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Holocaust remembrance: Sniffing out new possibilities, reviving old debates

An initiative to recreate scents in European history raises some of the same questions sparked by use of graphic photos from the Shoah
At the gates of Auschwitz
At the gates of Auschwitz

I learned of the project “Odeuropa” through a New York Times article I came across a little over a month ago. Due to begin in January 2021 with a budget of €2.8 million (US $3.3 million), it’s a pioneering effort that will bring together historians, scientists and AI experts from across Europe, to identify and eventually recreate the smells that filled the air of the continent between the 16th and 20th centuries. They plan to work with chemists and perfumers to deliver these scents to the public in a way that enhances the visitors’ experience in museums and heritage sites.

Of course, as a historian, I find this to be some fascinating stuff. The article mentioned smells like those of incense or tobacco – but, as a historian of the Holocaust, my mind instantly went somewhere else. And swirling around were the many ethical considerations intrinsic to the representation and remembrance of mass violence. I thought of the countless descriptions I’ve come across detailing the foul conditions in concentration camp barracks. I have no doubt that modern science could recreate such scents – but would they? Should they? More importantly, what for?

Only a couple of months before the announcement of “Odeuropa,” the results of a survey conducted by the Claims Conference about Holocaust awareness had made news around the world. The levels of ignorance about the best-documented genocide in history were shocking – almost two-thirds of young American adults don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and over one in ten believe Jews actually caused the Holocaust. These findings are cause for great concern and underline something we have known for some time: more needs to be done to educate the general public – and the youth, in particular – about the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. What role can tech developments, like those at the base of “Odeuropa”, have in these efforts?

This question recalls a discussion involving scholars and curators that’s gone on for decades – one that concerned sight, rather than smell. The photographs taken of concentration camps by Allied liberators to be used as evidence against the Nazis at Nuremberg and the thousands more atrocity images of the period that have surfaced since have become the common coin of Holocaust remembrance and public awareness. Many have argued that showing such photographs is essential to convey the horror of what took place – that the truth must not be censored. And atrocity photographs do indeed produce an intense emotional response – or, at least, they used to.

American writer and filmmaker, Susan Sontag, signaled that a saturation point was being reached as people were becoming accustomed to Holocaust photographs, as early as 1977. Today, that saturation point has definitely been surpassed, and many scholars agree that this so-called “compassion fatigue” has diminished the visual impact of Holocaust images and, in turn, our moral and ethical responses to them. Over-familiarity with many ‘iconic’ Holocaust photographs has rendered them visual clichés, that merely evoke Pavlovian responses in viewers, if anything at all. At the same time, the need to educate the public is becoming more pressing. As a result, the number of Holocaust museums is growing, and with them, the demand for authentic artifacts to attract visitors. There’s also a consensus among Holocaust museum curators that the public is no longer interested in exhibitions that are made up entirely of atrocity photographs.

Against this backdrop, the technology that’ll be used for “Odeuropa” could present a valuable opportunity for Holocaust representation and education. Smelling the conditions in which innocent people were forced to live and die could provoke effects similar to those that seeing them did many years ago. In essence, both seek to teach something by shocking the senses. However, if scent was to become a new sensory medium through which we learn about the Holocaust, now that the impact of atrocity images has been eroded, then this new avenue of representation would likely drag on many of the same quandaries inherent in the use of photography.

Like images, scents alone cannot convey any historical truth by themselves – they are non-narrative, non-explanatory. Additionally, many claim that the horrific nature of a sensory experience may be such that it in fact prevents rational and critical thought from being applied to it. And, after all, the ultimate aim of memorialization is to reflect on, to remember, to try to understand the Holocaust – not to simulate it. And then, despite curators’ best intentions, there will always be some drawn to these exhibitions out of morbid curiosity. Because we’d be recreating a sensory experience in this case (rather than representing it), I fear it could easily become a twisted sort of “attraction” – which in fact, does appear to be one of the motivations for “Odeuropa”, and isn’t inherently problematic if it deals with other, non-murderous, historical events. In the case of the Holocaust, however, it would add to its so-called “commercialization”, which is already a matter of concern. We must educate the public, not entertain them.

Of course, these reflections and predictions are based on an entirely hypothetical scenario – there’s no indication that the idea behind “Odeuropa” will be applied to Holocaust settings. But what is certain is that such appalling ignorance levels among the youth should force historians and curators to explore new avenues and novel strategies to educate the public about the Holocaust. The use of science and technology is already an integral part of modern curating. The plan for “Odeuropa” shows that their use to teach the public by appealing to the senses is already underway. Images are said to do more than represent scenes and experiences of the past, they can produce an effect in the viewer by speaking from the body’s sensations – the same thing would apply to mediums targeting the other senses. Whatever new memorialization techniques enter the scene, they are likely to bring some controversy; I imagine debates about new methods will breathe new life into old issues – what to show, and for what. We must not censor the truth – but we often disagree on the medium through which we should tell it. Such debate should be welcomed because there needs to be innovation in order to remedy this widespread lack of awareness – and innovation rarely breaks through unchallenged in this field.

At the same time, all such discussions will be infused with the knowledge that any representation of the Holocaust will be absolutely and invariably limited. The experiential and cognitive abyss between those who experienced these events and those who are learning of them is too wide. It is difficult to talk about abstract concepts like “antisemitism” or magnitudes like 6 million, but we’re even more unable to conceive the exhaustion, fear, cold, hunger, that afflicted Holocaust victims in concentration camps. No matter what we see, smell or hear, we could never really understand. And still, we need to tell young people about the unfathomable.

About the Author
Flavia Giuffra is a historian focusing on the history of the Holocaust and its remembrance. She studied in London and Amsterdam. Currently, she's doing a Master's in Communication and Information at the UvA. She is most interested in Holocaust education for the general public.
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