I think my work reflects back on the significance of the Holocaust indirectly, because it goes through another stage first, and that’s the stage that I think is the most relevant and important one. My work really is concerned with Holocaust memorialization. I try to study what impact the Holocaust has made on contemporary culture, on people’s lives in the here and now. And what I want people to get out of my work is that I really want people to become educated consumers. The Holocaust Museum in Washington has something like two million visitors a year, many of them school kids, many people who perhaps simply come in because of the location, it’s in... near the Mall in the nation’s capital, the center of the museum universe, as it were, for this country. But once they’re inside its doors they are in a total environment and in this respect I have to give the Museum a lot of credit because from its architecture all the way through its exhibits it really is this complete kind of environment. I want people who have the opportunity to read my work to come into this kind of an environment with their eyes wide open. I want them to understand where they are and what they are experiencing. I want them to see how the architecture echoes the architecture of the camps, for example. I want them to see how certain artifacts have been displaced and to think about what that means, and reflect back on their original context. I want them to look at a photograph and wonder “Who took this photograph? Who else is in this photograph? What is going on at this point in time?” So everywhere they look, if we use the example of the Museum, everywhere they look I want them to be more informed consumers. When somebody reads the book I’m currently working on, that deals with symbolization, I want them to reflect about how those symbols function in their own lives and how they relate to the Holocaust through those symbols. And as a result, I want people to think about their relationship to the Holocaust. What is it that is meaningful to them about the Holocaust? How has the Holocaust functioned in their lives? How is it that the Holocaust is everywhere around them and is at that point in time where it’s almost just below the radar, so I want to bring it back above the radar and get people to think consciously about these images, so when they see the image of the little boy from the Warsaw ghetto, they know its context, know what it represents and what it communicates, and they think about the Holocaust through the lens of that symbol, and it doesn’t just become the symbol of some abstract thing called “the Holocaust,” which I think for many people it is, but rather becomes the symbol for a historical period of great horror but of great complexity that will continue to resonate for centuries to come.
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.