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Visual Representations of the Holocaust and Religion

Representations of the Holocaust have been debated for a long time, almost since the end of World War II in 1945. For some representations per se are problematic, because they aestheticise a horrible subject, because they try to convey experiences which are deemed uncommunicable, because they appropriate other people’s experiences, because they are voyeuristic of other people’s pain, because they capture only one instance of the Holocaust and thereby ‘falsify’ the experience by truncating it, because they produce amnesia, because they suggest closure.

Beauty in relation to the representation of the Holocaust is seen as problematic. Art relating to the Holocaust can be very beautiful and there is pleasure in looking at images. Indeed, quite aside from the pleasures of producing a work of art, visiting art galleries is a spare time activity which seeks pleasure, entertainment, distraction alongside wishing to be educated and learning something new. Are these emotions and desires appropriate when producing and viewing art that explores atrocity and destruction? Is it appropriate to experience pleasure and catharsis in relation to Holocaust art? (Holocaust art, i.e. works whose subject matter communicates about the Holocaust.) Are there more dangerous forms of pleasure seeking associated with looking at Holocaust art – voyeurism or sadistic pleasure?

On the other hand, works of art are able to capture the viewer’s emotions and imagination in ways that encourage serious consideration of the subject of the Holocaust. The aesthetic appeal of artistic engagement with the Holocaust thus enables learning and reflection in ways that other forms of representation may not.

The representation of religion in relation to the Holocaust has thus far been largely confined to the specialised areas of Jewish religious thought, Christian theology and church history. Even the study of testimony of survivors has not focused particularly on an exploration of the victims’ Jewish religious identifications or, if it has, this again has been confined to a particular niche of the field of Holocaust Studies. Jewishness, seminal though it is to the historical exploration, and indeed explanation, of the genocide, is often sidelined.

Elie Wisel's "Night" - a survivor's account of the Holocaust

This may be the case because sometimes the focus of the visualisation is the perspective of the victimisers. Their interpretations of Jewishness and Jews are steeped in antisemitism. In order not to collude with the victimisers in their categorisation and interpretation of their victims as Jews, the issue of how to think about the victims’ self-identification and interpretation of their own Jewishness is often sidelined. Similarly, the divergence of the victims’ self-understandings from the way in which the Nazis wished to characterise them is often not explored.

Sensitivity to the victims’ dignity and to the pejorative nature of antisemitic representations of Jewishness, as well as a perceived lack of competence in the area of religion of some scholars of the Holocaust can account for the issue of Jewishness and ‘Judaism(s)’ not featuring prominently in the scholarship on the visual representation of the Holocaust.

Only recently has the category of religion entered the study of visual representations of the Holocaust more frequently. This is in conjunction with the analysis of behaviour around Holocaust memorials, at events that commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides, the activity of visiting Holocaust exhibitions and the manner of display therein. Some or all of these activities have been / are identified as religious, if not specifically Jewish.

Only a few examples have merged into the mainstream of representations of the Holocaust, such as Elie Wiesel’s short novel Night based on his experiences during the Holocaust and Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. Some monuments and memorials explicitly draw on Jewish religious symbolism, but the implications of this for the meanings created when such memorials are visited and ‘used’ in the commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust are yet to be analysed.

About Dr K. Hannah Holtschneider

Dr K. Hannah Holtschneider
K. Hannah Holtschneider is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and author of 'The Holocaust and representations of Jews' (Routledge Jewish Studies Series, 2011). Her first book, 'German Protestants remember the Holocaust' was published by Lit.Verlag in 2001. Her research interests are in the field of Jewish-non-Jewish relations, Holocaust representation and Jewish material culture.

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