Understanding and representing trauma: speaker presentations
Dr Joanna Sassoon, Dr Adele Chynowth, Dr Jay Arthur, Dr Geoffrey Megargee and Dr Mike Pickering, 5 October 2010
PETER STANLEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The reason I am using a microphone is because we are recording today’s session, not because this is a Nuremberg style audience. My name is Peter Stanley and it’s my pleasure to run the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research. We have scheduled this session today as one of our occasional seminars to capitalise on the visit to Canberra of Dr Geoff Megargee, who will be introduced to you presently by the chair of today’s discussion, Dr Mike Pickering. The reason we have scheduled this is that we realised with Geoff’s imminent visit to Canberra there were connections between several institutions and several members of staff of those institutions because, as you would imagine Geoff working at the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum deals with a subject which is by its nature traumatic, and I realised that there was a connection between his work and the work of the National Museum of Australia and the National Library in that we too deal with subjects which are unpleasant, uncomfortable and traumatic. The substance of today’s discussion will flesh out that observation.
The purpose of today’s conversation is to bring together people who ordinarily wouldn’t even know each other, but by happenstance we can bring people together who can share, compare and look across their interests into similar human situations, which is a very opaque way of describing what we are doing today but it will be made clear by Mike and our speakers whom Mike will introduce. Thank you for coming. We will go until about quarter to two or more if you have more to ask. Feel free to first of all listen and then take part in a conversation on understanding and representing traumatic experience. Over to Mike Pickering, thank you.
MIKE PICKERING: Thank you all for coming. I was thinking I could probably set a precedent by reading out the names of all those curators who didn’t show up, knowing they would be enshrined in our podcast forever but, given that I often miss them myself, it’s probably not a good precedent. Let us treat this as a discussion not a lecture. There will be a discussion between the panellists but also hopefully a discussion with you, the audience. Three weeks ago I was asked, ‘Can I chair this session on trauma?’ Yes, no worries. The closer the event comes, the more you start to question what is trauma and you realise how little you actually know about how you might define trauma, what constitutes traumas and whose traumas are we talking about. It’s that diversity of experience which exists not only here with our panel but I am sure amongst the audience so any corporate discussion should be rewarding for all of us.
We have our four main speakers plus me who will interrupt whenever I feel like it. That is one of the privileges of being the chair. We have Dr Geoff Megargee from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. We are very pleasd to have you here. We have Dr Joanna Sassoon from the National Library of Australia. And then we have Dr Jay Arthur and Dr Adele Chynoweth who are working here at the National Museum of Australia. I am sure they are familiar faces to everybody. All have engaged in various projects over their careers which involve issues of trauma or distress, working closely with people who have various episodes in their lives or various groups that have episodes that come to the fore in the nature of their engagements. Of particular relevance here is that Joanna, Jay and Adele are working on the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrant project which, following the apology last year, money was put into both researching the experiences of forgotten Australians and child migrants and also developing an exhibition.
The sequence is we will talk through basically ideas, research and the processes behind engaging with the client base of people who have suffered these traumas. And then leading on to how we might tell those stories through both exhibitions and publications, how do we deliver the story to a public and what sorts of issues arise in delivering the story to the public.
As for me, it raises a number of questions and also reflects the issues in my career. Working in Indigenous studies in Australia it is impossible not to be confronted by trauma. I can think of having worked with men and women who had been shot in their lifetimes. They had been peppered with shotgun pellets by station owners because they were being cheeky. I have met people who have been whipped and beaten. What always intrigued me was how few of them carried any animosity towards me as a white anthropologist entering their communities. They would tell these stories about their mistreatment at the hands of other whites, yet there was no visible animosity although it was part of their experience. How do people manage trauma?
I was also intrigued by the life of people who suffered traumatic experiences. Every Anzac Day and every time there is a military march, I tend to observe that the people who were prime combatants in those battles of the past become fewer and fewer and most of the marches become people who are off in non-combatant zones or in service industries. Is that a reflection of the general 10:1 percentage of distribution in the forces or is it a result of people who suffered the greatest traumas dying young or removing themselves from the episode? I don’t know. What is the long-term effect of trauma on the individual and how often that trauma becomes invisible.
