Jessica Lyon, a double major in American Studies and Cinema Studies, is one of the many exemplary students who graduated from Colby College in Spring 2019. Before she left, she completed a project of cultural and historical significance that we want to share with the community at large. With the help of a research grant from the Center for the Arts and Humanities, as well as a Compagna-Sennett research fellowship from the Religious Studies Department, Jessica created a documentary titled Reclaiming German Citizenship After the Holocaust. The documentary served as a year-long capstone project for Jessica’s independent major in Cinema Studies. Jessica was advised in her research by Associate Professor of Cinema Studies Steve Wurtzler. To watch the trailer, please click here.
This project explores critical issues of identity, family, history, and culture through personal narratives as well as interviews with academics. In the documentary, German Jews who immigrated to the US and their descendants reflect on the difficulties of deciding whether or not to reclaim German citizenship lost during the Holocaust. Jessica is interested in the interplay of the many identities which comprise each individual — American, German, and Jewish. Her focus on family history resonated strongly with the 2018-19 Center for the Arts and Humanities theme “The Presence of the Past.”
The grants Jessica received enabled her to interview many German Jews and their descendants in Maine, in the Washington, D.C., area, and in Philadelphia. This funding also allowed her to obtain high quality audio recording equipment, and to pay the application fees for film festivals where she hopes she can show the documentary.
As part of her research, Jessica interviewed professors from Colby, Bowdoin, and the University of Southern Maine, as well as Holocaust survivors and their descendants. She learned that some individuals were interested in acquiring German citizenship because of the benefits of dual citizenship, including the ability to live and work in the European Union. During the application process, many individuals gained new and important insights into their family history. She found that individuals who chose not to pursue German citizenship had no desire to establish formal connections with a place that held such a terrible significance in their family history. Each person whom Jessica interviewed had to grapple with the past, whether or not they chose to apply for German citizenship. In some cases, their family’s traumatic experiences in the Holocaust are still evident in how they live today—in their mindsets, and in their activism to try to prevent anything like the Holocaust from happening again.
The story isn’t just about Jewish or German identity, but about American identity. Everyone whom Jessica interviewed considers themselves to be American. Interviewees discussed the opportunities America had given them, but some noted the continuing threat of anti-semitism. They are both appreciative of their lives in America and saddened that, generations after the Holocaust, intolerance still exists.
Jessica told us that she was grateful for the support she had received from the Center for the Arts and Humanities, and that she would strongly recommend other students to apply for Center research grants. “It can be very helpful in expanding the types of opportunities which you can pursue.” Jessica told us. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to Philadelphia and get a really important interview that has helped shape my documentary without the funding.”
When asked what she wants viewers to take from her documentary, Jessica replied that she wants people to “understand and explore the interconnectedness of identity, globalization, citizenship, and culture.” She also wants viewers to consider their own history and connections to their families. We hope that this article will serve a similar purpose, encouraging you to think on the presence of the past, on the role of your own family history to your identity and place in the modern world. Because where would any of us be, without family?
Written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator