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Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche

The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche / Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church near the shopping paradise known as Kurfürstendamm

A couple of days ago I walked by the famous TV tower on Alexanderplatz as tourists lined up to buy tickets to go up in the tower. Viewing Berlin from the tower had never occurred to me, and for a few seconds I wondered if this might provide the same enjoyment as ascending the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. But, those seconds slipped by and I took a pass on the tower tour.

Because here is my insight (and I know I’m safe to share this because no one comes to this blog): visually, Berlin has little to offer. In terms of signature monuments and dramatic architecture, Berlin comes in behind every Western European capital that I’ve visited (and some I have not—looking at you, Paris). Where is its Hagia Sophia, its Colosseum, its Westminster Abby, its Plaza Mayor? Brandenburg Tor facing the (back of) the Siegessäule (Victory Tower) makes a claim to a grand vision of the city. But these are at almost opposite ends of the Tiergarten (a vast park) and so far apart they just about loose one another. The most important built feature of the city was the Berlin Wall, something that everyone knew and could not avoid. And also something that was torn down as soon as that became possible. (Parts still stand as a memorial to the wall that everyone hated.)

I say this to make clear how strongly drawn I am to one major feature of Berlin architecture, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche. The church was completed in 1895, a memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm I but really more of a shrine to German military successes, especially its victory in the Franco Prussian War that created the German empire. As such, it is a companion to the Siegessäule, which is only a couple of kilometers away.

But unlike the tower of winged victory, the Memorial Church was extensively damaged in World War II. The Allies refused to rebuild it, and by the late 1950s was on its way to being demolished. But it was not. Instead, the church was left in its devastated state and integrated into a companion building, a new church dedicated to actual worship. Leaving the towering and yet devastated church was meant to draw our attention to the evil of war. For me, it does just that. In busy, ultra modern Berlin, the Memorial Church prods our memory by shocking us with its war torn walls and vacant belfries.

Inside, there are bas reliefs around what I assume must have been the sanctuary (today it is a space for tourists to mill about and purchase souvenirs). These are not the 12 stations of the cross (because Protestant church), but there is one station in evidence. Jesus, in the garden, praying the words below the relief— “doch nicht mein sondern dein wille geschiet” (not my will, but thine be done). But below the supplicant Christ we see a relief from the Franco Prussian war, the whole point of this church. There sits Wilhelm I (king of Prussia and soon to be the German Kaiser) with his generals, studying plans of battle, with his chancellor, Bismarck (who had orchestrated this, and two previous wars), standing and facing out into the worship space. This relief, still standing in that wrecked church, with its glorification of imperial aspiration and military might, serves for me as a perfect visual irony. The fruits of war surround this testament to the esteem of war. And with the words of Jesus just overhead, as though part of the ensemble below them, the irony also becomes verbal.

Gardelegen and historical memory

The only remaining wall of the Isenschnibbe Feldscheune at Gardelegen.

In early April, 1945, a transport of more than a thousand concentration camp prisoners came to a halt in Gardelegen, in Saxony. Allied bombing had destroyed the rail connections, and the U.S. army had pushed into the vicinity. The local Kreisleiter, eager to do his duty and keep the prisoners from escaping and rampaging through the countryside, had the transport housed at a military riding academy in the town. Then, on April13, he found enough manpower (in spite of the steady desertion of SS guards) to move the prisoners to a nearby barn. There, under orders to eliminate the prisoners, the rag tag of guards and others mobilized for the task doused the straw with gasoline, locked the prisoners inside, and set the barn on fire. Those who tried to break out were shot. 1,016 prisoners died in the massacre.

Over the past two years I’ve made several presentations about the massacre at Gardelegen. Visiting the village and the massacre memorial became an important motivation for me to return to Berlin this May. In the event, I did not plan the “tour” of Gardelegen very well. With two train I arrived right on time at the train station. But, I had no real idea how to find the memorial other than to check the map at the Bahnhof bus stop, and then to look for signs along the way. I did ask directions from a young man who clearly had never visited the memorial himself, and had only a general (incorrect) idea how to reach it on foot.

Walking to the site made sense, at least for me. I had wanted to have some sense of the distance traveled by the prisoners to the Isenschnibbe barn (Feldscheune). The country here is flat—really flat—and once outside the village you see that fields here are still turned over to farming. The approach to the scene is a long dirt road, tree-lined, that takes a 90 degree turn half a kilometer from the memorial site.

The memorial consists of the one remaining wall of the Isenschnibbe barn and the graveyard of murdered prisoners. There is also an educational center there, and some monuments built to commemorate and interpret the event. There is ample didactic material available so someone with no prior understanding could know what had taken place. But, with the open landscape, the memorial seems almost minimalist.

The concrete blocks each contain a plaque for one of the nationalities murdered in the massacre.

The memorial had its origin in military occupation. The 102nd Infantry Division arrived only hours after the massacre, and when military units were informed of the event and found the barn they also found bodies still smouldering. Major General Frank Keating ordered that partially buried bodies be given proper burials, and in the coming days imposed on the people of Gardelegen the maintenance of the cemetery and memorial.

Because I had the area almost literally to myself, I had time to think about the site and the events. I had not known that only one wall of the Isenschnibbe barn still stood. I’d seen photos of the cemetery but found it more extensive than I expected. Seeing one cross or Star of David after another marked “unbekannt” (unknown) impressed me more than anything else. There is a book of names, in stainless steel, at the cemetery. The names of fewer than half of the victims are known, but these are listed.

The book of names.

The only other visitors there that day was a German family from nearby Stendal. I threw myself on their mercy for a ride back to Gardelegen. I soon discovered that the mother had been an au pair in the U.S. and had visited Pittsburgh. Back in the village, I found nothing suggesting a connection to the massacre. I saw no references to the massacre while walking around (I admit, my visit was brief) and I could find no postcards featuring the memorial. In fact, I only found one that featured any scenes of Gardelegen.

So, in the end I’m struck by the contingency of historical memory. Without a clear appeal to some other force (patriotism, tourism) how does historical memory thrive?

Anatomy of a Genocide

Bartov, Omer. Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. New York ; London ; Toronto ; Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

In Anatomy of a Genocide, Omer Bartov provides both the broader context  of developments in the Galician village of Buczacz and an in-depth investigation of the organization and daily life of terror during World War II. Buczacz existed in the Polish borderlands, with a Jewish majority but large minorities of both Poles and Ukrainians. As Bartov makes clear, this was not Anatevka. “The Jews did not live segregated from the Christian population; the entire notion of a shtetl existing in some sort of splendid (or sordid) isolation is merely a figment of the Jewish literary and folkloristic imagination.” Both the economic and social life of the village drew on the work and contributions of all groups, though they lived not in harmony but more in tolerant regard for one another. “That integration was what made the existence of such towns possible. It was also what made the genocide there, when it occurred, a communal event both cruel and intimate, filled with gratuitous violence and betrayal as well as flashes of altruism and kindness.” (5)

Survivors and the makeshift memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Buczac, 1945. Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Source: Smithsonian Magazine

The First World War delivered Buczacz to Austrian German and Russian forces in turn, and more than once. The fall of all three of the eastern empires claiming parts of Poland at the conclusion of the war created the possibility of an independent Poland, one that included eastern Galicia. Poles eagerly seized the opportunity to foster patriotism through education and other institutions. But in Buczacz, the Polish population was smaller than either the Jewish or Ukrainian. Resentments mounted, and these broke into the open with the Russian invasion of 1939. Ukrainians took the leading role in Soviet Galicia, but Jews also gained important positions. This world, already turned upside down once, turned again with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Poles were no longer at the bottom of the ethnic pecking order. Jews became the targets of all the anti-Semitic ors.notions of the invaders and also, frequently, of their neighbors.

By giving us not only the broader context but also the details of inter-group tensions and aggression, Bartov provides the foundation for understanding the horror that followed the German occupation. In his chapter on “German Order” Bartov shows how the Holocaust was organized and implemented on a local level. German authorities, both Gestapo and Order Police, quickly murdered the leadership of the Jewish community that might have organized resistance. In its place they established a Judenrat of wealthy Jews and and Ordnungsdienst (OD) of Jews given uniforms and batons to enforce order and even to help round up other Jews for the periodic actions that took place. 

