The Commodification of Trauma in Holocaust Museums “We inhabit an academic world that is busy consuming trauma—eating, swallowing, perusing

, consuming, exchanging, circulating, creating professional connections—through its stories about the dead. We are obsessed with stories that must be passed on, that must not be passed over.” –Patricia Yaeger

Following the liberation of concentration camps across Europe in the 1940s, the literary market became saturated with tales of the Holocaust. Stories featuring World War II heroes such as Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Shoah became breakout hits worldwide. Holocaust survivors became pseudo-celebrities that spent their time traveling and speaking about their horrific experiences. Holocaust memorials sprang up across the United States and other countries, drawing in massive crowds to study, remember, and memorialize the events that transpired. However, in recent years, it seems as though the discussion about Holocaust memorialization is shifting to one that is undoubtedly less favorable. The presence of satirical writing about the Holocaust has added a sharp edge to Holocaust literature that is becoming more prevalent today. Czech author Jachym Topol, author of The Devil’s Workshop, expressed his concern for taking a satirical look at the post-war society in Terezin when he said, “I kept wondering, Am I allowed to write about those things?. . . But the ones who lived through it said: It’s OK to do it that way.” Topol is among authors who are ushering in the new way of presenting the creation of Holocaust museums satirically.

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Existing scholarship on the museum business is quick to point out that Holocaust museums are created to remember, associate with, and attempt to understand the horrors that Jews (and other minorities) experienced during World War II. In addition, many scholars discuss the need for collective suffering through the forms of support groups, exhibits, and literature, to help move past traumatic events. Dominick LaCapra, a historian who focuses largely on trauma studies, said, “Another dimension of the contemporary context, which has played a variable role in the historians’ debate, at least as a background factor, is the use of the Shoah as ‘symbolic capital’” (75). It is this sort of commodification of trauma that I would like to focus on. While I agree with the belief that museums were created as a memorial, I also submit that Holocaust museums exist in the western world because of a sense of guilt. I will demonstrate this by examining the history of Holocaust museums in the United States. I will also analyze the European novel, The Devil’s Workshop by Jachym Topol, and its role in satirizing the concentration camp museum industry. Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop shows this creation of the “symbolic capital” LaCapra mentions through the satirical tone he uses to describe the creation of museums in Czechoslovakia and Belarus. I also suggest that the author uses his strong views on the matter to pose an important question: How much of these museums is for the tourist industry, and how much is for human empathy?

The Rise of Modern Holocaust Museums In 2002, Allen Feldman, author and anthropologist who currently teaches at New York University, entered an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City entitled “Mirroring

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Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art.” Once in the gallery, visitors were presented with a choice: view one gallery full of “disturbing” Holocaust art or view a second gallery full of “extremely offensive” Holocaust art. The two galleries were contained in separate hallways, and on busy days, lines to enter one hallway or the other would back up into the waiting area. Feldman commented on this experience, saying, “This spatial bifurcation, this division of witness into two, was far more haunting and disturbing than the actual art in the second stigmatized gallery, as the two lines eerily evoked the concentration camp rite of ‘the selection,’ where lines of prisoners were moved in opposite directions to the death or to precarious existence.” He then goes on to explain, “But in this museum, in this postHolocaust world of anamnesis, rather than roads to death or fragile survival, curatorial logic offered a choice between admissible and inadmissible memory” (164-5). This evocative experience is just one of many that people around the world have had in Holocaust exhibits. Alejandro Baer, a Holocaust museum expert, has pointed out that “Holocaust museums favor strategies design to arouse strong emotions, and particular immersion of the visitor into the past” (qtd. in Alexander 54). Creating exhibits like the ones Feldman and Baer described is something that museum designers are perfecting. After all, as former Israeli foreign secretary Abba Eban quipped, “There’s no business like Shoah business.” Following the first liberation of concentration camps in 1944, the world turned a harsh eye on the Allies, especially the United States. How could they have let these atrocities carry on for so long without intervention? It was as though the Allies had been

