The word journey comes to the English language from the Old French jornee, meaning a day, or, by extension, a day’s labor or travel. This word, which we normally associate with something pleasant, takes on a different meaning when placed in conversation with the word Holocaust.
This was the challenge placed in front of me by colleagues at UNESCO, when they requested that the USC Shoah Foundation prepare an exhibition for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
As the curator of the exhibit, designed specifically for this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day theme, Journeys Through the Holocaust, I grappled with the meaning of these two words in close contact, and had to find a way to make meaning of this expression through the stories of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. What can a journey through the Holocaust look like, and what does it mean for us as a global community today?
I’ve worked at the USC Shoah Foundation for six years, and have spent hundreds of hours watching testimony. I’ve been moved, angered, saddened and inspired by the stories of survival and resilience. I have taught high school and undergraduate students using these stories and I have trained teachers on effective incorporation into curricula. But I have never had to confront what it means to journey through the Holocaust.
The exhibit’s journey is a movement from the literal to the figurative. The journeys through the Holocaust were multiple, horrific and circuitous. From a purely physical standpoint, the journeys changed the demographic and cultural landscape not only of Europe, but of the entire world. The figurative journey that the world has undergone since the Holocaust has brought us human rights, founded institutions, and archived mountains of information.
My own journey through the material reminded me of the power of stories, to bring the past into the present. The number of testimonies in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive – 52,000 – is impressive, but the real impact of the testimonies is the witnesses’ individual voices.
As the UNESCO Chair of Genocide Education, the Shoah Foundation’s executive director Stephen Smith has demonstrated our commitment to using these witnesses as teachers for the next generation. The multiplicity of their voices and the nuance of their stories allow us to understand and appreciate the journey through the Holocaust that will continue as long as their voices continue to be heard.
The exhibit, Journeys Through the Holocaust, testimonies from the Visual History Archive, will be on display at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, from January 27 through February 12.