In this episode RSP co-editor Breann Fallon talks to Dr Avril Alba of the University of Sydney about the tension between the secular and sacred in Holocaust museums. Having worked in museum curation, as well academia, Alba gives a specific insight into the sacrality of museums, the creation of such spaces, and how this area of study came to be. Speaking on Holocaust museums specifically, Alba highlights the tensions between Jewish ritual and religious practices with the secular notion of a museum. In particular, questions of theodicy, the role of the Holocaust museum in the mourning process, and the centrality of education play a key role in her analysis. This podcast highlights the complex nature of ritual and religion in the experience of public places of history, as well as the liminality of such purpose-built sites of commemoration.
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Holocaust Museums as Sacred-Secular Space
Podcast with Avril Alba (9 June 2020).
Interviewed by Breann Fallon.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
Breann Fallon (BF): Thanks, team! It’s Bre here, and I’m joined by Dr Avril Alba. Avril is the Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation, and she’s also Chair of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. She teaches and researches in the broad areas of Holocaust and Modern Jewish History, with a focus on Jewish and Holocaust museums. Her monograph, The Holocaust Memorial Museum: Secular Sacred Space was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. From 2002- 2011, Avril was the Education Director at the Sydney Jewish Museum, where she also served as the project director and curator for the permanent exhibition, “Culture and Continuity”, which opened in 2009. She was also Project Director and Consulting Curator for the permanent exhibition, “The Holocaust”, which opened in 2017, and she was Consulting Curator, together with a team of academics, on the permanent exhibition “The Holocaust and Human Rights”, which opened in 2018. She is the author of numerous book chapters and journal articles, and most recently co-edited Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World with Shirli Gilbert, which was published by Wayne State University Press in 2019. In 2018 she was awarded an ARC Discovery grant to commence a major new research project, “The Memory of the Holocaust in Australia”. Welcome, Avril!
Avril Alba (AA): Thank you Bre. It’s great to be here.
BF: Well, thank you for joining us, in isolation, from across the inter-webs – even though we’re actually not that far away from each other! But it is what it is, at the moment. I’m really excited to talk to you today about the concept of the museum as a sacred space. That concept sort-of came to light in the last decade or so. Can you give us some sense of how that area of study came to be, and what its key concepts are?
AA: Yes, absolutely. It’s a pretty exciting area, I have to say. And as you say, it’s probably a decade – or a little over a decade old, now. And there’s been some really seminal works by people like Carolyn Dean, Crispin Paine and many others. And, in fact, in 2017 there was – this is for people who are interested in doing more, there was a very comprehensive Reader done: Religion in Museums, by Gretjen Bugheln – I think that’s how you say it – Crispin Paine and S Brent Plate. So there’s almost like now, a bit of an explosion in the area. And it is a fascinating area. And, in many ways, I think it comes from a central question, which is: to what extent do museum spaces – and I’m going to be broad in my definition here, so museum and memorial spaces – imitate, and perhaps evoke the sacred? Now this is, of course, a very big question. Because, in a sense, it begs the other question of: what is the sacred? And how do we define that? And how do we conceptualise that, within spaces that traditionally were not about the sacred? And if you think about the development of the museum form itself, it’s very much a sort-of Enlightenment project. The modern museum sort-of grows out of the Enlightenment. I don’t want to overstate that, however. I don’t want to overstate that. Because I, actually, along with many others, have started to question that kind of narrative when we look at the development of museums more carefully. But I would say it’s still fair to say that, at its base, one would not automatically assume that, say, a social history museum, or a science museum, or places like that could also be places in which we experience and understand the sacred. But as you say, with the growth of scholarship in this area, and the grown of museums and memorials in general, we definitely . . . we are more and more, I think, thinking about those concepts and thinking about those places as places of the sacred. So, for example, I’m not going to quote too much, but I do think this is a wonderful quotation from Jay Winter about First World War memorials where he says, “They are the Cathedrals of the