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Rachel Deblinger, Author

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Project Details

Memories/Motifs is an extension of my dissertation, “‘In a world still trembling’: American Jewish philanthropy and the shaping of Holocaust survivor narratives in postwar America (1945-1953).” This study examines how American Jews came to know stories about Holocaust survivors through American Jewish philanthropic activities in the immediate postwar period. I analyze a range of sources, including fundraising pamphlets, magazine articles, posters, radio broadcasts, short films, institutional records and public ephemera in order to understand how survivor narratives were transformed for American audiences. This exhibit encourages visitors to explore some of these materials on their own and consider how public interests shaped stories about the Holocaust in the postwar period.

It is important to me that users be able to read, hear, and see survivor narratives from the early post war period as a way to combat the “Myth of Silence.”* The immediate aftermath of the war was, in fact, a period of great memory creation and commemoration. Holocaust survivors wrote and collected testimony in Europe, they wrote literature and memoirs, they shared stories and memories in Yizkor Bikher. In America, Jews inserted commemorative language into Jewish rituals and holiday services, they built and attempted to build monuments, and, as my research shows, they raised unprecedented amounts of money to aid survivors still struggling in postwar Europe. The pamphlets, radio broadcasts, scripts, and brochures featured in Memories/Motifs are evidence of the vast philanthropic response American Jews waged in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

If visitors to Memories/Motifs read and listen to the materials collected here and reconsider the received knowledge that American Jews didn’t know about or talk about the Holocaust after the war, then I will consider this exhibit successful. But, I encourage users to explore further and consider the thematic connections highlighted that reveal what makes early representations of Holocaust survivors unique. Commonly used motifs reveal that these stories were deeply connected to the story of America in the postwar period and suggest how early survivor accounts were framed by contemporary American concerns. 

This approach to survivor narrative expands our sense of testimony to include fundraising materials and other ephemera not consciously conceived of as memory sources. This is outside the norm of how Holocaust narratives are viewed today, but offers an important way to understand how American Jews and many non-Jews were first introduced to the stories of Holocaust survivors. The exhibit also features a path about the variety of medium used to transmit survivor accounts to consider how American audiences would have encountered these stories. Through this path, Memories/Motifs calls attention to the relationship between Holocaust narratives and technology and identifies the different narrative possibilities for changing media technologies. It remains an open question how technology will continue to alter how audiences listen to, watch, and read survivor accounts.

This work has been supported by the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA.

* Diner, Hasia R. We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
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