Citation Information

Margolis, E. (2001, April 6). Surviving "Survivors": A review of an interactive program on the holocaust. Current Issues in Education [On-line], 4 (3). Available:

Surviving "Survivors": A Review of An Interactive Program on the Holocaust

Eric Margolis
Arizona State University

Survivors CD Cover

Steven Spielberg and Survivors of the Shoah Visual history Foundation. (1999). Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc. Media : Two CD set, $29.95, ISBN: 0-784-91643-8.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye."
The Little Prince
Antone de St. Exupery

If there is anything worse for historical memory than Holocaust denial it is Holocaust affirmation. Leo Lowenthal, a member of the Frankfurt School who escaped the Nazis, famously observed that "Mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse" (quoted in Jay 1996:173) and Steven Spielberg seems hell-bent to prove Lowenthal's point with Survivors, a two CD-ROM disk set on the Holocaust built around the oral histories of four Jewish Americans who survived the Nazi death camps. Excerpts from the interviews are presented in such a way not to uncover the repressed, but to bury it deeper.

The instructions invite one to: "Click the Play button to view a survivor's testimony from the beginning of the selected year. A guide to this interactive experience begins on the next page." Clicking play lands you in a Cartesian flatland with two coordinates. You can navigate vertically: 1933, 1938, 1944 — pre-war Jewish life, Kristallnacht, Anschluss, the camps, escape and rescue! You can navigate horizontally: Bert in Germany, Paula in Poland, Sol in Czechoslovakia and Sylvia in Austria. Another click away is a narrated "overview" providing a timeline, maps of Europe, archival photos and films. The oral histories and overviews link to what we are told are "153 pages of definitions, descriptions, and explanations of terms, people, places and events." One to two minute sound bites from the oral histories are illustrated with historic photographs. Original music is used to establish mood, and the whole is tied together with narration performed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder. The choice of narrators suggests this programmed text is being marketed to high-school-aged Americans. The whole is the familiar kind of postmodern pastiche that merges images, sound, and print, and while strongly tree-structured, encourages what is usually termed non-linear movement through the texts.

The focus of Survivors is the positive — the triumph of the human spirit. There is no attempt to grapple with the depths of inhumanity. Despite the invitation to click around, there is, alas, no "interactive experience" that would engage the reader/viewer/listener in the unbearably difficult issues raised by the Holocaust. Despite, or perhaps because of its horrific subject matter this CD-ROM is quite simply an entertainment — history introduced painlessly by your favorite teen idol. As two other "Survivors" of the Nazi regime, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, noted in their influential 1944 article, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception":

All amusement suffers from this incurable malady. Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals. Any logical connection calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided.
(Available online:

I consider Survivors a failure as history, as media, and as pedagogy. I'll organize my critique along three lines that are not analytic categories but interrelated parts of the whole: The technological failure, the conceptual failure, and the failure to engage students. Nor do I consider Survivors an isolated error easily passed off as a failed experiment in educational technology. It is the continuation of a much larger project in American education and mass culture that is intentionally uncritical, pacifying, and focuses students (and citizens) on the accumulation of theory independent facts while substituting image, mood, and cheap sentiment for comprehension and understanding. Survivors exemplifies the studied anti-intellectualism of advanced capitalism and non-participatory democracy and in many ways confirms the worst fears of the European intellectuals who fled the Nazis only to find themselves increasingly skeptical and critical of American culture.

In understanding how one-dimensional Survivors is, one needs to keep in mind that only a tiny fraction of actual survivors of the Holocaust came to America in the fashion the CD-ROM presents. Among other roots to survival were Zionists who went to Palestine and eventually built the state of Israel and the small but remarkable group of intellectuals — physicists, musicians, architects, artists, psychoanalysts — who made a tremendous impact on science and culture in the United States. I will draw heavily on the analyses of mass culture and the Holocaust undertaken by German and Eastern European leftists who "survived" the Holocaust by escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Max Horkheimer, who as director of the Institute for Social Research (Institut fr Sozialforschung) helped shift the Institut's interest from political economy to examinations of the cultural superstructure, also orchestrated its move from Frankfurt to Columbia University in New York in 1933-34. In a 1942 letter to Lowenthal, Horkheimer anticipated the exact effect of media productions like Survivors:

You will remember those terrible scenes in the movies when some years of a hero's life are pictured in a series of shots which take about one or two minutes, just to show how he grew up or old, how a war started and passed by, and so on. . . This trimming of existence into some futile moments which can be characterized schematically symbolizes the dissolution of humanity into elements of administration. Mass culture in its different branches reflects the fact that the human being is cheated out of his own entity which Bergson so justly called "dure." (Emphasis added, quoted in Jay 1996:214)

Arrow Up

Oral History as Entertainment

"Oral history" is an interesting term that, like "ethnography," names method, data, and presentation; one uses oral history to collect oral histories and write an oral history. Oral histories thus manifest three sorts of "dure": the integrity of the project of the interviewer who asks questions, the continuity of the subject's biography, and the reconstructive logic of the oral historian's text. Each form of integrity has been sacrificed by the editors of Survivors. The interviewers remain nameless and faceless and their questions have been omitted so as to construct the kind of "realist" tale long since criticized in ethnography (Van Maanen 1988). By shielding us from the questions that elicited the survivors responses, readers are unable to discern anything of the integrity of the historians' project. Nor can we interrogate the analysis motivating the research or presentation. Although John Paul Sartre observed in Being and Nothingness (1971 [1943]: 643) that "The historian is himself historical; that is, that he historicises himself by illuminating 'history' in the light of his projects and of those of his society." The "interactive" programmed text of Survivors hides the historian's project behind metaphorical tree branches; music and photographic image appeal to mood not intellect; while lack of citation and train of thought make the disk appear sui generis and obscure the contingent and socio-political nature of the historian's craft.

In an earlier work (Margolis 1994) I noted that oral history is better perceived as a community process filled with conflicts and disagreements than as a gathering of data. Like the raw materials of all ethnographic investigation, oral histories are rich precisely because they are accounts by actual individuals. The stories of our lives are concrete not simply in the sense of being specific and particular but in the sense of being part of a lived reality and already linked — horizontally to the social world as lived and vertically to the movements and forces that brought that social world into being and are sweeping it away. Oral histories are thus already complexly related to and mediated by the world and it is the job of the historian not simply to present the first hand account but to make it comprehensible by providing the kind of "thick description" (Geertz 1973) that makes visible the vertical and horizontal linkages. Italian oral historians Alessandro Portelli and Louisa Passerini have recently drawn additional attention to oral histories as "forms of culture":

Irrelevancies and discrepancies must not be denied, but these will never be understood if we take oral sources merely as factual statements... (they) should be taken as forms of culture and testimonies of the changes of these forms over time. (Louisa Passerini quoted in the New York Times 3/10/2001:A17)

These scholars, conducting oral histories on periods including the fascist regime, began noticing systematic errors, overemphasis, and lacunae and began attending to the ways in which stories were structured which shed considerable light on the meaning of both the particular accounts and their horizontal and vertical location. In vain we seek similar insights in Survivors. Instead we get narrative bridges by DeCaprio and Ryder. None of the stories or photographs in the CD-ROM are interrogated as elements of culture, they are presented as cut and dried fact.

One power of oral history is its ability to contrast the specific with the general — biography with history. This dialectical juxtaposition harbors a negative and subversive potential; for the individual is not in harmony with society nor is the individual an instantiation of a historical moment, even though such harmony was clearly the goal of fascism and perhaps is a goal of advanced capitalism as well. Herbert Marcuse, another Holocaust survivor, used the term "Memesis" to describe the identification of the individual with society as a whole and argued that it is the product of "a sophisticated, scientific management and organization." The center of Marcuse's (1964:10) contention is that "In this process, the 'inner' dimension of the mind in which opposition can take root is whittled down." Continuing the critique begun by Horkheimer and Lowenthal, Marcuse (1964:12) observed that the inner dimension of negative thinking is specifically targeted by the culture industry:

. . .the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole.

