Holo­caust Icons: Sym­bol­iz­ing the Shoah in His­to­ry and Memory

Oren Baruch Stier
  • Review
By – January 7, 2016

How is indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and under­stand­ing of a sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal event shaped, espe­cial­ly for those who have no first-hand expe­ri­ence of the event?

Pro­fes­sor Sti­er explains how memo­ri­al­iza­tion depends sig­nif­i­cant­ly upon icons, charged sym­bols that cap­ture and express for­ma­tive mean­ings, judge­ments, and even emo­tions, begin­ning his study with eru­dite def­i­n­i­tions of his key term and a patient expla­na­tion of his method­ol­o­gy. Build­ing upon the work of pre­vi­ous schol­ars, he reach­es across dis­ci­plines to ana­lyze four high­ly dis­tinc­tive icons of the Holo­caust. These items, like oth­er icons, do the work of sim­pli­fy­ing, con­dens­ing, and dis­till­ing … [Holo­caust] nar­ra­tives and pro­duc­ing mean­ings for cul­tur­al consumption.”

Rail­way cars of the Holo­caust peri­od, espe­cial­ly those that resem­ble the spe­cif­ic vehi­cles that brought peo­ple to their deaths, may be thought of as arti­fact” or rel­ic” icons. They are authen­tic either his­tor­i­cal­ly or by asso­ci­a­tion. Sti­er com­pares and con­trasts the ways in which these mate­r­i­al icons are used in the dis­plays and strate­gies of var­i­ous Holo­caust muse­ums, explain­ing how they com­press and release a part of the Holo­caust ur-narrative.

Stier’s oth­er selec­tions mix mate­ri­al­i­ty with oth­er expres­sive dimen­sions. He explores the phrase Arbeit macht frei,” found as sig­nage on the gates of sev­er­al con­cen­tra­tion, work, and death camps, though his main focus is Auschwitz. Sti­er elab­o­rates upon how the phrase and its place­ment play off the stereo­type of Jews as peo­ple who do not val­ue work. The invi­ta­tion to become labor­ers that they are osten­si­bly accept­ing will lead (with a sick irony) to their free­dom. The icon’s his­to­ry has turned it into an invi­ta­tion to annihilation.

The author treats Anne Frank as both a lit­er­ary and a visu­al icon. His overview of the var­i­ous states and edi­tions of Frank’s diary shows how the icon has gone through a series of shad­ings and shap­ings, slow­ly becom­ing Amer­i­can­ized and then uni­ver­sal­ized through the suc­cess­ful dra­ma and film based upon it. Sti­er con­sid­ers the way in which Frank’s diary has become a sort of sacred Holo­caust test. He explores as well the impact of the famil­iar and less famil­iar pho­tographs of Anne Frank with equal rig­or and creativity.

The final Holo­caust icon that Sti­er dis­cuss­es at length is the num­ber six mil­lion. He reviews the his­tor­i­cal basis for this pow­er­ful icon­ic fig­ure and its legit­ima­ti­za­tion — through use in judi­cial pro­ceed­ings and oth­er insti­tu­tion­al set­tings — as the grand sig­ni­fi­er of Nazi destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry.” Sti­er is in top form as he dis­tin­guish­es between six mil­lion” and the six mil­lion,” the lat­ter for­mu­la­tion an inten­si­fi­er of the icon’s significance.

Though a bit jar­gon-heavy, Stier’s work is stim­u­lat­ing in its eru­di­tion, espe­cial­ly its crit­i­cal eclecticism. 

Index, intro­duc­tion, notes, pref­ace and acknowl­edg­ments, select­ed bibliography.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions