Durkheim’s Sign Made Flesh: The “Authentic Symbol” in Contemporary Holocaust Pilgrimage


Source: Canadian Journal of Sociology Vol 39, No 4 (2014)


Synthesizing Durkheim’s notion of “sacred symbol” with Walter Benjamin’s theorization of “authenticity,” this paper proposes the theoretical construct, “authentic symbol,” to account for the symbolic function of Holocaust relics in contemporary Holocaust pilgrimage. The symbolic function of four kinds of relics (the sites, witness/survivors, human bodily remains and accessories) is examined and compared in three different contexts:

  • The March of the Living Holocaust tours organized for Diaspora Jewish teenagers,
  • The Masa tours organized for Israeli and practical aims of the tours and displays teenagers and
  • The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

Different ritual experiences are found to predominate in each of the three contexts, which significantly correlate with how symbols are processed by participants and the different ideological and practical aims of the tours and displays.


From the conclusion:

Durkheim’s “ritual of pain,” described above, may also account for the requirement of the authentic symbol in Holocaust ritual. While the experience of ordeal, or ritual of pain, predominates in the Masa tour, it is also evident in the March of the Living (MOL) tour in a different configuration. Martyrdom is a special, extreme case of the ritual of pain; the individual martyr dies voluntarily to strengthen the social (ideological) life of her collective. While Nazi genocide was never experienced as martyrdom for its Jewish victims, who did not die voluntarily, their deaths have assumed symbolic martyrdom status for many Jews of the Diaspora striving to make the Holocaust meaningful. Since the actual victims did not suffer voluntarily, a compensatory shift enables the MOL pilgrims to do so in their stead by experiencing a voluntarily, disembodied “ritual of pain by proxy,” demanding emotional rather than physical pain. The symbolic force of the real pain of dead Holocaust victims is thus transferred to the living MOL participants, a transference which can only be effected by authentic symbols, actual sites and relics. Thus, the physical pain suffered by Jewish Holocaust victims energizes a transcendent web of the Diasporic Zionist collective identity, rather than remaining an inert historical narrative of human suffering. The Holocaust tour as ritual of pain has different ends in the Masa tours, namely, ideological preparation for the duties of military service, involving anticipated actual bodily pain, trauma and possible death in the defense of the State. While some of the Diasporic MOL participants may well emigrate to Israel and serve in its armed forces, nearly all of the Masa participants are sure to do so in the very near future. Perhaps Masa ’s enhanced need for direct sensory experience and empirical authenticity reflects this reality, preparing Israeli teenagers for a near future, which may well require loss of actual life or limb.

Updated: Jan. 28, 2015