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Interpreting the Unthinkable

Interpreting the Unthinkable

In September 2018 the UK’s newest Holocaust exhibition opened to the public. 

‘Though Our Eyes’ tells the story of the Holocaust as experienced by 16 Jewish men and women who escaped or survived the genocide and made new lives in the north of England. The exhibition is part of the new Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, a permanent resource created by the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association in partnership with the University of Huddersfield

Curating a Holocaust exhibition is a unique challenge. The scale of the topic is vast: Nazi Germany and its collaborators persecuted Jewish people in 22 countries across Europe between 1933 and 1945 and eventually murdered six million of them. The Holocaust forces us to confront the worst that humanity is capable of – the perpetrators’ capacity to commit genocide, the willingness of others to ignore or profit from it, the inability of the international community to prevent it, and the stubborn attempts of people then and now to deny that it ever took place.  

The Holocaust is within living memory, yet at the same time is receding into history as the last survivors age. All this presented a daunting prospect for the creative team. How could we tell such a complex story within the inevitable confines of budget, time and space? How could we enable visitors to understand individual stories of persecution while at the same time presenting them with a clear historical framework?  Most importantly, how could we do justice both to the survivors and their families, many of whom did not survive? 

HSFA members had entrusted the creative team with their most traumatic memories. Our responsibility to them, their families, and to the six million murdered men, women and children remained at the forefront of our minds. 

Personal stories

The exhibition focuses on personal, individual narratives, told in the refugees’ and survivors’ own words. We open with an introduction to 16 survivors who grew up in Jewish families in different parts of Europe. An introductory audio-visual presentation uses the HSFA’s collection of pre-war family photographs, showing Jewish families’ lives before the war in all their joy, humanity and exuberance. The narrative unfolds through an interplay of text and image panels, which present the historical context, and a series of touch screens through which visitors can explore filmed survivor testimony. We felt it was important for visitors to be able to hear the survivors’ voices throughout the exhibition, so we opted for directional ceiling-mounted speakers instead of individual headsets to avoid creating an isolating experience. We used direct quotes throughout the text to highlight how people experienced the developing persecution and genocide. Animated maps position the survivors in time and place, illustrating the geography of the Holocaust through individual journeys of forced migration and deportation.

Evidence

The exhibition is grounded in evidence-based research. We sought the support of academic advisers in both the UK and Germany in creating the storyline and writing text. We use the survivors’ own photographs, documents and artefacts which provide compelling evidence of their experiences.  Through a partnership with the International Tracing Service we were able to use evidence generated by perpetrators which also illustrates the huge bureaucracy of the Holocaust. We have an authentic concentration camp prisoner uniform and artefacts of daily life on loan from the memorial sites at Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora in Germany. These objects provide real, tangible evidence of the Holocaust and a poignant reminder of what the survivors endured. 

Myths and misconceptions

The exhibition addresses aspects of the Holocaust that are less well known. We cover the refugee crisis of the 1930s, the international community’s unwillingness to help, and Britain’s later policy of interning German Jewish refugees as ‘enemy aliens’ after the outbreak of war. We address the complexity of life in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe including how the SS forced Jewish people to run the ghetto administrations and draw up lists of people for deportation. We cover Nazi Germany’s extensive use of forced labour and the collaboration of industry, which implicates many companies that are now household names. We illuminate how ordinary people became involved in persecuting and killing their Jewish neighbours, including the extensive collaboration of military and civilian populations in occupied countries and the role of administrators, nurses and other civilians in enabling roles.  In doing so we attempt to uncover the many complexities of the Holocaust and avoid simplistic conclusions. 

Interpretation 

We wanted to encourage visitors to empathise with the survivors’ and victims’ experiences without manipulating their emotions.  Our solution was to create an immersive film that is driven by survivor testimony and uses a specially commissioned soundtrack and visuals to complement, but not distract from, their authentic voices. The film also gave us the opportunity to present atrocity images in a properly contextualised and non-sensationalist way. We consulted with survivors, their families and education professionals and concluded that it is essential to show visitors the reality of what happened in the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe. To avoid this would be to censor the survivors’ experience and risk denying the truth. 

Since it opened the exhibition has attracted over 2000 visitors, including school groups, students and the general public. We are delighted with their feedback. 


Authored by Emma King

Emma King

Emma King is the director of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre and curated the ‘Through Our Eyes’ exhibition. Emma has degrees in Archaeology & History and Museum Studies and held posts at museums in Liverpool, Sheffield and Kirklees before establishing her own consultancy business. In 2016, she took up her current role with the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, where she is responsible for leading and developing the Centre in partnership with the University of Huddersfield.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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