Showing the Shoah

Is it possible to represent the Holocaust without falsifying it? Is it an experience that should eve

Not long after the opening of Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum, a bright spark of a sales rep approached the museum shop with a great idea for a new line in merchandise: cute little bears in stripy suits with the words "Bear Witness" emblazoned across their chests. Whatever the American public might have thought of this, the museum didn't risk finding out.

As an example of just how far wrong representations of the Holocaust can go, the survivor teddy bear is surely up there with the best of the very, very bad. As an example of the continuing dilemmas of Holocaust representation, it is also instructive given that, major lapses of judgement notwithstanding, representations of the Holocaust continue to proliferate and diversify year on year.

This week alone, there will be a major academic conference on the Holocaust in Oxford, an international gathering of survivors and descendants in London, a season of Holocaust-related films and discussions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a number of exhibitions and concerts and the publication of yet another academic book on the subject. After decades of collective amnesia, Britain seems in the grip of an overwhelming urge to remember. Suddenly, "Shoah business" is everyone's business.

The American historian Peter Novick, the author of The Holocaust and Collective Memory (Bloomsbury), has recently argued that the Jewish community in America "discovered" the Holocaust in the Eighties and Nineties for political purposes that had nothing to do with honouring the dead and everything to do with protecting the interests of the living. For a community of diverse individuals with little else in common, the Holocaust has become "virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity in the late 20th century, [filling] a need for a consensual symbol". Another American, Norman Finkelstein, in his new book, The Holocaust Industry (Verso), goes even further than Novick, accusing American Jews of cynically exploiting the Holocaust to hike restitution claims and to force excessively large payouts from the Swiss and German governments.

Such arguments, however, don't transfer easily to Britain, which doesn't have a similarly large and powerful Jewish lobby. In stark contrast to America, the Anglo-Jewish community in this country verges on pathological reticence. In many cases, it is a younger, non-Jewish generation who are driving the upsurge in Holocaust awareness, shocked by the willingness of their elders to brush past unpleasantnesses under the carpet, alert to the hypocrisy and danger of not confronting what happened to the Jews of Europe. It is surely significant that all three major Holocaust exhibitions in Britain - Beth Shalom near Nottingham, the Shoah Centre in Manchester (due to open in 2005) and the Holocaust Exhibition in London - have non-Jewish directors. Even the location of the Holocaust Exhibition - in the heart of the Imperial War Museum - is revealing. As one historian commented wryly: "Anglo-Jewry tends to feel safest when embraced by the British establishment."

Another explanation for the recent explosion in Britain of interest in the Holocaust is the powerful impact of the burgeoning body of survivor testimony. Numerous oral archives have been established to collect these testimonies in recent years. At the newly opened Holocaust Exhibition, the faces and voices of survivors are crucial and dominant: they greet you at the entrance with memories of their prewar childhoods; they accompany you through the horror of the ghettos, camps and executions; and finally, they send you on your way with their profound reflections on the challenge of life after the war, life now.

Annie Dodds, who recorded these interviews for the exhibition, is a seasoned documentary film-maker. She strongly believes that nothing compares with the impact of hearing a survivor tell his or her story. "Oral testimony captures the fundamental truths about the experience in a way that historical facts can't. Without their voices, it becomes a silent, mummified event. All you'd hear is Nazi ranting."

Survivor testimonies are an invaluable resource to schoolteachers and museum curators alike but, as a means of representing the Holocaust, are not without problems. As Mark Roseman, the newly appointed professor of modern history at the University of Southampton, points out: "Personal testimony is vital, because there is so little else, but we shouldn't view it uncritically." In his forthcoming book, The Past in Hiding (Penguin), Roseman explores the "slippages of memory" in the testimony of a German Jewish woman who survived the war in hiding. "How accounts change is significant in itself. The way a survivor regards his or her past is not static. It is constantly being culturally and historically shaped."

Several of the films showing at the ICA in London this week also explore the complexity of survivor testimony. Martin, for example, is a documentary about the encounter between three young tourists and a survivor of Dachau, who spends his days "educating" visitors to the camp about what "really" happened there. Another film, Kapo, challenges the Jewish prisoners who were used to enforce order in the concentration camps to confront their version of events.

