From 1945 until around 1960, ceremonies of a new kind took place throughout Europe to
commemorate the Holocaust and the deportation of Jews; ashes would be taken from the site
of a concentration camp, an extermination camp, or the site of a massacre and sent back to
the deportees country of origin (or to Israel). In these countries, commemorative
ceremonies were then organised and these ashes (sometimes containing other human remains)
placed within a memorial or reburied in a cemetery. These transfers of ashes have,
however, received little attention from historical researchers. This article sets out to
describe a certain number of them, all differing considerably from one another, before
drawing up a typology of this phenomenon and attempting its analysis. It investigates the
symbolic function of ashes in the aftermath of the Second World War and argues that these
transfers – as well as having a mimetic relationship to transfers of relics – were also
instruments of political legitimisation.
This article has two aims: to examine the effects of victim proximity to crematoria ashes and ash pits both consciously and unconsciously in a subset of Holocaust survivors, those who were incarcerated at the dedicated death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau; and to contrast these effects, the subject positions they produce, with their suppression as the basis both for a strategy of survival during incarceration and for a reimagined identity after the war. Within a cohort of four survivors from Rudolf Reder (Belzec), Esther Raab (Sobibor), Jacob Wiernik (Treblinka) and Shlomo Venezia (Auschwitz), I trace the ways in which discrete memories and senses became constitutive in the formation of the subject prior to and after escape – the experience of liberation – so that essentially two kinds of subjects became visible, the subject in liberation and the subject of ashes. In conjunction with these two kinds of subjects, I introduce the compensatory notion of a third path suggested both by H. G. Adler and Anna Orenstein, also Holocaust survivors, that holds both positions together in one space, the space of literature, preventing the two positions from being stranded in dialectical opposition to each other.
During the Second World War and its aftermath, the legend was spread that the Germans
turned the bodies of Holocaust victims into soap stamped with the initials RIF, falsely
interpreted as made from pure Jewish fat. In the years following liberation, RIF soap was
solemnly buried in cemeteries all over the world and came to symbolise the six million
killed in the Shoah, publicly showing the determination of Jewry to never forget the
victims. This article will examine the funerals that started in Bulgaria and then
attracted several thousand mourners in Brazil and Romania, attended by prominent public
personalities and receiving widespread media coverage at home and abroad. In 1990 Yad
Vashem laid the Jewish soap legend to rest, and today tombstones over soap graves are
falling into decay with new ones avoiding the word soap. RIF soap, however, is alive in
the virtual world of the Internet and remains fiercely disputed between believers and
Dead bodies, evidence and the death march from Buchenwald to Dachau, April–May 1945
Christopher E. Mauriello
This article utilises the theoretical perspectives of the forensic turn to further expand our historical understandings and interpretations of the events of the Holocaust. More specifically, it applies a theory of the materialities of dead bodies to historically reconstruct and reinterpret the death march from Buchenwald to Dachau from 7 to 28 April 1945. It focuses on dead bodies as ‘evidence’, but explores how the evidential meanings of corpses along the death-march route evolved and changed during the march itself and in the aftermath of discovery by approaching American military forces. While drawing on theories of the evidential use of dead bodies, it remains firmly grounded in empirical historical research based on archival sources. The archives at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp contain eyewitness accounts and post-war trial testimony that enable a deeply contextualised ‘microhistory’ of the geography, movements, perpetrators, victims and events along this specific death march in April and May 1945. This ‘thick description’ provides the necessary context for a theoretical reading of the changing evidential meanings of dead bodies as the death march wove its way from Buchenwald to Dachau and the war and the Holocaust drew to an end.
This article describes the powerplay around the recent discovery (summer 2015) of
eighteenth-century Jewish graves in the French city of Lyon. Prior to the French
Revolution, Jews had no right to have their own cemeteries, and the corpses of the
deceased were buried in the basement of the local catholic hospital, the Hôtel- Dieu. In
recent years this centrally located building was completely renovated and converted into a
retail complex selling luxury brands. The discovery and subsequent identification of the
graves – and of some human remains – led to a complex confrontation between various
actors: archaeologists, employed either by the municipality or by the state; religious
authorities (mostly Lyons chief rabbi); the municipality itself; the private construction
companies involved; direct descendants of some of the Jews buried in the hospital‘s
basement; as well as the local media. The question of what to do with the graves took
centre stage, and while exhumations were favoured by both archaeologists and the
representatives of the families, the chief rabbi – supported by the construction companies
– proved reluctant to exhume, for religious reasons. In the first part of his article the
author details the origins of this Jewish funerary place and current knowledge about it.
