Jewish Studies Holocaust Museums and Memorials
Brigitte Sion
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0218


Holocaust memorials can be categorized according to the evolution of the genre. The first type of memorials are the historical sites of discrimination and destruction themselves, such as concentration and extermination camps, transit camps, ghettos, forced labor camps, and sites of mass executions, as well as sites where hiding, rescue, and other life-saving operations took place. The second category, which developed immediately after the war, includes plaques and monuments dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims. In many cases, these monuments are erected in the places where the victims came from; the victims can be identified individually, with some personal details (e.g., age, occupation, etc.), or as part of a specific group (residents of a building, student body of a school, denizens of a town, etc.). These memorials, located all over Europe where the victims originated, follow traditional artistic patterns, such as plaques, allegorical sculptures, and rare figurative expressions. The third and more recent category comprises memorial museums, a complex combination of two institutions: a memorial, with its commemorative purpose, and a museum, with its collection, conservation, documentation, and educational missions. Such institutions are not necessarily located in cities where deportation and/or extermination took place, but may also be established where significant survivor populations settled after the war and took it upon themselves to commemorate the Holocaust: Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Argentina. Most recent memorial museums are also architectural artworks that add an artistic interpretation to the historical content: broken lines, voids, grids, narrow spaces, and dead ends are some of the design traits that contribute to express the loss and destruction in more abstract ways. Scholarship about Holocaust memorials has appeared and evolved in parallel with the memorials themselves. First came the historical accounts and testimonials about specific sites of destruction, then guides to monuments, followed by monographs about types of memorials (geographical focus with studies about public memory in Germany, France, or Poland, or artistic focus with counter-monuments). Later came the studies of memorial museums, whether as monographs or in a comparative approach, sometimes in a global perspective. More recently, a number of scholars have examined Holocaust memorials in relation with other phenomena, such as commodification and tourism, space, religious practices, memory politics, and appropriation.

General Overview

The first studies of Holocaust memorials published in the early 1990s remain the best references to this day. Both take into account Holocaust memorials around the world and offer an analysis of the ways in which they came into being (whether former sites of destruction turned into memorials, or artistic monuments, or new memorial museums). Milton 1991 was the first critical and comprehensive survey of Holocaust memorials in Europe, Israel, and the United States (though it also includes a list of memorials beyond this geographic realm). Milton places each Holocaust memorial in its national and political context; her analysis, accompanied by Ira Nowinski’s photographs, shows how the design of Holocaust memorials reflects significant differences in historiography, ideology, and culture. While maintaining contextual differences, taken collectively, they outline the evolution of public and memorial art (e.g., from figurative to more abstract, from heroism to suffering), as well as of Holocaust museography. Young 1993 is less comprehensive but deeper in its analysis of the politics of memory behind Holocaust memorials in four national contexts: Germany and Austria, Poland, Israel, and the United States. Young’s strongest chapters are those devoted to Germany, Poland, and Israel. Young also offers important methodological contributions about the notions of “monuments” and “memorials,” about the remembrance performed through ceremonies and live events—and not only stable monuments—and about the influence of political narratives on Holocaust memorials in Communist Poland and Zionist Israel. He is less convincing in his chapter on the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, most possibly because both memorials were inaugurated after the book was published, and do not receive the same contextual and deep analysis as already existing sites. Despite the fact that both books have aged a bit—mostly because the political, memorial, and artistic landscape has changed significantly, and many more Holocaust memorials have risen since—they remain unavoidable sources for those beginning to study this subject. A more recent survey of Holocaust memorial museums is the topic of Aharony and Rosenfeld 2016, a special issue of Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, which includes nine essays on Holocaust commemoration from various disciplines and covering Germany, Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Israel, the United States, and Australia. This collection of essays looks at more recent Holocaust memorials and engages in the ethics, aesthetics, and politics of Holocaust commemorations in innovative and sometimes provocative ways. The Holocaust Memorials database is a unique online resource in German and English about Holocaust museums, monuments, and other institutions that commemorate victims of Nazism. It gives a good, albeit not up-to-date, overview of memorials around the world, including outside Europe.

  • Aharony, Michal, and Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, eds. Special Issue: Holocaust Commemoration: New Trends in Museums and Memorials. Dapim: The Journal of Holocaust Research 30.3 (2016).

    This collection of nine essays addresses recent memorial museums (Judenplatz in Vienna, POLIN Museum, Yad Layeled, and memorials in the United States), as well as provocative issues such as including other genocides in Holocaust museums, attracting younger audiences in a post-witness world, and memory politics in Lithuania.

  • Holocaust Memorials.

    This website, created by the Topography of Terror in Berlin, Germany, is an online resource with maps, bibliographies, and practical information about Holocaust monuments, museums, and other institutions around the world. While the database (originally in German but also searchable in English) is a good starting point, it is unfortunately not up-to-date, lacks consistency in its listing, and contains a few errors. But as the only online resource attempting to collect information on Holocaust-related sites on the five continents, its mere existence is worth mentioning.

  • Milton, Sybil. In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

    This early reference includes focused analyses of Holocaust memorials around the world, with striking black-and-white photographs by Ira Nowinski; the heavily illustrated book also includes an annotated bibliography, a selected list of Holocaust memorial sites in Eastern, Western, and Southern Europe, Israel, the United States, and beyond. This survey remains relevant thirty years after its publication, because it is a standard to compare new Holocaust memorials against earlier ones.

  • Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Required reading for its methodological contribution in the study of Holocaust memorials, and for its overview of five countries and their political context leading to erecting Holocaust memorials, including involvement of survivors, location, and design competitions. Important focus on the meaning and interpretation of memorials.

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