Memesis is just as clearly the consequence of Survivors. The four subjects have been shorn of their family names and thus their specific Jewish identities: Bert, Paula, Sylvia, Sol had to be depersonalized (again!) to be recreated as archetypical victims of historic forces. Contrast the false whole lurking behind the branches and twigs of the computerized text, with the historical analysis of Hanna Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem where she gives full play to individual actions taken by German and Polish Jews and to the consequences of Zionist, assimilationist, and Marxist political positions. In recognizing the importance of ethnic, political, class, and gender differences among Jews, Arendt allows the reader to comprehend how these facilitated or constrained individual choices including flight, resistance, collaboration, and the failure to resist. Thus, Arendt (1964:38) enables us to comprehend, for instance, why the Institute for Social Research, a group of bourgeois, intellectual, assimilated, Marxist, German Jews, could move to New York to continue their work in 1933:

Because of the enormous rearmament program, unemployment had been liquidated, the initial resistance of the working class had been broken, and the hostility of the regime, which had at first been directed primarily against "anti-fascists" — Communists, Socialists, left-wing intellectuals, and Jews in prominent positions — had not yet shifted entirely to persecution of the Jews qua Jews.
To be sure, one of the first steps taken by the Nazi government back in 1933, had been the exclusion of Jews from the Civil Service (which in Germany included all teaching positions from grammar school to university, and most branches of the entertainment industry, including radio, the theater, the opera, and concerts.

These policies drove, not only the Frankfurt group but Arendt herself, psychologist Kurt Lewin, physicist Edward Teller, playwright Bertolt Brecht, pianist Rudolf Serkin, cartoonist Saul Steinberg, theologian Paul Tillich, and hundreds of other teachers and artists to leave Germany in 1933 (cf. Fleming and Bailyn 1969). Arendt also documented how, much later in the war, a Faustian "deal" was struck between the Zionist Dr. Rudolf Kastner who negotiated with Eichmann to allow a trainload of Jews to "illegally escape" from Hungary to Palestine in exchange for "quiet and order in the camps from which thousands were shipped to Auschwitz" (Arendt, 1964:42). This is exactly the kind of thick description that makes possible comprehension of the atrocity of the Holocaust and the complexity of "surviving."

Such a critical approach to "survival" by necessity interrogates "Never Again" the slogan that emerged from the Holocaust as the expression of Jewish resolve. But the phrase has different meanings depending on which of the three groups you focus on. For the intelligentsia, like the scholars of the Frankfurt school, it meant understanding the roots of fascism and building a society in which such a thing was unthinkable. They broke with Soviet Marxism because of its totalitarianism and laid the basis for cultural studies by examining the role of mass media and culture in producing political consequences. For the American survivors like the ones singled out in Survivors "Never Again" meant assimilation. Like the Irish, American Jews continued to support the motherland (Ireland, Israel) in its struggles with its enemies, but in the American context they "became white" (Ignatiev 1996; Brodkin 1999). For the Zionists "Never Again" came to mean the creation of Israel, and the transformation of the state into a regional superpower so strong that its enemies would be afraid to attack it.

Survivors, to the contrary, offers no such understanding but montages the interviews into what Horkheimer called "terrible scenes" thereby destroying any possibility of the viewer being able to comprehend the actions (dure) of the four individuals. Instead, the accounts are forced into the only plot mass media knows: "getting into trouble and getting out again." The jacket sums up the lives of the four subjects (once again reduced to passive objects of history): "In 1938 they lived at home with their families. By 1944 they were prisoners of the Nazi regime." In the creation of the false totality of four representative survivors, the reality of the Holocaust — which was not about survival — is similarly obscured. Americans currently are obsessed with a so-called "reality" TV series, oddly enough also called Survivors, in which a group of people are "stranded on an island" where their every action is filmed. They fight and scratch, collude and betray, to eliminate each other from the community. Surviving is the same thing as winning; losers are "voted off the island." In the Holocaust Survivors, the four survivors are winners also. Six million dead? Losers voted off the island? In comparing entertainment to true art, Horkheimer highlighted mass media's therapeutic consequences. His analysis makes clear Survivors nature as entertainment:

Popular judgment, whether true or false, is directed from above, like other social functions. No matter how expertly public opinion may be inquired into, no matter how elaborate the statistical or psychological soundings, what they reach is always a mechanism, never the human essence. What comes to the fore when men most candidly reveal their inner selves, is precisely the predatory, evil, cunning beings whom the demagogue knows so well how to handle. A pre-established harmony prevails between his outward purposes and their crumbled inner lives. Everybody knows himself to be wicked and treacherous, and those who confirm this, Freud, Pareto and others, are quickly forgiven. Yet, every new work of art makes the masses draw back in horror. Unlike the Fuhrers, it does not appeal to their psychology, nor, like psychoanalysis, does it contain a promise to guide this psychology towards "adjustment." In giving downtrodden humans a shocking awareness of their own despair, the work of art professes a freedom which makes them foam at the mouth. The generation that allowed Hitler to become great takes its adequate pleasure in the convulsions which the animated cartoon imposes upon its helpless characters, not in Picasso, who offers no recreation and cannot be "enjoyed" anyhow. Misanthropic spiteful creatures, who secretly know themselves as such, like to be taken for the pure, childish souls who applaud with innocent approval when Donald Duck gets a cuffing. There are times when faith in the future of mankind can be kept alive only through absolute resistance to the prevailing responses of men. Such a time is the present (Horkheimer 1972:280).

