Living with Ghosts Transcript
Tanner Chaille: The way in which we operate is defined in large part by our memories. Memory is a core component of the human identity. In this show, we hope to explore the nuances of this fundamental aspect of our brains. These conversations aim to illustrate the strengths, weaknesses, and mysteries surrounding remembering and forgetting. I'm Tanner Chaille. And I'm Isabel Nieves. And this is Remembering and Forgetting, a podcast by Themester.
Tanner Chaille: Memory is more than the recollections of the individual. Monumental events are able to transcend one person's consciousness and become a harrowing fixture in the minds of an entire society. Less than a century ago. A cruel and unfeeling dictatorship led by Adolf Hitler resulted in the torture and murder of millions of European Jews among other minorities. A tragedy such as this is able to define a people, a nation, and a world. It is because of the memory of the Holocaust and its survivors that we remain aware of where hatred can lead. I had a chance to speak with Mark Roseman, professor of history and Pat M Glazer, chair of Jewish studies at IU in order to ask some of the questions that arise from a topic like this. How does one reconcile the memory of their fallen family, of their lost culture? How do we remember the pitfalls of hateful empire like Nazi Germany in order to avoid them? How can someone find power in the most powerless of situations? And in an age rife with denial and skepticism, how can we bring the truth to light
Tanner Chaille: When dealing with monumental events like the Holocaust, the biggest events are often the most easily remembered. Can you share a smaller, perhaps more personal memory of the Holocaust that has struck you through your research?
Mark Roseman: Yes, and I think you're onto something very important there because I think it's often the small details that bring the big thing alive. So I'll just give you one example. I talked to a survivor, uh, who, uh, remembered, uh, that, her parents who in the end didn't manage to get out of Germany, but were hoping, hoping that they would be able to get out of Germany, uh, alive, uh, to Sweden, uh, sent their suits, um, uh, along to Sweden because if they got out then they'd have to work there. And just the thought of these, uh, thoughtful thinking individuals planning for the best while fearing for the worst was to me enormously powerful because it instead of just thinking about people whose name is victims, it, uh, it brought them to life as, as people who were thinking and planning. And as long as they had any agency, we would say, uh, exercising that, that agency, and it's those small details, trivial though they obviously are, uh, that, uh, that I find so powerful.
Tanner Chaille: So kind of how they were able to maintain hope in pretty much the most dire of circumstances. Uh, that is really powerful. And especially considering that they didn't end up making it out. They were still able to have physical entities of hope.
Mark Roseman: It's, it's maintaining hope, but it's also that they're not powerless until they're powerless. In other words, that they're still able to make choices. They're still able to make decisions. In this case they had a bit of money so they were able to make that money work and get these things sent out. So it's actually not just thinking about abject powerless individuals, but thinking about people who as long as it's possible are making choices and making decisions and, and in some ways it's even more painful because uh, you, you identify with them more and their predicament, but it also humanizes them and, and, and stops them being simply a nameless victims.
Tanner Chaille: It's kind of an interesting discrepancy that you see with media depicting the Holocaust. You often see victims being completely disenfranchised, often herded like cattle, which of course is a reality of what they went through. But also it's interesting to think of them as still having agency, like you said, still making choices to protect and benefit themselves. That does make it a lot more human because that's what any of us would try and do if we were in a similar circumstance.
Mark Roseman: Absolutely. And of course it is a very, there, there are a number of difficult moral choices that one has in thinking about how to present this. Because on the one hand, one thing that is absolutely intrinsic to genocide is that the people who are being killed are powerless - where you don't get genocide, where the group that, uh, that is being attacked is able to defend itself. So powerlessness, powerlessness is a precondition of genocide. So on that side, it's not at all unreasonable to think about the victims as not having power. That's, that's why they're this kind of victim. That's why genocide is thinkable. On the other hand, within that general framework, people are still living thinking beings. Sometimes they may be able to evade. Sometimes they may be able to hide. Sometimes they may be able to send a last letter. Sometimes they may be able to protect a child. Until the very last, they're still, they're still making choices. So the balance is to find that sort of right middle ground between acknowledging massive discrepancies in power and at the same time recalling that, uh, that, that they're not simply passive.
Tanner Chaille: Yeah. It's kind of as if the societal power is what they lack, the institutional power perhaps, but they retain the personal power, the ability to communicate, to make themselves be heard and known any way they can. And I think that really does add a layer of depth to the understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.
Mark Roseman: I think that was very nicely put.
Tanner Chaille: Thank you. Uh, you know this probably better than anyone, but the horrors experienced by the survivors of the Holocaust and also similar tragedies can be penetrating and life defining. How have you experienced survivors that you've talked with dealing with the memories and trying to move past the memories while also trying to keep them alive, trying to keep them within them and you know, power them in a certain way?