twenty-first century, pointing to sacred themes of sacrifice, death, mourning, evil, brotherhood, dignity, transcendence.” And those concepts, those ideas, I think do get embodied in these spaces. So I think, in some ways, the field is defined by questions like: how do these places, as I said, imitate and evoke the sacred? (5:00) But equally, how do they de-sacralise objects that we considered sacred in other settings, right? There is the possibility of that as well. And then I think, finally the most interesting question, certainly to me, is, how do they transform our understanding of the sacred, as well? And this happens, obviously, in a variety of ways. It’s through looking at how religious objects and rituals become re-purposed in the museum setting: the architecture of museum spaces and their contribution to the sense of sacrality. You know, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that for every architect today, the greatest job to get is a museum or memorial commission. Because the imagination that you can put into it, and the ideas, and what you can do with a building like that is probably different to any other kind of building. And I think we can all think of great museums and memorials and monuments that have been made in the last twenty to twenty-five years. And it’s such an incredible opportunity for architects, in that way. And then I guess I would say on the sort-of reception end, in terms of these institutions, what I think is really interesting as well is, how do they provide a space for what you might call ritualised behaviour? What do they offer the visitor, in terms of that kind of experience? And again, an obvious or a common experience is the kind of awe that one might feel in a cathedral setting. How is that, perhaps, mimicked in a memorial or a museum setting? And people have done work on that, particularly with regard to art museums. But I think, again, war memorials, Holocaust memorial museums, etc., they also do give that kind of feeling and that they purposefully want to invoke awe, remembrance, mourning, etc. in the visitors that come. And, for the visitors that come, that is a big part of the reason why they want to visit, to go through the rituals of remembrance in those places. And then, I think, finally – and I think this is probably one of the most interesting developments in the field – is the relationship between theses spaces and indigenous cultures, and how indigenous cultures are both communicating their sacred stories and places in these spaces. You know, the very famous Seven Sisters – I think it was called – exhibition down in Canberra, in the last couple of years was extraordinary. But also in many ways, these places, I think, for indigenous sacred ritual, are very complex and very moving when one thinks about the terrible history of a lot of museums – in terms of the robbing, basically, the looting of indigenous cultures and the looting of indigenous bodies that was undertaken. And we know that a lot of the debates around repatriation today are actually about repatriation of bones, of bodies. And what is, then, the role of a memorial institution in that kind of sacred work? And we don’t have to go very far in Australia to have an example of that. Because, of course, we have groups within our indigenous communities here who are advocating for something called a National Resting Place, that may at some point in the future be built, perhaps in Canberra. It’s unsettled at this point where that might be – but a place that is purpose-built to receive back these peoples, their bones and to have a place to respectfully keep them until they can be returned to their country. And so, you know, there are so many ways in which our institutions, I think, in terms of museums and memorials, both evoke but also create, really create sacred places for us.
BF: There’s something that you’ve raised there which actually brings a question to my mind which is deviating from our plan. But I would like to ask you this question, and throw it at you, if that’s ok?
BF: This idea of creation of sacred space, or the creation of the museum or the memorial (10:00): we were chatting the other day, and you mentioned a new book coming out about how the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe commission process sort-of occurred. And you mentioned a very interesting . . . I think it was a proposal for that memorial, where an architect suggested that the memorial should just be to blow up the Brandenburg Gate. And I just was also thinking about the new Holocaust memorial/ museum in London that is being planned. And, you know, that’s been littered with controversy about the experience of the person in entering that space – whether it was too experiential in that sort-of memorial moment. And this sort-of does lead me on to one of our questions which is, is there something different about Holocaust memorials and museums? Is there something different about the way they approach the sacred, or the way they are sacred?
