03 August 2013

Mea culpa, of sorts

by Marc Masurovsky

On August 2, 2013, an unusual workshop came to an end at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, capped by a two-hour symposium, half of which consisted of presentations summarizing the purpose and result of the workshop and the second half hosting questions from the audience.

The workshop was entitled “Politics of Repair”, already an interesting formulation pertaining to post-1945 attempts by governments and non-governmental organizations alike to come to terms with the material devastation wrought by 12 years of Nazi rule and years of occupation, domination, exploitation, and death, on its victims--men, women, and children of all ages, backgrounds, occupations, and nationalities.

Nine scholars, mostly from continental Europe (exclusive of island nations), staffed the workshop. Half of the scholars had worked in some capacity for national commissions in the late 1990s and early part of the 21st century.  These commissions had been established to provide a concrete framework through which to apprehend the extent of the physical and economic damage wrought on victims of Nazi policies and how best to “repair” the damage; hence, the title of the workshop. Their ultimate purpose was to frame the end of the discussion over reparations and restitution.

Why unusual? Perhaps because Holocaust memorials shun discussions over reparations and restitution, plain and simple. Thus, the mere fact that the most significant of all Holocaust memorials built since the 1990s actually hosted such an event is noteworthy.

Having been in the so-called trenches of the Holocaust restitution movement (as opposed to reparations) for several decades, I have a thing or two to say about the topic but always try my best to refrain from imposing a point of view, preferring to listen to what others have to say, especially scholars who have recently cut their teeth on what turns out to be a very complicated affair.

Let’s get to the point here:

During the question and answer period, I waited for about thirty minutes and then I spoke. At that point, I probably was a bit steamed because I vocalized my uncertainty about what it was exactly that I wished to ask the nine workshop historians. Finally, I found the question for which I still have no proper answer: why is it that the historical profession has waited more than six decades to tackle the questions of reparations and restitution resulting from the genocide of the Jewish communities of Europe? I reminded the workshop historians that this was not a personal question but could they give the audience a sense as to why the historical profession has ignored this complex topic for so long and what their future plans are about continuing their research in this specialized aspect of the Holocaust? No one seemed willing to come up with an answer, understandably, since it is somewhat "provocative" without wishing it to be so.  Still, it would be a rather simple affair for a historian to explain his or her motivations for working on the topics of reparations and restitution.  Apparently not.  Finally, one scholar attempted a reply, wondering out loud if this was a question, to which I replied in the affirmative. In essence, he provided a classical response about how in the case of postwar Germany, there was a general unwillingness to investigate the underlying themes of restitution and reparations for lack of interest and also out of fear of stirring numerous hornets’ nests. Hence, it was better for the Academy to just let it go and allow sleeping dogs to lie…

Then, another scholar attempted a more elaborate response. To summarize his meandering and obfuscating reply, he declared in no uncertain terms that it would be inconceivable for an academic lecture on the Holocaust and its aftermath to include any reference to reparations and restitution. Plain and simple. I stopped him right there and asked him to explain his statement. There was an attempt to deflect the question by declaring it off topic and more suited to a Jewish studies workshop.

Here, I blew a gasket. I admit it; it was not the most professional moment in my career, but my emotions got the better of me and I raised my voice and indicated that my question had everything to do with the topic at hand since it was directly relevant to our understanding of Jewish history, society and culture. Needless to say, the exchange was over. The point was made in a very awkward fashion that the Academy continues to shun in-depth examinations of restitution and reparations policies in the post-war era without wishing to explore their deep-seated meanings and how a closer examination of these issues might allow us to reach into some of the root causes and expressions of Nazi anti-Jewish policies. In other words, an academic discussion of restitution and reparations can only succeed if it leads to an economic analysis of the Final Solution, which had been driven in part by the Nazis’ desire to eradicate Jews both physically and materially—their complete elimination from economic and cultural life and the absorption of their assets into the New European Order.

All in all, this brief sparring incident brought under a crude light how difficult it is for historians, after the passage of three generations since the end of the Second World War, to address in a critical and scholarly way the economic underpinnings of the Shoah.

Although I am glad that “I stood my ground,” I am not happy that it had to happen in this manner, and, for that, I do apologize.

It is undoubtedly more acceptable to discuss how postwar governments have striven in different ways to “repair" the damage done to Holocaust victims and their families through "recognition" and "reconciliation", functioning as a paradigm through which memories of the Holocaust can be filtered into a narrative of genocide that prevents us from entering into awkward territories. What a shame…

Online Invitation
Source: Cvent via USHMM