Like Wendy Lower’s work on women who followed the Wehrmacht into the “wild East,” Bartov  shows that respectable and despicable occupiers alike enjoyed a bourgeois lifestyle they likely could not have attained in peacetime Germany. The German bureaucrats and police stationed in the region could find fine dining, excellent Vodka and tobacco, and plenty of employment. And the ready availability of Jewish servants (house cleaners paid in groceries, tailors paid by being kept from the roundups) and stolen houses and material goods enhanced the the ease and attractiveness of occupation. Bartov noted that one of the German policemen refused to ask for a transfer even when an officer struck up an affair with his wife. The good life existed right alongside, and often with a full view, of the murderous work of genocide. The Polish wife of the manager of the tobacco factory recalled that “The Jews were hunted on the streets like rabbits.” One day driving to work her husband “‘had to dodge”’ the bodies lying in the street. (229)

In “The Daily Life of Genocide” Bartov shows how the occupation played out for the Jews of Buczacz. From 1941 until 1944, when the Germans finally lost control of the region, a series of roundups for mass executions and deportations left the village Judenrein. He estimates about 10,000 Jews were murdered and buried in mass graves there or sent to the Bełżec extermination camp. A few hundred managed to escape, through hiding with Polish or Ukrainian families, or in a few cases joining the resistance. The accounts include every shade of human kindness and heroism and venality and hatred. Some peasants hid and sheltered Jewish families, and shared their meager fare with them, and some turned over Jews to the Germans. And some did both of these things. “The often contradictory attitudes toward gentile locals and even Germans in survivor accounts are not indicative of witness inconsistency, forgetfulness, or irrationality, but rather of the fact that under extreme circumstances people behaved in unexpected and at times conflicting ways, motivated by factors that often contradicted each other.” (250) When we think of genocide we readily see the logical distinctions among perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, and victims. But Bartov shows that many people took on more than one role—like the peasants who helped and informed in turn, or the OD members who participated in actions only to be eliminated in the final action.

Reading an account like this does not foster hope about humanity, at least not for this reader. Rather, works like Bartov’s that squarely face the details, the daily-ness or horror, show us how genocide operates. And, these histories also take us closer to the motivations and decisions of perpetrators and bystanders, rescuers and victims.

Bartov, Omer. Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. New York ; London ; Toronto ; Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Related reading:

Gross, Jan. Neighbors : The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. New York  N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2002.

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

———. Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine. Nachdr. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Conquering the Pacific

Cornelius Verbeeck (alisas Smit) A Naval Encounter between Dutch and Spanish Ships. Source: Wikipedia Commons

For the last several years that I taught a general purpose geography course, I used as the main text 1493 by Charles Mann. The book contains a wealth of stories and insights about terrain, climate, agriculture, culture, and economic life. Of course, these aren’t organized in the way a textbook would. But, for my purposes, so much the better. Students could explore culture and the economics of enslavement and rebellion in the Americas through the stories of the independent Quilombo of Palmares, the shifting demography of China as new crops from the Americas were adopted, and the emergence of the Asian trade from the Philippines to Mexico through the swashbuckling tactics of Miguel Lope de Legazpi and his Augustinian friar and world adventurer Andrés de Urdaneta.

Andrés Reséndez book Conquering the Pacific also follows the path of Legazpi and Urdaneta, but where Mann deals mainly with the collision of Spanish and Chinese cultures in the Philippines, Resendez’ book is a story about sailing. He shows that by the mid-1500s crossing the Pacific had become an urgent project of the Spanish crown to give Spanish merchants opportunity to compete with their Portuguese neighbors. Earlier crossings of the Pacific, including Magellan’s, had attempted a return trip via the Pacific gyre, the circular ocean current created by the Coriolis effect (for more on that, see *geography*). All had failed. It was only the voyage of Legazpi’s fleet and the return of Urdaneta that would provide mapmakers and pilots with the clear route for establishing the Pacific route.

