jason chalmers, author of “Decolonizing the Holocaust: Curatorial Possibilities at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.” in JCHA/RSHC 32 no.2.
jason chalmers is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University. His work deals with decolonization and memory from a Jewish perspective. He is the author of “Decolonizing the Holocaust: Curatorial Possibilities at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.”. You can read his article in JCHA/RSHC 32 no.2 (2022).
1. Your work primarily deals with decolonization and memory from a Jewish perspective. How did you become interested in this area of research?
I find research most exciting when it brings together unexpected and ostensibly unconnected areas of knowledge. My interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust memory has developed quite organically. My maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors who came to Canada as war orphans in 1948, and I grew up hearing my grandmother’s experiences of survival. Her story was published as Buried Words by the Azrieli Foundation. This area of research is very personal to me and I was drawn to it more by instinct than conscious decision.
In contrast, my interest in settler colonialism and decolonization was more intentional. Canada is characterized by an interesting paradox: while the country was created through settler colonialism, the state is also invested in the denial of colonial violence. As a consequence, Canadians are surrounded by colonial violence but often unaware of it. Yet the onus of decolonization and reconciliation falls largely onto settler society, so I feel a distinct responsibility to do this work.
While completing my dissertation, I realized that colonial violence is often a blind spot for Holocaust studies, and I wondered how I might address this blindness. I thought that by bringing together these two areas of scholarship, I can help to make the invisible visible.
2. What challenges did you face in conducting primary research?
A big challenge is that very few Holocaust museums are willing to have meaningful conversations about settler colonialism. There seem to be a few reasons for this. I think that most Holocaust museums don’t see these issues as relevant to their mandates, so they don’t feel the need to open up dialogue about colonialism and decolonization. But I also think people are resistant to these conversations because they are so difficult and uncomfortable – because these issues challenge people to think about themselves and the world in new ways. So I was faced with a dilemma: How can I have a conversation when others are reluctant to join in? And it’s this reluctance that compels my research. My article attempts to show that issues of settler colonialism, decolonization, and Indigeneity are relevant to Holocaust museums. I want to show that the Montreal Holocaust Museum and similar institutions are not only capable of addressing these issues, but that they need to have these conversations.
Memorial room in the Montreal Holocaust Museum, Montreal QC
3. You discuss the construction of the Holocaust as Canadian memory. Can you elaborate on this?
Holocaust memory is a seed that flowers differently in different environments. In places like Poland, for example, where the actual killings took place, Holocaust memory focuses on the physical sites of destruction but also the contemporary absence of Jews. In Israel, there is often emphasis on narratives of redemption and homecoming. In places like Canada and Australia, which absorbed tens-of-thousands of survivors after the war, memory turns towards stories of survival, arrival, integration, and home-building. One consequence is that Canadians tend to remember the Holocaust in a way that is shaped by colonial ideologies, mythologies, power relations, and modes of representation. Holocaust museums, monuments, and memorials can therefore be informative sites of analysis that illuminate both transnational memory as well as socio-political dynamics in specific places.
4. You state in your article that decolonization is “an ongoing process without a clear end in sight”. What kind of challenges does this pose in your research?
This is an absolutely crucial point. Decolonization is a horizon that we can always approach but never quite arrive at. This of course poses a challenge to researchers, curators, and heritage experts, but also to Canadians in general. It is a challenge to critically reflect on ourselves, the places we live, and our relationships to one another. It is a challenge to think about the state, social institutions, and the ways they reproduce structural and systemic inequality. To settlers in particular, it is a challenge to restore Indigenous land and sovereignty.
Another implication is that my research will likely (or hopefully) be outdated in the near future. Compared to some other institutions, the Montreal Holocaust Museum hasn’t taken many steps towards decolonization. As such, the recommendations I offer are only the tip of the iceberg; my intent is to inspire conversation, provoke action, and provide a framework for future developments. Why not translate the exhibit into Kanien’kéha or other Indigenous languages, for example? I hope that when the Montreal Holocaust Museum re-opens with its new permanent exhibit in 2025, my article will be obsolete and we will already be navigating more radical conversations about decolonization.
5. How does your work engage with other recent work in Canada about decolonization?
This area of research is interesting because people define decolonization in so many different ways. If you ask ten people what decolonization means, I suspect you’d hear ten unique but equally insightful responses. One place where I engage in these conversations is with the Thinking Through the Museum (TTTM) research network based out of Concordia University, which takes a critical approach to museums and difficult histories. My colleagues at TTTM are a great source of wisdom and inspiration in thinking through decolonization and related processes. It is a particularly productive environment because TTTM includes scholars, heritage professionals, and artists from Canada as well as Poland, South Africa, and the United States. As such, it helps me approach settler colonialism and decolonization from a Canadian perspective while also addressing other national contexts.
6. Is this article part of a larger project?
This article is part of my postdoctoral research at Concordia University. I began to ask these questions in an article I published in American Indian Quarterly, which considers how the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa reproduces settler mythology. I received an enthusiastic response from scholars working in Holocaust and genocide studies, and it seemed like a fruitful direction for my research. I have a related article coming out in Canadian Jewish Studies that explores how Jewish community archives are responding to reconciliation.
National Holocaust Monument, Ottawa ON
Alberta's provincial Holocaust memorial, Edmonton AB