(Un)Witnessable: Holocaust in the East

A conference about the potential of witnessing and remembering genocide and its aftermath


Fields of Knowledge
  • Memory
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slavics Without Borders, Slought


Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and Slavics Without Borders are pleased to announce (Un)Witnessable: Holocaust in the East, a conference about the Holocaust in the former Soviet territories, taking place from 10 AM - 5 PM at the Perry World House, on April 27th, with a keynote keynote address by historian Anika Walke, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis, at Slought Foundation from 5:30-7:00 PM.

After the war, the destruction of Jewish communities was not featured prominently in Soviet postwar commemorative practices that favored the memory of heroic military fighters and the victory over fascism. This discursive repression persists in independent Belarus, where war memory is largely oblivious to issues of local participation and the erasure of the rich Jewish past. Walke's lecture, "Witnessing and Remembering the Holocaust in Belarus," considers genocide as an assault on memory and explains how the Nazi genocide impinges on current forms of commemoration; for instance, why Jewish mass graves are excluded from commemorative practices and local Jewish history is rarely known to local populations.

Walke will also raise unique questions regarding the structure of Holocaust memory: it shares the experience of occupation, collaboration, and genocide with many other European countries, but it stands out because the targeted mass murder was embedded in a more diffuse assault on the whole population and because it took place in or near people's hometowns. Combining various sources, including oral history and other testimonies, archival documentation, photographs and maps, Walke offers a new perspective on the nature and potential of witnessing and remembering the Holocaust in the East.

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About the Conference

The fields of Holocaust and trauma studies have been dominated by material and testimonial-based evidence. While these forms of witness capture the concentration camp narrative and illuminate aspects of the catastrophe in Western Europe, the East remains underdeveloped in popular knowledge and scholarly discourse. This is in part due to the contrast between Nazi extermination strategies in the Western and Eastern regions–the programmatic, mechanized, and obsessively documented camp model versus the Holocaust administered by bullets, where the majority of victims were killed by shooting squads, often near their homes and even by people they knew. Beyond the workings of an alienated bureaucratic apparatus or oppressive ideology, the East tells a story of personal contact where every pull of the trigger bore the weight of an individual's own decision to shoot.

Furthermore, the Holocaust in the East remained untold and even denied as a result of Stalin's post-war anti-Jewish campaign, which among other official memory politics, rejected the fact that Jews were both targeted by and fought against the Nazis along with other Soviet nationalities. Thus, Jews were neither soldiers, nor martyrs, leaving their story with no place in official Soviet discourse. This conference seeks to investigate the (un)witnessed and (un)witnessable atrocities in the East–the vast territory of the Soviet Union as well as the eastern regions of Poland.

In the absence of concrete records and even material remains, we ask: How can we understand, represent, and analyze the crimes of Nazi persecution in these regions? How do we make sense of Eastern monumentalization and memorial practices or their absence? How do contemporary local political attitudes in the East and globally influence the narrative and cultural production surrounding the past? And how might literature and passed down ancestral narratives help re-imagine this traumatic past haunting archives and history books?

View the conference schedule for the full schedule of associated programs. The conference has been made possible through support from the University of Pennsylvania, including GAPSA, The Jewish Studies Program, SASgov, Penn Humanities Forum, The Annenberg School of Communications' Center for Advanced Research in Global Communications, History, Cinema Studies, Art History, South Asian Studies, East Asia Studies, Slavic, German, French, English, Perry World House, Slought Foundation, and The Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory.

"All in all, as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, but they were killed by bullets in easterly locations that are blurred in painful remembrance."
-- From Holocaust: The Ignored Reality by Timothy Snyder

"No fiber of my body will forget this."
-- From "Babi Yar" by Yevgeni Yevtushenko