Reséndez clearly knows sailing and has a profound understanding of the Spanish empire’s bureaucracy and culture. He also brings to the fore the life and work of Lope Martín, the pilot of the small ship that made the first return across the Pacific. Martín, a mulatto of Portuguese birth, piloted the dispatch boat that sailed ahead of the other three ships of the fleet. The San Lucas also visited the Philippines, but became so separated from the fleet that the captain and pilot determined that their best prospect for survival was to attempt the formidable return. They managed it in spite of limited supplies and a ship that was deemed too small to survive the currents and weather of the North Pacific.

This is an adventure story, replete with bureaucratic chicanery, natural disaster, mutiny (attempted and successful), and clashing temperaments. Reséndez even finds a case of bigamy along the way to bring all the passions and human frailties into play. As the author says in his conclusion, the Pacific is now central to the world economic system. From the beginning of European exploration, economic considerations undergirded the ocean’s partial domestication.

Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Andrés Reséndez, Conquering The Pacific: An Unknown Mariner and the Final Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery (Mariner Books, 2021).

Visual culture and anti-Semitism

Chester Mystery Plays (Source: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a white, evangelical subculture, a cultural bubble in a city with large Mexican American and African American populations. In the part of Riverside where we lived Seventh Day Adventists made up the dominant minority. They considered those of us outside the fold as gentiles. (Just so you know how important I am, in college I briefly dated a descendent of 7th Day founder Ellen White.)

I did not know any Jews until adulthood. Riverside in the 1970s and 80s had one synagogue (in a city already over 100k in population). Even into the 1970s the most prestigious country club in Riverside still banned Jews from membership. My first real connection with the Jewish community came from developing a Holocaust education program at the Catholic high school where I taught. We worked with the local rabbi, and held a full day of the program at the synagogue. That also put my colleague and I into contact with the Jewish community in L.A. associated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Still, my first real sense of Jewish culture in America came after I moved to New Jersey to study at Rutgers. Seeing Jews, seeing Jewish institutions and getting to know professors and other graduate students who were Jews, all of this slowly developed notions of what it meant to be a Jew and to be Jewish. I freely admit, my sensibilities were still blunt instruments.

All of the above happened passively and largely unconsciously. But I realized even those crude sensibilities existed on a trip to the U.K. in 1987. My (now ex) wife and I drove from London through the length of England into Scotland. In Chester, we stayed at a bed and breakfast where it happened that two Catholic priests were also staying. Over breakfast we got to talking to them about religion, especially about Catholicism in England and Scotland. But we also discovered they were in Chester to see the Mystery Play, a three day event that the city had revived in 1951 (it had been suppressed by Cromwell, of course). So we decided to spend an extra night and to see at least the middle day of the event.

The play took place outside. The audience sat in bleachers, as if for a high school sports event. Props, acting, even script all impressed me. And the final scene, the crucifixion, had the Jesus actor carrying the cross as the audience followed along until he was crucified on the steps of the town hall.

But the scene that impressed me more than any took place when authorities hauled Jesus before the judges of the Sanhedrin. The costumes, the symbolism, everything about the scene emphasized (screamed) that these were Jewish authorities. Even though, as we know, the judges of Jewish law referred the matter to the Romans, this scene in from the Passion drama made clear that it was the Jews who were responsible for what would follow at the town hall. Those minutes of the drama quickly expanded my sense of how profoundly anti-semitism weaves its way into western and Christian culture. Once you see it, you see it everywhere.

Diary of a Young Girl

One of the glaring gaps in my preparation as a teacher of the Holocaust is that I never read Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank’s diary is one of those touchstones of Holocaust education. During a recent trip to my home city in California, I looked for a copy of the diary in a used book shop. The owner helped me, but we couldn’t find one. She said it was required in the school district, and that students often bought copies from her, then sold them back, and then she sold them again.  I know this is one of the key texts in Holocaust literature, at least for younger readers.

