Final Conference of the 2nd Phase of the EHRI Project: Holocaust Studies in its Social Setting

Conference Holocaust Studies in its Social Setting
Monday, 9 September, 2019

As an international platform that explores the meaning of the Holocaust as a European phenomenon, the EHRI project felt it appropriate to discuss the Holocaust in its 21st century societal and international dimensions. The societal challenges and technological changes make Holocaust Studies an ever-changing multidisciplinary field. Therefore an international conference was organized to enable established scholars, young researchers and other interested parties to take stock of the current situation and exchange their views. The result was a lively event, emphasizing the need for transnational collaboration in research and education.

The international conference Holocaust Studies and its Social Setting: Challenges and Trends was organised within the framework of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure and took place in Amsterdam on July 3, 2019. It marked the conclusion of the second phase of the EHRI project. Therefore, the main ambition of this conference was to discuss the achievements of the project, to focus on the importance of EHRI's human network and to reflect on the important interaction between Holocaust research and society at large.

Public dimension

Karel Berkhoff

Holocaust Studies is considered to be an interdisciplinary research field which is dedicated not only to the Holocaust itself but deals with various aspects of the post-World War II world such as memory, human rights, Jewish life and international relations. At the same time, it has a manifest public dimension. Taking in account the diversity of Holocaust research and its meaning in the public space, there are still many unanswered questions about the social setting of Holocaust Studies. To elaborate more on the current state of Holocaust research and its position in society, two keynote speakers, Dieter Pohl and Wendy Lower, were invited.

Keynote: Dieter Pohl

Dieter Pohl

Dieter Pohl (Institut für Geschichte der Universität Klagenfurt in Austria) provided the audience with an inspiring, comprehensive and sophisticated response to the title of his lecture “Do our societies need Holocaust Studies?”. He addressed many important points about Holocaust research, the political and social importance of Holocaust Studies, particularly in regard to the application of its findings to 21th-century education. Contrasting national and trans-national frameworks, he emphasised the necessity of a pan-European approach in this field. Pohl highlighted some challenges that Holocaust Studies is facing, such as the lack of a specific methodology or whether we should consider the Holocaust as a manifestation of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. In terms of the lessons we can derive from the study of the Holocaust, Pohl particularly emphasised the dangers inherent in the undermining of democratic regimes and principles, but he equally pointed to important limitations: Holocaust Studies by itself cannot prevent future genocides. Reflecting on contemporary challenges facing Holocaust Studies, Pohl mentioned softer forms of Holocaust denial and the dangers of narrow nationalism which have witnessed a significant rising since the 1990s. He concluded by noting that even though Holocaust research has much progressed recently and that societal interest in the discipline has increased, much still needs to be done particularly in regard to research the Holocaust in its wider context  of World War II, occupation, and collaboration. 

Second keynote: Wendy Lower

Wendy Lower

In the second keynote lecture, Wendy Lower (Claremont McKenna College, USA) outlined some recent trends and promises in Holocaust Studies. While noting a growth of interest and activity in Holocaust, she nevertheless perceives the field’s efforts as being diffused. In her speech, Lower highlighted the importance of conceptualising the Holocaust as a European event, often framed by the microcosm of European culture. In this context, trans-national networking and digitalisation are important to conduct cross-border research. However, Lower stressed that all too often scholars still adhere to national narratives, and she stressed the need for further impetus to enable a truly transnational perspective in Holocaust Studies. Lower also emphasised the significance of interdisciplinarity in Holocaust Studies, and in particular the value of archeological approaches.

Video premiere: EHRI’s Human Network

Panel with EHRI Fellows

The keynote lectures were followed by a video presentation about EHRI's human network which introduced the panel discussion Accessing historical documents and creating expert networks. The panel was composed of former EHRI fellows who were sharing their experiences of participating in EHRI. Moderation was in the hands of Anna Ullrich from the Munich Institut für Zeitgeschichte and EHRI's coordinator for fellowships and training. The panel highlighted the importance of the EHRI Fellowship Programme and the manifold benefits participants could derive from it such as getting feedback about their projects, accessing sources and expertise, supporting research in specific archives and networking.

Societal changes and the role of Holocaust expertise

First round table with from left to right:
Veerle Vanden Daelen, Jolanta Ambrosewicz,
Wichert ten Have and Katharina von Schnurbein

In the afternoon, two roundtable discussions were held. The first was dedicated to societal changes and the role of Holocaust expertise and featured European coordinator on combatting Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, Jolanta Ambrosewicz-Jacobs from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and Wichert ten Have (Advisor to the IHRA) with Veerle Vanden Daelen from the Belgian Kazerne Dossin as moderator. Discussants pointed at the rise in Antisemitism across European societies both in thoughts and deeds which led to a lively discussion on questions surrounding Holocaust education. Panellists reflected on the growing gap between historiographical advances and education, thereby calling attention to teachers’ training and highlighting the importance of devising new ways of applying the latest research finding to the curriculum development, textbooks, etc. Building empathy between different groups, encouraging non-binary modes of thinking beyond “we and they”, and improving levels of knowledge on the subject were identified as the main desiderata for contemporary Holocaust education.  

Two violins

In between the two roundtables, musicians from the Dutch Leo Smit Foundation presented a short performance for two violins by Dick Kattenburg and Géza Frid. Both composers were of Jewish origin and their music was forbidden during the Holocaust period.

Violetta Adamova and Lev Bogino

Challenges and innovations in Holocaust Studies today

Second round table with from left to right:
Karel Berkhoff, Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, Susanne
Heim, David Silberklang, Diana Dumitru
and Anne-Lise Bobeldijk

The second roundtable discussion, entitled Challenges and innovations in Holocaust Studies today, featured Susanne Heim (Freiburg University), David Silberklang (Yad Vashem), Gadi Luzzatto Voghera (CDEC, Milan) and Diana Dumitru (Ion Creangǎ State Pedagogical University, Chisinau). Moderators were Karel Berkhoff (NIOD and EHRI) and Anne-Lise Bobeldijk (NIOD). It provided an opportunity to explore insights and perspectives stemming from current Holocaust research undertaken in Germany, Israel, Italy and Moldova. The main message emanating from the panel amplified what had been evident throughout the day: Interdisciplinary approaches greatly enrich Holocaust Studies. Methods and approaches taken from disciplines such as the digital humanities and political sciences are promising to lead to new research findings and to amplify the societal relevance of Holocaust Studies.

Informal exchanges

Market Place

While the plenary programme of the conference highlighted the significant potential and relevance of trans-national Holocaust research for contemporary European societies, delegates were offered a rich side programme in which they could explore EHRI’s digital services such as the Online Portal, the Document Blog and the Editions Platform, and visit a marketplace where several EHRI partners and affiliates presented themselves and their research. Taken together with the concluding reception, the conference thus offered ample opportunity for informal exchanges and networking among delegates. The quality of the plenary presentations and the liveliness of subsequent informal discussions, demonstrate that the field of Holocaust Studies is in good health, and that EHRI is an important forum to advance its trans-national and inter-disciplinary agenda, now and in the future.

Michala Lônčíková, Holocaust Documentation Center, Slovakia

Conference Programme

Article in Belgian newspaper De Standaard on the conference by Marc Reynebeau

Watch the livestream of the conference on 3 July:

Morning part

Afternoon part I

Afternoon part II

Images by Mark Nauwen for EHRI