Memorialising the Holocaust: Post-memory and the Latter-Day Saints

Aaron R. aka Ricohistory, Holocaust, memory, Mormon, surviving 9 Comments

According to Arrington and Bitton, “most individual responses of modern Mormons involve a kind of tie with the past”[1] . History is central to the Latter-day Saint faith. Stories from Latter-day Saint history reverberate out from their local settings and have a global impact in the lives of many, for both good and ill. How and/or why does this happen?

January 27th 2010 was the Holocaust Memorial Day for the UK, and with my family we attended a small service in Ilford, England at Valentines Park. Readings, prayers, poetry and experiences were shared. Moreover, the youth in our ward had their own Holocaust memorial were we discussed aspects of that tragedy and the meaning that it might have for us today. Participating in this type of memorialising has often made me feel uncomfortable; I feel that I am an outsider to a form of suffering that (part of me) wants to claim as my own.

Positioning oneself in relation to this kind of ‘tribal’ suffering is not an uncommon experience. For example, Hirsch argues that ‘Post-memory’ is a concept that can help thinkers understand the ways in which seminal experiences, specifically those that are traumatic and painful, are transmitted through subsequent generations in a way that re-creates memories in those later generations[2]. As an example Hirsch looks at Holocaust memory and how these events have been a source of mystery and pain for some survivor’s children, a prominent example of the type of literature that such experiences of post-memory produce is ‘Maus’ by Art Spieglman.

These ideas might be important for Latter-day Saints because they provide a possible way of explaining a deeply connection with many of the events of the restoration (but particularly the suffering of the Saints). These feelings can be evocked in a number of ways, they are often linked with images and/or stories. Avard Fairbank’s statue of the couple over a small grave is one such example which resonates with me. It might also explain the emphasis the Church has placed upon its pioneer heritage; for if people are able to connect with this history their conversion becomes one of community (both contemporary and historical) as well as spiritual.

The negative side to this dynamic is that once those connections are made they provide a particular emotional/spiritual relationship that is often based upon ‘truth’.  If someone finds out that the Auschwitz was really just a holiday camp then perhaps we would understand their feeling betrayed.  Is it possible therefore that this process of post-memory is a part of a wider dynamic that binds people to the Church and its heritage but which also rests upon a certain historical veracity. 

Another question this raises pertains to whether such experiences can be accessible to people outside of the blood lines of such early pioneers, is it accessible for non-Americans?

Are such experiences even common to Americans (specifically Mountain Saints)?

I sense that they are accessible, but that this is done in contradictory or conflicting ways.  A Scottish lady once described her first visit to Nauvoo to me. She vividly depicted the buildings and experiences she had seen there. This lady walked away from Nauvoo across the river toward Winter Quarters and her heart broke; she wept as she trod her way up the hill, surprised at her own emotion. Later, while discussing this with a sibling, the sister said “Of course you felt that way, These are our People!”

I am not sure why such connections happen and yet I sense that they are important in establishing our communities. However I also sense that traversing the boundaries that divide us can also create fractures in the way we relate to and negotiate these experiences.  Moreover I believe that creating these connections also means that they are able to be betrayed.  I wonder whether people struggle to connect with Latter-Day Saint history in the same way I have struggled to form a legitimate association with the Holocaust?


1. Leonard J. Arrington & Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 334.

2. Marianne Hirsch “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” Yale Journal of Criticism (Spring 2001).

Comments 9

  1. what are you talking about? Hitler was the candidate of “kinder, kirche, kuche,’ the German army had those awesome belt buckles that said “Gott mit uns.” Mormons in Germany voted in droves for Hitler, becaue he was the candidate that most matched their own views, and the current views of the Mormon church — children, church, kitchen.’ ref. proclamation on the family. The only Mormon known to rebel against Hitler, Hellmuth Huebner, was summarily excommunicated by the Mormon church, and executed by the Nazis.

    Now that the nazis are like totally out of fashion, posts like this turn up. Mormons supported Hitler, dude–the divide was between the catholics (anti-hitler, sorta) and the protestants (Mormons in Germany fit here, and totally pro-hitler.)

    try a different argument, delete this post, read some history, something.