Finally, from my own experience, I am currently on a small committee which is advising the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York on the ethics of displaying objects that may be contaminated by microscopic traces of human remains from the 9/11 attacks. So many people were effectively vapourised and the dust contaminated not only lots of objects but also most of New York. In developing this museum they are displaying objects contaminated with dust which is known to be contaminated with vapourised or burnt human tissue. They are looking at it with an intensity through DNA analysis and given it close scrutiny that I don’t believe has ever happened in the past.
Have we changed the way we look at trauma? There is now more consultation with the families of those victims. Their opinions are being taken on. There is much more consideration of ethics. Yet 100 or even 50 years ago whenever we have been developing exhibitions or collections post trauma – from World War I, World War II, Korean War and similar events - these issues didn’t seem to be as important about the idea of displaying a uniform that was worn in battle. If you go to the War Memorial you will see the Gallipoli landing craft on display with its bullet holes. Has there been any consideration about the contamination of such objects? Were these issues considered but have since become invisible over time because they were never documented or have the people always considered them?
How we address trauma is changing. It’s certainly affecting the work we do here at the Museum. A lot of curators whether deal with trauma often without knowing it, without knowing the trauma from events which are implicit in the objects they are handling. I am sure that everybody here has at some stage come into contact with such materials or such experiences, if not through a museum experience then in their home experience. That is enough from me. I think there will be lots of questions that will arise, and particularly questions of definition and experiences. We will start off with Dr Joanna Sassoon.
Dr JOANNA SASSOON: Thank you, Peter, for the invitation. I work in the National Library of Australia which, as most of you would know, has a national documentation role that takes a very long view of what it is that we collect and why we collect and the things that we collect are maintained permanently. I come from a slightly different collecting context in some ways to the National Museum. There is a lot of debate within libraries about our role as collectors and how we shape collections, but that’s really not the point of discussion for today; I am just making the point that the Library sometimes comes from a slightly different perspective to museums and other collecting institutions.
I am also talking from the perspective of being the project manager for the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants oral history project, which is one strand of what the former Prime Minister called the National History Projects. He announced these National History Projects as part of the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants national apology that he gave in Parliament House in November last year. The National Museum of Australia is one partner; the Australian National Maritime Museum is another; and the National Library of Australia provides the third pillar in that project.
This oral history project is going to be, and is already, interviewing adults whose as children were in care. As well as interviewing adults who as children were in care, it will include interviewing spouses, siblings, advocates and employees, because we are looking at a whole range of different issues about trauma. It is not only trauma we are looking at, we are looking at the experiences of not only on the people who went through it but on the people around them as well.
Just where we are up to with the project? We have been recruiting interviewers nationally and I have been training them across the country this year, and so far the Library has completed 21 interviews. With the permission of everybody who has been interviewed, these interviews will be placed online on an ongoing basis but our first batch will be released as a part of the anniversary of the apology in a few weeks time.
I am going to be talking very generally about my observations and experience of working with people who have had a range of experiences that some people would think is traumatic, both at the individual level and at the community level. I am no expert in psychological trauma but I guess I have worked around this area and possibly lived with some aspects of it at times in my life, as most people have when we start talking about these experiences.
What do we mean when we say ‘trauma’, and in the context that most of us are talking about it’s psychological trauma. What it really is a psychological injury resulting from being in a stressful or life threatening situation. How it pans out is another whole set of questions altogether. The project that I am on will document a range of stories about the context of lives before and after being in care as well as the experiences of being in care. So we are doing whole of life interviews. We are not just looking at the experience that we would first think is traumatic but is not necessarily actually the site of trauma.
This project will be documenting the diversity and the complexity of the experiences of people whilst in care and it will be documenting the diversity of the lifelong impact of those experiences which surround the person’s experiences of being in care. The impact of the experience of being in care - that is, prior to being placed in care of being in care and the life after being in care - the impact of those experiences is incredibly diverse and incredibly variable, and it is also incredibly unpredictable. How one person perceives, experiences and overcomes an experience or set of experiences may be entirely different to someone else in a similar situation. When you have siblings talking about their experiences and their perceptions of the same situation and the impact of that set of experiences, you start to think there are other factors at play.
How people respond to and overcome experiences are often influenced by other factors which come into play beyond that actual set of circumstances themselves, and that goes into the capacity of the individual to bound back from the experience or steel themselves in the face of such events. This is actually the human quality of resilience; that is, the capacity to cope with stress or adversity in a variety of forms.
When you are dealing with the experiences of adults who were children in care, you start to see resilience as a childhood developmental process. It’s a really interesting part of the project I am working on. It is something I am quite interested in even though I don’t have an expertise in the area. There are a large range of complex factors which enable individuals to build resilience to traumatic events or you also find other people who find it hard to build that capacity. The capacities behind building resilience often relate to broader familial and social contexts as well as specific experiences at specific ages. For instance, if someone takes notice of your interest, gives you affection, takes you out or models a particular type of behaviour - that can have a huge impact on your life. Likewise, whether your whole life experience is validated, understood, believed by individuals or a community – and that is the context in which we are working. Whether someone believes you, whether the society believes that experience ever happened, also has an impact on your resilience over your lifetime.
Some of the really difficult experiences that I have heard so far in the interviews we have conducted reveal the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit to survive, to process, to understand the experiences and quite often as children to continue to resist the system and exert considerable agency over their own lives both within the institutions or being in care and afterwards. However, other experiences have left people with a sense that they’re lifelong victims. What I am saying is you just don’t know what you are dealing with all the time. This oral history project aims to document the diverse range of experiences and also the diversity of impacts of those experiences that people have had throughout their lives who, at one moment in their life or for a long period in their life, happen to be in the care of other people apart from their family.
When I am commissioning interviews, I really don’t know what the interviewer is going to experience or how the interviewee is going to respond emotionally when discussing the experiences they have had. For the most part, what I have from the person who I have selected to be interviewed is a handwritten experience. They have often just expressed an interest; they are self-selected at the moment because we have yet to really rack up our media; and perhaps a staff member in the library has had contact with the individual. We don’t have an awful lot of information to give people who are going to go into that interview situation. And until you are in that interview situation when people are actually remembering and sometimes even playing out their childhood experiences or the distress they have experienced or the way they have said they have survived, you really don’t know how people are going to respond to the process of remembering when it’s on a one to one with a recorder in front of them. However, our responsibility as employers to these interviewers and also to the interviewees is to anticipate how people may respond and also then skill them up so that they know what to do in certain situations.
The impact of an experience, as I have said, or even the expression of a deep emotion can come from a range of feelings that are not all bad, not all traumatic, but it is not always possible to read or see capacities like resilience or you can’t actually start to understand the lifelong impact of certain experiences on someone until you are in the room with them looking and listening very carefully. And even then when you think you have a situation sussed, sometimes things come out of left field. Emotions are very unpredictable. They often surprise the person who is telling the story, and the impact of being interviewed can also re-traumatise people to a certain extent.
We have lots of factors when we are starting to think about interviewing that we have to think about in these contexts. You really can never tell what is going to trigger an emotion or take someone back to a particular experience. I am sure all the girls here have walked down the street and smelt the deodorant of their first boyfriend 30 years later. Smells will take you straight back to experiences very quickly. Sounds can trigger memories as well. Imagining and remembering what the front door of an institution looks like can really trigger memories. Thinking about how you were told good news or how you were told bad news triggers memories and emotions. When you are in an interview situation, you never quite know what the response is going to be to what you think is an open, neutral question. We actually have to be prepared for that fleeting moment which shifts from reflection in a rational situation to something entirely different.
My role in the project as the project manager is to provide a supportive environment for the interviewee and a framework of support for everyone who is involved in the project, and that actually includes me as well. This support starts with how we interact with people who express an interest in being interviewed for the project through to their comfort at the idea of actually being interviewed for the public record for the longer term; the environment that they choose to be interviewed in, and that may mean having a support person there if that’s what they want; their individual need for post-interview debriefing; and their rights to control whether that interview becomes accessible during their lifetime. This support starts at the first interaction we have with people, and it’s been thought about very carefully even before that process, and continues well after the process of interviewing has been completed and a copy of the interview has been sent back to the person whose story they have told.
The Library understands that the process of being interviewed may bring back a range of memories. The Library deals with memories on a daily basis in its oral history projects. We are prepared and we prepare our interviewers in the best way that we can to deal with the full gamut of human emotions and human stories that may come to the fore in the interview process. So far in the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants project everyone has found the interview process to be very supportive, and most who have had some concerns about it or who have felt that they have had very difficult stories have found the interview process personally very therapeutic. Everybody who has listened to interviews and who works on the project is bound to be touched by this experience, what you hear you cannot help but be moved by. It’s how we all learn to cope with these experiences that is actually the trick, so how we build resilience in ourselves to deal with these situations is also an important part of the process of this oral history project.
The other thing I want to say is that I don’t assume that anybody has either had a traumatic experience or hasn’t, or has been traumatised by it or is going to be traumatised by the retelling. I make no assumptions either way, because my experience of dealing with a range of people over a very long period of time is that you can show someone a map and they can burst into tears and you have absolutely no idea where it is coming from. You can’t assume that people are always going to be traumatised by something and express it; and you can’t assume that people aren’t. We have to train people to go in with an open mind equipped with the skills to deal with whatever it is that comes to them. So ultimately we try to prepare all our interviewers in a way that they can conduct the interviews ethically and sensibly. We hope that our interviewees find that the processes that we have put in place so that they can tell their story actually meet with their expectation. Thank you.
MIKE PICKERING: Thank you, Joanna. We will now move to Adele who will talk about the National Museum’s experiences in the same project.
Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thanks, Mike. Firstly just to say that I am not assuming that my experiences are exclusive and that people here may not have had them themselves by doing curatorial, nor that I am an expert. It is really a starting point for dialogue so that I may learn more.
What I want to talk about is subtitled ‘the confessions of the curator’ but is really about the intersection of social history and social work, which of course I am not a social worker and never would claim to be – just to be clear of the professional boundaries. However, I am informed to a certain extent by Lois Silverman’s book The Social Work of Museums in which she argues that, as we go from natural history Museums where the notion of the person as the object to social history museums where the person is the subject, there are instances internationally which she identifies where museums have done some kind of social work. I want to look at that from my experience of working on this exhibition.
It’s easy to say that a curator should never engage in social work because that is unprofessional, mamby pamby and a displacement from core business. But what is it about the work that I have been doing that might be perceived to go into the realms of social work? That is about the process of engaging stakeholders who are victims of trauma, who suffer from depression and/or post traumatic stress disorder and also complex post traumatic stress disorder, which is another kettle of fish with really quite challenging symptoms.
It is interesting that, when the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced the three history projects as part of his apology, he talked about them from the perspective of the experiences of those who were in institutions, their experiences, not some kind of objective scientific view but the impetus from the experience of those individuals. So we do see a shift to the idea that the person’s experiences are important. That is not to say they are not varied, that they are not singular, and our exhibition will include all experiences, including positive. But the point is that it is from the view of the subject.
I have been working on this project for nine months and, rightly or wrongly, within that time I have visited forgotten Australians many of whom live in poverty. Obvious the first interaction I get is, ‘Are you the lady from the Museum?’ ‘Yes’. ‘You can’t leave your car there because it’s not going to be there by the time you finished.’ I have also had forgotten Australians come and visit me here at the Museum under the influence of varying substances in their pyjamas. I have identified appropriate counsellors who have an understanding of the needs of forgotten Australians and referred stakeholders who have expressed a need for counselling after they have broken down when speaking to me. I have located emergency housing. I have administered first aid. I have travelled in the back of an ambulance. I have attended a health case conference and I had an unexpected encounter with an alpaca in the corridor of a hospice. I wasn’t aware that Fridays at Claire Holland House is animal therapy day. And I regularly participate in counselling sessions for myself by a clinical psychologist who specialises in trauma. He’s really good at helping me define what is an appropriate duty of care, what are appropriate boundaries, and, of course, helping me with work life balance. That’s where we see an intersection between social history and social work.
Automatic responses to these episodes from a really caring, professional and experienced place might be: ‘You shouldn’t have to do that, your job is to put together an exhibition and you are being manipulated into co-dependent interactions.’ That may be a really caring and thoughtful response to what I do. I even thought about whether I should talk about the things that I have done, lest that I be labelled as an unprofessional curator. But I think these responses, whether caring or distant, are not symptomatic of the personalities of the people involved but symptomatic of a systemic tension between social history and social work.
How do I end up in these situations, and should I, and where are the boundaries? The reason I end up in these situations is because forgotten Australians are not called that for nothing. A lot of Australians do not know that over half a million non-Indigenous children were in institutions. What happens is that when many forgotten Australians who I have spoken to have tried as adults to speak to professionals about their experience they are not believed. What has happened is I have had people ring me or write to me who have never told their story to anyone before. So the Museum has been the first port of call. I know that is not what we are here for but, whether we like it or not, that is what has happened and with that first opening up comes that emotion. The fact that a national museum is taking on this project, it is perceived by many forgotten Australians that suddenly their story has credibility where hitherto it didn’t so that’s why I find myself in this situation. The Museum is very attractive to forgotten Australians at this point in time.
In addition, in order to source objects for the exhibition Jay and I have to travel to visit forgotten Australians and we see them in their homes, and sometimes we see them during moments when they are not well. This is where I think the core business argument doesn’t fit, because these episodes of administering care have occurred when I am undertaking the core business. I have a duty of care not only as a fellow human being but especially as public servant and as a representative of the National Museum. So what I am aware though is that I don’t do the counselling, I don’t find the housing and I don’t administer the medical treatment - but what I will do is I will refer.
The risk of this, of course, is the code of conduct for the Australian Public Service; that is, it is easy and tempting to become the advocate when you administer care. It is very important that I remain impartial so that again I don’t become the advocate. What I will do is refer forgotten Australians to those advocacy organisations which are funded by the Australian government to do that. So that’s one way in which we engage our stakeholders.
The other thing I want to talk about is the work we are doing with the website. Again, that is seen perhaps as an extension or something separate to the exhibition but actually it is part and parcel. One of the other things that comes with forgotten Australians is that many do not have trust of authority figures because their trust in authority figures was abused when they were in children. So to build up that trust we have established a website in order to give forgotten Australians a voice and also to represent personal narratives of those who may not be represented in the exhibition because it is a limited space. I have some words from some of the forgotten Australians who have posted their narratives onto the site and why the site is so important to them. But perhaps we will leave that for now and see if it comes up in conversation.
MIKE PICKERING: We will now turn to Jay.
Dr JAY ARTHUR: Adele and I are working together on the exhibition. The context of this exhibition is somewhat different from another exhibition put on in the Museum. You might decide to put on an exhibition on some community group in Australia or for various reasons you might want to put on an exhibition. However, this comes out of a context of the apology to the forgotten Australians. The exhibition itself is part of the healing process – maybe that’s too strong – or is certainly an attempt by the government to recognise this section of the community. So it has a particular context before it’s even created. The exhibition will open next year on the second anniversary of the apology. It is already located within that conversation about the apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants.
In forming this exhibition we have also included members of the stolen generations in part of this story because we have located our exhibition on the subject of children’s homes themselves not foster care and other forms of care. Because of the limited size of our exhibition, we have just decided to take children’s homes as our focus, and many children’s homes which were ‘white’ homes had many Indigenous children in there, with the children either knowing they are Indigenous or not. But certainly we need to look at all three groups when looking at children’s homes.
Many of our visitors seeing this exhibition on children’s homes would not necessarily think this is an exhibition on trauma because its whole subject has been so hidden and so forgotten. People might have a kind of uneasy feeling about that children’s home down the road, they have a feeling it’s maybe not a good place or they may have a slightly shadowy feeling about it that they may not necessarily associate with trauma.
Of course our other audience - we have two audiences - who have been in these homes knows the story all too well. It’s no simple trauma. We are not talking about a single, simple trauma. As we have all been saying, it’s a very complicated story. We basically have children who have been removed from their families for whatever reason. It’s clearly an experience of trauma to be taken from a family situation and brought up in an institution. Whether it’s mild, serious, longlasting or whatever, it still has an effect on that child. Society took the most vulnerable children in its care and placed them in a system which is unsafe and dysfunctional which couldn’t guarantee their physical, psychological or sexual safety and couldn’t guarantee they would receive education, nutrition or health care.
We have a kind of sense of trauma that is a potential trauma. They are going into a system which was potentially traumatic because it was unsafe. The trauma of dealing with that in our exhibition will be only of the people who are former children in these homes. There is clearly a lot of associated trauma, as Joanna mentioned, with the parents who lost their children, with partners of people who have been in homes and therefore traumatised, and with their families. But again, because of limited scope, we thought we would just concentrate on the experiences of people who were in care and also I think too because, in a sense, this is their time. With the apology, it was the Prime Minister saying, ‘What you said was right, was real, we disbelieved you. Now it’s your time.’ It is their time to tell the story. I think it is important that we respond in the Museum to a time to tell something, and this is a time to tell the story of a trauma of children’s homes.
This trauma hasn’t been told very largely or, if it was told, it wasn’t believed so it has a sense of being silenced. It is very complicated. I have talked to former residents of homes who have said, ‘Some people have a chip on their shoulder,’ referring to stories of sexual abuse. And another person I talked to said, ‘Of course they’ve all experienced trauma even if they don’t admit it, you know.’ It is up to us to respect that complexity and not assume that everyone has experienced the same kind of trauma or has the same kind of feelings from being in care. It’s an incredibly complicated story.
It is also a story of childhood trauma. Unfortunately for us there has been a lot of discussion over recent years, especially about sexual abuse in childhood, with the kind of rhetoric that you can’t believe what children say, they make it up, they forget. There has been a lot of argument against that, and people now understand that, while children may remember slightly differently from adults or their understanding of why things happen may be different, just because a child says this happened in their childhood doesn’t mean that you naturally disbelieve it. I think some of our visitors who may not want to think they live in a country where medical experiments were carried out on children and therefore have a strong pressure not to believe what they see may fall back on that old rhetoric: ‘Kids, we know what it is.’
It is an exhibition in a museum so we have to have objects. There are some simple objects of trauma, I guess. The tractor seat that girls had to sit on while they received vaginal examinations in the Hay Institution for Girls is an obvious one, or the strap which probably has a piece of hacksaw blade sewn inside it so it was more effective in hitting children in a Christian brothers home. Then there are ordinary objects that have emotions and resonance through the context in which they are used - a kid’s bed. Think of the ad for the cough mixture and the kid is being tucked in the bed and given the cough mixture and touching the teddy. That’s what a bed is, it’s safety for a child. But often in a home it was not safety, it was the site of grief, fear and shame. If you wet the bed, you lie awake all night waiting for the person to find you in the morning. Or a teddy which has a smile stitched onto it by the child to try to cheer themselves up. They are objects that you can clearly associate with the experience of homes.
How do we talk about the trauma of absence in an exhibition? The absence of love, of particular caring, of belonging - that desolation that is often in the heart of the experience of a children’s home, how do we represent that in an exhibition? Well, we are working on that now.
There are lots of practical measures about representing trauma, which we may well talk about later in the session. It’s really exciting that as a museum we are part of a process of working with painful, difficult and contentious histories. It’s an incredible responsibility for us. I think it’s a wonderful thing for the Museum to be taking part in. Thanks.
MIKE PICKERING: We now move to a slight change in the case study to the experiences of the Holocaust Museum, but I think what has emerged so far is often the actual name is interchangeable. If you take out ‘forgotten Australians’ and put stolen children, convicts, boarding school or whatever, there are any number of institutions or lives in Australian history or world history where you can see the same thing being repeated. Again, it’s the general discussion about how we represent trauma - and not just represent but consider and how it affects us which is important - and on that basis we will go now to Geoffrey.
Dr GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Thank you, Mike. Good afternoon everyone and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today and be part of this round table. I want to thank Peter Stanley especially for making this possible. I don’t suspect that I need to spend a lot of time drawing out the connections between trauma and what we deal with at the Holocaust Museum, although certainly my perspective is different from that of Joanna, Adele and Jay who have to deal with this on a much more personal, immediate level. I will point out at the start that, as far as the exhibits at our Museum are concerned, I am no expert, I am not a curator and I wasn’t part of setting those up, although I can offer some impressions during discussion.
My role is to compile and edit an encyclopaedia of all of the camps and ghettos between 1933 and 1945. This is a seven-volume project. The first volume came out last year after about nine years of work. We are dealing with all of the types of facilities that the Germans ran: concentration camps, POW camps, extermination centres, ghettos, forced labour camps, and another 20 or so categories that most people haven’t even heard of run by Nazi Germany and the states that were allied or associated with it - a system that ran from Norway to North Africa, and from France to Moscow. We are covering approximately 20,000 sites in our encyclopaedia, a number that surprised all of us when we started the project.
As far as representing trauma in our project goes, it’s in a certain sense a fairly straightforward process. When we go to a contributor or I assign one of our research assistants to write about a particular place, we ask a series of questions. We ask that author to try to address these questions as fully as possible having to do, among other things, with the number of prisoners who were there, the kinds of work that they performed, life and death within the camp, coping mechanisms that the prisoners came up with, and significant events that may have taken place. The entries are limited in length. There is a lot of material to cover very often, where there is documentation for it, so the presentation in a sense is often rather dry, one fact after another. But the best of these entries do include stories and anecdotes from the camps. And even the ones that don’t, I think people are able to get a feel for these places from looking at these entries.
One of the main conclusions that I have seen, now that we have been at this for a number of years, and Joanna’s remarks reminded me of this right away, was that prisoners experiences and hence their traumas varied tremendously - far more than I expected and more than most people expect when you are looking at this kind of system. They varied according to the kind of camp they were in. Obviously a concentration camp is going to be different from a POW camp and different from a forced labour camp. They could vary from one camp to another within that system according to the attitude of a particular commandant or a particular guard. Your prisoner category had a lot of control over the kinds of experiences that you had, whether you were a POW or a criminal or just thrown in because you were a Jew. And then your individual circumstances, any particular work talent you might have gotten you a better job or the kind of work assignment that you were given specifically within that camp. All of these could make a huge difference, often the difference between life and death.
From representing the trauma to understanding it, I don’t know that I can claim that our project does that. I hope we can facilitate it but whether we can really claim to understand this, I am not sure. That may be more than we can do. A lot depends on the kind of understanding that we are talking about - and I speak here as someone who has not studied trauma per se, except through this indirect way. Naturally the focus for such an investigation is on the victims, and we do put the victims’ voices into our entries as much as we can. The Museum has other projects going that address that even more directly. We have a ‘Jewish responses to persecution’ documentary collection project that is going on, for example. What we can do in the encyclopaedia is describe the conditions in these places and, as I say, to provide some anecdotes and I think this promotes some understanding as long as the person reading the material has sufficient imagination to read between the lines.
All the same, in our gathering here, I find that I have a lot more questions than answers. I think the scale of the phenomenon that we deal with is important. What does it mean when a trauma is multiplied by millions, perhaps tens of millions of people? Is that really what differentiates this series of historical events from one person’s tragedy? Should we look at some sort of societal trauma as much as we look at individual trauma? How do those two balance each other out? On a related note, does it make a difference that this particular trauma was state sponsored, like the one here in Australia? And the broader question for me is: are we really just scratching the surface with all of this? When can we say that we really understand trauma of this sort and what does such an understanding consist of? I will leave you with that thought. Thank you.
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Date published: 12 November 2010