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Does the meaning of history change?

Public historian Yitzchak Mais to discuss victimhood for YU’s Fish Center

Yitzchak Mais
Yitzchak Mais

It might be cliched to call someone a force of nature — really, what does that mean anyway? — but to sit at the other end of a Zoom call from Yitzchak Mais is nearly to be blown away by the gusts of ideas, excitement, and creativity coming at you from Jerusalem.

Not what you expect from a historian of the Holocaust whose life’s work has been creating and curating museum experiences.

And that, Mr. Mais might say, is part of the problem.

Mr. Mais — whose resume includes a term as the director of the historical museum at Yad Vashem, among other museums; who is the founding chief curator of the Museum of Jewish Heritage at the southern tip of Manhattan, among other museums; and who is, among many other things, the creator of many exhibits and the author of many books — is a public historian. He’ll talk about his work, about public history, and about museums on Zoom for Yeshiva University’s Fish Center on May 8, in a series produced by Sari Sheinfeld of Teaneck. (See box.)

There is a problem with the way we — we in general, that is — consider the Holocaust, Mr. Mais said. Although we see the Nazis as evil, we tend to frame them as the protagonists, as the anti-heroes, yes, but still as the actors with agency. They are the subjects; the Jews, their victims, are the objects.

That’s historically untrue, Mr. Mais says; it’s an understandable way for us to see history, but it’s both unbalanced and inaccurate.

As a public historian — that is, as someone whose mission is to bring history that is both accurate and accessible, not drily academic, not melodramatic, emotionally evocative but not cheaply tear-jerky — Mr. Mais sees his role as ensuring that history remains both uncompromised and alive.

“Public history means engaging people,” he said. “That means that the first thing I ask when I come onto a project is, ‘Who are your audiences’. And I emphasize the plural. There is no one audience.

“The museum experience isn’t only within the four walls of the exhibit,” he continued. “It’s where you came from and where you’re going.” When it comes to the Holocaust, it means showing the horrors but with some restraint. “Don’t be melodramatic for the purpose of shocking. Calibrate it. The truth is horrifying enough.

“It has to be concise; engaging enough to stimulate further interest. It should be a catalyst not a catharsis.” Because a catalyst spurs the observer on to more interest, more research, more learning; a catharsis is a climax that leads to resolution. There is no resolution to the Holocaust.

Mr. Mais wants museum-goers to “understand the mindset” of the Jews who confronted the Holocaust, he said. “I never want to put the visitor into their shoes. I don’t want them to try to imagine being at the edge of the pit,” about to be shot and fall into it. For one thing, it is not possible to imagine it; for another, if it were possible, it would be disablingly terrifying. Instead, “I want them to understand that most Jews didn’t know that they would end up in the death camp.” To understand that would be “confront the unimaginable,” and by definition that’s impossible.

“I want empathy with the victims,” Mr. Mais said. “Not judgment.

“A mock U.N. meeting is a decent educational tool, because it is intellectual, but not a mock meeting of the Judenrat,” the Jewish councils in the ghettos, “where they had to make decisions about the conditions of the Jews under their supervision, when they themselves were in fear of the Nazis — most of the Judenrat members were killed.

In 1994, while Mr. Mais was the director of the museum at Yad Vashem, the UK’s Prince Philip visited.

“My goal is to create empathy but to avoid judgment.”

He talked about the concept of “iberleben,” which means to outlive. To outlast. That’s the concept that fueled many of the Jews for years. “The Nazis are going to lose the war, so let’s hang on until it’s over.” That was a nearly universal feeling, Mr. Mais added; “the only occupied government that made a treaty with Germany was Vichy. It’s the feeling that ultimately truth and justice will win. There’s a lesson to be learned from that.”

The lesson, he continued, is that you have to take some control. You have to do something. “You might be powerless” — in fact much of the time most of the Jews under German control largely were powerless — “but that doesn’t mean you have no choice. You might be forced to work in an ammunition factory, but you can choose to sabotage.”

This gets back to Mr. Mais’s main message — that “there are three ways of telling the same story, the same events.

