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.
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.