Biography 26.3 (2003) 487-490
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Dora Apel's interesting new book, Memory Effects, takes its place in a series of recent publications on the study of memory, the establishment of memorials, and the problem of the representation of the events of the Holocaust. These include Dominick LaCapra's Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (1994), Ernst van Alphen's Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory (1997), Marianne Hirsch's Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997), James Young's At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (2000), and Barbie Zelizer's anthology Visual Culture and the Holocaust (2001), to which Apel contributed an essay that is now part of her current book. "The true horror of the Holocaust cannot be pictured," states Apel (156), and most of the artists and writers she treats agree. How can one describe or depict what cannot be represented? And how can one save the events from oblivion, be it via art or otherwise?
While various projects to record interviews with, or narratives by, Holocaust survivors are slowly coming to an end, a "second generation" of individuals has emerged who want to understand the experiences of their parents' generation. They are haunted by the demand not to forget. What can they still know about the Holocaust, however, and what do they have to learn? Visual artists and writers have produced work to document their investigation of the past. At the same time, a group of scholars has emerged to write about this work, and to do so with a similar personal investment. These scholars were trained in various disciplines, such as history (LaCapra), English (Young), French (Hirsch), or Communication (Zelizer), and they have established their reflections on the memory of the Holocaust and its material manifestations as a prime area for the field of cultural studies. Both artists and scholars show and discuss the effects of the Holocaust and related historical events on a generation that did not witness them in person, but had to encounter them by reading or listening to narratives, or by experiencing specific behavioral patterns, bodily traces, or physical surroundings that would tell a story as well. Thus, the demand to remember the Holocaust has turned into the question of how to decipher the verbal, psychological, material residue with which all of us still live.
Apel is an art historian, and her book focuses on artists who grew up after the war. While they try to understand the past, they would like to place themselves in relation to it, and understand its consequences for the present. [End Page 487] They reflect on their own post-war Jewish identity, and the fact that some of the artists or scholars discussed may not be Jewish is curiously irrelevant here. "It can be argued that the Holocaust stands behind any contemporary sense of Jewish identity, whether it is addressed obsessively, ambivalently, or not at all" (173), writes Apel, but the Holocaust touches perhaps the core of late twentieth-century Western identity in general. Apel uses the notion of "secondary witnessing" to describe these artists' position towards the past, and it is a position that she assumes as well. Thus, Apel is both a scholar who wants to write about artists and art, and a person who views herself as part of the same post-war generation. Indeed, her book ends with personal reflections that record her own memory of conversations with family members about the Holocaust, and she lets them stand here, with all their elisions and contradictions. Memory's record differs from the writing of history.
Despite this emphasis on memory, Apel begins with a notion of history, and her first chapter is entitled "A Short History of Holocaust Reception." Itdoes not reflect on art or artists, but...