5. Reengaging the Past: Identity, Mourning, and Empathy at Sites of Terror
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105 5 Reengaging the Past Identity, Mourning, and Empathy at Sites of Terror Since the 1990s, descendants of Holocaust survivors have constituted an important and socially significant group of visitors to Holocaust memorials and monuments, including death camp sites, ruined cemeteries, and renowned deportation centers (Stein 2009b). In what has become a rite of passage, visits to these geographic landscapes immerse succeeding generations in the memory frames of Nazi persecution. As acts of remembrance, these trips are often undertaken collectively with parents, siblings, and other extended family members and frequently include multiple generations of survivors and descendants. In other instances, descendants have chosen to visit these memoryscapes on their own or as part of an educational program. In all of these circumstances, sites of terror provide compelling historical landmarks for the recollection of traumatic narratives that shape and inform descendant identity beyond the formative childhood years. In strengthening identification with the past, engagement with sites of terror facilitates the ongoing construction of a social self that is grounded both in trauma and personal as well as collective suffering (Zerubavel 2005; DeGloma 2009). To frame this dimension of descendant identity formation within memorial culture, the discussion begins with an overview of memorial sites as interactive spaces of social remembrance. 106 | Reengaging the Past Memorial Sites and the Interactive Dynamics of Commemoration Pierre Nora’s (1989) groundbreaking work on history and memory provides an important starting point from which to consider how sites of memory function in contemporary society. Writing from a French historical perspective, Nora argues that museums, monuments, and places of preservation serve as archives of a past that might otherwise be forgotten. According to Nora, memory “takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects” that “without commemorative vigilance” would soon be erased by the writing and rewriting of history (1989, 9, 12). While Nora maintains that the increased interest in and proliferation of sites of memory has led to what has perhaps become an obsession with archival objects and the materiality of remembrance, his work nonetheless suggests that it is often through these objects that difficult and contested histories are remembered and preserved. Following Nora’s observations, Robin Wagner-Pacifici and Barry Schwartz’s (1991) research on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington , D.C., offers a sociological frame through which to consider how societies remember a difficult past. In investigating the means by which varied and sometimes opposing constituencies collectively create a monument to a troubling war, Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz conclude that “whatever processes brought this cultural object into being in the first place, it is the use made of it that brings it into the life of the society” (1991, 416). Among its many uses, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was found to function as an emotionally charged space for spectators, veterans , and the family and friends of the deceased. In this regard, the authors explain: “The names on the wall are touched, their letters traced by the moving finger. The names are caressed. The names are reproduced on a paper by pencil rubbing and taken home. And something is left from home itself—a material object bearing a special significance to the deceased or a written statement by the visitor or mourner.” Thus, in their analysis, Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz highlight the social dynamics Reengaging the Past | 107 that take place at the memorial, emphasizing the interactive processes that transform an “object of contemplation” into a place of connection, emotion, and remembrance. The insights that Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz bring to the study of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial foreground more recent research (Fine and Beim 2007) on the interactive nature of collective memory and the way in which individuals construct meaning out of the past through interactions with memory objects such as those discussed by Nora. Aaron Beim’s (2007) work in particular highlights the interactive nature of collective memory, focusing on the way in which memory and meaning originate out of an individual’s engagement with institutions of collective memory, including memorials and monuments. Through interaction at sites of memory, the cultural objects that these sites contain and represent form the basis for a “memory schemata” through which individuals cognitively organize, make meaning of, and interpret past events (Beim 2007, 21). With regard to Holocaust sites in particular, these spaces of national, group, and individual memory include a wide spectrum of memorial traces through which past events can be both interpreted and deeply felt. Intended to evoke strong emotional responses (Alexander 2004a...


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Subject Headings

  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Psychological aspects.
  • Holocaust survivors -- Psychology.
  • Children of Holocaust survivors -- Mental health.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Social aspects.
  • Intergenerational communication -- Case studies.
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