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linked with the enemies in encouraging the use of concentration camps because they had not put a stop to them. Although the sense of condemnation was not prevalent in American culture, American politicians felt the weight of it until the creation of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in November 1978, and the American establishment of a Holocaust museum in October 1979. Alexander described the official document discussing the creation of the museum, saying, “It listed as one of its primary justifications that such a public construction would give the American nation an opportunity to compensate for its early, ‘disastrous’ indifference to the plight of the Jews” (Alexander, 41-2). This description implies that Americans felt a sense of guilt, and were making up for their previous “mistakes” by creating a memorial to honor those who died in such a horrible event. However, some sources were less forgiving in detailing the supposed reasoning behind the creation of a Holocaust Museum. Edward Linenthal, a well-known professor on religion and world culture and Indiana University, said that, “The Carter administration’s decision to create . . . an appropriate national Holocaust memorial is often characterized as ‘political,’ . . . the underlying motivation had little to do with interest in Holocaust memory and everything to do with the domestic political priority of appeasing Jewish interest” (17). Because of a lack of declassified documents, we will never be entirely sure of the reasoning behind the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and the American establishment of a Holocaust museum; however, it is easy to assume that it was probably established because of guilt, and to find some relief from the pressure coming from the outside world.

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Soon after the Holocaust museum was opened in Washington D. C. on April 22, 1993, visitors began flooding the exhibits in a steady stream. As of March 13, 2014, over 36.5 million people have come to visit and enjoy what was created under the direction of the Carter administration. The creation of the museum seemed to solidify the importance of the Holocaust in world history, and more and more museums were built to memorialize the event. Jeffrey Alexander explained this strong response to the Holocaust by pointing out the large amount of research centers, college courses, parks, streets, and holidays created to remember the Holocaust. ! But the intensity did not stop there. Alexander says, “Monuments were constructed to

honor the tragedy’s victims. Major urban centers in the United States, and many outside it as well, constructed vastly expensive, and vastly expansive, museums to make permanent its moral lessons” (52). In this way, the Holocaust carved its niche into the tourism industry. Exhibits charged steep prices for admission, and though the prices covered museum-running costs and further proceeds typically went to a charitable organization of some sort, the museum business became its own industry. Of this, Jeffrey Alexander said, “These [business] processes were controversial; they suggested to many observers that the Holocaust was being instrumentalized and commodified, that its morality and effect were being displaced by specialists in profitmaking, on one hand, and specialists in merely cognitive expertise, on the other. In recent years, the idea has grown that the charisma of the original trauma . . . is being routinized in a regrettable, but predictable . . . way” (53).

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Although we have come to accept this commodification of trauma in our museums and literature, authors such as Jachym Topol have written novels that take a satirical turn on the supposed “routinized” experiences found in the exhibits.

Jachym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop tells of a young boy growing up in Terezin, a small town in Czechoslovakia that was previously a concentration camp. He joins forces with Lebo, an old friend and role model from his childhood, and they attempt to preserve their town; but they are forced to flee to Belarus when authorities arrive to shut down the operation. In Belarus, he comes across many others who are scouring the underground remains of concentration camps in an attempt to preserve the past and make a living by assembling museums for tourists to visit. Topol’s critical eye gives a satirical look at the commodification of trauma in concentration camp museums through four major characters in the book: the narrator’s mother, Uncle Lebo, Alex, and Sara. Each character represents and integral part of the museum industry that has been capitalized on. He uses the characters to represent people who are interested in the museums for the humanity, as well as characters who are interested in the museums for the financial gain.

The Narrator’s Mother One of the first characters we are introduced to in the novel is the narrator’s mother. She is someone who experienced the concentration camp first hand, and has been permanently