He then goes on to analyse what was at stake in the long negotiations, arguing that the
memory of the Holocaust played a role in the attitude of many of the parties involved. By
way of conclusion he considers the decision not to exhume the graves and elaborates on the
reasons why this led to some dissatisfaction.
Jon Seligman, Paul Bauman, Richard Freund, Harry Jol, Alastair McClymont, and Philip Reeder
The Ponar-Paneriai base, the main extermination site of Vilna-Vilnius, began its existence as a Red Army fuel depot in 1940. After Nazi occupation of the city in 1941 the Einsatzgruppen and mostly Lithuanian members of the Ypatingasis būrys used the pits dug for the fuel tanks for the murder of the Jews of Vilna and large numbers of Polish residents. During its operation, Ponar was cordoned off, but changes to the topography of the site since the Second World War have made a full understanding of the site difficult. This article uses contemporary plans and aerial photographs to reconstruct the layout of the site, in order to better understand the process of extermination, the size of the Ponar base and how the site was gradually reduced in size after 1944.
This article seeks to show that the bodies of Jewish people who died in the Drancy internment camp between 1941 and 1944 were handled on French soil in a doubly normalised manner: first by the police and judicial system, and then in relation to funeral arrangements. My findings thus contradict two preconceived ideas that have become firmly established in collective memory: first, the belief that the number who died in the Drancy camp is difficult to establish; and second, the belief that the remains of internees who died in the camp were subjected to rapid and anonymous burial in a large mass grave in Drancy municipal cemetery.
The Kulmhof extermination camp in Chełmno nad Nerem was the first camp set up by the Nazis to exterminate Jews during the Second World War. The history of Kulmhof has long been an area of interest for academics, but despite thorough research it remains one of the least-known places of its kind among the public. Studies of the role of archaeology in acquiring knowledge about the functioning of the camp have been particularly compelling. The excavations carried out intermittently over a thirty-year period (1986–2016), which constitute the subject of this article, have played a key role in the rise in public interest in the history of the camp.
This essay analyses the literature on the foibe to illustrate a political use of human
remains. The foibe are the deep karstic pits in Istria and around Trieste where
Yugoslavian Communist troops disposed of Italians they executed en masse during World War
II. By comparing contemporary literature on the foibe to a selection of archival reports
of foibe exhumation processes it will be argued that the foibe literature popular in Italy
today serves a political rather than informational purpose. Counterpublic theory will be
applied to examine how the recent increase in popular foibe literature brought the
identity of the esuli, one of Italy‘s subaltern counterpublics, to the national stage. The
paper argues that by employing the narrative structure of the Holocaust, contemporary
literature on the foibe attempts to recast Italy as a counterpublic in the wider European
public sphere, presenting Italy as an unrecognised victim in World War II.
By expanding the geographical scope of the history of violence and war, this
volume challenges both Western and state-centric narratives of the decline of
violence and its relationship to modernity. It highlights instead similarities
across early modernity in terms of representations, legitimations, applications
of, and motivations for violence. It seeks to integrate methodologies of the
study of violence into the history of war, thereby extending the historical
significance of both fields of research. Thirteen case studies outline the
myriad ways in which large-scale violence was understood and used by states and
non-state actors throughout the early modern period across Africa, Asia, the
Americas, the Atlantic, and Europe, demonstrating that it was far more complex
than would be suggested by simple narratives of conquest and resistance.
Moreover, key features of imperial violence apply equally to large-scale
violence within societies. As the authors argue, violence was a continuum,
ranging from small-scale, local actions to full-blown war. The latter was
privileged legally and increasingly associated with states during early
modernity, but its legitimacy was frequently contested and many of its violent
forms, such as raiding and destruction of buildings and crops, could be found in
activities not officially classed as war.