Mark Roseman: I think that there are as many different ways of responding as there are survivors, uh, of, of genocides. In that sense, there is no one pattern. Um, when we talk about memory of course we often mean at least two different things. One thing is what the individual carries within them of their former experience that still can be summoned within the psyche. And the other thing is the sort of larger commonal, uh, phenomenon whereby past events are recalled or celebrated or feared but have some presence in, uh, in a later culture and the individual recalling their experience, it influences that and is influenced by that larger pattern. It goes both ways. On the one hand, our awareness of the Holocaust clearly draws powerfully on what we've learned from what survivors have set. Their memories has fed into our knowledge and in that sense their memory becomes ours. But at the same time, the larger, uh, way in which a society deals with its past, influences also how individuals relate to their own past experience. And so you know, when there are, uh, when, for example, there are very strong pressures not to dwell on the past, that may well influence the way in which individuals think about their experience. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was much less conversation about the Holocaust - that really came later. And so at that point you could say that a lot of survivors, their emphasis really was on finding their feet, making it and not necessarily a drawing on the past. Although of course the memory of the long war loved ones they lost never disappeared. With time, however, and that's really the, it's really the more, the later context, which, which is the, the background to your question, it's become not only important for survivors themselves to hold on to that loss, but it's also become something that we've valued and, and whose significance we appreciate. And it becomes a way in which, you know, old age, survivors can communicate, uh, with, with the wider worlds. I think that's, you know, that's a very particular moment in relation to this very particular tragedy, uh, that we're in. And I of course, I think it's very important and, and it's also wonderful for people who have suffered so much to actually find now that they, what they've gone through has been valorized and that people really want to, to hear what it is that's, that's, that's happened to them.
Tanner Chaille: I do think that's really encouraging. Just today, actually we happen to be sitting in the studio on the 75th anniversary of D Day, which is an interesting coincidence. But, um, I actually did see a tweet from a survivor of the Holocaust who was celebrating the anniversary, who stated it was a monumental victory for the Allies, which led to her escape from the camp that she was at. Um, so it is interesting to think about survivors themselves being treated in the same way that veterans are as people who led to the victory in the war, as people who persevered. And I think it's fitting because in much of the same way that veterans are, they had to deal with the trauma, the violence and the loss that they have to as well.
Mark Roseman: No, I think that's a, I think that's a very good point. And I actually think it's not always easy to know how to balance talking about the war and talking about the Holocaust. And that's true in lots of different contexts. So for example, in, in Germany, um, how far are you allowed to talk about the impact as a war on Germany and how far do you have to focus on the Holocaust or is it possible? I mean, there are also moral questions raised by, uh, what do you, what do you focus on? Um, and I think, uh, uh, we have to, in the, in the early postwar decades, the Holocaust was really dwarfed by memory of the war. Uh, I think sometime in the 90s, the 2000s, the Holocaust got almost bigger than the war. And the problem with that, although it's understandable because of the specific characteristics of the Holocaust, the problem with that is that it then loses sight, I think, of what was important for the Allies and the, and participants at the time, clearly winning the war was their absolute objective. Um, and so again, getting that balance also analytically, uh, right between remembering war and remembering Holocaust is important but not easy.
Tanner Chaille: And that's probably especially true in Germany. I know you have experience teaching and researching in Germany and I wanted to ask how modern Germans reconciled the memory of their country's role in the Holocaust, and in the war at large, with the guilt and anxiety they may feel today?
Mark Roseman: I mean, you know, let me see. It's now, uh, we're now, I see, as you said, 75 years, uh, after D-Day. And that means that we've had at least three generations, uh, that have come into the world in Germany since then. And not only that, but Germany has also gone through massive transformations. And, uh, uh, the two separate parts, East Germany & West Germany, uh, have, uh, uh, been brought together to create, uh, the, the, the reunited Germany that, uh, that, uh, that we see now. Um, and so I think, uh, one can't simply talk about Germany then - Holocaust. Germany now - post Holocaust. The fact is that it's gone through a whole series of stages of, uh, responding to the past. And so much so that there's probably a generation going through, uh, school, uh, and now out of school who are reacting against a generation that was reacting against its parents who hadn't done enough.