Arrow Up

Image Control

Jews have been called people of the book because they gave up oral tradition in favor of the written word. Moreover, the God of the Jews forbade idolatry, not only the worship of graven images but even the graphic representation of the name, hence, G-d. In consequence, Judaism developed an intensely interpretative relationship with the written word. Talmud and Cabala depend upon uncovering and deciphering multiple levels of meaning that are inherent in every sentence. This emphasis on the exegesis of the written word is essential to the critical theory developed by the Frankfurt School and sheds light on their distrust of images. Martin Jay (1996:56) noted Horkheimer's suggestion that "...the traditional Jewish prohibition on naming or describing God and paradise was reproduced in Critical Theory's refusal to give substance to its utopian vision," but Jay commented that even if this was true, it was impossible to ascertain whether the Jewish beliefs were causal, or merely a rationalization after the fact. Nonetheless, Jay's analysis continued:

Jrgen Habermas has recently argued that a striking resemblance exists between certain strains in the Jewish cultural tradition and in that of German Idealism whose roots have often been seen in Protestant Pietism. One important similarity, which is especially critical for an understanding of Critical Theory, is the old cabalistic idea that speech rather than pictures was the only way to approach God. (Jay 1996:34)

It was Marcuse in his germinal 1960s work One-Dimensional Man that gave full force to the critique of the image. Indeed, as I argued in an article examining the labor process in coal mines (Margolis 1999), the language of photographic images is functionalist and one-dimensional in the same way that Marcuse described the positivist language of science. Quoting the philosopher of science, Stanley Gerr, Marcuse (1967:86-87) objected to linguistic operationalizations that:

"... consider the names of things as being indicative at the same time of their manner of functioning, and the names of properties and processes as symbolical of the apparatus used to detect or produce them." .... (T)he functionalization of language expresses an abridgement of meaning which has a political connotation. The names of things are not only "indicative of their manner of functioning," but their (actual) manner of functioning also defines and "closes" the meaning of the thing, excluding other manners of functioning.

Photographs similarly identify the thing with its function. For example, in Survivors we are presented with a photo with the caption: "An Einsatzgruppen killing squad officer executes a woman and her child. Einsatzgruppen officers had been ordered to shoot Jews, Communists, and other 'enemies of the Reich' on sight." The photograph means to identify the image with the function — execution of innocent civilians. Image and caption close the circle of meaning. Yet we might ask about other "functions" of this photograph. One doesn't often see a photograph of a murder being committed. Who took this shot — a German war correspondent, another soldier, an anti-fascist? Why was it taken and what meaning might it have had at the moment the shutter clicked? Was there another caption written at the time? How did this image come to be preserved — army archives, personal collection? Did it figure at Nuremberg or other trials? How is it that this photograph found its way to Survivors? Approaching the image in this way would help students of the Holocaust understand in ways that are made impossible by the caption.

Photographs are specific kinds of images that identify appearance with reality. "Seeing is believing," we say. Photographs thus constitute an operationalized language that by itself is incapable of expressing the negation that Marcuse saw as the central element of critical thought. Photographs cannot represent alienation, potential, irrationality, alternative meanings, dimensions of time, and so on. Multi-dimensional meanings of the Holocaust include racism and dehumanization, complicity, alienation, betrayal, sadism, mass psychology, obedience, terror, authoritarianism, totalitarian personalities, fascism as an economic system, and so on. These underlying social relationships are processes, not surface images that can readily be photographed. To again wield Marcuse's (1967:95) critique of one-dimensional language in analyzing photographic images:

This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking. For the concept does not identify the thing and its function.

