Renowned Holocaust scholars Yehuda Bauer and Xu Xin discussed the past, present and future of Holocaust studies in a lively conversation moderated by USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith on Thursday.
Throughout the hour-long conversation, both Bauer and Xu made it clear that for those who study the Holocaust, there is more work to do today than ever before.
Smith started the discussion by asking Bauer and Xu to each describe the how far Holocaust studies have come in the last 50 years in their own contexts. Bauer said he believes the field must expand to study both the “text” – the events of the Holocaust and World War II – and the “context” – the conditions of genocide, human rights, and European history as a whole. He noted that even though he and other researchers often disagree, “we understand each other, and that’s very important.”
Xu described the relatively recent introduction of the Holocaust and Jewish studies to academics in China in the late 1980s. Although Shanghai played an important role in saving the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the war and the field of Jewish studies has expanded in the last 25 years, the Holocaust is rarely mentioned in history books in China, Xu said.
Speaking about the globalization of Holocaust studies, Bauer said that the Holocaust is becoming more central to the study of other genocides. Although you can’t compare suffering, he said, it is essential that parallels and differences between the Holocaust and other atrocities be acknowledged. In addition, researchers and educators must begin to utilize new technologies and think outside the box in order to take advantage of this new, global perspective.
Xu said his underlying goal is to introduce the Holocaust to Chinese people so they may draw on its lessons to study their own history. The Nanjing Massacre, he pointed out, wasn’t even taught in Chinese schools 10 years ago.
Xu and Bauer disagreed on the question of whether people learn from history. Xu said he believes people learn, but they may not do anything about it. We don’t learn from history, Bauer said, but “you learn something about yourself.”
“If we had learned from history we wouldn’t have any more wars, would we?” Bauer asked. However, he said he’s cautiously optimistic about the future.
Xu’s final question from the audience was about the role of the Chinese government in his research, and whether he and his colleagues are free to study what they want without interference. Xu said that after China’s cultural revolution, scholars don’t “strictly follow the rules.” Depending how the material is presented, he said, scholars can still get their message across, even if they have to do it indirectly.
The last question of the night came from a student who asked Bauer how one makes a good representation of the Holocaust, through film, novels, journalism or other art forms. The answer is simple, he said, though not very easy to accomplish: Tell the truth, no matter how strong the opposition.
“You’ve got to overcome political barriers without any consideration for the results of your actions,” he said. “You’ve got to say ‘You are wrong.’”
“Be Buddhist,” he added. “Say the truth and never lie.”