AA: Right. Yes. I do think so, yes. Because of particular factors. There are many, but the first is, I would say that – even though most Holocaust memorials or memorial museums are not solely Jewish ventures, they’re generally either private /public partnerships or, a lot of the time, they are publicly driven, and government driven, as you say, particularly with the one in Britain – but they are, by virtue obviously of the history they’re dealing with, they are usually infused with Jewish memorial, ritual, trope, symbols, ideas etc., etc. So, by their very nature . . . . And they function, of course, to allow for commemorative days that are both Jewish and non-Jewish in origin. So if you take our experience in Australia, we have Yom HaShoah, which is a part of the Jewish calendar – not the liturgical calendar by the way, but the calendar in a sense sanctioned by the state of Israel – and then you also have January 27th which is the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day. And we commemorate both in Sydney, at the Sydney Jewish Museum. Now how they, then . . . how these commemorations proceed is then a fusion of traditional Jewish modes of remembrance, but also, then, obviously modes that can be translated or communicated to a broader audience. So they’re always going to, in a sense, have that tension between, I would say, Jewish memorialisation and broader memorialisation. But within Jewish memorialisation themselves, that’s where to me the real – I guess this is what is the passion behind my book – that’s where, to me, the real interest of the kind of sacred space we see with the Holocaust memorial museum occurs. Because in Jewish theology, in the Jewish world, there is no . . . there is absolutely no agreement. But in some ways there’s almost no other forum, I think, where one can sort-of actively play out what it means to commemorate the Holocaust in the way that one can in a Holocaust memorial museum. And why do I say that? Because synagogues and cemeteries still have very set rituals that existed well before the Holocaust and, of course, will exist well after. But the Holocaust, in so many ways, was a radical break for Jewish theology. And there is a whole realm of writing that we refer to a post-Holocaust theology. But it hasn’t yet entered, if you like, the everyday liturgical life of the Jew. It has not done that. And what I contend is that that actually happens more in a space like a Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, I’m not saying that Jews, and even non-Jews, that come here, come into those places, are knowingly doing that. But they are actually doing that. And I guess I’ll give you an example. You know, one of the reasons I became really interested in this area – besides the fact that I have scholarly training in studies of religion and history – was that when I came to work at the Jewish museum it really struck me how, for the survivors to come into the museum, to go to spaces like the Children’s Memorial, or the Sanctum of Remembrance, was meaningful in the way that it might be for them to go and visit the grave of a relative. And of course it makes sense because for the majority of those who lost people in the Holocaust, there are no graves, there are no places to go. But you need a place to go (15:00). There has to be somewhere where you can go and you can do that mourning. And what I noticed more and more, for the survivors, was that that was the place they wanted to go to. And so I ended up actually, for my doctoral project, doing quite a lot of interviews with survivors on these topics. And they would say things to me like, “No, it’s not a traditional space, but it’s a better space.” And then I’d try and sort-of push them on that. And they’d say, “Well, here I feel close to those I lost.” You know? “Here I can think about them in a different way.” “Here I can commemorate.” And that’s interesting, even the ones that had affiliations to synagogues or to cemeteries, this place had more significance for them in terms of that kind of commemorative, ritualised act. And so I think, in many ways, they are places . . . and particularly for people who are not religious, who are not observant, but in some way need to connect, and mourn, and feel that they have in some ways processed that history – whether they are connected to it personally or not – that is what these places actually allow for. And so, yes, I do feel like they perform that function. Now that’s not to say, of course, that that wouldn’t . . . a similar function would not be performed for those who wish to mourn those they lost in other wars, in other places. But I think particularly within the Jewish tradition, because of the tensions between Jewish traditional theological outlook, in terms . . . and here I guess I’m really touching on concepts of theodicy, and a defence of God in light of evil, basically. The Jewish world, I would say, I would contend, has not been able to come to some kind of systematic ritualised understanding of what the Holocaust means within traditional Jewish paradigms. And, of course, people have a human need to come to terms with an event of the kind-of enormity of the Holocaust. So I guess that’s a long way of saying, “Yes I do think there is something different.” And, you know, depending on what you want to ask next, I could also extend that to even instances where I think there is actually purposeful theological theodic content in Holocaust memorial museums, beyond just the personalised ritual that they enable. That actually, it’s inbuilt into those structures.
BF: Well, my next question was going to be along those lines anyway. Because, from what’s sort-of coming to me, from what you’re saying, is: you use the word tension, but to me there’s sort-of the sense of the Holocaust memorial museum as a liminal space that sort-of walks the boundary between a secular space and a sacred space, between a religious space . . . between a Jewish space and non-Jewish space. It sort-of walks all these boundaries, which is very interesting to me. But this idea of it being purposefully built in. Tell us about that.