Oral history and photography thus share an indexical "I was there" quality that has the possibility to involve students in conceptual thinking, but in the case of Survivors is used to bludgeon critical thought. Every word and image is intended to be taken at face value and no attempt is made at interpretation or the unveiling of alternative or hidden meanings. Survivors is thus a decidedly un-Jewish emphasis on image over word, of spoken word over written text. The multimedia program transformed what were specific photographic images of particular and actual events, and the real recollections of particular individuals, into archetypes. The photographic images and voices thus became idols that "stand for" the holocaust. Black and white historic photographs — that is to say images — have been ruthlessly manipulated: sepia toned, vignetted, pasted in collage, and overdetermined by modern captions. Voices have been massaged with music, edited and repositioned by invisible historians, and forced into a single meaning by narration. Where photos and oral histories might have been examined as historical documents that shed light on totalitarianism, or racist practices, or how "normal" people can commit abnormal acts, they simply are employed to illustrate and reinforce what the healthy voices of the survivors and the young media super stars tell us — their main purpose is to distance the holocaust from today.

Jean Baudrillard, the French media critic, has further developed the cultural critique of the Frankfurt school. One of his contributions, the notion of the media world as "simulacrum," described a "hyperreal" world of copies of copies where there is not and has never been an original. Everything in this symbol system refers to other symbols. Basic to the discussion of the postmodern pastiche of image, word, and music is Baudrillard's (1983:3) observation that: "Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality. . ." Baudrillard explained the consequences:

Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: That a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning, and that something could guarantee this exchange — God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum — not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. The latter starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Conversely, simulation starts from the utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum. This would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a basic reality
it masks and perverts a basic reality
it masks the absence of a basic reality
it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum (Baudrillard 1993:194 ff.)

Survivors is a clear example of Baudrillard's last stage — a simulacrum of the Holocaust. The video game quality of the so-called interaction and postmodern non-lineal text prevent conceptual development or encounter with meaning. There is no connection between 1933 and today. In fact, throughout Survivors, no questions are asked and none are raised. No analysis is offered, only "factoids": timelines, maps, definitions, names, dates, places. As the Frankfurt school scholars predicted would be the outcome of the culture industry, one-dimensional images have replaced concept. The subject is handled "tastefully." There is no reason for an American teen to feel uncomfortable, no silences, no praxis, no involvement. Survivors bombards the viewer with images that militate against any possible question or critique. On the disk jacket Spielberg wrote:

To learn history, you have to look in history's eye. Here we have the unique opportunity to have the participants and witnesses look us in the eye and say, 'This happened to me'.

To say the least this is a peculiar statement — like the news anchor who says he'll "see me tomorrow". Even if Spielberg thinks his eye is a camera, no image, even a photograph of a person can look you in the eye. Moreover, the learning of history is conceptual, not an act of vision nor is it a one-sided encounter with a "participant" or "witness." To continue with Marcuse's (1967:90-91) analysis of one-dimensional language:

This language speaks in constructions which impose upon the recipient the slanted and abridged meaning, the blocked development of content, the acceptance of that which is offered in the form in which it is offered. ... [it does this] by creating fixed images which impose themselves with an overwhelming and petrified concreteness. It is the well-known technique of the advertising industry, where it is methodically used for "establishing an image" which sticks to the mind and to the product.

Marcuse's (1967:171) analysis of Hegel led to the position that " 'The power of the negative' is the principle which governs the development of concepts, and contradiction becomes the distinguishing quality of Reason. (Hegel)" What Spielberg and others in the culture industry are doing is precisely attaching a specific image to the Holocaust. Photographic images are free floating signifyers, they slip and slide in meaning depending on the viewer and setting, thus they require words to fix their meaning. The unification of speech and photograph in Survivors brands the Holocaust with particular meanings that preclude seeing "survivors" as either Marxist intellectuals in New York or Zionist farmers/warriors in Palestine.

Arrow Up

Toward a Critical Pedagogy of the Holocaust

European Marxists had witnessed Hitler and Mussolini's skillful use of radio in their rise to power and analyzed in detail the importance of propaganda and mass media in the triumph of fascism. "Radio, Horkheimer and Adorno argued, was to fascism as the printing press had been to the reformation" (Jay 1996:216) Critical Theorists viewed mass media as a form of domination and a means of reinforcing the system, but broke with Soviet and vulgar Marxists by analyzing culture as a sphere relatively independent of the economic base. Adorno, for example, insisted that the process of cultural domination has its roots in the economic dynamics of the "culture industry," arguing that the structures of the industry were apparent in the cultural commodities it produced. And in One-Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse (1964:8) asked:

Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination?