Mark Roseman: Um, and so in that sense, um, one's looking at a whole series of different constituencies, clearly there's always been a strand within Germany that resented, uh, having to be held accountable and, and show responsibility. Um, the weight of that strand diminished for a long time. Uh, it's possible that is getting stronger again, certainly as part of the, um, uh, a much broader sort of nationalist backlash against, uh, what the cosmopolitanism of liberal elites. I mean, that's something you can see in the US or something you can see across, uh, across Europe and clearly that, that, that plays into this. So anything one would say about this would be, would be quite complicated, but I will say that certainly West Germany did go through a series of transformations in which the Holocaust became a central part of that awareness. And it's reflected in so many different reflexes within the country. How you train military leaders, what kinds of things you tell the aspiring as civil servant, what's taught in school, what you commemorate, what monuments you have. Uh, how the nation imagines its role in relations to its neighbors. It's extraordinarily present in the, in that sense. But right now I don't feel like we're lacking in Holocaust memorials, we're not lacking in books. We're not lacking in novels that deal with it. We're not lacking in films that deal with it. It's, it's in, in all those respects, more present than ever. But somehow as you, you know, your question implies, uh, what feel like should be the central lessons of it are slipping away. And so clearly what's happening is, it's not that the concrete reminders of the Holocaust per se, are going - they're not. It's what we do with them that's changing and that's troubling. And so, you know, I don't want to belittle those memorials, but right now the problem seems to be that they're being compartmentalized. They're not, and the lessons are not. And I say we won't all agree on the lessons. I don't want to prescribe what other people, what, what conclusions other people uh, draw. But I, but I do think there are some, there are some basics that many of us would, would agree on.
Tanner Chaille: Now the theme of Themester this year, remembering and forgetting, is very relevant to your work. Um, and especially in the class that you're going to be overseeing in the fall titled History of Genocide. Um, in your class description for this course, you stated that, "Genocide is the ultimate effort to excise memory." Can you explain or elaborate on this perhaps in terms of the Holocaust in specific or any other genocide you believe is relevant?
Mark Roseman: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's true not just to the Holocaust. I really think is a characteristic of genocide. Because when we, I think when we think about genocide, there are, there are two separate things that we, we, we don't always distinguish. One is of course the horror of mass murder. So there's the violence, the brutality, the indiscriminateness, all those aspects of a mass targeting of a, of a large social group of non-competence. And very often not in the anonymous way of a bomb dropped. I don't want to belittle that either, but it's, but this feels even more concretely horrible. But the other side of it is what's so striking about genocide is the attempt to eradicate a whole identity, in other words, and remove a people. And that means to remove all the symbols. Uh, the memory of that people, uh, maybe you'll have a museum that commemorates the fact that they're gone, but really all the living symbols are being removed. And I think one of the things that's so hard to imagine what it's like for survivors of a genocide that's been very extensive is it's not just you've been through trauma. It's not just you've lost your loved ones. It's not just you are in total fear of your life. It's also your entire world that of reference has gone, you know, so who are you going to speak to? What, maybe even what language you're going to speak in. You know, for many Yiddish speakers who came out of the Holocaust, that whole Yiddish world, that, that disappeared. Of course, fragments of it continued and now it's, it's had something of a revival. Nevertheless, I do think it's a remarkable thought that you, it's like, you know, a survivor from another planet. If you think about that, uh, not only have they gone through the horrors of the destruction of the, of the planet, but you know, everything that, that everything that their language refers to, uh, is, is no longer there. And, uh, and I think that's a sort of aspect of, of genocide that we often, uh, lose sight of because we are understandably so caught up with, uh, the horror, uh, of, of mass murder.
Tanner Chaille: And it's also simplistic to think about survivors as being lucky and fortunate to have gotten out. And of course they are, but also when they do leave these situations, like you said, they're left in an alien world many times without anyone who can relate to them in a way that they're familiar with. And without any concrete representation of the culture they were born in. So even though they survive, there's a much bigger and much more harrowing issue that they have to reconcile.
Mark Roseman: I think you're absolutely right. And of course there, it varies, uh, the situation that they find themselves in; in the case of the Rwandan genocide, the survivors, uh, very often, uh, remain in their communities. And so they have the challenge of pursuing a life where on every corner there's a memory of the horrors that took place on that, on, on that corner surrounded by people who were involved in murdering, uh, their family, in threatening their own life, uh, in, in killing their neighbors. So there's that. So there, it's how do you live a life surrounded by ghosts? Um, in the case of the Holocaust, a great many of the survivors of the Holocaust don't end up where they used to live. Uh, and so there it's about what kind of memories do you hold onto in a diaspora, completely removed from the world that you once knew. Um, obviously some do return, but, but returning is hard and often even those who return don't stay where they've returned. So in the immediate aftermath of the war, many, uh, Polish Jews returned to Poland, but they didn't stay because it wasn't comfortable. Um, and even threatening. And they found themselves often in conflict with people who'd acquired the property they'd left behind and didn't expect them to return. And those issues of property then make life very hard, sometimes dangerous and they, and they leave. So, uh, it, it, the, the different genocides shape that challenge that you talked about in different ways. But the fundamental thing is absolutely right. It's a, it's a, it's a double challenge of having gone through gruesome events, threats and loss and contending with a world in which everything that was home has really, has really disappeared.