What makes this blank spot in my self-education even more acute is that I have read many diaries of young girls—probably more than anyone who is not, like me, a historian of youth. So when I finally picked up a copy of the diary from my local library recently, I entered a work that felt familiar in many ways. Even though the dozens or scores of diaries I’ve used in my research were written by American girls and young women, Anne Frank took up many of the same themes.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg has pointed out, diary keeping has clear class boundaries. There are vanishingly few diaries from working class girls. But as we enter the middle-class, adolescent children, especially girls, take up diary keeping and writing in huge numbers. And Anne, of course, came from a very comfortable middle-class family and background. In fact, the physical diary is a present for her on her birthday, and in the opening pages she writes about the gifts she received.  Her education and the family’s prosperity are markers of her favored status. She had both the leisure and the facility with language to become a successful diarist.

Like many girls, Anne seems to have had the goal of writing mainly about the good things in her life. She begins with an overview of her friendships at school, both the girls who are her friends and the boys who are her admirers. But when girls become consistent diary-keepers, documenting happy times falls into a tangential activity and the diary always becomes a trusted ally in other projects of youth.

The most obvious use of the diary is a source of reflection and solace regarding the wear and tear of adolescent life. Anne’s life has more of this than my American writers, of course. While she begins with scenes from school, her life suddenly narrows to the warehouse annex where she goes into hiding from the Nazi purge of Dutch Jews. Rather than using her writing time to carefully review and analyze her relations with peers, she has to fill it with the daily grind and tensions of life with five adults, her sister, and an older boy. As we emerge from a pandemic period that constrained the lives of most of us, we should have abundant sympathy for the people in the hidden rooms. They had one toilet among the eight of them, and a diet limited to mainly potatoes and a diminishing supply of whatever vegetables that could be purchased with black market ration cards. 

Yet, in spite of the grim circumstances, Anne handles these tensions with clear descriptions and humor.  After the adults decide that their hiding place can take in one more person, they invite Mr. Dussel, a dentist, who ends up sleeping in the room where Anne sleeps. At first he seems merely awkward. But soon enough, tensions mount:

Mr. Dussel, the man who was said to get along so well with children and to absolutely adore them, has turned out to be an old-fashioned disciplinarian and preacher of unbearably long sermons on manners. Since I have the singular pleasure (!) of sharing my far too narrow room with His Excellency, and since I’m generally considered to be the worst behaved of the three young people, it’s all I can do to avoid having the same old scolding and admonitions repeatedly flung at my head to and to pretend not to hear.

The passage is pitch perfect. Even through the anger and frustration, Anne shows a keen perception of the situation she finds herself in.

Again and again, Anne reports on her run-ins with adults and on her feeling of being the target of most of the criticism circulating in the attic rooms. Perhaps the most heartfelt of her laments concerns her relation with her mother, whom she feels scolds too easily and fails to give her the kind of affection she craves. One night, for instance, her mother comes to her at bedtime and offers to listen to her prayers rather than Anne’s father. Anne refuses and her mother leaves in tears. (April 2, 1943) Of all the adults, Anne feels most supported and closest to her father.

Diary-keeping serves not only as a repository of grievances but also as an aid in the project of self-definition. “Who am I?” “How am I distinct and special in my family and among my peers?” “How do I relate to the world around me?” “What am I becoming?” All these questions, in some form, run through the diaries of young people, and typically we see them working these out as they relate to other youth. Anne, of course, loses almost all of her access to peers after she goes into hiding. So we see her working through many of these issues in relation to the unsympathetic adults around her or in her own mind.

So, for instance, in the incident with her mother at bedtime, Anne receives a scolding from her father. But she also processes the incident in her own way. “It’s hard to tell the truth, and yet the truth is that she’s the one who’s rejected me. She’s the one whose tactless comments and cruel jokes about matters I don’t think are funny have made me insensitive to any sign of love on her part.” 