In advanced capitalism, education shares a common task with the culture industry in producing and maintaining social integration — whether conceived as "hegemony" (Gramsci) "socialization from above" (Miliband) or elements of the "ideological state apparatus" (Althusser). The wedding of education and mass media in products such as Survivors is therefore a particularly important phenomena. As Martin Jay (1996:216) described the Frankfurt School's analysis:

The notion of "popular" culture. . . was ideological; the culture industry administered a nonspontaneous, reified, phony culture rather than the real thing. The old distinction between high and low culture had all but vanished in the "stylized barbarism of mass culture. Even the most "negative" examples of classical art had been absorbed into what Marcuse was later to call its "one-dimensional" facade. Tragedy, which once meant protest, now meant consolation. The subliminal message of almost all that passed for art was conformity and resignation.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt posed the central questions of the Holocaust that were neither asked nor answered in Eichmann's trial:

"How could it happen?" and "Why did it happen?," of "Why the Jews?" and "Why the Germans?," of "What was the role of other nations?" and "What was the extent of co-responsibility on the side of the Allies?" and "How could the Jews through their own leaders cooperate in their own destruction?" and "Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?"

One might add two additional questions: have similar events happened before, will they happen again? Despite two or three generations of scholarship since the war by historians, philosophers, social and behavioral scientists, Survivors ignores these questions completely. What happened to the conceptual issues that enable understanding: Hanna Arendt's concept of the banality of evil and study of the origins of totalitarianism? Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments? Frederick Wiseman's films on the everyday functioning of total institutions? Theodor Adorno and Paul Lazersfeld's investigations into mass media? The Berkeley Public Opinion Study Group's "F factor" study of The Authoritarian Personality? And so on and so on. These studies are not too complex to summarize and discuss with high school students and would engage their critical facilities in ways that Survivors is completely incapable.

Despite the ruthless suppression of negativity by the smiley face of the culture industry, Marcuse (1967:67) opened up a space for the use of media in education. Speaking of the work of Bertolt Brecht, he observed:

. . . entertainment and learning are not opposites; entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning. To teach what the contemporary world really is behind the ideological and material veil, and how it can be changed, the theater must break the spectator's identification with the events on the stage. Not empathy and feeling, but distance and reflection are required.

"Distance and reflection" a politics of engagement for Holocaust studies, requires two things: first, what Adorno and Horkheimer brilliantly termed a "machinery of rejoinder" — that is an interaction and involvement beyond clicking around, and second, a recognition of the dialectic between individual and society. American society is multicultural. Not only Jews and Anglos, but African American, Native American and Latino students, and students from Cambodia, El Salvador, Bosnia, Palestine, and China must be intellectually involved with the issues raised by the Holocaust. But such an engagement requires the confrontation with political issues that are apparently beyond the American political pale.

One need not take a stand against Holocaust exceptionalism, nor fail to see the Shoah as historically unique, to examine the component parts of the Nazi program and compare them with events in the modern world. How does German anti-Semitism compare with South African Apartheid? With American racism? A photograph caption in Survivors informs us "In the ghettos, just being on the street could be dangerous; law enforcement was often arbitrary and severe." Was this much different from Pretoria? From South Central or Harlem? Were the Einsatzgruppen similar to the Death Squads in El Salvador? The Caravan of Death in Pinochet's Chile? During the period of consolidation of Nazi power, were the murders of labor leaders and communists like Rosa Luxumburg at all different from the wholesale "disappearance" of the leftist opposition during Argentina's "Dirty War"? Was the concentration and murder of Jews in Ldz different in kind from the Killing Fields of Cambodia? In what ways? Is Arab or African American antisemitism comparable to German antisemitism before the war? What is the relation of the "final solution" to ethnic cleansing in the Balkins, of the yellow star to racial profiling, of the ghetto to apartheid, of slave labor in the Ruhr to the Atlantic slave trade, of the Holocaust to genocide against American Indians and the conquest of Mexico, of Stalin's liquidation of the Kulaks? Has Israel's occupation of Palestine produced another displaced people like the Jews of the Diaspora? Are the collective punishments leveled on the Palestinian settlements of the West Bank a form of fascism? Does the concept of a "Jewish state" make any more sense than a Lutheran or Mormon state? But of course such a critical approach would raise political issues that are to say the least "uncomfortable" and go far beyond the: Germans were monsters, Jews victims, vision of Survivors. Max Horkheimer (1994:120) opposed the trial of Eichmann in Israel. His argument sheds additional light on the dangers of mass media treatment of the Holocaust. I will give Max the last word:

