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Difficult Memories: Talk in a (Post) Holocaust Era

reviewed by Ray Wolpow - 2003

coverTitle: Difficult Memories: Talk in a (Post) Holocaust Era
Author(s): Marla Morris and John A. Weaver (Eds)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820451487, Pages: 278, Year: 2002
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Educating our students to read, write and speak with clarity and understanding about their experiences, and the experiences of others, is inherent in most standards-based curricula.  And yet, how do we speak of the unspeakable, past and present?  Survivors of the Holocaust experienced “a human tremendum, a degeneracy unparalleled and unfathomable to any person bonded to life” (Cohen, 1981, p.18).  Despite, and perhaps because there was no anodyne, no redemption for the wounds they suffered, survivors developed their own genre of discourse: “testimonial” (Wiesel, 1977). How do we, educators a generation or two removed, make sense of survivors’ discourse and memory?  More important, how do those of us who teach the Holocaust imbricate survivors’ difficult discourses with our own? 


In Difficult Memories: Talk in a (Post) Holocaust Era, editors Morris (Georgia Southern University) and Weaver (University of Akron) gather seventeen scholarly “Jewish, non-Jewish, German, Christian, Canadian, [and] American” voices, to generate discourse on difficult memories, “not as a unitary or unified thing, but a nothing, a slippery, fragile, wounded spark.”  With urgency Morris reminds us that we must speak of these difficult memories now, rooting them in the past and the present, for that “spark is flickering in the wake of the 21st century because many Holocaust survivors are dying” (p.3).  Although the Holocaust is “past” it is still with us.  As Morris explains:  “To suggest…that the Holocaust is (post) is to suggest that the past is present in the here and now and continues to get re-played, re-lived and re-worked” (p.1). 


Morris warns us: “This collection is not a happy one.  If you, as a reader, are looking for consolation and comfort you will be disappointed….  If anything, these essays are upsetting because they reflect real struggles around issues that are without happy endings” (p. 4).  Indeed, each essay is as authentic as it is upsetting.  Nonetheless, those who have observed, with regret, a Balkanization by discipline of Holocaust scholarship, will appreciate the interdisciplinary intent of this collection. In Morris’ words: “We have juxtaposed as many different kinds of Holocaust memory together as space will allow.  Fiction, autobiography, politics, historiography, philosophy, pedagogy and curriculum are all concerns to us” (p.7).  Morris’ skill in juxtaposition is an outgrowth of her earlier work in the field of curriculum studies: Curriculum and the Holocaust: Competing Sites of Memory and Representation  (2001).


This collection of essays, each replete with its own references, includes:

