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Bridges of Memory: Tying the Past to the Present

June 26, 2020

Portrait of Alejandro Baer

Portrait of Alejandro Baer
Photo by Phuong Tran, Backpack student

“Memory is not a fixation [on] the past and is not only about recollecting the past, but is very much about shaping, constructing [the] future,” says Professor Alejandro Baer. As director of the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies (CHGS), Baer studies the delicate relationship between collective remembering, initiatives of reconciliation, and the demands of justice after genocide and large scale political violence.

The Influence of Memory

Baer’s own upbringing sparked his interest in how victims of violence deal with those memories over generations. He comes from a family of refugees who fled Nazi Germany. In the late 1930s, Baer’s four grandparents and father immigrated from Germany to Argentina, where he was born. Argentina is a country historically known for dictatorships and state repression. “Those scars are still felt [up to] the present,” Baer says. Following Argentina, Baer’s family immigrated to Spain. Although Baer was not exposed to any of those violences, he was “exposed to the memories of them.”

“Dig Where You Stand”

“There’s an old phrase,” Baer explains, “that says dig where you stand. I like the idea of exploring the history and the absence of those histories and memories of the place where you are.” He adds, “Here in Minnesota, I continue to dig where I stand.”

Baer and CHGS Outreach Coordinator Joe Eggers are helping Minnesotans dig in with help from a residency grant from the College of Liberal Arts to be part of its newly launched Liberal Arts Engagement Hub. The Hub provides temporary space and funding for collaborations between the college and the public.

The Center’s project, Bridges of Memory, brings together ethnic, national, and religious communities in the Twin Cities, like those of Armenian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Khmer, and Bosniak people, among others. “The goal of [the project],” Baer explains, “is to expand collaboration and partnerships with communities who suffered genocide and mass violence and connect them to each other, to our students, and to K-12 educators.”

How do communities and individuals share stories of loss and survival, navigate trauma, memorialize victims, preserve and celebrate culture, and educate younger generations? Community representatives addressed these questions in monthly meetings, but those meetings have been canceled due to COVID-19. Also planned for spring 2020, a daylong workshop for University students and educators has been canceled. However, they are digitally hosting a series of community conversations during the last weeks of June and the beginning of July, which will conclude with three workshops specifically aimed at educators to discuss teaching about difficult histories in school and community education settings.

Bridges of Memory began last fall with a collaboration with Saint Sahag Armenian Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, bringing the exhibit Treasures of Memory and Hope to campus. The exhibit is a collection of photos of descendants of people who survived the Armenian genocide pictured with their ancestors’ keepsakes. The University’s ongoing relationship with the Armenian community made the traveling Armenian Genocide exhibit a perfect candidate for The Hub’s first event.

The University is able to set a tone for a future of deeper collective understanding “through the community learning about the Armenian genocide—a historical event of enormous magnitude that is unfortunately not suffficiently known [by the public].” As Baer explains, “[an] Armenian community exists here in Minnesota,” and the majority of this community descends from genocide survivors.

Reparative Justice Through Public Education

A deeper understanding of their history, culture, and experiences is a crucial first step in recognizing the perspective of the victims of crimes. Baer explains that one of the goals of reparative justice is “acknowledging narratives that have been absent from textbooks, classrooms, or the ways our institutions commemorate the history of our state.” He adds, “It has to do with how that [missing] history informs decisions in the present.”

Baer’s current collaboration with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights explores reparative justice in the wake of genocidal violence against Indigenous communities. Using Minnesota and Manitoba as case studies, Baer and his colleagues Jillian LaBranche (PhD candidate in sociology) and George Dalbo (PhD candidate in social studies education) are looking at representations of Indigenous peoples’ histories and contemporary realities in education, including public schools, community spaces, museums, and other sites of education. “We are currently interviewing educators and museum curators to see what sources and approaches they use to bring these histories to the public,” says Baer.

“Inclusion means not just of the narratives,” Baer explains, “but also including the communities themselves that did not have a voice in creating these materials.” Baer emphasizes the importance of the opening up of these means of shaping and circulating historical knowledge to communities long ignored by education institutions.

“Anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out that we participate in history in two ways,” Baer explains. “One is as actors, and the other is as narrators. The way we tell the story and the way we represent and create memories can have very different consequences.” Stories can contribute to make the divisions of history more profound, or they can help overcome divisions and promote healing.

Baer says, “This is why narratives are much more than just a symbolic matter. They shed light on the fault lines that continue to divide societies many years after the violent events took place.”

Identifying Best Practices

Baer and his colleagues are exploring the Minnesota and Manitoba case studies to understand and identify the lessons surrounding the successes and challenges related to restorative justice in education. Through their research, they seek to provide recommendations to schools and other bodies of public education that will better the ability of their partners to advocate for and replicate good practices associated with restorative justice.

Overall, Baer’s research tells us that the stories we tell play a crucial role in not only our history, but our present and future. Rather than leaving memories unacknowledged and trying to forget them, people have the power to go back, dig where they stand, and tell a complete story.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.