The trial, it is claimed, will make the youth of Israel and other nations aware of the true nature of the Third Reich. If, however, such knowledge must win the place it ought to have in the consciousness of present and future generations, not by way of the solid literature that is now available in scientific as well as in generally accessible form in all the major languages, but only by way of up-to-the-minute trial reports and international sensationalist journalism, then prospects for that knowledge are poor indeed. The mind upon which the death of the Jews under Hitler can make an impression only through new headlines has very little depth and is hardly likely to retain any recollection of what it reads. It is difficult to foresee the real effects of repeated references during a trial to the elimination of the Jews; it is difficult, that is, to foresee the real political and psychological effect on various peoples. The youth of Israel and many people in other countries whom the authorities hope to win over will entertain the frustrating suspicion that the dead are here being used as a political or even a pedagogical tool, a tactical weapon or a piece of propaganda, even if in the pursuit of a very praiseworthy national purpose.

Arrow Up


Eric Margolis is a sociologist and Associate Professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, College of Education, Arizona State University. His recent publications include: an edited volume of provocative essays called The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education in which the contributions and collective insights of a variety of contemporary educational theorists shed light on the way institutions of higher learning produce race, class, gender, and social class distinctions; "The Department is Very Male, Very White, and Very Conservative: The Functioning of the Hidden Curriculum in Graduate Sociology Departments" (with Mary Romero, professor of Justice Studies, Arizona State University), The Harvard Educational Review (vol. 68, 1998); and, "Class Pictures: Representations of Race, Gender, and Ability in a Century of School Photography, Visual Sociology (vol. 14, 1999), reprinted in Education Policy Analysis Archives (vol. 8, no. 31, July 4, 2000), available online at: In addition, he is involved in directing the production of a video documentary entitled "Right Before Your Eyes: Conversations on the Hidden Curriculum" with creators Marina Gair and Guy Mullins. The documentary is based on videotaped interviews with nationally known scholars and educators on the hidden curriculum in higher education.

Arrow Up


Arendt, Hannah. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1993). "The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra," in Thomas Docherty, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1983, September). The Precession of Simulacra. Art and Text, 11, pp 3-47.

Brodkin, Karen. (1999). How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. Rutgers University Press.

Fleming, Donald, and Bernard Bailyn (Eds). (1969). The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America 1930-1969 Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Horkheimer, Max. (1974). "The Arrest of Eichman" in The Critique of Instrumental Reason: Lectures and essays since the end of World War II. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell and others. New York, NY: The Seabury Press.

Horkheimer, Max. (1972). "Art and Mass Culture" in Critical Theory by Max Horkheimer. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell and others. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Ignatiev, Noel. (1996). How the Irish Became White. New York and London: Routledge.

Jay, Martin. (1996 [1973]). The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1967 [1964]). One Dimensional-Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Margolis, Eric. (1999). "Picturing Labor: A visual ethnography of the coal mine labor process," Visual Sociology Vol 17 No. 2. pp 1-30.

Margolis, Eric. (1994). "Video Ethnography: Toward a reflexive paradigm for documentary," (1994) Jump Cut, 39, pp 122-131.

New York Times "Prospecting for Truth in the Ore of Memory" 3/10/2001 p A15, A17)

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1971 [1943]). Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York, NY: Washington Square Press).

Van Maanen, John. (1988). Tales of the Field: On writing ethnography Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Arrow Up

End Notes

  1. The disk is credited to Steven Spielberg and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
  2. The Institute for Social Research (Institut fr Sozialforschung), was the institution that supported the development Frankfurt school of thought. The Institut supported a revolving group of German intellectuals who sought a synthesis of Marxism and Freudian psychology. They also sought to bridge the gap between European social philosophy and the empirical sociology associated with the American approach. Most notable in the group were Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin (although he never escaped Europe).

Arrow Up