Avinoam Patt, PhD
Utility NavTop NavContentLeft NavSite SearchSite SearchSite Search

Avinoam Patt, PhD

What do we remember?

Avinoam Patt seving as emcee for the 2015 Maurice Greenberg Center Annual Awards Program.

How do we remember something we have never experienced? Is it possible to form a memory of an event you did not live through but only heard about, learned about, read about, or saw in a movie? As any student who has sat in one of Avinoam Patt’s Jewish history classes will tell you, these are not merely rhetorical questions; Patt is a historian who is preoccupied with memory. Not with memorizing dates, names, places, events, etc. but with trying to understand why societies choose to remember what they remember. “How do we remember? What do we remember? Why do we remember?”

Ever since Avinoam Patt, PhD came to the University of Hartford from his position as an applied research scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, he has continued to focus on Jewish life and culture in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As director of the Museum of Jewish Civilization, which is located in Mortensen Library, Patt has been developing exhibits that highlight the diversity of the Jewish experience in the modern and ancient worlds, in addition to a series of exhibits that spotlight memory of the Holocaust specifically. Now he is developing a new exhibit that will open in fall 2016 to be titled “Facing the Holocaust: Greater Hartford Stories of Survival.”

This new exhibit will ask students and visitors to consider what their role will be in “remembering the Holocaust” in the 21st century: How will they remember? Why will they remember? And what will they teach the next generation when all of the survivors are gone?

As Patt explains, “The new exhibit, which will replace the existing Holocaust memorial room in the Mandell [Jewish Community Center] of Greater Hartford, builds on an ongoing oral history project we have been conducting with the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. Thus far we have interviewed approximately 50 Hartford-area children and grandchildren of survivors, examining the impact of intergenerational transmission of trauma and the motivation of the children of survivors to remember and retell their parents’ experiences.”

As the survivor generation passes away, the approximately 250,000 children of Holocaust survivors living in the United States have become “reluctant witnesses,” one generation removed from their parents’ suffering, but also shaped in direct and indirect ways by their parents’ experiences. Evidence also suggests that in many ways they have been and will be called upon to retell their parents’ experiences in classrooms, museums, and memorial services. As Patt points out, “Seventy years after the liberation of the camps, the population of survivors dwindles daily. Evidence indicates the current generation sees ‘remembering the Holocaust’ as an essential part of their identity. But what does this actually mean? How will they remember something they never experienced when all of the survivors are gone?”

In a seminar on “Responses to the Holocaust” this past spring, students in Patt’s class conducted a semester-long investigation of religious, literary, cultural, political, psychological, philosophical, and theological responses to persecution, as well as the meaning of memory and memorialization in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As part of the class, students also viewed interviews with survivors and their children. Patt recalls, “One student chose to write her final paper on her grandparents, who were both Holocaust survivors, based on an interview she conducted with her mother. She wrote that the process helped her understand her mother in a way she never had before, deepening their relationship as she developed empathy for her mother’s experience growing up as the child of survivors. To see a student take concepts from the classroom and apply it to her own life in such a meaningful way … that’s a teaching moment I will cherish.”