Faculty, Research

Holocaust Hospitality: Michal Rovner’s Living Landscape at Yad Vashem

img_3204Writing in the journal History and Memory in 2016, art historian Rachel Perry of the University of Haifa’s Holocaust Studies Program considers the impact and implications of Living Landscape, the entrance art installation created by Michal Rovner at Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust History museum. Perry discusses the message and thematic expression of Living Landscape as embodying the message of the new Holocaust History museum, with reference to the concept of hospitality as conveyed by Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.

Perry opens with the question: How does one greet the Holocaust, and how should a Holocaust History museum welcome its visitors in to face the history that it presents? Michal Rovner’s huge permanent installation in the entrance foyer of Yad Vashem’s new museum answers this question in a particular way. Rovner covers the entirety of one wall with a projected loop of film gleaned from footage shot before the Holocaust that depicts ordinary European Jewish life in all its variety, without any signs of Nazism, ghettos, death or humiliation. Perry cites Henri Raczymov’s description of ‘pre-history’ for Rovner’s choice of material for visitors about to plunge into the history of the Holocaust.

Perry comments on the radical nature of Rovner’s artwork. Yad Vashem’s other large iconic art pieces follow the trope of the downtrodden, passive ‘ghetto Jews’ set alongside the self-actualized, proud and fulfilled Jews of Israel, for example Nathan Rapoport’s 1948 Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In contrast, Rovner’s work shows European Jews as living full, contented lives in the Diaspora as their home, without dejection or passivity.

Living Landscape uses only ‘found footage’ – that is, restored footage that was shot by Jews, in place of film that was created by either the liberators (such as US army cameramen) or perpetrators (Nazi cinematography). Perry emphasizes how Rovner’s intimate use of Jewish-created film celebrates the living, not the dead, welcoming you into their lives. She notes that the welcoming nature of Living Landscape epitomizes the new museum’s approach to Holocaust history, presenting it from point of view of the vanquished. She terms it ‘repersonalization’. The old museum told story of ‘them’, six million anonymous and faceless victims, from a neutral perspective, but the new museum tells the story of the individual. Repersonalization, Perry notes, does not mean that the visitor is absorbed to become them but rather is encouraged to empathize with them.

Rovner’s work shows the leitmotif of waving and hands stretched out towards the visitor, expressing a theme of welcome and hospitality. It is here that Perry references Levinas’ philosophy of hospitality. Levinas and Derrida expounded on the home as the beginning of all memory and the locus of hospitality, and the subjects of Rovner’s work welcome you in and greet you from this place where memory begins, before you step into their memories. Levinas conceptualized of greeting another as the foundation of ethical interaction. The welcome of hospitality demands recognizing the face of the Other and permitting them to enter one’s home and one’s life. Similarly, the visitor is here welcomed in and made to feel at home at the beginning of this foray into the lives and homes of another.

Waving connotes a relationship, bridging a distance between two people who have a connection. But waving can also express farewell. The ominous mournful score and the visitor’s knowledge of what is to come overshadows the welcome in Living Landscape, even though there is no hint of it in the footage. Perry concludes that this is one of the ways that Rovner’s installation crosses the binary lines usually present in a Holocaust history museum – between outside and inside, between dark and light, between mourning the loss or celebrating the victory of ongoing life – forcing the visitor to reflect on his own responsibility to memory and to ethical behavior today.

Rachel Perry is a Professor of Art History at the University of Haifa

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Current Students

Student Blog: Simon Goldberg

426214_2765535860856_1473327263_nBorn in London, Simon Goldberg was raised in Jerusalem and later moved to New York, where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in History from Yeshiva University and founded the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM), a student-run movement advocating the preservation and propagation of Holocaust memory. A national finalist in the Fellowship for Noble Purpose in 2012, Simon has taught for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Europe and, most recently, at Elsa International High School in Hong Kong, where he helped develop the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre as a mainstay for awareness and education of the Holocaust in East Asia. Simon presently directs Triangles of Truth, a global movement of students who honor and remember Holocaust victims by giving charity in their names to help meet the humanitarian needs of current genocide refugees.  We are pleased to share Simon’s experience in one of his courses with you today:

As we near the end of this first term, the words of Dr. Rachel Perry, who teaches our elective on Holocaust representation, echo in my mind: be a good guardian of this memory, she implores us.

We try. Because underlying the multifaceted, often fastidious historical study we are undertaking, isn’t this the mission? To wrestle with the legacy with which the Holocaust endows us—to mold and shape it before it eludes us, disarms us, encouraging us instead to forget.

Dr. Perry’s course was a long thought experiment that centered on the meeting point between the Holocaust and visual culture. What questions haunted Felix Nussbaum, the German-Jewish artist who hid in Belgium during the war, as he decried the transformation of his identity under Nazi occupation? Looking back on Charlotte Salomon’s remarkable series of 769 gouache paintings, telling of her exile to South France and interment in Gurs, what questions abound on the experience of displacement? We learned about the medium of art as an assertion of creative resistance—a reclamation of self and humanity

After Auschwitz, Steven Spielberg created a stirring film on the person and actions of Oscar Schindler, now renowned throughout the world. But what are the ethics of a filmmaker operating in the realm of memory? Is it ignominious to reconstruct a scene that places Jews in the gas chambers? The method of representation matters, and for Claude Lanzmann, who over eleven years made the ten-hour long Shoah, certain images are prohibited. Nor can the Holocaust be redeemed, for it is endless, as evidenced by the film’s last frame of a train in perpetual motion. Yet if Lanzmann is right, if there is “no moral right to give a happy ending,” what of the attempt to make meaning of the Holocaust through the appropriation of its lessons?

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus offered a window into a memory-architect’s workshop. Spiegelman, caught at the turn between generations, tells multiple stories including the story of his own telling—thus pulling the reader into the process of narrative construction. For a while, we stepped into Spiegelman’s shoes; scrutinized his creative dilemmas; fiddled with his juxtaposition of images and words on pages that seek not resolution but legitimacy—a testament to honor the dead, a compass to navigate the borders and contradictions of post-memory. We weren’t there, but how close can we get? How close should we get to the event?

The future of Holocaust memory will not so much depend on whether or not it is propagated, but how it is propagated. How, as Yehuda Amichai’s poem instructs, will the rememberers remember? What is the proper way to cast one’s eyes as the flag lowers to half-mast? How are we to look at a photograph without re-victimizing the victims it portrays? Without looking too often? We who came after but not so long after, with which song do we cry over Treblinka?

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