AA: OK. Well I’ll start with a small example that I was actually involved in – so I can speak from personal experience. But what I hope it will illustrate is a sort-of larger idea. And then hopefully I’ll be able to point towards those larger ideas in other institutions. But, as you mentioned in your very kind introduction, the first major exhibition I ever worked on was Culture and Continuity at the Sydney Jewish Museum. And when we were looking at what objects we wanted to display, and how we were going to display them, there was one aspect of the exhibition which was a sort-of long-term timeline of Jewish history. And of course we were going to include the Holocaust in that. But we couldn’t simply repeat what happened in the Holocaust displays which were in the levels above. So we spoke long and hard about how we were going to do this. And we went to the objects, in a sense, to find our answer. And there was one particular object that is a pretty extraordinary object. And it’s . . . we refer to it as the Brozstek Torah. You probably know it quite well, and it’s sitting in the ground floor right now. And this is a Torah that was rescued during the Holocaust from town called Brozstek in the Sub Carpathian Mountains. And, basically, this town was subject to an aktion during the invasion of the Soviet Union. And the Synagogue was burned. And there were very, very few . . . like a handful of survivors from this town. (20:00) What’s remarkable is that a non-Jewish resident of the town, when that person saw that the synagogue was indeed burning, went in and saved this Torah. And kept it throughout the War and then made it their business to find a Jewish survivor after the war, and give them this Torah- in a sense, to have saved something from that town’s Jewish life. And Adam Szus was the survivor that this Torah was given to. Now this Torah was burned, it was torn, it couldn’t be used in a ritualised setting. It couldn’t be used in the Synagogue. But he didn’t want to simply, you know, bury it, put it in a ganiza, the way that one does with damaged sacred texts in the Jewish tradition. So he decided to keep it. And Adam migrated to Australia in 1956, when a lot of Hungarian Jewry did, and he kept it. And then, as he got older, he started to wonder, “What am I going to do with this Torah?” And in the accession records it says he wished for this object to “find a home among the Jews”. Now it’s quite an enigmatic phrase. It’s quite hard to know what he meant by that. But he donated it to the museum with that intent. So when we were thinking about this Torah we thought, “How could we use it in the display?” And when you think about it, the Torah has so many stories. It could be a story of the aktion, of the invasion of the Soviet Union, right? It could be a story about a town and pre-War Jewish life. It could tell the story, in some ways, of Adam’s migration, help tell the story of his migration to Australia. But when we saw it, it was almost immediate actually. We thought, “No. This is the object that we’re going to use as emblematic in that section of the ground floor display” – the long term Jewish timeline, of the rupture of the Holocaust. So it became a sort-of emblematic, symbolic kind-of object. And we were happy with that. But then we thought further. And here, you know, in a sense I’m giving fodder for my own argument, but I hope it illustrates the point that I’m about to say, about to try and make. Which is, we also wanted that object to say something beyond the historical, so-to-speak, beyond even the symbolic historical level that it was embedded into the timeline in the display. We wanted it to ask a question, which was: is the Jewish world somehow different, is Jewish thought different, is the covenantal relationship that the Jews for centuries have believed themselves to be in with God, is this somehow different in the post-War period? Has the Holocaust ruptured something forever? Now you could say this is a theological question, but it’s also just a human question, on a certain level. So we framed this object with the following quotation – and this comes from a book by a Melbourne author and academic, Mark Baker, which he wrote quite a few years ago now, called The Fiftieth Gate. And in that book he explored his parents’ stories. And it wasn’t . . . . What was so intriguing about his book was that he not only wanted to chronicle what they remembered, but he also, in a sense, wanted to question and chronicle what they didn’t remember, or what they remembered wrongly, and what their memories meant to them. So this is an excerpt from that book. And the first half of this excerpt he actually takes from a second century Midrash. So a Midrash that’s written at the time at which there was persecution of those Judeans who had stayed in the land of Israel. And you were publicly . . . if you publicly tried to teach Torah you could be put to death by the Roman administration. So the first part is a description of a Rabbi who had done just that, and his execution by the Romans. So I’ll read that part out. “Our sages remember Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion was studying the Torah, and holding the scroll of the Law to his chest. Our enemies took hold of him, wrapped him in the scroll, placed bundles of branches around him and set them on fire. His disciples called out, “Rabbi, what do you see?” He answered them, “The parchment is burning, but the letters are soaring high above me.” So, in other words, what is ben Teradion saying? He’s saying, “Don’t read history like a Roman”, to his students. He’s saying, “You see the end of history here, but what I’m telling you is there’s a meta-history: there’s another story that we are a part of, and that is going to survive past this. (25:00) And it’s going to do so through the Holy Text, and through our ability to allow that text to live beyond, in a sense, these physical, earthly circumstances”, right? And what Rabbi ben Teradion is actually saying there is