Adolescent girls seem to specialize in this kind of introspection. Anne considers what she prefers in her studies (history) and what she struggles with (algebra). She speculates on what she can do out of hiding, what she will become in life. She hopes to be a writer, and already in the Annex she begins writing short stories and fairy tales. She is pointedly self aware, even of her self awareness. “I have one outstanding character trait… I have a great deal of self-knowledge. In everything I do, I can watch myself as if I were a stranger.”  (July 15, 1944)

We have the benefit of this awareness, this self observation. This comes especially into play as Anne grows closer to the older boy, Peter, who is the son of the other couple in hiding. From about the midpoint of the book onward, Peter plays a larger and larger role in her life. We see Anne relaxing with him and gaining a better sense of balance in what is at best a difficult life. Slowly, the two fall in love. They share a first kiss. They discuss sex, though more its anatomy than its possibility. This romantic connection seems almost inevitable. We know proximity is one of the most important variables in who people fall in love with. And not only are Anne and Peter close in physical space day after day—they also have no real alternatives. 

[Of course, Peter is about the same age as Margot, Anne’s sister. But Margot, oddly, is the least rounded of the characters in Anne’s diary. They have a few exchanges of sisterly affection and recognition, but generally Anne says little of Margot except that she is the exemplary child.]

All of this happens in the shadow of what we know about the world outside the hiding place. While news reports play an important role in the discussions in the Annex, these never become the principal topic of Anne’s work. She worries about friends she knows could not go into hiding. She wonders about the treatment of Jews in the world, and whether this will change after the war. But, for most of these pages, Anne remains a young girl, dealing with her need to become a distinctive individual. Because we know that the diary ends when Anne and the others are arrested, we can never treat this text as lightly as we would if she had grown up in the Bronx. The diary is what we still have of Anne, her self reflected in her ideas and frustrations and aspirations. 

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project : An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. 

EYÜPOĞLU, Sevim. “Proximity and the mere exposure effect in social psychology.” Neuroscience: Academic and Business Solutions, July 13, 2019. https://www.neuroscience.org.uk/proximity-mere-exposure-effect-social-psychology/. [This provides a nice, short review of the literature on proximity in human relations. It then descends into some evolutionary psychology-speak which you should feel free to ignore.]

Frank, Anne, Otto Frank, and Mirjam Pressler. The Diary of a Young Girl. Definitive ed. London: Penguin, 1997.

Spurlock, John C., and Cynthia A. Magistro. New and Improved: The Transformation of American Women’s Emotional Culture. New York: NYU, 1998.

Grappling with Genocide

Source: Religion News

A few years ago my dean at Seton Hill University called together a few colleagues in the School of Humanities to develop a proposal for an institute that would provide teachers in grades 6 to 12 more tools for teaching about genocide, and also for fostering empathy in their students. While Holocaust education has become well established in many districts across the country, we felt that we could provide means for teachers to expand their repertoire of Holocaust materials and also translate insights from the Holocaust to understanding state and communal violence in both the past and present.

The resulting institute, supported by a NEH grant, will take place in summer 2022. Beyond offering frameworks for analyzing genocidal actions, the institute seeks to approach the issues of genocide in distinctive ways. First, while it is easy to identify genocides around the world, we wanted to begin by rejecting the temptation of “othering” genocide. Timothy Petete, a distinguished scholar from the University of Central Oklahoma, will help participants understand the slow genocide of Native American erasure.

Also, this institute provides students the opportunity to engage in, and even become certified in, the storytelling process known as Narrative 4. This gives students a means of recognizing and experiencing the power of empathy. One of our colleagues, English professor Christine Cusick, has participated in and led Narrative 4 workshops across the country. She will provide trainings as part of the institute curriculum.

During the two weeks of the institute, students will engage with materials dealing with the Holocaust and other genocides. These will include readings, of course, like Nobel laureate Nadia Murad’s memoir of the Yazidi genocide in The Last Girl and Jan Gross’ startling account of the village of Jedwabne in Neighbors. But we plan to help institute scholars incorporate cinema, photography, and other visual arts in their teaching. Master teacher Jennifer Goss, who has led workshops at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will join our Education professor, Dan Casebeer, in helping students develop their own lesson and unit plans for genocide education using personal accounts as well as cutting edge scholarship.

