Transformations of Holocaust Memory

Holocaust Institute of Western Australia (Tuesday 22 October 2013)

Dr Matthew Boswell, Research Fellow, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds.

This public lecture considered the ways that the Holocaust has been remembered by different individuals and groups, asking who remembers it, what they remember, and how the Holocaust is likely to be remembered in the future?

It began by defining memory as a process that that involves more than individual recollection, as it also relates to whole groups of people — whether they be families, nations or particular ethnic groups — who remember what happened to others in these groups as well as themselves. It was argued that memory moves forwards as well as backwards in time, and that memory always looks to the future, and to the new generations that will inherit it.

The discussion moved on to the ways that Holocaust survivors have remembered and represented their experiences, drawing on Primo Levi’s essay ‘The Memory of the Offence’, published in The Drowned and the Saved (1996), in which the Italian chemist describes human memory as a ‘marvellous but fallacious instrument’. This discussion of survivor memory led into a brief overview of the way that the psychological understanding of trauma has developed through the twentieth century, leading to the medical recognition of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1984, following the Vietnam War.

Different conceptual approaches to Holocaust memory have developed in more recent years, including Marianne Hirsch’s notion of the ‘postmemory’ of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, who inherit their parents’ memories of the Holocaust through things such as stories and family photographs, and Alison Landsberg’s concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ which describes the way that Western societies gain collective memories of historical events through the technologies of mass culture.

The lecture drew to a close by considering how memories of the Holocaust are being circulated in today’s rapidly changing, globalised world, where things such as digital technology and the internet mean that information and knowledge can be shared more easily than ever before. In this age of mass communication it is also very easy for memories to be forgotten or lost. It was argued that we must remain vigilant and actively focussed on the preservation of memory within the domains of education, politics and culture if we are to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are to be preserved for later generations.