a classical Jewish theodicy, right? That theodicy is: “You see evil in the world, but I’m telling you that ultimately it is for the good. And that it will, the covenant will continue. We will still stay in connection with our God throughout this.” Then Mark adds the following at the end. And this is his writing. “My parents remember the fire, the parchment burning, the bodies buried, letters soaring high, turned to ash and dust.” And I think my interpretation, why I wanted to use this, obviously, for the burnt Torah that we had in the display, is our question is: is it now the same? Can we simply say, “Well it’s not simple, but . . . .” Can we revert to those classical theodicies and say, “We don’t understand, but ultimately this must be something that will turn toward the good?” Now not only can we not say that, but for modern Jewry that is almost an impossibility. It’s not, by the way, for traditional Jewry. You will find, in ultra-orthodox or very traditional thought, the same theodicies that applied to the traumatic events prior to the Holocaust will also apply with the Holocaust. But I’m talking about the majority of Jews that emerge after the Second World War, for whom these classical theodicies are unpalatable. 1.1 million Jewish children: how can we say this is ultimately toward the good? And that’s what I think Mark’s question is. Are we still able to say that, as Jews, as humans, in a post-Holocaust universe? So, to frame that object within that kind of idea, to me, is to bring in questions into the museum space that are not simply historical questions. They’re what I would call meta-historical questions. They’re questions of meaning. They’re questions of what does this history mean to us today? How do we understand it? What does it mean for our lives? And if you think about the majority of Holocaust museums today, these are the questions they ask. And I think we’ve become so used to it that we don’t see that this is actually quite a radical reworking of, in a sense, the purpose of history: why we tell history in these museums. We don’t simply tell history to have a historical record. I mean, of course they do. And the major Holocaust museums in the world today, Washington, Yad Vashem, they’re extraordinary institutes of historical research as well. But they also . . . and you know, if you look at . . . . One of the things I was very privileged to look at, as part of my research, were the founding documents of the Washington museum. And the council that was put together of really, it was just . . . it reads like the luminaries of Jewish world in the late 1970s. So, the council that was put together or the commission to report to Jimmy Carter on whether such an institution should be built. And if you look at their reasonings for why this place should be built, the minority is to record the history, the majority is to transform the living by transmitting the legacy of the dead: “To honour and commemorate the dead.”; “To show the world that we should live in a different way.” I’m paraphrasing now. But transformative aspirations were what were built into the desire to build these places. So what I guess I’m trying to say is, when I talk in my own work, in my own book, I talk about these places as built theodicies. Now, what do I mean by that? I don’t actually mean they are theistic. They are not trying to bring people into a particular faith. But they are asking questions. In almost secularised versions . . . . Of course, they’re peppered throughout with allusions to the Bible and, you know, you look at all these places that have these kinds of allusions, and then they transform traditional Jewish symbols, etc., etc. But, in essence, they’re asking the same questions, which is: what is the meaning of this event? How do we continue living in the light of this event? Is it possible for the Jews to still consider themselves a covenantal people in light of this event? These are all questions, I think, that are still embedded in these places (30:00). And, in many ways, these are the places where you can ask these questions. Because, to be honest, to ask these questions I think in a traditional synagogue setting is not, it can’t be, in many ways, right? I mean I’ll give you one example of that and then I’ll stop, because I’ve probably gone way over the topic that you actually asked me! But if you think about it, one of the most radical responses in post-Holocaust theology was Richard Rubenstein, who – I think he was in the 1960s – responded to the commentary survey where they asked fifty great Jewish thinkers of the time to respond to the pressing questions in Jewish life. And one of them was, you know, “What is the state of Jewish belief after the Holocaust?” And he was the only one, out of fifty thinkers, right, who said, not that God was dead. He said we cannot know that. It wasn’t a sort-of God-is-dead response, but it was, “Look, the covenant is broken.” Like, if you really look at Auschwitz. If you actually don’t turn away from what happened at Auschwitz, you cannot say that the Jewish covenant still exists in its traditional form. Now Rubenstein never worked again as a Congregational Rabbi, as a result. In many ways, he spent his life as an academic. I think, in many ways, he wanted to remain an academic as well, but still. And you know, in many ways, his challenge I guess was not taken up by other thinkers. You know, there were modifications on it. There are post-Holocaust theologies like Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s idea of voluntary covenant: that Jews much choose the covenant after the Holocaust. But to literally say “the covenant’s broken” is not something that is easily reconciled with Jewish thought. But the experience of post-Holocaust Jewry is certainly one in which those questions, in a sense, must be addressed, right? There must be a way to address and perhaps to continue in Jewish life, but in a universe where those traditional paradigms are just not satisfactory any more.
