400 gather here to explore future of the Holocaust

James E. Young was mid-lecture, discussing the second generation's attempts to understand the Holocaust, when the ground began to tremble.

No one flinched and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor kept talking, showing slides of Holocaust-inspired art.

A minor earthquake did not disturb the rapt audience of some 400 at Sunday's daylong symposium called "The Future of the Holocaust: Storytelling, Oppression and Identity."

Held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the free event was sponsored by A Traveling Jewish Theatre and a number of other groups. It was organized around ATJT's staging of the play "See Under: Love," ATJT co-founder Corey Fischer's adaptation of the novel of the same name by Israeli David Grossman.

First published in Hebrew in 1986, the novel "filled a gaping literary void," said Gilead Morahg of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, because the Holocaust was not a part of Israeli discourse for so many years.

"See Under: Love" was the first Israeli novel to enter the world of the concentration camps, Morahg said, adding that while Israelis were in the midst of building up a country, they simply could not face the image of Jews going off like sheep to the slaughter.

"Literature is often the best vehicle we have to learn about lives not our own," he said.

Additionally, the novel has become known for being one of the most significant works to grapple with the Holocaust by a member of the next generation. Grossman, who wrote the book when he was in his 30s, knew survivors while growing up in Jerusalem, but he is not himself a son of survivors. In his keynote address, Grossman said that he wanted to write a book that "would shiver on the shelf."

Although some of the speakers spoke about Grossman's novel, others focused on the challenges in representing the Holocaust by those who didn't go through it.

Young showed slides of works by "Maus" cartoonist Art Spiegelman as well as by photographers David Leventhal and Shimon Attie; Spiegelman is the only one of the three who is a son of survivors.

In his series called "Mein Kampf," Leventhal photographed blurry images of Nazi figurines in oversized Polaroids. Attie, a former San Franciscan, "was haunted by the Jewish Berlin he did not see." said Young. He found out where Jewish businesses used to be, and obtained photographs of them. Then he projected those images onto the current buildings.

In "Maus," Young said, "the Shoah is not the subject so much as how [Spiegelman] came to know it."

Jeffrey Shandler of Rutgers University showed a public service announcement aired on MTV before the 1992 presidential election. Sponsored by the Members Only sportswear company, it showed images of Nazi book-burnings and concentration camp inmates, suggesting that this is what could happen if people didn't vote.

That these images were chosen because they are so easily recognizable, without any identification is testament not only to the prevalence of the Holocaust on American television, he said, but in American culture as a whole.

This is especially remarkable, he said, since the Holocaust did not take place on American soil, and yet it is assumed in the TV spot that its victims are future Americans.

The conflict in the Middle East came up a few times in discussion, often in painful comparisons. Hebrew University Professor Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi retitled her talk "See Under: Apocalypse" to reflect the current situation. And several speakers mentioned that a recurrent theme in Grossman's fiction and nonfiction is one people's inability to see the other as human, a violation the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and then in turn have inflicted upon the Palestinians.

One audience member disagreed, saying the Holocaust was still happening, because Jews are continually being killed in the state of Israel.

But most of those comments came from those who were too young to have lived through the Holocaust. Then a gray-haired woman with a European accent felt compelled to speak after hearing Morahg.

"We did not go off like sheep to the slaughter," she said. "There was all kinds of resistance."

She was followed by loud applause.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."