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CHGS News December 2013 
From The Director

 

Alejandro Baer  

 

Antisemitism in Europe: not only a phantom of the past

 

Last month, the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a comprehensive study on the experiences of antisemitism among Jews in 8 European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom)-whose Jews comprise 90% of the EU's total Jewish population.

 

The FRA study indicates that two-thirds of Jewish respondents consider antisemitism to be a problem today in their countries. Three-fourths believe the problem has gotten worse in the past five years, and 68% percent say they at least occasionally avoid wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public.

 

A distinctive feature about this study is that it is centered on European Jews' experiences and perceptions, rather than on "counting" antisemites -who nowadays often reject having an antisemitic standpoint or motivation- and antisemitic incidents, which often go unreported. Is there seepage of antisemitism into the European mainstream? Yes, according to Europe's Jews.

 

The study offers what classic sociologist W.I. Thomas labeled the "definition of the situation" by social actors - in our case: Jews in Europe, who increasingly feel uncomfortable, pressured and even threatened as Jewish citizens in their respective countries. And, as Thomas wrote in his famous theorem, situations defined as real are real in their consequences. Almost half of those surveyed in Belgium, France, and Hungary indicate they have considered emigrating because of the situation.

 

These results, which confirm findings of earlier studies done by outside organizations, state agencies and local Jewish communities, are disturbing. They should serve as a wake up call for policy makers, educators and researchers.

 

While the issue of antisemitism is very often downplayed in academia, CHGS takes that call with the importance and the rigor it deserves. On December 5th we hosted, together with the Center for Austrian Studies, an interdisciplinary panel discussion on antisemitism: then and now. We brought together scholars from the United States and Europe and explored continuities and discontinuities in the history of antisemitism, its current intellectual sources and expressions in different contexts. This event -which will be soon available on our YouTube channel - laid the foundation for what we expect to be an ongoing and much needed scholarly discussion on this topic.

 

Best wishes for a happy, productive and healthy 2014.

 

-Alejandro Baer

Articles

"No one was a Saint:" The Last of the Unjust, the final words of Benjamin Murmelstein

By Jodi Elowitz
Benjamin Murmelstein and Claude Lanzmann. 1975 Rome. 

Who was Benjamin Murmelstein? Why would Claude Lanzmann dedicate over 3 hours to him in his latest film The Last of the Unjust? Murmelstein was a rabbi and teacher from Vienna, third Jewish elder of the Thereseinstadt ghetto, and the only surviving Jewish elder of any of the Jewish Councils set up by the Nazis. Condemned by many in the Jewish Community as a traitor and a Nazi collaborator he was tried and acquitted by the Czech authorities after the war settling in exile in Rome where he lived until his death in 1989. 

 

He testified at the trial of Thereseinstadt Commandant Karl Rahm and wrote and published a book of his experiences in Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann (Theresienstadt: Eichmann's Model Ghetto), in 1961. He submitted the book to Israeli prosecutors to use at the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann, SS officer in charge of the deportation of the Jews of Europe) a submission that went unused.

 

Murmelstein had much valuable information to offer, especially on Eichmann So much so that if Murmelstein's testimony had been used it would have dispelled any notion of the dispassionate Nazi bureaucrat who only followed orders as defined by Hannah Arendt's term the "banality of evil." Instead we would have seen Eichmann as a man who loved his job and pursued it with zeal and passion above and beyond what was required by his superiors. We would also have seen a corrupt man who lined his own pockets with Jewish funds for both personal and professional gain, as the extra money afforded him the financial independence to run his department apart of the bureaucratic machine and away from the eyes of his superiors.

 

So why is Murmelstein's story coming to light now and why did Lanzmann wait nearly 40 years to make this film? Possibly the world was not ready for such a controversial and ambivalent figure. In 1975 Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein for a project he was working on which later became the critically acclaimed 9-hour documentary Shoah. The interviews show that Murmelstein lived in the center of what Primo Levi referred to as the "grey zone" in his book The Drowned and the Saved. Levi's theory is that those of us who did not experience the lager (camps) and ghettos cannot place ourselves in a position to judge those that were there, nor can we view the Holocaust as something that is black or white, good or evil. We simply cannot know what we would do to survive under the circumstances.  

 

Murmelstein is clear that he was no saint and that he loved power, danger and adventure that went with the job of being a Jewish community leader and later elder.  But he also speaks in terms of the expectations that others had in times that were not ordinary. Murmelstein towards the end of the film tells Lanzmann that in Thereisenstadt there were no saints. "There were martyrs, but martyrs are not necessarily saints." 

