Holocaust Icons

Symbolizing the Shoah in History and Memory

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Oren Baruch Stier
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University Press
    , September
     2015.
     239 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780813574028.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Holocaust Icons considers the roots and evolution of four major perceptual thresholds through which memory of the mass murder of European Jews has come to be encountered: the railway cars that carried Jews to sites of imprisonment and death; the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign seen at the entranceway to Auschwitz; the figure of Anne Frank; and the number six million. Each of these, Stier suggests, have become “icons”; that is, “facilitators connecting people to the deeper realities to which the icons refer” (7). An early strength of the book is the extent to which it is apparent that “icon” has not been chosen simply as an evocative term; much of the introduction is concerned with elucidating Stier’s understanding of the word. Brought into dialogue with sociologists of religion, the role of icons in Orthodox Christianity, and later, material objects and mnemonic devices in Judaism, Holocaust Icons provides a careful theoretical frame into which the histories and variations of the four case studies are considered. None of them are static, and Stier very deliberately draws out the changing perceptions of each icon and their contingency upon context of reception.

As with concepts of the icon, notions of sacrality are also considered with forensic care rather than with the emotive imprecision that such discussion might easily elicit. Addressing the relationship of railway cars to museum spaces, for example, Stier establishes the dimensions of sacrality apparent when questions of authenticity arise, or when the objects are perceived as somehow out of place within their surroundings. In this regard Holocaust Icons works valuably in conjunction with Avril Alba’s Holocaust Memorial Museum: Sacred Secular Space, also published in 2015 (Palgrave Macmillan). Stier’s study is perhaps the more ambitious of the two though, taking on experientially diverse modes of overlapping iconography: objects, phrases, people, and ideas. Such breadth could be seen as a weakness, but I instead suggest that the approach is ripe with possibilities for follow-up studies in which the framing device of “icon” might be brought to bear on sustained treatments of other religious phenomena.

The breadth of Holocaust Icons sits alongside an ambitious aim: to change the way in which readers engage with these icons “in order to envision in a new way the Holocaust they represent” (191). Stier works to outline both the deceptive complications of these case studies and yet also their inability to convey the full dimensions of the event to which they gesture. Finally, however, he demonstrates the necessity of icons as “powerful, indispensable tools with which people comprehend the Shoah” (184).

Holocaust Icons sits at an interface between religious studies and Holocaust memory that, as Zachary Braiterman noted in his (God) After Auschwitz (Princeton University Press, 1998), has been on occasion characterized by hyperbole and polemic. Stier’s book avoids such discourse deftly, and provides a significant new resource for navigating a difficult but vital topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Tollerton is lecturer in Jewish studies and contemporary biblical cultures at the University of Exeter.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oren Baruch Stier is an associate professor of religious studies at Florida International University, in Miami, where he is also director of the Holocaust Studies Initiative. He is the author of Committed to Memory: Cultural Mediations of the Holocaust and coeditor of Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place.

Keywords: 

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