My research project as a whole deals with Holocaust symbols, what I call the “icons” of Holocaust memorialization. And I’m looking at a range of these symbols. One example of a symbolic artifact is the railway car, but another key example is the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, which most people know from its appearance in a very distinctive form at the main Auschwitz camp in Poland. But one of the things I’ve learned in my research here, particularly my research at the Photo Archives, is that this was not the only example of the use of the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which was actually used in a number of camps, primarily labor camps, which was really an example of the Nazi ideal of work, work as a purifying act, work as something that people through their incarceration, very much in the context of the penitentiary, that people through their incarceration could work and thereby purify their souls. Of course, this really became, worse than an irony it became a horrible lie in the later Nazi context of the campaign of murdering Jews. But in the early context it really made a lot of sense in terms of what the Nazi world view was and how it viewed the value of work and the significance of incarceration. So “Arbeit Macht Frei” was used in these contexts and the Photo Archives, through a search of their database, has shown the different examples of the use of this slogan, or phrase, some people might even call it a proverb. This is actually... relates to an overall methodology that is very significant for me in terms of how I understand my project, which is really twofold. One side of it is trying to put these images or icons or objects in their historical context, really to tell their story within the context of the story of the Holocaust, and in some cases even the pre-history, when you’re looking at symbols that came to the Holocaust already with some sort of symbolic content. But the second part of my project is to try to understand what has become of these symbols since then? And in fact, how did they become symbols? How is it that certain images or icons have come to convey the essence of the Holocaust in this stylized, compressed form? And what really is the story, not the history of the symbols, but the memory of the symbols? How have they become cultural icons, how have they become touchpoints for people to think about the Holocaust and to think about their relationship to the Holocaust through these images. So the project really tries to do both, to put the symbols into their historical context and then put them in their postwar memorial context to tell... to give a fuller picture of the evolution of these images that in the 21st century really are the ways that people more and more relate to the Holocaust.
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.