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Multidirectional Memory

Yezidi survivor, Shireen Ibrahim and Holocaust survivor, Kitty Williams at the Nebraska State Holocaust Commemoration.

Multidirectional memory is a concept coined by scholar Michael Rothberg that can help deliver scaffolded knowledge in considering the trauma of marginalized people. In Nebraska, we live on indigenous people's ancestral lands, owning a responsibility to acknowledge other historical tragedies. Additionally, Nebraska has long been a state with significant refugee communities and, therefore, addresses and assists multiple language learners and cultures in our schools, districts, and institutions of higher learning. Thus, when studying about those who experienced the Holocaust, we might also leverage learning about refugee communities that have settled in our state. For example, Kitty Williams, Auschwitz survivor, embraced opportunities to support and share presentation time with Shireen Ibrahim, a survivor of the ISIS genocide of the Yezidi people who resettled in Lincoln. Whereas Rothberg (2009) acknowledges that memory competition does exist, he reminds us that “multidirectional memory [can serve] as a spur to unexpected acts of empathy and solidarity…and is often the very grounds on which people construct and act upon visions of justice” (19). (See Inquiry Lesson #3, p. 5, that includes suggestions for “Taking Informed Action” in community refugee settlement.)

It is critical to note in this discussion about multidirectional memory that renowned African American scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois penned an influential essay in 1949 titled “The Negro in the Warsaw Ghetto” (Rothberg, 2001) following a visit to the recovering war-torn city that had been eighty percent destroyed. Du Bois was struck by the irony of the rebuilt urban areas as he observed the city's divide. On the one hand, the cherished Warsaw Old Town was rapidly being rebuilt, while the Jewish ghetto, entirely burnt to the ground by the Nazis in 1943, remained as acres of rubble. Rothberg (2009) references Du Bois as a model for multidirectional memory when he reconsiders his concept of the “color line.” Du Bois “sees the ruins of the ghetto [as] common property, a public resource for reflection on the lines of race, culture, and religion that divides groups from each other even as they create new possibilities for alliance” (132). Multidirectional memories provide a pathway to relate to the tragic histories of others in a manner that can bind us together through our diverse and othered cultures. Articulating the tools to integrate these new ways of knowing require thoughtful and creative strategies.

Rothberg, Michael. “WEB DuBois in Warsaw: Holocaust Memory and the Color Line, 1949-1952,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 14, no. 1 (Spring 2001) 169–189.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.