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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb 2015

Holocaust Studies at the University of Naples

I might have called it as I have just called it: Holocaust Studies. The Frederick II University of Naples, however, has a more expansive name for it. It has announced a new graduate degree program in ''The communication of memory of the Shoah and of the culture of tolerance”. The goal is (cited from the ANSAmed press release)
  ... to provide an occasion to study the Holocaust and all forms of racism and Holocaust denial fighting the creation of a shared memory. Issues examined include ''European philosophy and the Shoah [Holocaust]"; "Art and religion in the Mediterranean''; ''Shoah in the Mediterranean: the case of Italy (and Campania);" and "The social construction of Memory".
The announcement was timed to coincide with the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust on January 27.
Such a program is not unique in Italy; the University of Siena has run Holocaust Studies courses for a number of years. In the world at large, such programs are not even unusual. There are many private institutions and private and public universities around the world that now offer certificates or degrees in this discipline. Also, UNESCO sponsors a project called Why Teach About the Holocaust? There is a general consensus that such programs are useful. The main controversy seems to be an in-house debate about whether or not to make the subject more inclusive; that is, should it be Holocaust Studies or something more general, something to join the Holocaust's uniquely Jewish character not just to other genocides, but to the wider societal issues of multiculturalism and human rights. The tendency seems to favor the latter, especially with the passage of time (at least, according to “As Society Changes, So Does Holocaust Education” in the on-line Jewish Week of Jan. 27.) By its own self-description ("...to study the Holocaust and all forms of racism...") the Naples program will be of the "more general" type.

Some worry about the possibility of  trivialization. In 1989 Elie Wiesel (in "Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory") wrote this:
Auschwitz is something else, always something else. It is a universe outside the universe, a creation that exists parallel to creation. Auschwitz lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death. There, one lives differently, one walks differently, one dreams differently. Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress; it negates the human design and casts doubts on its validity. ...just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz. The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes... Such, then, is the victory of the executioner: by raising his crimes to a level beyond the imagining and understanding of men, he planned to deprive his victims of any hope of sharing their monstrous meaning with others.
The term "victory of the executioner" is staggering. Wiesel was talking about simplistic melodramatic films about the Holocaust, true, and not university courses, but we should take the concern seriously. When I see courses such as “Shoah in the Mediterranean: the case of Italy (and Campania)" and "The social construction of memory,” a few alarms go off in my head. I, too, am worried about the social construction of memory, but also about if not self-aggrandizementthen “passing the buck-ism”, and burying the minutiae of horror  “beyond the imagining and understanding of men” in even well-intentioned courses on human rights and multi-culturalism. In fairness, I withhold judgment because the courses haven't started yet.

As noted, a look at the courses leads me to think that the general tenor of the program is an “all-inclusive” one—that is, one aimed at promoting a culture of tolerance, and I am not making a case that this is a mistake. After all, do we not want our youth to know about unspeakable atrocities committed in Rwanda, for example? Of course we do. And how far back do we go before we “draw a line under” (forget) historic horrors? that is, before we let ourselves off the hook for genocide and slavery? I don't know. How soon will it be before we draw a line under the Holocaust? I don't know that, either. Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, established in 1953, has on its website the line, "The Holocaust, which established the standard for absolute evil, is the universal heritage of all civilized people." I believe that is true. A phrase by Hannah Arendt has occurred to me: "The Banality of Evil"—the subtitle of  her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, published in 1963. That phrase can be (and has been) interpreted in widely divergent ways, just two of which are that (1) we all have an Eichmann within us, and (2) if such evil is a result of blind and slavish stupidity (Eichmann) then it can be defeated. I hope the program in Naples will talk about such things.

You might say that only Holocaust survivors such as Wiesel (author of Night, one of the definitive books about the Holocaust,  pub. in French in 1958) or Primo Levi (author of If This is a Man, pub. 1947, plus many essays on the subject) have any right to say anything at all. What can the rest of us express without fear of trivializing? I have no experience in any of this except, decades ago, a trip to the memorial at Dachau, near Munich. The display has since been changed, but at the time, you entered and saw a wall plastered with pictures of Hitler and prominent Nazis. There was a caption: Die Verantwortlichen—Those Responsible. Someone had defaced the caption with a pen by scrawling Das Volk—the people. In a register reserved for visitor comments, someone had written in English, "The next thing you know, you'll be telling us that Hitler was just taking orders from someone else." So I am wary of distortion though willful omission or by a tendency to want to "draw a line under it" in order to get on with the important task of promoting understanding and tolerance.

I asked a number of friends, some of whom are, if not personally, then one generation removed from those touched physically by the Holocaust. My question was direct and childish. Do you think courses like this do any good? Does this one look any good? Should I give it the benefit of the doubt? I reminded them that it was a graduate program with participants likely to be in their early to mid-20s, possibly already involved in education from the teaching end. There would be no one whose only idea of WWII was that it probably came after WWI. "But," said one, "they might still have seen Schindler's List and think they had just seen a documentary about the Holocaust, which would be a mistake. It's like asking, How bad was the Holocaust on a scale of 1-10? The question makes no sense." That would be the Elie Wiesel end of the spectrum of responses. At the other end was the inclusive, "Silence documents nothing....the Holocaust and similar disasters need all of the notice they can get...it is contradictory to recommend nothing but written accounts of the Holocaust while claiming that the events cannot be reduced to words...dramatic presentations could be valuable." There was also a comment in the form of a question: "What is the difference, if any, between healing and forgetting?"  I'll leave that one to you.

So, we shall see.

     [There is a related entry: Campagna, the Righteous Town.]

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