Conference Report: Lessons and Legacies XV, The Holocaust: Global Perspectives and National Narratives

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 4 (December 2018)

Conference Report: Lessons and Legacies XV, The Holocaust: Global Perspectives and National Narratives, Washington University in St. Louis, November 2018

By Lauren Rossi, Simon Fraser University

The Holocaust Educational Foundation’s biennial conference, Lessons and Legacies, met this November in St. Louis, Missouri. This international conference continues to draw scholars from across North America and Europe, with some representation from Israel, Australia, Mexico, and Colombia. Because the focus of the conference is relatively narrow but the quality of the research presented is generally quite high, the loyalty of the attendees is evident—many have been attending for decades. Panels are mixed with both luminaries from the field as well as young scholars presenting their work for the first time to a professional audience.

This year, the quality of the work on display was no exception. The conference featured a mix of traditional panels, closed seminars with pre-circulated papers, video and poster presentations, workshops, and three dinner presentations: a keynote by Omer Bartov, whose most recent book, Anatomy of a Genocide, is a devastatingly powerful microhistory of the Ukrainian town Buczacz before and during the Holocaust (Bartov’s mother was born there and emigrated to Palestine with her parents in 1935); an awards ceremony for distinguished service and retirements; and a film screening about the Warsaw Ghetto archive. The conference, and the foundation itself remain firmly committed to the Holocaust as its primary research and pedagogical focus, but the panel content was wide-ranging. An abbreviated list of topics includes perpetrator ideology, cultural production in the camps, Holocaust memory in science fiction, museums, wartime relief, relationships between Jews and “non-Aryans,” Holocaust memory in Poland, photography and spectatorship, victimhood, and the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials. At least two panels were devoted to situating the Holocaust within the broader context of genocide studies, one of which provoked a valuable discussion with the audience about comparative studies of cultural genocide and the Holocaust. The re-emergence of extremist movements in Europe and the far right on both sides of the Atlantic was also on display. One panel in particular, about legislating and criminalizing the history of the Holocaust, featured a conversation between Elzbieta Janicka, Jan Grabowski, and Jan T. Gross, the latter whose work is directly involved in Poland’s current history debates and has been much maligned by critics on the right.

The HEF, and especially its founder, Theodore “Zev” Weiss, has long been an ardent supporter of the importance of researching and teaching about the Holocaust and the role of the churches. So it was noticeable that the program, although heavy on the theme of antisemitism (most of it regionally focused, on Bavaria, the Ustasha, Florence, Odessa, Italy, Latvia, and Poland), offered no panel about religion or Christianity or the current state of research in the field. Only one paper explicitly addressed the topic of Catholicism, and that was my own presentation, “Catholic Seminarians and Vernichtungskrieg, 1939-1945: Masculinity, Complicity, Resistance”, in a panel about the Holocaust and masculinities. (The paper was well received, but the panel was more about gender than about religion, and much of the commentary reflected this.) This could reflect a lack of proposals for the conference organizers to choose from, though several of our editors were in attendance and I have learned that at least one proposed panel about the churches was declined. The lack of this theme certainly should not be taken as a suggestion that the field is exhausted. Our own newsletter’s quarterly installments showcase the most recent scholarship in both English and German about the various facets of Christianity and the Third Reich as well as the churches confronting postwar challenges such as secularization and their histories under fascism. The editors usually have a lengthy list of articles and books to choose from for review.

So perhaps it is a sign of other challenges, two of the most obvious being that many of those scholars currently working in the field of Christianity and the Holocaust do not attend Lessons and Legacies (or do not attend regularly), and that those scholars who do attend are not actively working in the field. Like many academic institutes that host regular conferences, the Holocaust Educational Foundation does some advertising but relies largely on word of mouth to reach new scholars, including overseas. It might be a question of making stronger appeals to those scholars whose work merits showcasing in this venue. The organizers of the next Lessons and Legacies conference, meeting in Ottawa, Canada, in 2020, might also be persuaded to consider accepting more papers and panels about religion and Christianity if it was the case that this year’s organizers turned down such proposals. There are some among the editors of the CCHQ, myself included, who could be more proactive about putting such panels together and pitching them to the organizers. In this manner, a third challenge—persuading the current decision-makers on the foundation’s academic council that the Holocaust, religion, and the churches is still an important topic producing innovative research—might be relatively easily overcome.

Another challenge, and one potentially more difficult to master, given the HEF’s ongoing and obvious commitment to the Holocaust, is a suggestion that was voiced at one of the panels that I attended, of including more papers and panels that engage with the field of genocide studies. (The audience at this panel was enthusiastic about the idea.) Increasingly over the past few conferences, Lessons and Legacies has featured papers that address genocide beyond the Holocaust, but these are always exceptions and most panels are devoted specifically to the genocide of Europe’s Jews. The debate about the Holocaust as the paradigmatic genocide, traditionally a non-starter for the specialist in Holocaust studies, contuse to loom large in genocide studies. In accepting that the Holocaust features as one of several twentieth-century genocides, Lessons and Legacies could make an important pivot that does nothing to diminish the importance of studying the Holocaust while at the same time appealing to a larger array of scholars, some of whom are doing valuable work on the role of institutional religion, its actors and adherents, and mass violence and genocide. (My own research currently tends in this direction.) And the field of genocide studies, which grew out of Holocaust studies in the 1980s and early 1990s, is a rapidly-growing field that reaches all corners of the globe. Traditionally, such comparative approaches have yielded some of the strongest, most thought-provoking presentations at Lessons and Legacies. This opinion will not be shared by all who attend Lessons and Legacies, and my suggestion is not meant to indicate that either the conference or the foundation’s work are somehow lacking because their focus is specific to the Holocaust. Indeed, this is the fifteenth Lessons and Legacies, the sixteenth is already being planned, and it continues to attract scholars both well established (Dagmar Herzog presented new findings in the T4 archive; Marion Kaplan discussed Jewish refugees in Portugal) and emerging (Sebastian Huebel analyzed Jews and gender in prewar concentration camps; Lorena Sekwan Fontaine spoke about cultural genocide in Canada). I do feel it worth noting that a conference already producing such diverse research can only be enriched by engaging more consistently with research from genocide studies.