Studying the Graffiti Written on the Home That was Taken from my Grandfather in 1944: Doing Non-Holocaust-Related Fieldwork in Eastern and Central Europe as the Descendent of Holocaust Survivors

Authors: Alexis Lerner*, University of Toronto
Topics: Historical Geography
Keywords: Holocaust, Graffiti, Europe, Memory, Ethnography
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 16
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


From 2009 to 2019, I travelled throughout the post-Soviet and post-Communist Europe regions, studying how political graffiti could be used as a tool for circumventing censorship. In each city that I visited, I interviewed artists and read the walls to better understand popular opinion and local narratives.

The political narrative, as written on a city’s walls, often touched upon Holocaust memory in Germany and in the so-called borderlands (Applebaum 1994). For example, in Lviv I recorded references to gas chambers, in Łódź I observed graffiti that read “Heil Hitler” in the old Jewish ghetto, and in Berlin one artist painted a rail-thin woman in striped pyjamas jumping rope with barbed wire. In Germany and in the borderlands, it became impossible to ignore that graffiti exists in a space saturated with Holocaust memory, and that reading graffiti inevitably meant discussing the Holocaust.

In this paper, I explore two questions. First, I ask what conclusion can be drawn from the prevalence of Holocaust-themed graffiti in particular regions (Germany and the borderlands) and not others (Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia)? Second, given that all four of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors and postwar refugees, is it plausible that I was more attuned to a particular narrative and therefore biased in my data collection? If this is true—that one’s study of a particular region will inevitably be conflicted by their personal history in that same region—what steps need to be taken in order to mitigate this bias?

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