Examining the role of memory in reconstructing family history

Marianne Hirsch to deliver Holocaust Memorial Lecture for Assembly Series Nov. 8

For many children of Holocaust survivors — collectively known as the “second generation” — there is a longing to understand pre-war life, culture and community experienced by their parents before the trauma of expulsion, incarceration and brutalization.


Marianne Hirsch, PhD, a member of this generation and a distinguished scholar on memory and cultural history, argues that post-Holocaust generations, with their profound need to vicariously participate in this bygone world, experience “postmemory” — a term Hirsch has coined to convey the ways generations born after the Holocaust access the experiences of the witnesses through mediation and imaginative reconstruction.

Hirsch will be on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis to explore these themes for the Holocaust Memorial Lecture, an Assembly Series program at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, in Graham Chapel. The lecture, titled “Rites of Return: The Afterlife of the Holocaust in Jewish Memory,” is free and open to the public.

“Postmemory refers to the ways in which generations born after a traumatic event access the experiences of the witnesses,” says Erin McGlothlin, PhD, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures in Arts & Sciences and chair of the Holocaust Lecture Committee, “not through actual remembrance and recall, but through imaginative projection and re-creation.”

Images play an especially important role in this re-creation, she says.

McGlothlin also notes that, although postmemory as a concept was created to understand the Holocaust, it can be used to mine cultural memory for any traumatic event.

“In recent years, scholars have extended the concept of postmemory far beyond the particular context of the Holocaust to refer to the generational memory of disparate historical and cultural events,” McGlothlin says.

Thanks to the Internet and to several trips back to Czernowitz, Hirsch has reconstructed the once thriving center of Jewish life in Ukraine, where her parents lived.

With her husband, Leo Spitzer, she has produced a book called Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz, which explores the city that before the war was an important center of Central European Jewish intellectual life. Reviewer Monica Szurmuk, of theworld.org, writes that “Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s monumental book Ghosts of Home is a stunning marriage of intellectual curiosity and personal search.”

Hirsch is the William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She also teaches at Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender and co-directs its Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference.

In addition to the Czernowitz publication, Hirsch has written many books, including Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory; The Familial Gaze; and Time and the Literary. She has edited or co-edited a number of volumes, including the indispensable MLA guide, Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust.

She is the recipient of a host of fellowships and has served as editor of the journal PMLA. She is on the advisory boards of two journals, Memory Studies and Contemporary Women’s Writing.

Hirsch earned bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees from Brown University.

For more information on this and upcoming Assembly Series programs, visit assemblyseries.wustl.edu or call (314) 935-4620.