    Choose a different subject. You (we) lose this one.

  2. A fascinating post, Rico. As you talked about your experience related to the holocaust memorial day, I thought of my first visit to Hiroshima (where my family and I eventually would live for 2-1/2 years) — I arrived on August 6, the anniversary of the dropping of The Bomb, and I walked Peace Park the evening I arrived, feeling almost like an interloper in the remembrance of that event.

    I am a US convert to the church; I do not have Mormon pioneer heritage, though I have American pioneers in my heritage — both early settlers who long pre-dated the Revolutionary War, and those who settled The West not long after the Saints moved to the Rocky Mountains.

    I have no issue sharing the history of Mormon pioneers, even though I am not related to them (well, I am now, by marriage, since my wife’s family have more than one strain of Mormon pioneers).

    The shared memory of those pioneer experiences is part of who we are, just as the shared memory of the Children of Israel’s flight from Egypt is also a part of who we are, and so is the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem. We adopt all of these culture / extended family memories as part of our collected heritage.

    I lived in Venezuela as we celebrated the Sesquecentenial of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. Those Venezuelan saints seemed as connected to those pioneers as I did, though they found local connections to their own “pioneering” of the church in their homeland and in their own families.

  3. Post-Memory it is a interesting concept, I would like to read more on this subject.

    My initial thoughts on the subject is that Empathy is the force behind post-memory, the power of empathy is what provides cognitive building blocks of post-memory. What one can empathise with is what will aid to develop post-memory and I think how we relate to a person or a group of people past or present is key.

  4. Interesting. I never really think about how non-pioneer stock relate to the LDS pioneer stories.

    This post got me thinking about how these cultural stories effect me as a cultural Provo Mormon, who is nevertheless a non-member, and more or less a non-believer.

    In my family, there are Utah Pratt family reunions in cultural halls. Family reunions and genealogy are mixed as people make available the photos and diaries found from the past, and genealogy charts are taped up to cover whole walls. The pioneer trek story is verbally overlaid onto the chart, with stories of where people were when they were born. We might retire to the R.S. room for a formal, recorded story telling session. There might be dramatic “living history” performances, complete with costumes. There is no difference between family history and Mormon history.

    What I love most about Mormon culture as I’ve experienced it is the emphasis on story telling and family history. Because genealogy is important, because we expect to be eternally connected as families, and the heart for making sure no one is left out of spiritual opportunities, there is a real interest in getting to know our ancestors through their journals. That, in turn, gives a sense that we are also valued, that our posterity will want to read our memoirs. Memoir writing is a very common thing in my family. Reading grandma’s memoir is not only about her life, and my Mom’s and mine, but it’s about her mother who I only met as a child, and her mother before her, who crossed the plains.

    Going to see LDS Movies at the theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City is going to see stories about my family on the big screen. Reading Grandma’s memoir, I get more links to those same stories.

    I would think that people without pioneer heritage might sometimes wish they were more connected to these stories. On the flip side, it’s kind of hard for me to feel so connected to the stories via family, but not connected via belief and church Membership. I am not as connected to family as everyone else. There is this sea of connection, and I’m one step removed. Loved, but many of the ties that others have are not there with me.

    There is a constant gravitational pull for me toward the church, for family connection nostalgia, growing up in Utah nostalgia, and deep theological appreciation on many levels. Yet when I try to be a member, there is a loss of integrity for me because certain core values and spiritual experiences that I cannot, “dare not” deny are in disharmony with core church teachings. (Some stuff I’m way into, some stuff I’m way not.)

    For me, “post-memory” is like a tractor beam to the church. It feels as if Grandpa Parley and generations of family are on the other side calling me home. Only it’s not my real home, and I know that deeply in my soul. So I can’t go there. I have to be true to my heart. I have to follow the Spirit. Family prayers may call me to the Mormon church, by the Spirit calls me to different truths to me. On the other side of the veil I believe we’ll all find out that truth is so much bigger than we anticipated, that we’re all comfortably together in it. But for now, I choose between family connection and integrity in my connection with God.