Holocaust purists argue that any form of representation is unacceptable because it inevitably falsifies, aestheticises. On the other hand, however uncomfortable academics may be with some of the popular representations of the Holocaust, few would question that films such as Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful have done more to raise public awareness of the Holocaust than a thousand scholarly tomes.

"Every popularisation has its risks," acknowledges Nicole David, the chair of Remembering for the Future 2000, the survivors' gathering and conference, and herself a survivor. "But, on the other hand, what do I prefer? To have my story forgotten? If we want the Holocaust to be known about, we need to look at it again and again in as many ways as possible." Dr Jonathan Webber of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies urges caution. "We shouldn't mistake representation for the reality it depicts." He cites Life is Beautiful as a prime example. "It's a wonderful film, but it's not a film for beginners. It's a parody of representation, an artistic attempt to depict the incomprehensible."

Anyone seeking to represent the Holocaust visually faces some major decisions about how to handle the huge stock of "shock-worthy" images of Jewish victims. How does one adequately portray the horror of the Holocaust without re-victimising the victims? How does one convey the scale of the genocide without homogenising the murdered Jews into a dehumanised mass of corpses, or even just numbers?

Towards the end of an otherwise superb production of Albert Speer, David Edgar's play about Hitler's chief architect which has just finished its premier run at the Lyttelton Theatre in London, there is an unforgivable lapse of artistic judgement. It is the late Seventies, and Albert Speer stands alone on an otherwise empty stage, protesting his innocence. Film footage of the liberation of Belsen is projected on to a vast screen behind him, in such a way that the images fall over his face and body. Huge British soldiers on life-size tractors are shovelling corpses into mass graves. The screen, with its magnified sea of emaciated bodies, begins to roll towards the auditorium, drowning out Speer's shrill protestations. An army of the dead is advancing unstoppably on him, and on us. The tractors seem about to shovel the bodies right on to our laps. It is impossible not to recoil. Is it acceptable or necessary or useful to exploit horror in this way? Is there something morally indecent about using such grotesque, quasi-pornographic images to twist a certain reaction out of the audience?

At the Holocaust Exhibition, where they should have known better, there are similarly disturbing images. Wherever you look, film footage and photographs show Jews being humiliated, starved, beaten and shot. A film about conditions in the ghetto shows a desperately thin man piling the rigid corpses of children on to a wooden cart. We are not told which ghetto this is, nor that it is, in fact, a composite. Nor are we told that the film was shot by a Nazi as anti-Semitic propaganda. Elsewhere, there is film footage of a mass execution by a Ukrainian killing squad. A photograph shows a grave containing the naked, tangled bodies of 7,000 Jewish men, women and children. Another photo on another wall shows a blown-up photograph of a naked woman who has just been raped. There is a long extract from the Belsen footage used in Albert Speer.

Is this the way to represent the victims of the Holocaust? Is this the way to make people think about what happened across Europe? Is this the way to make people think about the relevance of the Jewish Holocaust to more recent events in Rwanda and Bosnia? One historian described the exhibition as "a voyeur's paradise".

These images used in such ways are deeply distressing for sure, but do more to inhibit discussion than promote it. Look, for example, at the way the British press responded to the Holocaust Exhibition when it opened in London last month.

I read the unanimously enthusiastic reviews in the national papers with interest and, after I'd been to see for myself, reread them with a growing sense of unreality, unable to find a single substantial criticism. No such bland applause had united the reviewers of the Tate Modern a week or so earlier. Nor had Albert Speer got off so lightly when it opened in May. Furthermore, not one of the academics I spoke to who voiced reservations about the Holocaust Exhibition was prepared to do so "on the record". In this of all contexts, such public consensus of opinion is alarming, suggestive of complacency or anxiety, or both.

Even if one had no problem with the incessant use of demeaning images, what about the bizarrely British "take" on the Holocaust? Didn't that bother anyone? Despite depicting events that took place in central and eastern Europe, the exhibition has a decisively English flavour: detached; objective; preoccupied with gadgets and gismos; prurient; faintly evasive.

