Symbols are things that all human beings need. We need them as a way to relate to the events of the past. Certainly within a religious context we need them in order to relate to our spiritual universe as it were. I think in the case of the Holocaust we need them even more because the Holocaust was such a historical trauma, it affected so many people in so many profound and still-to-be explored ways that we need symbols in order to discover our own relationship to those events. And in fact I’ll even go further. I’ll say that without symbols we might not really have a relationship to those events. As those events recede further and further in time, and as people have less and less of a personal connection to those events, they need some sort of trigger, they need some item or object or visual icon that allows them to relate to it, and really compartmentalizes it for them. “Compartmentalizes” isn’t really the right word. “Compresses” it for them, distills the essence of it for them in a way they can relate to, and this is both an emotional and an intellectual relationship. So if we need symbols within culture in general and within religion in general, we need even more in the context of the Holocaust in order to try and discover what the Holocaust means to us in the 21st century.
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.