This overview only provides a flavor of what Grappling with Genocide has in store for participants. You can visit our website to see the daily activities and to learn more.

Call Me American

Abdi Nor Iftin from The New York Times

Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin

    Poised on the Horn of Africa, Somalia participated in the lively trade from the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century C.E. Somalia was organized into competing sultanates. But its links to trade made Mogadishu both a cosmopolitan and wealthy city. The 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta described it as “a town of enormous size. Its inhabitants are merchants possessed of vast resources.” Even into the early 20th century Muslim scholars there made it a center for Islamic learning. Like most of Africa, the region became a target of European imperialism in the 19th century, divided between Italian and British spheres of control. In 1960 both regions became independent and united into the modern state of Somalia. 

    Many Somalis, perhaps a majority of the rural population, engage in herding cattle and transhumance. Less than 2% of Somali land is arable, but nearly 70% is devoted to pasture. The rural population has little access to schooling, even less to medical care. At the opening of Abdi Iftin’s memoir Call Me American, he tells us the story of his parents, whose families are herders and, within their social sphere, wealthy in the number of cattle they own. But drought will rob his parents of their cattle and force them to make lives for themselves in Mogadishu. Abdi and his brother grew up here. His entire family will feel the tides of national and global developments as they wash through the capital city.

    From 1969 until he was deposed in 1991, Siad Barre ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship. Abdi recognizes the military adventurism and corruption of the Barre regime. But once Barre is deposed, the country has no central authority to impose order, and the functions of society and the state either devolve to armed bands or disappear altogether. Abdi’s description of this time is both lively and harrowing. He talks of the disappearance of his father, of the death of an infant sister, of carrying water cans through streets claimed by trigger-happy gunmen. But he also becomes aware of the wider world through movies and, eventually, other American media. He learns English from the movies – his first words are, “I’ll be back.” And soon he receives his nickname, American.

    A UN force in the early 1990s attempted to restore order to Somalia, and succeeded at first. But the American setback in the Black Hawk Down incident leads to the withdrawal of US support and the removal of US troops. The clan gangs, never fully under control, return. Ultimately, the one opponent capable of taming much of the country and wresting control from the clans is the Islamic Union and later (2006) Al-Shabab. Where the clan warlords competed for territory and lucre, the Islamist movements imposed tight strictures on personal behavior. Abdi’s attraction to global culture, and particularly his nickname, drew the attention of the young gunmen of Al-Shabab. In the Abdi is driven to flee, becoming a refugee in Kenya where the presence of so many Somalis soon becomes a source of conflict. 

    Abdi eventually manages to win a visa lottery and emigrate to the United States. But this bare summary does no justice at all to the difficulties of that process. And his book continues after he arrives in the U.S., showing his continued need to confront economic hardship, culture shock, and racism.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Fauvelle, Francois-Xavier. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Hogg, Annabel Lee. “Timeline: Somalia, 1991-2008.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2008, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/12/timeline-somalia-1991-2008/307190/.

Hornak, Leo. “Abdi and the Golden Ticket.” This American Life, 7 June 2021, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/560/abdi-and-the-golden-ticket.

Iftin, Abdi Nor, and Max Alexander. Call Me American: A Memoir. First edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Iftin, Abdi Nor. “The Lives of Muslim Terror Victims Matter Too.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Aug. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-lives-of-muslim-terror-victims-matter-too/2016/08/09/c8a81ecc-5da9-11e6-9d2f-b1a3564181a1_story.html.

“Somalia: Events of 2020.” (2020). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/somalia#

“Somalia Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Jan. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14094503.

Walsh, Declan, et al. “A C.I.A. Fighter, a Somali Bomb Maker, and a Faltering Shadow War.” The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/24/world/africa/al-shabab-somalia-us-cia.html.

Williams, John. “Tell US 5 Things about Your Book: A Refugee Says, ‘Call Me American’.” The New York Times, 15 July 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/15/books/call-me-american-abdi-nor-iftin-interview.html?referringSource=articleShare

The locality of good

Children sheltered in Le Chambon. This image is part of a media essay provided by the USHMM.

