Holocaust talk in US was overwhelming

DAVID SAFFER speaks to an academic bringing history to life

BROADCASTER Prof Helen Weinstein is discovering innovative ways in which the past can be packaged for mass audiences.

Director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past at the University of York since its foundation in 2006, Helen has produced more than 80 documentaries and history programmes for TV and radio.

A Sony Gold Award for best news programme of the year with Document - The Day They Made It Rain, she is co-chairman of the London Mayor's Heritage Diversity Task Force and sits on many committees.

These include the National Museum of Science and Industry Research Advisory Board, which incorporates the Science Museum (London), National Railway Museum (York) and National Media Museum (Bradford).

Hailing from an American family, the daughter of Bill and Marion Weinstein was born in Oxford in 1967.

"Dad was a political scientist so was always looking at new Demographies," she recalled.

"We moved around a lot when I was a kid living in Canada and African states. Bangladesh was a really big part of my childhood but I also had a strong Australian accent as I went to kindergarten in Canberra."

She added: "My grandmother remembered coming over to New York on a boat from Galicia in Poland.

"I'm very proud of her mum, my great grandmother, because she wrote for Jewish Yiddish papers in Brooklyn. She was the breadwinner in the family and totally focused on being a writer.

"I had a good Jewish upbringing in Oxford and having family in New York, childhood memories of Jewish holidays were being in a vast shul.

"The synagogue was opposite Brooklyn's botanic gardens and public library so my main memory of Jewish life was mixing Jewish stuff with culture."

However, a subject Helen struggled with in her formative years was the Holocaust.

"People didn't talk about it in the UK, which is weird because people like my father's mentor, Isaiah Berlin, and academics I grew up with in Oxford were second generation, survivors' kids," she said.

"In America people talked about the Holocaust all the time so I found it overwhelming to get my head around.

"These are things that form you."

After reading history at the University of York, Helen returned to America to further an interest in politics.

"History and politics go together," Helen said. "The present informs your view of the past and vice versa.

"I started as a political speech writer and researcher for Senate Democrats at the United States Senate.

"I wrote for Daniel L Boren, Carl Levin and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

"Through Moynihan and Boren I got interested in high politics and the Cold War as I was doing work for them that supported their work in foreign relations.

"It was really helpful working with smart politicians because I decided to go back and do more history."

A research scholarship saw Helen study at Samuel Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge in the early 90s.

Completing her research, Helen embarked on a 12-year period in broadcasting, recounting periods of history for TV and radio with the BBC, Channel 4 and other media networks.

"It is about understanding who we are and understanding humanity," she said. "By understanding where we come from we understand who we are today and can create a more tolerant society.

"The backdrop to so many frictions in the present are based in the past. If you don't understand how tensions came about in Northern Ireland, Iran, Iraq or the Middle East, you do not understand the conflicts."

In her field of expertise, Helen, has focussed on the 17th century.

"It was a time of huge political and religious change," Helen noted.

She added: "I love sleuthing. When things get glossed over if you dig around you find other things happening and that is what I wanted to do with my students when looking at Jewish history in York.

"You are told about this cataclysmic moment in 1190, but why do people always seem to forget the Jewish community 40 years later was not just rebuilt but thriving.

Helen's move to York five years ago was fortuitous.

"I'd been in broadcasting and was interested in how people consume TV and Radio programmes," she said.

"Programme commissioners can tell you things about your audience for history programmes, but not their motivations, cultural baggage, why they watch them or are they the right kind.

"I wanted to look at ways broadcasters understand audiences."

Cambridge University offered Helen a senior fellowship.

"I ran public history forums for key people in film, TV, radio, book publishing and other kinds of mass media journalism to debate these issues," Helen explained.

"At the same time, unbeknown to me, the University of York were interested in the same things and was funding an Institute to look at public history issues and to research the public understanding of the past.

"There was a synergy and they found me. It pushed my buttons on what I passionately and politically believe in. Academics should be looking to translate academic work for public consumption.

"I wanted to study how the public consumes the past and what difference does it makes, what decisions are made how the past is made into radio and TV programmes, films, museum and art gallery exhibitions.

"Being able to study across the media into heritage and museums excited me."

Helen successfully led an ambitious partnership project with IPUP, the BBC and British Film Institute to mark 10 years since Simon Schama's History of Britain was broadcast as BBC's Millennium commission last year.

And she developed methodologies for interviewing large cohorts of the public in a City of York project with 850 audience interviews.

A major challenge though has been learning about museums and heritage centres.

"I'd worked in those sectors in my broadcasting career, but not had to grapple with the literature about museums and heritage sites," she said.

"We must tell stories from the past in a way that engages the public and tempts people into history." Helen found there is a huge curiosity for history when she worked with TV presenter Dan Snow. "The number of different types of people who came up to us in the street saying they'd seen programmes was amazing," she noted. "At IPUP we want to reach out to different audiences."

Another fascinating area of future work may centre on catering for on catering for people with dementia.

"How do you provide an interesting, creative experience so they can become users of the museum sector," she said.

"Object collections must be rewarding. At the core is healing through history, memory making and identity formation that is at the heart of where a family or community have come from.

"It's really important. When a community shuts out their past is when a community can fall apart."

Regarding, the Jews of York, Helen noted in 2006 that the tourist office had little information for visitors.

"There have been publications and academic work allows you to understand York's Jewish history, but its not translated to the general public so it is still a hidden history," she lamented.

"I feel uncomfortable as a Jew living in York that Clifford's Tower is an icon for the city used on tourist marketing materials with no explanation.

"I'm not a medieval expert, but colleagues are working on a new volume that will give new insights to the way narratives were constructed by the chronicles of the period.

"It is about understanding how stories were told and why they were told in a certain ways to construct prejudice in the medieval period. I'm really excited this volume is coming out later this year."

And Helen is taking the Jews of York story further at IPUP.

"I want my students to reconnect the city with the 20th century story of the Jews," she said.

"There was a community with a synagogue between 1892-1975. I want to do a research project with students on that community.

"I'm also interested in students finding out how the Second World War, the liberation of camps and Eichmann trial were understood and reported in York papers of the time.

"What kind of connectivity might have been made in those reports about previous prejudice against Jews and extermination of Jews in the city itself.

"That is a really interesting question and would help the city understand what they are doing on Holocaust Memorial Day.

"Some local people are surprised when they hear Jews were living in York since 1190"

Helen is taking a sabbatical to write a book that will set out a new agenda for understanding how the public participate with the past.

"It's really exciting," she said. "The book sums up five years of research in the media, heritage and museums I've conducted since I arrived at York.

"To pull that together into a big blockbuster book will be very satisfying."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph