Professor Awarded Grant to Research Holocaust Survivors’ Testimonies

By Nicole Montero

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For Oren Baruch Stier, the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) has turned into a large part of his life and work.

The slogan, which was displayed in many concentration and death camps during the Holocaust, paved the way for Stier’s most recent research project on Holocaust testimonies—supported by a $2,500 grant from Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation—an organization dedicated to improving the quality of Jewish life throughout the world.

“There was a gateway in Auschwitz that said Arbeit Macht Frei and it was this really cruel irony of the Nazi system because, for Jews, it was never possible for work to make them free. It only killed them,” said Stier, professor in the Department of Religious Studies at FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, as well as director of the Holocaust Studies Initiative.

“Targum Shlishi has been supporting my work in Jewish studies at FIU for several years and I have an opportunity to do research on survivor testimonies.”

Stier will research various databases and archives to see how the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” played into the lives of Holocaust victims and survivors.

He will do this by accessing the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation archives, originally founded by director Steven Spielberg to record testimonies in video format of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.

Stier will use the Targum Shlishi grant to access the Shoah archive at the University of South Florida in Tampa, as well as to travel to Yale University to access another, much older archive of video testimonies that also figures into his work.

“This sign, this phrase is like an iconic symbol,” he said. “I always wondered, did survivors talk about it in their testimonies? Was it important in their own memory of the events? Was it important in the way they narrated their own recollection? Or was it not important?”

“I wanted to find out what relationship this physical remnant had to the testimonial record and whether this changed over time… I always had an interest in trying to find out what it is that the survivors actually say about their encounter with this famous sign.”

The Shoah Foundation archive has over 50,000 testimonies, with a searchable index that is limited in its scope. Stier has already begun his initial research and, in the one database he has searched, about a dozen testimonies mention the famous phrase.

“A lot more may have mentioned it, but we can’t find it because it’s not a search category,” he said. “So that could be an issue that pertains to my research, that it’s only as good as these databases and indexes are.”

Stier remains optimistic about the importance of his research and work, believing that it’s vital to learn about the phrase from the perspective of survivors to help understand the victims’ experiences better.

For him, the world already knows about it from the point of view of the perpetrators and there’s not “enough of a record” to understand it from the survivors’ side.

“Ultimately, the Holocaust is the story of what a group can do to another group based on a deeply seated hatred for that group,’’ he said. “The Holocaust shows the extreme outcome of such hatred. We know a lot about the events of the Holocaust but we still don’t know enough about the experiences of people who were caught up in the Holocaust.”

Survivors often speak at universities and classrooms around the world, telling and retelling their stories.

But Stier sees two problems developing.

“One, the survivors are dying,” he said. “In another few years, we won’t have many of them left to come and tell their stories personally and, two, each one of those stories is one individual story. Somebody can only testify to their own experience. Survivors aren’t scholars and, if we want to understand more about what happened in the Holocaust and the depths of suffering and experiences of the people who went through it, we need these resources.”

Stier said his research will explore human nature and “help us understand and prevent these terrible things from ever happening again.”

“These testimonies and archives are really the future of Holocaust remembrance and representation,” he said.

Stier’s research builds on his recently published book, Holocaust Icons: Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory, in which he traces the histories and memories of some key symbolic remnants left in the Holocaust’s wake.

Next year during a sabbatical, he hopes to continue his studies on Holocaust testimonies with a book project about Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate.

As part of the Holocaust Studies Initiative, Stier will also be developing an online course for students, utilizing the archives to “expose students” to survivor testimonies.

“Targum Shlishi is a wonderful organization and has been instrumental in supporting my work and helping me move forward,” said Stier. “I’m thrilled to have the chance to do this work that I’m really passionate about and I’m grateful to the Green School and FIU. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to do my research and relate it to my teaching. It’s great to have the resources of FIU behind me because they really help extend my ability to make this meaningful.”