  • Grace Feuerverger’s (University of Toronto) personal reflections of the comfort, love and grief she finds in her relationship to her “mameloshen” (Yiddish for “mother tongue”), a language “taking its last dying breaths; … murdered by Hitler and his cohorts” (p.14). 
  • Alan Block’s (University of Wisconsin-Stout) Talmudic treatment of difficult memories: questions leading to more questions with answers appearing contradictory.  In the end, Block seeks a “common lesson of Primo Levi and Deuteronomy,” one that “troubles the narratives of our curriculum” (p.43). 
  • Claudia Eppert’s (Louisiana State University) difficulties with the “historicized and delusional” notions of empathy, identification and heroism characteristic of most response to Holocaust narratives, and suggestion of a “responsive/responsible remembrance-learning” that might “enable post-Holocaust generations … to grieve for others rather than for the loss of our own narcissistic investments; to grieve truly over the senseless loss of a life, of millions of lives” (p.63).
  •  Jutta Schamp’s (The Union Institute) concerns with present-day Germany where there is “little discussion about the construction of a non-Jewish German ‘post memory’” instead a “…museumalization and a philo-Semitism that is the flip side of anti-Semitism among non-Jewish Germans” (p.75). Examining the discourse of literary criticism, Schamp grapples with her own non-Jewish German identity, and her “conflicting feelings of sadness, fury and helplessness” (p.94).
  • James R. Watson’s (Loyola University), challenge to re-think Western philosophical tradition observing that “what we take as tradition and good inheritance of common sense will not take us beyond Auschwitz,” warning of the dangers of a “reified consciousness where the self assimilates itself to things” and of the consequences of thinking that is not both dialectical and democratic (p.113).
  • Judy Goldsmith’s (University of Kentucky) observation that “…Fifty years ago, there were Germans that looked like me.”  Goldsmith acknowledges the Germany of “her grandmother’s stories, the one from the histories of the world wars…” and endeavors to create discourse on difficult memories with contemporary Germans (p.122-123).
  • Documentary filmmaker William Campbell Doll’s reflections on his experiences as an American exchange student.  He predicts “one day the pot in Germany’s soul will boil over…”(p.130).
  • David Blades’ (University of Alberta) discussion of the complexities of identification and grappling with the Holocaust as a convert to Judaism. 
  • Dennis Sumara’s (University of Alberta) utilization of  “literary identifications” to explore what his German-born mother was unable to say about her experiences growing up during the Second World War.  Sumara collects “fugitive pieces of history and memory” and “stitches them together” to interpret his own “Jewish Question” (p. 154).
  • Belinda Davis (Rutgers University) and Peter Appelbaum’s (Arcadia University) holding up of Nazi science to historical light, therein raising disturbing questions about today’s science classrooms.  Of Wissenschaft they suggest we ask: “Whom does it serve, whom does it empower? What is the relationship between science production and science education?  How does the latter influence the former, and how closely tied are both to the interests of any specific regime and/or set of ruling elites?” (pp.178-179)
  • Mary Aswell Doll’s (Savannah College) coming to grips with the complexities of the language of Hochhuth, Joyce, Grass, Boll and Wolfe revealing how they dealt, or failed to deal, with anti-Semitism.


  • David Jardine’s (University of Calgary) concerns about the influential yet controversial work of philosopher Martin Heidegger, his affiliations with National Socialism, as well as his teacher, Edmund Husserl, who invocated incessantly the need for “purity” and “purification.” Jardine asks difficult questions, regarding hermeneutic closures and openings, that he deems relevant to “…the necessity of interpretation to a livable pedagogy” (p.209).
  • Editors Weaver and Morris each contribute a chapter to this compilation.  Weaver wrestles with the difficulties of historiography as they relate to Holocaust memory and in so doing, articulates “the many ways in which a traditional [historical] approach silences the voices of survivors” (p.157).  Morris utilizes a contextualist approach to Heidegger’s work, thereby presenting unsettling questions for those invested in his philosophy. She argues that Heidegger was “ungodly, guilty, forgetful and without conscience” (p.243). 
  •  Those looking for closure in the final essay will not find it in Karen Anijar (Arizona State University) and Barbara Mascali’s (High Point University) “How Can We Speak at All?”  Observing that “our cups … runneth over with unarticulated incomprehensible inexpressibility,” they ask: “What is our “response-ability?”  “Does responsibility invariably precede understanding?” “How do we tell or author the event for our children?”  What of the “possibility of the Holocaust forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history…[or] made into a fetishized artifact, an event, a course of study, a note in a multicultural diversity-tolerance class that is removed from its historical context?” (p.250).

These “many voices sounding difficulties” provide (post) Holocaust talk about difficult memories.  They imbricate difficult discourses with their own.  This is not to suggest that this collection is complete, for there are voices and perspectives, disciplinary and cultural, which could have been added to this volume.  Nonetheless, those entrusted to teach students to read/write/speak of (post) Holocaust experience, who agree with co-editor Weaver’s assertion that, “…our task is to build from their [survivors’] words some kind of understanding so our humanity can be (re)built from the ashes of inhumanity” (p.170),  will find this volume an invaluable resource.



Cohen, A. (1981). The tremendum: A theological interpretation of the Holocaust. New York: Crossroads Publishing


Morris, M. (2001).  Curriculum and the Holocaust:  Competing sites of memory and representation.  Mahwah, NY:  Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.


Wiesel, E. (1977).  “The Holocaust as literary inspiration.” In E. Lefkovitz (Ed.), Dimensions of the Holocaust (pp. 4-19).  Evanston, Illinois:  Northwestern University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 7, 2003, p. 1234-1238
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11086, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:03:37 PM

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