Negative Epiphany: From Sinai to Washington

  • Avril Alba
Part of the The Holocaust and its Contexts book series (HOLC)


Upon entering the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC, one is transported from the celebrated icons of American democracy to their antithesis. Exiting the elevators that lift the individual out of the present and into past, the visitor is confronted by the horrors of fascism, reflected in the now-infamous life-sized photographic images and film footage1 of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the American army. Due to the proliferation and familiarity of Holocaust imagery in the present, it is difficult to recall the profound effect of these images when originally released.2 ‘Writers have tried to describe these things but words cannot describe them and, even if they could, there are details too filthy to be printed anywhere’, opined the New York Times Magazine on 6 May1945, articulating a trope of incomprehensibility vis-à-vis representing the Holocaust that would echo for decades to come.3 The shock was such that for many, including most famously Susan Sontag, the photographs became indicative of a turning point in the history of the West, an indication that a ‘limit had been reached’ and a ‘prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany’, experienced.4 An inverse ‘salvation history’ was created and a new epoch proclaimed. But what, exactly, was the content of this revelation? Who would make known its message and from where would the word go out? Such were the questions that, I argue, preoccupied those individuals charged with the development and building of what was to become the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).


Jewish Community Jewish People Jewish History Jewish Tradition Death Camp 
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Copyright information

© Avril Alba 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Avril Alba
    • 1
  1. 1.University of SydneyAustralia

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