 

Murmelstein points out that many people tried to conduct life as they had under normal circumstances but there was nothing normal about Thereseinstadt, the model ghetto the Nazis had created to fool the world and the Jews imprisoned there about the "Final Solution." While Murmelstein claims his intentions were to save as many Jews as he could, others viewed him as a tyrant, a collaborator, and a man who only cared about himself. Yet many times in the interviews Murmelstein speaks of the opportunities he had to escape with his family to England and to Palestine, but he remained feeling it was his responsibility.

The Last Of The Unjust Movie Official Trailer 1 (2013) - Documentary HD
The Last Of The Unjust Movie Official Trailer 1 (2013) - Documentary HD

As the film begins we watch the now 87-year-old Lanzmann read from Murmelstein's book in Prague, Nisko, and Theresienstadt.  One might wonder if this is an egotistical ploy by Lanzmann, but as the Murmelstein interviews unfold and the 3 1/2 hours go by we realize that Lanzmann has a real affection for Murmelstein, so much so he has become a surrogate witness. Lanzmann has become Murmelstein's voice, reading passages of his beautifully worded testimony in the places that Murmesltein describes, thus collapsing time, bringing past and present together in the same space, much as he did in Shoah. 

 

Here amidst the past and present we hear Murmelstein in his own words, we are drawn to Murmelstein much like Lanzmann is by his bold storytelling, his intelligence, knowledge of mythology, literature and history.  He seems to be telling the truth about his experiences, admitting to his flaws and the perceptions of his decisions. 

 

The Last of the Unjust will not be remembered as a landmark documentary about the Holocaust like Shoah. Still, it is an important work that represents a different approach to Holocaust documentary. Lanzmann acts as a surrogate witness, in this case representing an extraordinary and at the same time flawed character steeped in moral ambivalence. Lanzmann offers the viewer a much more complex and deeper understanding of humanity during the Shoah by giving a voice to a survivor whose testimony was silenced by those who were not yet ready to hear what he had to say.

  

Jodi Elowitz is the Outreach Coordinator for CHGS and the Program Coordinator for the European Studies Consortium. Elowitz is currently working on Holocaust memory in Poland and artistic representation of the Holocaust in animated short films. 
Violence in Central Africa: 

Is the Central African Republic on the Road to Genocide?

By Wahutu Siguru

Violence in the Central African Republic
Something insidious, but sadly not unexpected, is happening in the Central African Republic (CAR)-over the past twelve months mass killings have been taking place in the CAR, a former French colony in a very rough neighborhood (it borders the Sudan's to the East, Chad to the North, and DRC to the South). Things came to a head in March when the former president Francois Bozizé was deposed by a group of Muslim militants (Séléka) whom instigated sectarian killings and human rights abuses against the largely Christian populace. This has resulted in the formation of self-defense groups (Anti-balaka meaning 'sword/machete' in the Sango language) formed to protect the victims. This conflict is complicated by the fact that there are claims of the Séléka getting support from mercenaries in Sudan and Chad.

 

On the 5th of December, the UN voted to allow the French to send 400 troops into the CAR who would augment the already present AU battalion of 3600. The French intend on increasing this number to 1200 troops in the coming days following a sudden outbreak of killings within the last fortnight of women and children by Séléka forces (meaning 'union' in the Sango language) that has resulted in 500 deaths and 189,000 fleeing their homes in Bangui. Fears of retaliatory attacks have become more pronounced leading both Burundi and Rwanda to pledge to send troops to the country. While the number of deaths might seem deceptively low for a nation of about 4.6 million, it only accounts for Bangui since correspondents have not been able to venture outside that area.

In a letter by Medecins Sans Frontieres to the UN humanitarian system, MSF has accused the UN of indifference to the plight of the victims. It states that in the year that this atrocity has unfolded UN aid officials have done nothing but collect data that is related to the fighting and not provided assistance to the displaced people sheltering on the same compound as the officials.

