“Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory,” by Oren Baruch Stier

Rutgers University Press. 239 pages. Hardcover $29.95.

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? Stier_final_cover

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. . . .

Stier

Stier

To read the full review, as found on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory 

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