Tanner Chaille: And it's, it's very real to look at the concrete methods in which they live in their communities. Even today, it kind of provides an answer for why communities like Hasidic Jews in New York are so tight knit, so prideful of their heritage. So, you know, fully embodied in their religion and in their communities. That's one of the ways they have recovered, it seems like.
Mark Roseman: I think you're absolutely right. I think, uh, post-war Jewish identities in, in all the manifold varieties in different ways bear the mark of this massive attempt at destruction. And be it talking about, the sort of culture and values in Israel, be it talking about tight-knit, uh, Heradi or Orthodox communities, be it talking about the sort of wider values, uh, in, in the, in a sort of more acculturated communities and it, and it takes shape in different forms. Uh, there's a, um, a historian called Samuel Moine who wrote an interesting book about a book that appeared in postwar France, one of the first about the uprising in Treblinka, one of the extermination camps. And one of the things that he was able to show, which was really fascinating, was that there were very different reactions amongst different sections of the Jewish community depending on whether or not they, their background and language. So the Yiddish speakers, many of whom were survivors from eastern Europe and who had a very sort of concrete sense of how the Holocaust had happened, uh, were often rather offended by the book because they felt it didn't quite match their experience. Whereas the, uh, French speaking French Jews, many of whom were descended from generations of French Jews, read the book quite differently because they were, uh, juxtaposing it with a different set of experiences. So even within the Jewish community, there's a series of different sub communities. But that all, I think you're absolutely right, uh, shaped in different ways by this overwhelming commonal, uh, experience, um, of the Holocaust.
Tanner Chaille: It's, it's fascinating to think about how it fragments like that. Um, final question, uh, for your class in the fall, History of Genocide, is there any story, any person that you're most excited, most intrigued to talk about with your students and you think will perhaps be the most powerful?
Mark Roseman: Oh, wow. You saved the most impossible question for last!
Tanner Chaille: I love to do that. Yeah. Stump you right at the end.
Mark Roseman: Um... no. But I will say, you know, that I have a, I have a book coming out and, uh, what that book's about is a, is a group within Nazi Germany who rescued a number of Jews. And so I'm very conscious of the moment, uh, not just of the experience of the victims, but also of the challenge that faced members of a mainstream communities who sought to go against the general policy and reach out to help their neighbors and the dilemmas that they face. And there are lots of things that one doesn't necessarily think about. For example, uh, I, I just take one example in, uh, in Nazi Germany where you saw thousands of German Jews being readied for deportation, then taken off, wasn't it arbitrary to help one or two? Uh, I mean in retrospect it seems an absurd question, uh, because anybody you could help, that was better than no help. But at the time, especially if you don't have one very strong personal connection to one person, how do you choose? Um, and in fact that can be quite sort of when you're confronted with a whole mechanism which is targeting so many people, uh, it takes quite a lot not to be disabled, uh, by the knowledge that you're barely making a dent. So I think one of the things that I'm intrigued to explore with the students is the dilemmas of the, uh, of the potential helpers. I think it's something that we haven't thought enough about. What were the obstacles and challenges to acting, uh, in a genocidal situation. Um, and of course it varies on thousands of things. Do you have a house? Do you have a network? Do you have some money? What's the landscape? Can you hide people? Surveillance? There's a million things that affect what you can do, but there are also these very psychological issues that I think we haven't thought enough about. So that's definitely on my, on my mind at the moment.
Tanner Chaille: I think that will be very interesting and I am looking forward for your book, looking forward to read more of your work because I will say the book that I read, which the title escapes me, I apologize.
Mark Roseman: Past in Hiding.
Tanner Chaille: Past in Hiding: Survival and Memory in Nazi Germany, uh, was a wonderful exercise in learning about how memory exists to this day for survivors of the, uh, the Holocaust in Germany. Uh, thank you so much Dr. Mark Roseman for joining us in the studio here today. Uh, Dr Roseman is overseeing a class, as I said, the history of genocide in the fall. Um, thank you again.
Mark Roseman: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
Tanner Chaille: It's easy for us to assume that conversations like these aren't relevant to our lives. The Holocaust and similar events might seem a world away from America in the present day, but the truth is much less convenient. Right here in Bloomington, the seemingly innocuous community of the Farmers' Market is embroiled in a battle regarding the presence of white supremacists. And shortly after recording this interview, Dr. Mark Roseman was one of over 100 academics to write an open letter addressed to the director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum for a statement related to the political strife surrounding detention camps at the border. The letter states, in part, "The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is taking a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide, and it makes learning from the past almost impossible. The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering. Pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task." In times like these, the memories of the past are often closer than you'd like to believe.