As I’ve been looking at the issue of Holocaust symbolization, one of the things I’ve discovered in my research is that, to my mind, it’s best to try to understand Holocaust symbols along some sort of continuum or spectrum. One could say that on one end of the continuum are the most concrete symbols, on the other end are the more abstract symbols. And the project as a whole that I’m working on really tries to look at representative samplings throughout the entire continuum. So on one end of the spectrum you get these very concrete kinds of symbols -- shoes for example, or railway cars, artifacts, whose meaning vis-a-vis the Holocaust has everything to do with the actual artifact in some sort of historical context. You can’t really convey the symbolism of a railway car in the Holocaust context without having the railway car itself. A drawing of it won’t quite do, for example. Now at the other end of the spectrum are the more abstract symbols. These are the kinds of things that are used... that were used at the time in some graphic way that had some relationship to the Holocaust but after the Holocaust can be used in a variety of contexts, and here I’m thinking of yellow stars and swastikas in particular, these are the shapes that people associate with the Holocaust. But there’s no actual significant artifact in this context, it’s really the shape itself that we’re primarily concerned with, so any time you see the shape of a swastika, there’s already some association with the Holocaust going on, any time you see a yellow Magen David, a Jewish star, there’s something going on related to the Holocaust but it’s much more malleable than the concrete symbols would be.
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.