2017 Interdisciplinary Research Week Lecture Summary

On August 24, 2017, scholars from Latin America presented their initial findings on their use of the Visual History Archive and mapped out potential avenues of inquiry focusing on Holocaust survivors who eventually settled in Latin America. This presentation is one of the outcomes of a “scholar in residence” fellowship that brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines to collaborate on a research project at USC for Interdisciplinary Research Week.

The researchers include Yael Siman (Iberoamericana University), Nancy Nicholls Lopeandía (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), Lorena Avila Jaimes (Centro Internacional de Toledo para la Paz), Susana Sosenski (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Emmanuel Kahan (Universidad Nacional de La Plata), Alejandra Morales Stekel (Jewish Interactive Museum of Chile), and Daniela Gleizer Salzman (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México).

Interdisciplinary Research Week is a unique opportunity the Center extends each year to a team of scholars from different disciplines and from different universities in different countries, some of whom have never met. Support from the Center enables the team to gather together at the Center to design, plan, and pursue a collaborative research project using the testimonies of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. This year’s Interdisciplinary Research Week team includes Lorena Avila Jaimes (Centro Internacional de Toledo para la Paz, Colombia), Emmanuel Kahan (Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina), Nancy Nicholls Lopeandía (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile), Daniela Gleizer Salzman (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México), Yael Siman (Iberoamericana University, México), Susana Sosenski  (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México), and Alejandra Morales Stekel (Jewish Interactive Museum of Chile, Chile).

In this lecture near the end of their week together, the members of the team shared their ideas about their project so far, laying out its possible structure, key categories and themes, and promising avenues to pursue. Seeing so much potential in the testimonies, they shared many ideas, and a long and fruitful discussion followed their lecture.

The team began their presentation by arguing that other than studies of Holocaust memory, migration, and exile in Argentina, Latin America has been underappreciated in the historiography of the Holocaust despite it being one of the most significant destinations for Jews before, during, and after the war. The team plans to comparatively examine the individual experiences and narratives of Holocaust survivors in four Latin American countries — Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico — using USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive testimonies as the primary source. In doing so, they hope to deepen discussion, develop new epistemological approaches, identify and decipher puzzles, and broaden the types of questions that can be asked about the Holocaust and Latin America.

From the title of their talk “Mobility, Survival and Integration: Experiences and Narratives of Holocaust Survivors in Latin America”, one can immediately discern the three key categories the team plans to investigate: mobility (forced displacement during the Holocaust and post-war movements in Europe before migrating to Latin America), migration (migration from Europe to Latin America and first encounters with local society), and integration (acculturation, adaptation, and belonging). They also pointed out that memory will be a central concern – how people remember and tell their stories, the analysis of collective memories, and the construction of narratives. Throughout their talk, they emphasized that these categories are not separate, but rather layered and sometimes intertwined with each other. Survival is category that is never static, they argued, and there are multiple and complicated trajectories, intensities, frequencies, temporalities, patterns, networks, and geographies at play.

They are interested in these key research questions: What were the survivors’ experiences related to mobility, migration, and integration? What meanings do survivors render to their experiences? How do national and cultural contexts appear in or shape the survivors’ narratives? The team shared a long list of themes they might explore, which includes survivors’ motivations to migrate, aid networks, first impressions and encounters, and otherness and identity.

After laying out some of the central categories and themes they plan to investigate, members of the research team shared some of the most promising avenues for analysis they think the testimonies from the Visual History Archive can fruitfully contribute to. They discussed, for example, the importance of the visual component of the testimonies. Observing the survivors’ corporal language and emotions during the interviews will enable them to investigate and illuminate the history of emotions and compare these across their cases. Another intriguing avenue to pursue is to pay attention to the testimonies of child and adolescent survivors. The experiences of children have been mostly marginalized in the literature. The testimonies are a source through which they can become a part of the Latin American historiography.

The team then offered initial observations about an experiment they had done together comparing Mexico and Argentina. Argentina accepted the largest amount of survivors, around 30,000, while Mexico accepted less than 2,000. While Buenos Aires was considered an ideal and attractive destination in the imaginary of Europeans, seen as the most European city in Latin America, Mexico’s place in the European imaginary was quite different. European Jews perceived Mexico as a place of conflict and before their migration rarely considered it as a final destination, but rather as a place of transit. Despite this perception, most of the survivors who entered Mexico ended up staying there. While Buenos Aires was considered attractive beforehand, many survivors describe the anti-Semitic climate in Argentina they faced after their arrival.

One interesting difference between survivors’ narratives from Mexico and Argentina is that the survivors in Argentina often discuss the country’s political conditions in their testimonies. Jews in Argentina were very involved in politics. In Mexico there was a prohibition for foreigners to be involved in politics. So the testimonies from survivors in Mexico are more filled with descriptions of sensations and feelings about what they encountered around them (the weather, the food, the cacti) and not politics. Here we can already see the significant impacts of local cultural and political contexts, the team argued.

The group emphasized the complexities of how survivors describe the openness, sensitivity, and generosity of the countries where they migrated. Sometimes the perceptions they describe – that a particular country was generous and welcoming, for example – seem incompatible with the national policies that were in place. Yet these narratives of gratitude emerge again and again in some national contexts, and not at all in other cases. This is something the group wants to explore much more. Comparing narratives of gratitude across the national cases they are considering will allow the team to discover what is common and what is different and perhaps allow them to construct a history of gratitude.

Before the end of their presentation, the team presented ideas about how to represent the complexities of the trajectories, geographies, frequencies, and temporalities of migration. They emphasized how interdisciplinary their project will be – drawing from social sciences, cultural studies, Jewish studies, history, oral history, history of emotions, Holocaust studies, memory studies, and genocide studies, and touching on many more disciplines as well. They concluded their presentation discussing the challenges the team faces and their plans for next steps and future progress.

The extended question and answer period following the lecture included a wide range of questions and comments for the researchers to consider and provided more time for them to expand on some of their ideas. Many interesting themes and topics emerged in the discussion, including the significance of transnationalism and diaspora studies to what the researchers want to examine and understand; the complexities of identity and belonging in these cases; the intriguing frequency and timing of language mixing and language switching in the interviews and what those might signify; and more expansion on the notion of gratitude and the seeming incompatibility of that gratitude with the national contexts or policies the survivors encountered.

The audience and research team also discussed questions about why the team has chosen the countries they have and whether the project should be expanded to include other countries; the avenues through which the history of emotions could be explored; ways in which people’s experiences during the Holocaust later influenced their decisions about why, when, how, and where to migrate; other sources and archives the team can use to compare with the testimonies; some patterns they’ve already identified in the construction of the narratives; and the challenges of narrowing their focus and comparative categories.