BF: The interesting this about this idea of asking the questions in a museum space is – I don’t know if you would agree with me – but I feel like in Holocaust memorial museums, one of the most sacred things that happens around this idea of asking the question – even if they are an aporia, even if they are fundamentally unanswerable – is there’s this sacrality around the concept of education, around educating Jews and non-Jews alike about these questions, and asking these questions, and hopefully getting some answers to create a better world. I mean, you look at Yad Vashem, at USHMM, at the Sydney Jewish Museum. The numbers of students that come through those museums is off the charts. And, I mean, I think both you and I would say, if you ask survivors in those spaces why they come, why they volunteer, why they share their story, they are so focussed on that sacred act of education and of getting people to face these questions for a better world. I was just wondering if we could finish off by you talking about the concept of education in these spaces, and whether you agree that it’s a sacred act.
AA: Yes, Yes I absolutely do. For a couple of reasons. One is that, again, in all the survivors that I spoke to, that was such a strong, strong feeling that “I do this because in coming here, and telling this story, and commemorating this event, I am hopefully educating and making some kind of change for the future.” So I think there . . . in that way, there’s sort-of self-evident, you know, reasons to why I would absolutely agree with your observation. The other one is a bit more interpretative, it’s interpretative of. . . . But I do think – and I don’t want to be chauvinistic about this, because this exists in other traditions as well – but for the Jewish tradition, the act of study is sacred. It’s holy. To study, to transmit knowledge – traditionally through Torah study, but of course though the oral Torah as well – is a sacred act. So this is something, I think, that in many ways is a natural thing for institutions that are going to be so intimately involved with Jewish tradition, and Jewish communities, that this is again a sort-of secularised version of this. It’s a way that we can deploy the tradition through ostensibly a secular framework, but it still fulfils very much a traditional function (35:00). So yes, I would say that is absolutely the case. And I think what’s really interesting of course – and this happened with Anzac, and it’s happened with other historical events as well – is that, as we grow further away, so the interest grows. You know, when I first started at the museum, one of the greatest fears of the survivors was, “Who will remember this when we’re gone?” And as that survivor community has aged, there has been more interest, rather than less. As you say, the Sydney Jewish Museum can barely fit everyone in who would like to come, who would like to learn. And that’s one of the challenges of Holocaust education at the moment. It’s, how do we do it well? And how do we do it for the amount of people that want to know? Which I have to say I think is a terrific development, and a credit to those places that have been able to generate that kind of interest.
BF: And you only have to look around at the news at the moment, at the amount of Holocaust survivors that have been interviewed about Coronavirus – I mean, the idea that we have to learn their knowledge and their wisdom, is something that is clearly applied to everything, if we actually have a look at the news. Now Avril, I just want to thank you for being with us today, I want to give another shout out to your most recent book, Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World, from Wayne State University Press. But yes, thank you again, Avril, for joining us.
AA: Thank you Bre.
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