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Never Again?

By Stephanie Schoellman

Student ITC Exhibit on Genocide Challenges Viewers to Reflect

In a contained area at the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC), a sign warns potential viewers that the content past the glass doors is disturbing. Upon entering, visitors encounter a large video projection of local Holocaust survivors weaving a single narrative of the trauma and terror they endured. As one twists through the exhibit’s path and absorbs the information on five 20th-century genocides–the Armenian, the Holocaust, the Cambodian, the Rwandan, and the Guatemalan– the survivors’ voices from the entrance follow, echoing throughout the images and information illuminating the all-too-frequent stages of genocide.

Dr. Kolleen Guy of the Department of History at UTSA and her students created “Faces of Survival: Never Again?” (on display at the ITC through November 15, 2015) as a class project over the course of two semesters. In the following interview, Dr. Guy: and two of her students, Joscelynn: Garcia and Juana Rubalcava, describe their experience developing this moving and meaningful exhibit. Joscelynn: and Juana are both second-year graduate students in history. Joscelynn: works at the ITC, and Juana works at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in San Antonio. As a result of the project, Joscelynn: would like to continue working at the museum, particularly the conceptualization aspect of it. Juana wants to include more examples of genocide into the Holocaust Museum, and grow the museum into a genocide center.

Q: How did the project come about?
Dr. Guy: The project, in some ways, is a culmination of 20 years of teaching about the Holocaust and genocide at UTSA. One of the things I realized early on is that when you teach about the Holocaust and genocide, people get depressed pretty quickly. It’s overwhelming, and it’s overwhelmingly awful. So I came up with the idea of taking what you learn in the classroom and becoming an activist, doing something in the community with it.

Twenty years later, after various classes have put together exhibits and lectures, I thought, what if we create something broader that the entire community could come and see? I pitched the idea to my graduate class, Comparative Genocide, and they were game. I also had students in the Honors College that I taught join us, so it was a combination of graduate students and advanced undergraduates, some of whom were from the Biology Department. This project really involved students from across the university.

Q: What were some of your processes and research methodologies for putting together the exhibit?
Dr. Guy: The students had to essentially become content experts; then from there, interpret the content.
Joscelynn: The first semester, we would read a book a week, including testimonies, and I think that’s what made us decide we wanted to focus on survivors as opposed to perpetrators’ testimonies.
Juana Toward the end, we all got into groups of the different genocides, and we researched on our own, one of us focusing on a different part of each genocide.

Q: How did you decide which genocides to cover?
Joscelynn: We went with the United Nation’s more defined ones.
Juana Then we decided on the 20th century, to stick with one time period.
Dr. Guy: One thing we wanted understood is that it isn’t a European phenomenon— it happens all over. I should point out it was a huge debate, with people making a case for why Native Americans weren’t included. And that’s the question I’ve been getting most frequently.
Juana I think we did a little bit of that when we put in the last wall with the
(The last panel in the exhibit,, provides a colorcoded map showing which countries were in various stages of genocide. The U.S. is in grey—the tenth stage, Denial.)

Q: What were some of the goals you all had for the exhibit?
Juana Our focus was victims’ voices, teaching, and the local connection.
Joscelynn: And we [put them under the umbrella of] awareness.

Q: In the first section, there is a wall of mirrors labeled “bystander,” “perpetrator,” and “victim” interspersed with pictures of actual victims. What was the inspiration for the mirror wall?
Juana I got that idea from a couple of Holocaust museums I had recently visited. The one in Mexico City is still one of my favorites.
Joscelynn: When we were researching exhibits online, a lot of us also chose the “Some Were Neighbors” [exhibit] in the U.S. Holocaust Museum about “Collaboration and Complicity.” That tied themes together for us, and cemented what we wanted to talk about: the ordinary people involved.
Dr. Guy: My idea was that we’re all implicated. There is no neutrality when your neighbor is being murdered. The mirrors are a metaphor for this, bringing the viewer into a personal relationship with the stories and questioning what the viewer would be.

Q: What were some of the challenges?
Dr. Guy: The thing about the Holocaust is that it’s a very literate society that is murdered by a very literate group of people, so there tends to be more written evidence of it. But when the literate are murdering the illiterate, like in Guatemala, there aren’t very many testimonies. The students really had to work to get out there and find individual tales.
Joscelynn: For the back wall that Bonnie and I worked on, we had way more people [that we wanted to] include, but we couldn’t because of space, but then we felt bad because we wanted people to know their story, too. It was difficult choosing.
Juana For me the hardest part was we only were allowed about 150 words per panel. Cutting the complex information down without taking away anything essential was a challenge.

"When you speak for the dead, you do God’s work."
- Revka Ledo
local Holocaust survivor

Q: In the “Never Again. Never Again?” section, you ask the viewer several powerful, open-ended questions. Why did you choose this question as the title of your exhibit?
Joscelynn: Rwanda is one of the examples where they had reports of everything that was going on, but they used the term “acts of genocide” not “genocide,” so the U.N. did not intervene. In the end, the Truth Commission went back and prosecuted, but where’s the point when you can do something if you know it’s going on beforehand? I think that’s where this question comes into play.
Dr. Guy: When killing begins, it’s almost too late. What you need to do is identify those early-on factors, and police your own society for those factors, because by the time you’re looking for a U.N. resolution, your timing is very limited. I still think that while you can’t change the world, you can change your piece of it.

Q: Do you think there’s still potential for genocide today? And if so, why do you think genocide persists?
Joscelynn: Some, because when you look at that genocide watch map, almost every country in the world is at one stage. Even here sometimes the LGBT community is “Othered,” with people saying they’re not allowed certain rights—that’s how these things start.
Juana I think so because our world is so connected in ways it hasn’t been in the past that those differences are more obvious now.
Dr. Guy: There’s the flipside, too. Part of what makes genocide possible is that perpetrators don’t think they’re going to get caught. It’s like police brutality— it’s obviously been happening, it’s not something new—but with smart-phone videos, we capture it. Globalization can create tolerance, but it can also amplify difference. It goes back to the mirrors. There is no absolute good and absolute evil. All of us have the capacity. The question is now—
Joscelynn: Who will you become?

Q: What are your future plans for this exhibit and how has working on this exhibit influenced other students involved?
Dr. Guy: My original hope was that it could become a traveling exhibit, something that will live long past this class. The students I got feedback from said that this was the most meaningful class they had ever taken. And I think it was just because you didn’t sit at home with your paper, you did something bigger—served something larger than ourselves. They see themselves as part of the solution to eliminate incidences of genocide.

What really excites me about this project is that we really went beyond the campus community. To me it’s the best of UTSA when we are embedded in our community. It is one of the strengths of our institution. We’ve seen these students be activists in the community.

“Faces of Survival: Never Again?” is sponsored by UTSA’s Department of History, Honors College, ITC, Texas Humanities Commission, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio, as well as others.