“Most often museums and movies and books and popular culture tell it from the Nazi perspective. This is what was done to the Jews. This is how it was done, where it was done, when it was done.” The Jews are objects, to whom — or to which — things are done. In the drama of Nazi butchery, Jews often are depicted as faceless extras.

“What was the Jewish perspective? Who were they? To understand that you have to understand what was destroyed.” There was entire culture, Mr. Mais said; some religious, some secular, some scientific, some cultural. The culture spanned the entire human experience, as cultures do. And there were a range of Jewish cultures — in Salonika, for example, “the port was closed on Shabbat,” because so much of the Greek city was Jewish. And when the Salonikan Jews ended up in the camps, they were thrown into even more chaotic confusion than their Ashkenazi coprisoners, because they did not speak Yiddish and could not communicate with them.

“So when you tell the story from a Jewish perspective” — the second perspective — “that means that you tell who the Jews were,” Mr. Mais said. You can’t tell the story without the Nazis coming into it, but you do not tell it from their perspective.

Instead, you emphasize the culture that was decimated — but not demolished, he stressed, and it took new roots, both in Israel and in North America — and the fact the Jews, far from being faceless victims, far from being sheep, fought back.

The process of moving from being an integral part of society to being slaughtered was a step-by-step one, he said. At the beginning, the Jews took what was thrown at them and worked with it. “When they were thrown out of schools, they created new schools. When they couldn’t perform,” when they were thrown out of orchestras and acting troupes, “they created their own. When they no longer were allowed as part of the audience in Nazi venues, they went to Jewish performances. As conditions deteriorated, as they were herded into ghettoes, they formed their own mutual aid societies; because their apartment buildings had central courtyards, each courtyard became its own committees, taking care of its residents, staying in touch with others.

When you tell the story centered around the Nazis, you are victim-blaming, Mr. Mais said. The idea that Jews did not fight back is ahistoric; in fact, “it is absurd.”

The third perspective is the international one — “how the world responded,” he continued; it’s a necessary element, but a relatively less important one.

For many people who see one of the exhibits he’s created, “this is their first encounter with Jews and Judaism in any real way,” Mr. Mais said. “Do you want them to see Jews as weak, ineffectual victims, who had no previous life? Are you taking them from Berlin to Auschwitz? That’s a big jump. There’s a lot in between. You want them to know about the vibrancy of Jewish life before the war, and the vibrancy that still existed during the war.” (And for that matter, you want Jews to know that as well. This lesson isn’t only for non-Jews.)

“Jews didn’t go like sheep to the slaughter,” he said. “Yes, they were slaughtered, but not like sheep.”

Sari Sheinfeld, who lives in Teaneck, is a longtime educator and a graduate student at the Fish Center. She’s also the producer of the ongoing Fish Center series called “What Is the Holocaust Today,” which “looks at the Holocaust as a cultural phenomenon, not only a historical event, and is looking at the way it impacts the world we live in,” according to the center’s director, Shay Pilnik.

The talks have focused on historiography, on the preservation of historic sites in Poland, and on a novel on the Holocaust by Farris Cassell, a non-Jewish writer whose book, “The Unanswered Letter,” won a National Jewish Book Award.

And now Mr. Mais. “He is full of unbelievable excitement and energy,” Ms. Sheinfeld said. “He is 70 years old, and he is not fresh to the field, and he is unbelievable. Just his energy! You hear it when you talk to him, when you hear him speak. His excitement and his passion for his work is so evident.

“He’ll talk about memory,” she continued. “What is the purpose of a Holocaust museum in the 21st century? What’s the goal? What do we want the public to remember?

“You can inherit memory. Trauma can be inherited.” And then, on the other hand, “think about Passover — at the seder we talk about the Exodus, which we didn’t live through, and yet we still feel redemption through it.”

Mr. Mais “will talk about what we want the public to remember, and that depends on where the museum is and who the audience is. And we have to remember that this is a 21st century museum, not a 20th century one. It’s designed for people who never will have met a survivor.”


Who: Yitzhak Mais

What: Will talk about “Remembering the Holocaust in Museums” for Yeshiva University’s Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide studies’ What Is the Holocaust Today series

When: On Sunday, May 8, at 4 p.m.

Where: On Zoom; go to u.edu/fish-center/events and click the box for the talk.

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