  5. Rico,

    I’m so impressed that Mormons in England commemorate the Holocaust. Utah Mormons celebrate Pioneer Day and national holidays like the 4th of July and Presidents’ Day, but have a hard time honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. on his holiday. I wish we could follow the example of English Saints and feel connected to the sufferings of those beyond our own small circle.

  6. #1 – I must either be really slow or I think you might have mis-understood my post. I am not sure how my post has any bearing upon whether Mormons supported hitler or not. It is a consideration of how the concept of post-memory can be applied to the Mormon context.

    #2 – Thanks Paul, I appreciate your kind comments. I wonder then if people who accept Lehi’s story and then discover some of problems with BoM historicity then feel betrayed by emotionally attaching to a story that they believe might no be true.

    #3 – I think empathy way of thinking through the issue. I think it is different though. I did not include this above so I am sorry for not providing a more accurate summary of the idea. Post-memory also often involves guilt for not experiencing those things themselves. Applying to the LDS Context it is linked with comments like ‘Well we don’t have it as bad as the pioneers…’

    #4 – Thank you for sharing your experiences. I suspect that your experience highlights how this connection can both involve negativity and hurt. I wonder if such connections can be maintained and relished while also rejecting ideas which you say you ‘dare not’ accept.

    #5 – I wish I could say that everyone did this. Unfortunately many people might be like the people you mention in the US. However, I do think it is of value to do as you say which is suffer beyond our own circle.

  7. Rico,
    The question that niggles in my brain, and it arose from my first reading of your post, but didn’t get tickled into my first response:

    Is the question of disappointment or betrayal at discovering issues with the exactness of the history a reason for refusing to connect to the history in the first place?

    I guess I don’t think so.

    I suppose there is always risk in every emotional attachment we make. There is always a risk that a spouse may be unfaithful or that a child will reject a parents’ point of view of significant matters. But that does not stop us from falling in love and having children (I suppose it might stop some, but not as a group).

    I suspect the pull of a connection to others is very great and is at least one reason why we choose to connect ourselves to the stories even before we know of their absolute accuracy. It may also be part of the reason we defend the same stories in the face of some contrary evidence (such as believers’ defense of the Book of Mormon despite issues of historicity, which, they believe, will ultimately find resolution).

    Relative to my Hiroshima experience: The “old” museum at Peace Park was a horribly inaccurate and emotional portrayal of the Americans’ dropping the bomb and causing suffering. Shortly before we left Hiroshima, the museum had updated and revised its exhibit to a somewhat more balanced telling of the events, including Japan’s actions that led to a selection of Hiroshima as a target. The fact that the “story” changed did not change the emotional attachment (for me) of the personal suffering that resulted from the dropping of the bomb, even though the responsibility for the event (including all the precipitating events) was clearer.

    Having the story change to a more truthful portrayal (and some would argue, perhaps that it still was not truthful enough) did not necessarily untie the emotional bond.

    Mormon Pioneer history may have new details available, but the personal and family stories that exist for so many (and are so freely shared, perhaps even exagerated in some settings) will, I suspect, continue to link modern day saints to those early pioneers and form those connections.

  8. Thank you for your response. Your response seems to make our responses similar to these issues. I agree that historical accuracy does not become a deal-breaker when it comes to these issues, even if we are emotionally attached, or perhaps because of it. However, it is exactly this dynamic that leads me to question how this idea of post-memory would work for LDS. Because it seems that can be both the thing that holds us to a story while also for others (and maybe it might even work internally) it is what pushes them away, because they feel betrayed. Of course I think this all depends on how people become attached in the first place. If people can take stories in a way that allows them to be malleable then perhaps the feelings of betrayal may not occur.

    One added dimension that I did not add to this was that American Pioneer history seems more important to British saints. There is some reference to British experiences (but usually only through the Apostles who concerted them). We still focus on the trek but in a generic sense, almost as if nationality has become insiginificant. However, I think that the Church’s recent emphasis on collecting local area histories might allow non-US saints to create our own litany of stories of suffering and hope.

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