The Holocaust as it related directly to Britain in the 1930s and 1940s is scarcely mentioned. There is nothing at all on the plight of Jewish enemy aliens; nothing about the experiences of the Kindertransport children after 1939; very little about how the Church responded to Nazism; still less on the views and actions of the Anglo-Jewish community in Britain at the time. Whitehall gets off extraordinarily lightly, as anyone who has read Louise London's Whitehall and the Jews 1933-48 (Cambridge University Press) will know, and this despite (or maybe because of) the relevance of Britain's attitude to refugees in the Thirties and its attitude today.

Britain's next major Holocaust museum, the Shoah Centre, is due to open in Manchester in 2005. With 2,500 square metres of floor space, it will be bigger than the London Holocaust Exhibition, yet half as expensive to build (£8m to London's £17m). The project director, Bill Willi-ams, is keen to point out that the Shoah Centre will take a very different approach to the problem of representation. "We are very much against the perpetrator perspective of many exhibitions, which end up telling you the numbers of Jews the Nazis killed, and how. Instead, we want to build the story of the Holocaust out of the experiences of those who went through it, using personal testimonies, diaries, letters, photographs and personal belongings." There will be a total avoidance of anything that might, however inadvertently, celebrate the might of the Nazi regime. "No swastikas, no Nuremberg rallies, no corpses," says Williams.

Without colluding with a perpetrator perspective, there is nevertheless a place for engaging with the perpetrators, as Gitta Sereny and David Edgar have both argued. In the Observer, Edgar observed: "The notion that there is a thing called evil which separates the wicked off from the rest of us is comforting illusion. The uncomfortable truth is that to understand does involve recognition and even empathy. It does require seeing the world through the eyes of the wicked person, and thus finding those impulses and resentments and fears within ourselves that could - we have painfully to admit it - drive us to commit dreadful acts under different circumstances."

Lawrence Langer, the distinguished professor of Holocaust literature, has written that we are now entering a second stage of Holocaust response, "moving away from what we know of the event . . . to how to remember it, which shifts the responsibility to our own imaginations, and what we are prepared to admit there".

If Langer is right, it is incumbent on people who represent the Holocaust to think extremely carefully about how they do so. Shock tactics seldom encourage or deepen awareness. They are far more likely to short-circuit thought, bypass understanding, push us back into strategies of evasion, at which we are all adept. If used often enough, they become cliches that we can observe without an emotional response or, worse still, observe with a predictable emotional response.

Denial, similarly, takes many forms. At one level, perhaps at many levels, we all want to deny the Holocaust, precisely because it is so horrific. As one historian puts it: "It's an abyss, and there is nothing good to be taken from it. The more you know about the Holocaust, the harder it is to grasp." Instead, we take refuge in facts and figures, or intellectual debate, or we shut down our emotional responses, or simply block it out altogether. Stephen Smith, the director of Beth Shalom - Britain's first Holocaust museum, which opened in 1995 - puts the problem another way: "The Holocaust was not about the mass murder of six million Jews, but about the suffering, the anguish, the fear, the pain, the murder of one Jew, and then another, and another, and another."

The signs are that there is a new openness among the general public to the subject of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Exhibition in London has had 1,000 visitors a day since it opened in June. Beth Shalom has five travelling exhibitions on the Holocaust, all fully booked year round. The opening of official archives under the 50-year rule has boosted Holocaust research; publishers are busy signing up new works in the light of recently released information. The Holocaust itself is now a compulsory element in the school curriculum. The British government has announced a national day of remembrance: 27 January 2001 marks the first official Holocaust Memorial Day.

The challenge for people such as Nicole David, Stephen Smith and Bill Williams, whose job or burden or vocation it is to represent the Holocaust, is how to do so in ways that cut across the intervening spaces of time, distance, culture, nationality, without resorting to cheap or cliched methods of persuasion and manipulation that shock people out of thought, or inure them with trite platitudes about good and evil. The lectures, workshops, discussions and films planned for this week by Remembering for the Future 2000 are a serious attempt to grapple with these issues.

In 1983, Primo Levi wrote of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising: "Even when everything is lost, it is granted to man to save, together with his own dignity, that of future generations." His injunction remains.

RFTF 2000 is holding a public meeting, "Evil and Indifference: is there an end to genocide?", on 21 July at Westminster Central Hall, London (020-7259 0177); the "Out of that Darkness" season of films and discussions is at the ICA, London, from 16-23 July (020-7930 3647)

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky