Submitted by: Kara Vincent
Communications Officer, Faculty of Arts
Originally published in:
Arts and Minds: The Faculty of Arts Magazine
This summer fifth year U of R Religious Studies student Michelle Wagner participated in a once in a lifetime study-abroad experience. She took part in the University of Victoria’s I-witness Holocaust program, a field school that aims to “explore the ways in which the Holocaust has become memorialized in Central Europe and to build an understanding of how the lessons of the Holocaust are relevant in today’s world” (I-witness website).
Wagner and her fellow students spent four weeks engaged in intensive study of the Holocaust and its memorialisation, via one week of class lectures and three weeks of travel to various sites across Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. While abroad the students visited former concentration camp sites, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as more contemporary museum and memorial sites, like the Jewish Museum Berlin, and the ‘Empty Chairs Memorial’ located in Krakow, Poland.
According to Wagner, contemporary Holocaust memorial sites in Europe have taken a decided turn toward the abstract. Distinct from memorials in the form of historic sites (such as former concentration camp sites), abstract memorials tend to be more symbolic and artistic in nature, and more reliant on interpretation. See for example the ‘House of Silence’ Bergen-Belson memorial in Germany, or the ‘Shalekhet’ (‘Fallen Leaves’) installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Wagner cites the example of the ‘Empty Chairs Memorial’ in Krakow (pictured below). “Right beside the bus stop, made from the same material that the bus stop bench is made of, you see a vast amount of empty chairs in the middle of the square in downtown Krakow”, she explains. “There is little to no information on what they represent; to the individual unaware of their significance, they simply look like a bunch of empty chairs that one could sit on, and so people do sit.” This abstract memorial, according to Wagner, raises interesting questions about how we are ‘supposed’ to interact with it. Is it appropriate, for instance, to sit on the chairs? Or are we supposed to?
What these memorials signify to Wagner then, is a very heavy reliance on individual reaction and meaning-making. Their abstract nature makes it difficult or impossible to determine the ‘correct’ way of interacting with them, except on a very personal level. She says, “memorialisation is relative; it is completely dependent on the individual. Each individual’s memorialisation of the Shoah [Holocaust] will be different depending on the individual, preventing us, from, for example, judging people who sit in the Empty Chairs Memorial.”
Accordingly, Wagner found herself analyzing her own reactions to memorials she was sure would resonate with her, but for whatever reason did not. She describes feeling very unsettled by failing to connect on a personal level to some of the historic sites she visited. She says, “The concentration camp memorial sites that were left to be ‘true’ to their original form of the 1930s and the 1940s left me with very little feeling and emotion. You cannot begin to imagine how disappointed I felt in myself.”
That experience has left her with many unanswered questions about the nature and experience of remembrance and memorialisation. She plans to continue her studies at the post-graduate level, and is eager to do further academic and personal ‘unpacking’ of her overseas experience. She credits her field school participation with helping her push the limits of her own assumptions and for giving her a unique perspective. Says Wagner, “The experience offered an opportunity to experience aspects of the Shoah that were only available to me by travelling to Europe and meeting with survivors, scholars, and living testaments to the events that occurred.”