One of the most inspirational stories of resistance to the nationalized hatred and state murders of World War II comes from a small town in southern France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The town, and surrounding communities on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon, provided help and hiding places for refugees from Vichy and then German authorities. Many Jews as well as other opponents of the fascists made their way to and through Le Chambon. In The Plateau, Maggie Paxson tells many of the stories of the work in Le Chambon, especially how children who were victims of the race hatred of the Germans were sheltered and even schooled there.

Early in her book Paxson, an anthropologist and writer, says that she had come often enough shoulder to shoulder with state violence, or its threat. She wanted to find what a place of peace would be like: “What if we began by regarding peace not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning of the end, but in the unfolding; something not of the ether, but of lived grounds and interactions; something not perfect but flawed and rough-grained?” (5) Le Chambon seemed an obvious place to go for such a quest, and even more so when it turned out she had a family connection to Le Chambon. So she goes one spring in the mid 2000s to study and live and to perhaps find answers.

Or, at least, I had thought we might have some answers to her central question. How does peace become so vital a part of the fabric of a place that even violence from the outside does not snuff it out? In her book, Paxson follows the career of her distant cousin, Daniel Trocmé (himself the cousin of the Protestant Pastor André Trocmé, who is the central figure in Le Chambon’s reception of refugees). She follows his early life in northern France, then in the Near East, Italy, and finally his return to France about the time WWII begins. He cannot serve because of a medical condition, but is soon asked to come to Le Chambon to oversee a school for children. He embraces this work with his whole heart, and cannot be separated from his charges even when the Gestapo come for him. Transferred from one camp to another, he ends at Majdanek.

We also read a great deal about Maggie Paxson’s life, her earlier work in Russia, and even more about her work with the local refugee agency in Le Chambon where her language skills become a mainstay of the work Russian and Caucasian refugees. There are reflections here on the insights of social science, on the place of religion in social life and in personal commitments, and even on the mind / body problem. We learn about the Baha’i faith, and we learn about her own family’s history.

But what I don’t find here is much clarity on what seems to me the obvious question about peace. Why here? Why did these people make a commitment to outsiders that could have ended in even more widespread incarceration than what the town experienced, and even more profligate judicial murder. At one point, in an interesting passage on religion, she says that the injunction to love one’s neighbor and also to love strangers comes from every religion. But she also turns aside the idea that religion per se, the Protestant faith of so many of the villagers, was the key to understanding Le Chambon’s role during WWII.

I experienced a similar frustration with Philip Hallie’s book on Le Chambon, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. Hallie places at the center of his exploration the Huguenot Pastor, André Trocmé. Early in his book he recounts the story of Trocmé’s arrest by the Gestapo, being taken under arrest at the parsonage and transferred to a car to be take to prison. Word spread through the village and his parishioners gathered as witness as he was taken away. They began spontaneously to sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as their pastor was driven away. Andre, unlike Daniel, would return from imprisonment, and continue his work, though later in the war he would have to flee again.

André Trocmé was committed to pacifism, and he called upon his parishioners to open their arms to the strangers and the victims of Vichy and Nazi violence. I’m sure that Pastor Trocmé was central and key to the whole movement to resist and to save. Yet he was at the center of a network of families, individuals, and even institutions in the plateau that worked toward the same ends. Paxson is an accomplished social scientist, so she has the ability and the background to identify the key elements of the network and to begin to recognize the ideologies expressed in them. But, while we learn about many of the present day refugees on the plateau, we learn very little about the web of relationships and commitments that set a rural village against the Gestapo.

I have to admit that my frustration with Hallie and Paxson alike is that they will not do history. Paxson, at least, has no excuse. She spends time in archives, she interviews knowledgable contemporaries and even some of those who lived as children during the war. Anthropology has the same eye for relationships as social history (because where else did social history go for those questions and methods?). In the end, we don’t see that dynamic, that unfolding that Paxson seemed to promise in the beginning. The work of the people of Le Chambon remains ineluctable, like the sacraments.

Hallie, Philip Paul. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Paxson, Margaret. The Plateau. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.