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traumatized because of it. As a child, she was almost killed and then left to die on top of a pile of dead bodies. She survived because of the narrator’s father, a soldier, found her and pulled her from a mass grave and saved her. Because of what she faced, she was too emotionally scarred to function in the post-war world. The narrator described a typical day at home with her when he said, “[She] pushed the furniture away from the walls. In the middle of all the cabinets and chests, the cupboards, over-turned chairs, armchairs and the fancy divan, she created a safe hiding place, a nest for just the two of us. . . . [We] would huddle up close in our warm nest and hold each other until my dad came home and dragged us out of our safe place” (2-3). Although the narrator remembers being “overjoyed” with all of the time they would spent nestled up in the mom’s homemade version of a shelter, he soon became resistant to it as he began to notice that “the world outside was huge and my mum refused to set foot in it” (3). The narrator is unable to understand what keeps her from being a part of the world. He also recounts several experiences with his aunts and the people in the town whispering about his mother’s suffering, which explain the limited knowledge that he has about her situation. He later explains that “My mum was a martyr, in other words a war hero, so she could do just about anything she wanted, and even though she took her life when I went away to school, nobody dwelled on it or blackened her memory, and nobody said a word about it to my dad either, because he was a war her too” (6). ! Because of her suffering and perpetual trauma after being set free, the narrator’s

mother represents all of the people who experienced World War II and concentration camps first-hand. Holocaust survivors became heroes in pop culture, but Topol points out that

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although she was a “war hero,” her life post-war was completely limited by her trauma. Topol is also pointing out that his mother is exactly the type of person that are often represented in museums. The issue that Topol takes is not that she does not deserve to be memorialized; the issue is that her overwhelming trauma, which eventually leads to suicide, would be used as a way to tug on the heart strings of people who visit museums. Topol uses the mother to show that museums are essentially using their exhibits to eternize the stories of people like her: survivors who have their lives changed by what they experienced.

Uncle Lebo Another character that plays a major role in representing the commodification of trauma is Uncle Lebo. Although Lebo is not the narrator’s biological uncle (scholarship suggests, in fact, that Lebo is the narrator’s half-brother), he is an uncle figure for all of Terezin. Everyone knows him and respects him. It is Lebo who makes the decision to “save the town,” and the author says that “Together with Uncle Lebo and Sara, who was the first person to come to us from the world, we founded the Comenium commune, our international school of healing for students from around the world” (6). Because he had the plan to save the town without being influenced by the outside world (at least we assume that he was not), Uncle Lebo symbolizes the first Holocaust museums that were founded because of a sense of guilt. Lebo wants to memorialize the town that he grew up in, and bring it back to be something more than a monument that the occasional tourist visits for a short amount of time. He works hard to fund the project and get it off its feet, employing small children to run through the underground system to find

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artifacts. This alludes to the fact that most museums were not created without flaws or lessthan-desirable circumstances, but Lebo does what he needs to do to establish the community that he wants to live in. It seems that he establishes this museum as a way of preserving the memory of the town and restoring a sense of humanity in the visitors. Uncle Lebo’s most important role in this book comes at the end of the story, when the narrator is with Alex at his museum. He has wandered through the museum, seeing dead people who were taxidermied and wired up so that when they were operational, their mouths and bodies would move in time to a pre-death recording of the person telling their tales from the concentration camp. The narrator walks through the exhibit, til the final room when he sees “[Lebo] sitting there, in a black suit, bent slightly forward, just like I knew him my whole life. All those evenings he spoke to the students of the Comenium, the ones he healed, he looked like this” (133). The narrator is horrified, but Alex rationalizes it, saying “Here in our museum Lebo will be for everyone” (134). The narrator is not comfortable with the realization that Lebo has been degraded from an important figure in his life to a man in an exhibit retelling the same story over and over again to any random visitor who happens across his wired body. Lebo’s robotic presence is a strong parallel to all of the people who are made immortal by having their stories, videos, pictures, voices, and personal belongings placed into museums. Topol is offering the commentary that by placing the people into an exhibit, they will essentially be stripped down to the basics of the story that they are telling in the exact moment that the visitor passes by and the short bio that could possibly be offered about them. Topol’s commentary raises an important question about the exhibits that we

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create: can we possibly sum up an entire person’s being into one story or tiny slot in a museum? Is that the best way to memorialize someone? The people who knew Lebo would know more about him when they saw him, but to everyone else he would become just another dead man in just another room. Alex summarizes Lebo’s new place in the world when he says, “From now on he shall live in eternity, as our conscience, our strength, our weapon” (134). Lebo has been transformed from a multi-faceted human being to a robotic tool to lure people in to their museum. The satire in this part of the novel is strong; Topol is able to point out the inhumanity in the creation of this strange exhibit.

Sara and the Bunk Seekers In The Devil’s Workshop, Sara represents the entire group known as the bunk seekers. Topol describes the bunk seekers perfectly when he says, “She was one of the seekers of the bunks, young people with brains darkened by the cloud of the terrible past, by the horrors that had befallen their parents, grandparents, relatives, or just by the fact that those horrors had happened at all. Could they happen again? What is man capable of? How come it happened to them, but I was spared? What would I have done if it had been me being led to my death? Can it happen again?” (32). The bunk seekers are the characters who are caught in a post-war and post-modern haze, feeling as though they suffered and endured trauma. It seems unlikely that someone who did not experience the Holocaust on his or her own would feel traumatized because of it. However, as Dominick LaCapra points out, “Even the secondary witness or empathetic

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observer who resists full identification with, and the dubious appropriation of the status of, the victim may nonetheless undergo muted trauma” (82). This explains the purpose behind the bunk seekers’ journey. It is possible for people simply to empathize with those who passed through concentration camps, and to empathize enough to create their own personal sense of distress. The bunk seekers in the novel are not nearly as anxious and scarred as the narrator’s mother or other characters who suffered personally because of the Holocaust, but their lack of direction and anguished haze show some semblance of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The narrator continued on in his description of the bunk seekers, saying “Occasionally one of them would turn up in Terezin. Longing to ease the painful pressure on their brain, these were no ordinary tourists, content to wander down a few trails of genocide, maintained for the world by the Monument. . . . They showed up here crazed with pain, seized by the eternal question every seeker asked: If it happened here, can it happen again? (32). There are still bunk seekers who visit concentration camps looking for answers to this “eternal question” and a connection to their ancestors. Though they may not necessarily travel out to Europe to visit the actual sites of the camps, many now turn their bunk seeking emotions towards visiting Holocaust museums. They are able to do this beacuse of the plethora of Holocaust museums across the United States that increase the ability for the general public to visit and work through the same secondary trauma that the bunk seekers felt. Topol also suggests that the bunk seekers were one of the driving forces behind the creation of Holocaust museums. In the novel, the narrator says, “The seekers of the bunks came thirsting for knowledge. All of them had been directly affected by what went on here and needed to hear that, despite all the horrible things that had happened to their grandparents or

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parents, in spite of it all and through ti all, they could go on living” (33-34). This desire to hear that everything would be okay is fundamentally the aim of many Holocaust museums. With the example of The Holocaust Museum of Washington D. C., Jeffrey Alexander notes that the purpose of the museum was to “deep[en] psychological identification and broad[en] symbolic extension” (54). In this way, the bunk seekers represent both those who encourage the building of museums and those who frequent the museums.

Alex Alex is one of the main antagonists in The Devil’s Workshop. He arrives at Terezin and is seemingly innocent, but overtime it becomes clear that he is only after information about how Lebo and the narrator were able to change Terezin from a wasteland to a functioning tourist destination. Once Alex and the narrator leave Terezin, Alex becomes ruthless and power hungry. His obsession with the information that the narrator has, all saved on what the narrator refers to as “the Spider,” shows that he only wants “all the addresses and contacts that [the narrator and Lebo] milked for cash” (6). Alex seems to be using the museum as a way to carry out some of his grand ideals about the way that the the Holocaust industry should be run. He clearly does not respect the west and their Holocaust industry, as seen in conversations with Sara and other bunk seekers in the book. In addition, in the scene where Alex is showing the narrator all of the stuffed people in his museum, Alex says, “Here in our museum, Lebo will be for everyone . . . Not just for some spoiled brats from the West, like in Terezin” (134). Clearly, he aims to expand his reach out of his own little area, and into the worldwide arena.

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In his decision to stuff Holocaust survivors and record their stories for part of his exhibit, Alex displays a lot about his character. It shows his strong understanding of human nature. Museum visitors will only be pleased with signs and nails and old clothes for so long; at some point, they would want to feel the personal connection that can only be felt by interacting with people. Since the survivors had died since the liberation of the camps, the only option would be to find a way to bring the dead back to life. In this case, Alex found the solution through stuffing and wiring their deceased bodies to serve as an animatronic robot. This decision is representative of the exhibit makers in Holocaust museums today. Because they desire to draw on our emotions, they know to appeal to human nature and our desire to connect with other human beings. When actual live humans are not available, videos and voiceovers and actors must be utilized as stand-ins. Luckily, modern museums have not gone so far (yet) as to stuff corpses and incorporate them into their exhibits. Through Alex’s drive to expand his museum and reach a larger audience, Alex represents the economic side of the museum industry. He wants to expand and create capital from his experience. When the narrator is speaking with Alex’s sister, Maruska, she says, “The Devil’s Workshop’s going to mean work for a lot of people. . . . And tourists bring money. It’s only right that the descendants of the people who got murdered should get some cash out of it, don’t you think? Anyway, there’s nobody else around here. And when I get old, I can live in peace and be the dezhurnaya. In our museum” (142). Maruska is an extension of Alex’s beliefs because she is so heavily involved in his plans. Topol uses Maruska’s rationalization for the creation of the museum to provide his ultimate commentary on the museum industry. In the

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end, it is less about humanity and more about making a buck off the tourists that will visit. Alex is truly interested in commodifying the trauma of the Holocaust for his personal gain. Through each of his characters, Topol provides commentary on the museum industry. He points out that while the museums are created out of our own humanity sometimes, they are also sometimes created just for financial gain and personal interest. We see this through the narrator’s mother who is a traumatized survivor, Lebo who is a museum creator is order to preserve the past, Sara who is a bunk seeker who uses the museums to connect to her ancestry, and Alex who is ruthless and creates museums to help himself financially.

Conclusion While it is easy to point out the flaws in any system, especially an industry created to memorialize genocide, it is not necessarily easy to propose a way to change. However, there must be a way to come to terms with what has happened. Clearly this is an issue that has been on the radar since the end of World War II, when countries around the world have needed to come to terms with the horrible events that transpired in their countries. Nancy Wood, a memory specialist, said, “Since the 1960s, the politics of Aufarbeitung (‘coming to terms with the past’), more commonly—but misleadingly—referred to as Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (‘mastering’ or ‘overcoming’ the past), have been a constant feature in the . . . Political and cultural landscape” (41). These German terms are ones used often when speaking of post-memory and our ability to process through issues in the past. It is also seen in Dominick LaCapra’s writing on mourning and genocide when he says, “The question of how to respond to the Shoah has

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of course been a major problem since the end of World War II, and it has gone through a number of important permutations. The reunification of Germany in 1989 created new difficulties and possibilities in the process of what the Germans term Vergangenheitshewaltigung” (84). I submit that the past it not something that needs to be overcome, but instead, needs to be processed through and accepted. Creating Holocaust museums is an excellent way to become aware of what happened and form our own opinions and ideas about the past. However, once we allow these museums to become a means for the commodification of trauma, they lose their initial purpose and take away from our ability to learn and work through the past.

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Works Cited “About the Museum.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 8 April 2014. Alexander, Jeffrey C. “On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ from War Crime to Trauma Drama.” European Journal of Social Theory. 5.1: 5-85. Print. Feldman, Allen. “Memory Theaters, Virtual Witnessing, and the Trauma-Aesthetic.” Biography. 27.1:163-202. Print. LaCapra, Dominick. “Revisiting the Historians' Debate: Mourning and Genocide.” History and Memory 9 (1/2): 80-112. Print. LaCapra, Dominick. Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Print. Linenthal, Edward Tabor. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print. Topol, Jachym. The Devil's Workshop. London: Portobello Books, 2013. Print. Wood, Nancy. Vectors of Memory. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1999. Print. Yaeger, Patricia. “Consuming Trauma; or, The Pleasures of Merely Circulating.” Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community. Illinois: University of Illinois, 2002. Print.