What happens when one takes a symbol out of its original context of the Holocaust and puts it into a new context let’s say a museum and I would also say within the pages of a book, whether there’s any kind of transformation that takes place. And I think that’s absolutely true. I refer to it in my work as displacement, and it really has a lot to do with, particularly in the case of the concrete symbols, it has a lot to do with the environment of presentation. There are for example artifacts in their original environment, shoes for example, that are in barracks at Majdanek, which itself was a death camp, and so there’s a direct one to one association between what happened at that place and the shoes as the remnants, as the artifacts of what happened at that place. It’s a very powerful kind of direct form of symbolization. Now if you take those shoes out of that context and you put them in a different context, one that is still about the Holocaust, like the Museum here in Washington, you still have some of that power, some would say almost that religious kind of aura around the object, but it’s very different, it’s not within the same environment of a killing center, it’s now in a memorial and museological context, it’s in a context that encourages visitors to come and visit those objects, and think about their relationship to them, but there’s a profound sense of displacement here. These objects are not in their original environments anymore, they’re taken out of that place and re-placed somewhere else. And the whole new environment really has to be constructed to evoke the relationship that in the original environment is probably much more naturally evoked.
For his Museum fellowship in 2004, Dr. Oren Baruch Stier conducted research for his project “Holocaust Symbols: The Icons of Memory,” examining the historical and cultural contexts of symbols commonly associated with the Holocaust and exploring how a variety of iconic images, including personalities, artifacts, texts, and visual forms, convey awareness of and associations with the Holocaust.
Dr. Stier is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at Florida International University in Miami.