual academic journal.  Dapim is devoted to the inter-disciplinary study of the Holocaust, the Secnd World War and anti-Semitism.  Scholars from around the world contribute to this journal, and here in our MA program we benefit from learning from many of the featured authors.

pic_2004-5_KidronAn example is Dr. Carol A. Kidron, a member of our Academic Committe and our faculty, who will be teaching her course “Anthropology of Memory” to our students this coming semester.   Kidron published her article “In Pursuit of Jewish Paradigms of Memory: Constituting Carriers of Jewish Memory in a Support Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors.” in Volume 23 of Dapim in 2009.  A synopsis of the article is as follows:

“With the decline of traditional religious ceremony, liturgy and recitals of commemoration considered to have preserved the archetypal paradigms and narratives essential to the survival of Jewish memory, Yosef Hayim Yerusalmi warned that the past would no longer be personally and collectively made present, nor would it be transmitted from generation to generation.  In response, scholars of present-day Jewish practice have asserted that contemporary “policies of memory”, or adapted “channels of memory”, perform the functions of traditional ritual and liturgical memory work. 

Turning to the culturally complex and ethically loaded domain of Holocaust memory, the paper asks whether psychologically-framed Holocaust memory work resonates with traditional Jewish paradigms of memory.  An ethnographic account of a psychosocial support group for children of Holocaust survivors in Israel is examined as representing a contemporary mnemonic practice, to determine whether therapeutically framed “policies” of Holocaust memory and traumatized survivor and descendant as “channels of memory” can, in fact, perform the functions of traditional ritual and liturgical memory work.

Findings show that support group memory work attempts to construct individual witnesses or carriers of Jewish Holocaust memory, as well as to achieve pragmatically Jewish goals of communal remembrance.  The narration of the psychological scenario of transmitted Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and embedded, descendant, wounded profiles functions as a contemporary channel for personal and collective memory work and mourning.  As with the archetypal Jewish narrative of suffering and redemption, narration subsumes and homologizes individual stories into one Holocaust-related script that reorganizes the chaos of familial and personal suffering.  Unfolding sequentially, the scenario ushers participants back to the ruptured past, and having redefined that past as their personal constitutive event, their present is rendered more meaningful.

This recursive move not only reconfigures the descendant’s past and present, but also directs them towards their destined future as burdened carriers of memory, who will perpetuate Holocaust memorial and thereby reconstitute a previously ruptured historical continuum. Having fulfilled key Jewish scnarios, the inevitable weight of their burden and its social stigma are transformed into a sacred mission.  The reframing of psychosocial emotional wounds as non-stigmatic, socially valorized and even advantageous for both the carrier and the collective, would not be possible without the synthesis of therapeutic practice with Jewish paradigms of memory.

Though cloaked in psychological rhetoric, both the support group session agendas and dialogue condense Jewish, paradigmatic, memory related moral imperatives.  Echoing the archetypal Jewish scenario of exile-suffering-redemption as a vehicle of memory, the scenario of intergenerational transmission evokes traditional mnemonic tropes, namely filial liability, imperatives of testimony, commemoration and redemption.  Having repeatedly narrated this key scenario and internalized its grammar and meanings, the second generation individual embodies the Jewish root motifs of the empathic and knowledgeable witness.  Once recited and internalized, the scenario function to educate carriers of memory, repeatedly reinforcing their sense of obligation to testify to the past, be it via embodiment of transmitted PTSD profile scars, or recital of what may be considered a second generation “martyrology.”  The support group as a site of commemoration also recalls the communal recital of Slihot (penitential prayers) and Kinot (lamentations), whereby the narrative of oppression perpetuates collective identity.

Finally, albeit renegotiated and adapted, support group narrations may also be seen as maintaining traditional Jewish ritual mechanisms of reenactment, reactualization and visceral embodiment.  Dramatic and symbolically loaded texts elicit a visceral, emotional response.  Psychological techniques are used to reactualize and reenact Holocaust related anxieties, so that the participants may actually feel “as if they were there.”  As in traditional rituals, when returning from their virtual communities, participants internalize the found myths of their personal and collective identity and reinforce their awareness of their position of Jewish time continuum.  Thus the format, structure and content of narrative text and support group ceremonial suffering and a joint future mission of commemoration.  Regarding Yerushalmi’s warning that with the decline of traditional religious “channels of memory”, the past will no longer be personally and collectively “reactualize” or made present, nor will it be transmitted from generation to generation, it is asserted that second generation support group memory work may be seen as a contemporary, cultural “renegotiation and adaptation” of the more traditional channels of Jewish memory.  The group’s “policy of memory” has in fact evolved in the particular cultural context of secularized post-Holocaust society, and appears dependent upon alternative contingent psychological symbolic and social processes for its survival,  Yet as seen above, the group’s theoretical guidelines, ritual text and ceremony preserve the structure and spirit of traditional text and channels of memory as culturally embedded mechanisms to educate both the individual and  community as carriers of memory, obligated and valorized to achieve traditional objectives of remembrance.  The sedimentation of Jewish paradigms of memory within support group practice in no way implies equivalence between Jewish traditional practice and psychological memory work.  Rather, it discloses the cultural survival of core traditional principles and practices embedded within a secular, cultural site of identity-memory work.

Are these resonances between Jewish memory work and support group memory work sufficient, however, to claim the active survival of traditional paradigms of Jewish memory?  Returning to Yerushalmi’s criteria for the perpetuation of Jewish collective memory, he asserts that Jewish collective memory is “a function of shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the group itself, transmitting and recreating its past through an entire complex of interlocking social and religious institutions that function organically to achieve this.” Although the support group may not be considered a religious institution, yet – to paraphrase Yerushalmi – it has reconstructed the unraveled “common network of belief and praxis through whose mechanisms…the past was once made present” where Jewish memory is healed because “the group itself finds healing” and wholeness is restored.

Although the rupture involved in secularization had engendered and perhaps necessitated modified tools to evoke Jewish tropes and paradigms, Jewish identity and memory appear to be sufficiently resilient and resourceful in the construction of a “memory infrastructure” interweaving and grafting sedimented layers of traditional and contemporary meanings.  Within the group’s “structure of conjunction” between contemporary psychological support group practice and dynamics and traditional paradigms of Jewish memory, Jewish interpretive schemes not only persist as frames for memory work, but may have also redefined therapeutic objectives.

Paraphrasing Sahlins, if new psychological symbolic and social processes may “attain meaningful form through their interaction with previous schemes of interpretation, then the new, meaningful form of the healed second generation survivor may in fact be the literate carrier and transmitter of Jewish memory, who has discovered a contemporary mans to bridge a very Jewish void.

As for the broader question of Holocaust representation and commemoration, Yerushalmi was correct in that Jewish paradigms of memory and Jewish memory are not preserved merely by virtue of the act of remembrance, or even the act of transmission of the past as an historic event.  He did. Perhaps, undervalue the mnemonic potential of contingent, contemporary channels: for as long as they embed traditional tropes scenarios and carriers, they will continue to sustain the presence of the past despite their postmodern discursive garb.  As showing in the present case study, secular and person-centered traumatic memory work has also evolved to commemorate the Holocaust as a narrative of collective loss and catastrophe, and to preserve the ideal of redemption embedded within the burden of wounded remembrance.”

The article was so popular that it generated a forum of responses published in the next volume in 2010.  These responses were written by six scholars around the world who each brought a unique perspective to the question:

Fotor0211150357Yoram Bilu is a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is a recent recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize.  He is interested in the interface of culture and psychology as reflected in mental health, folk religion, and altered states of consciousness.

Fotor0211150310José Brunner is a professor of philosophy of science and the history of ideas at Tel Aviv University and the director of the Minerva Center for German History at that university.  His books deal with the politics of trauma, Freud and Hitler.

Fotor0211150257Joelle Bahloul is a professor of social anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has conducted ethnography on collective memory, kinship and ritual among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in France, Italy and the United States for over thirty years.

Fotor0211150346Jackie Feldman is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University.  His areas of interest are the anthropology of religion, collective memory, pilgrimage, and tourism.  He has published works on Holocaust memory and pilgrimages to the Second Temple.

הורדMarianne Hirsch is William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the co-director of the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference  She has recently publish a number of essays and books chapters on cultural memory and gender in twentieth and twenty-first century culture, particularly on the representation of World War II and the Holocaust in literature, survivor testimony and photography.

Fotor0211150417Sidra DeKoven-Ezrahi is a professor of comparative literature and a fellow of the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research includes work on cultural representations of the Holocaust, and the concept of exile and return in Jewish literature and comedy.  In 2007 she won a Guggenheim fellowship for her project “Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return.”


To read more of Dr. Kidron’s work, and find out more about Dapim, click here, and to read more of the responses it received, click here.


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