 

It is important to note that this is not "another Rwanda" as has been suggested by some. This is a power grab by a cabal of rebels that seeks to control the vast minerals that are present in CAR. It is not an attempt to rid CAR of its Christian population but rather an attempt to instill fear and submission by a belligerent group. While there may be what some UN officials have called the seeds of genocide this does not ipso facto mean that "another Rwanda" is at hand. It is however, an atrocity that is fast degenerating and a humanitarian catastrophe that is getting worse. The international community finds itself at a crossroads like it has on several occasions (Syria and Mali being the most recent). The French and the AU have taken a proactive role in trying to mitigate the situation but more is needed. The UN humanitarian system also has to step up and rise to the challenge.

 

This weekend the first signs of hope appeared. Michel Djotodja, the current president and former leader of the Séléka leader said that he is willing to negotiate with Anti-balaka forces. The only problem is that he barely has control of the capital city and some of his former fighters have gone their own way. This is coupled by the fact that no one is sure how much control the faction of Anti-balaka that is willing to negotiate is representative of the movement itself. All of this is compounded by the fact that Anti-balaka has no recognizable structure further throwing into doubt who the president is actually going to negotiate with. Is it simple? No. Is it hopeless? No. It will require some rolling up of sleeves by the UN, AU, France and possibly the UNSC. This development is, however, a small but positive step that has to be fostered and natured by the international community, the sooner the better

 

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru's research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.
Events
Lecture Series: Reframing Mass Violence: Human Rights and Social Memory in Latin America and Southern Europe
Thursdays 3:00p.m. to 4:30p.m.
Nolte 235 

Designed as a one credit course and open to the general public, the class meetings will explore the particular developments and transnational entanglements of social memories in societies revisiting their legacies of dictatorship, state terror, and grave human rights violations in Latin America and Southern Europe.


Distinguished experts from the countries of study will discuss their work and engage in dialogue with local scholars and students on the contemporary processes of re-interpretation and re-framing of the atrocities as well as the transitional justice models adopted in their aftermaths.

 

The first session meets on January 23, and will feature a presentation by Barbara Frey, director of the Human Rights Program, University of Minnesota on Transitional Justice and Human Rights. For a complete list of speakers please click here

 

This series is part of the IAS Collaborative between CHGS, the Human Rights Program and the Departments of Sociology and Political Science, who were  awarded a grant from the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Studies to explore the particular developments and transnational entanglements of social memories in societies revisiting their legacies of dictatorship, state terror, and grave human rights violations. 

  

Earlier this year the collaborative hosted Mark Goodale,  Anthropology and Conflict Studies, George Mason University, who lectured on Law's Labor's Lost: Constitutional Revolution and the Problem of Radical Social Change and Antonius Robben, Anthropology, Utrecht University, An Argentine Genocide? Individual Accountability and Collective Guilt during the 1976-83 Dictatorship. 

 

Both presentations were recorded and can be viewed by clicking here for Goodale and here for Robben. 

Announcements
CHGS 2012-2013 Annual Report Available
 
The CHGS annual report is now available in PDF on our website or by clicking on the link below. Gert caught up with the Center through highlights of programs, events and articles that took place in the last year. 

Courses

Politics of Reconciliation, Memory, and Justice

Stones at the memorial for the Trujillo Massacre, Columbia. Michael Evans
Monday/Wednesday 1:00-2:15pm
Spring Semester

 

Prof. Alejandro Baer (Sociology) and Prof. Catherine Guisan (Political Science)

 

What is political reconciliation? Are we witnessing efforts to bring final resolution to long-standing conflicts?  Should we accept that reconciliation is at best a fragile, temporary equilibrium between opposite political forces that must be reenacted with each passing generation?  Is reconciliation an action that rests on religious faith, or does religion threaten reconciliation? Is there a dark side to reconciliation that undermines justice and economic fairness?  

 

For more information on this course go to One Stop.
Book of the Month
Jewish Poland Revisited 
Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places
Erica T. Lehrer
Publication date: 6/28/2013
Format: paper 296 pages, 25 b&w illus.
 
 
 
Since the end of Communism, Jews from around the world have visited Poland to tour Holocaust-related sites. A few venture further, seeking to learn about their own Polish roots and connect with contemporary Poles. For their part, a growing number of Poles are fascinated by all things Jewish. Erica T. Lehrer explores the intersection of Polish and Jewish memory projects in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz in Krakow. Her own journey becomes part of the story as she demonstrates that Jews and Poles use spaces, institutions, interpersonal exchanges, and cultural representations to make sense of their historical inheritances.
 
For more information click here
In This Issue
Last of the Unjust
Violence in Central Africa
Reframing Mass Violence
CHGS Annual Report
Politics of Memory
Book of the Month
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