Mason Student Finds Hidden Story at Holocaust Museum
One spoon. One paragraph. That’s all it took to send Željana Varga on a research mission that not only broke new ground on day-to-day living in World War II concentration camps but also took her on a personal journey of discovery.
The spoon, painfully plain and corroded with age, was in a display case at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where Varga and others from Douglas Irvin-Erickson’s class at Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution were exploring research ideas at the museum’s archives.
The archival collections and library are open to all, but because of Mason’s proximity to the museum, Mason students find the archives particularly accessible, especially for repeat visits for further research, says Mason alumna Victoria Barnett, a museum program director and 2012 S-CAR PhD graduate.
Varga read a paragraph describing the spoon and was intrigued.
“Essentially, it reads that spoons were a symbol of humanity, as most prisoners were forced to eat what little food they would get without silverware, like dogs,” she recalls. “The purpose was to dehumanize the prisoners. I left the museum knowing that I wanted to look into spoons. Where I was going with it, I had no idea at the time—as is true with research.”
What her research revealed through oral histories and original documentation was revelatory.
“I ended up with a collection of stories in which spoons were the lens through which we can discover new or different understandings of life in the camps, gulags, and ghettos,” she says, adding that the journey of spoons has led her to “take a deeper look into the complexity of human connection and human relations within the camps.”
Originally from war-ravaged Bosnia, Varga came with her family to Vermont in 1996, after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. Varga learned about the possibility of hard-to-find genocide studies at Mason when she took part in a conference assembled by human rights organization Global Youth Connect.
Mason is home to the Genocide Prevention Program, whose director, Irvin-Erickson, was teaching the Holocaust and Genocide class that brought Varga to the museum.
“My true passion is genocide prevention,” she says. “I saw [Mason] as my chance to create the opportunity for myself. I am a firm believer in owning my education, and so far it has really been paying off.”
As for her research on the Holocaust spoons, she found it most interesting that the prisoners performed routine daily rituals despite the horrors suffered in the concentration camps.
“Life continued in the camps,” she says, remarking on how a form of black market commerce developed, employing children as smugglers. “The economy of all of it is fascinating and deserves to be brought out of the archives.”
By Buzz McClain