Oren Kaplan is interviewing Gila Oren: The Duality of the experience of PCCA

Oren Kaplan is interviewing Gila Oren:

The Duality of the experience of PCCA

Dr. Gila Oren is a faculty member at the College of Management in Israel. She is an expert in Marketing and Advertising and held a series of senior roles in industry and academia, for example in Keshet Chunnle-2 TV, Gitam BBDO, and as the chair of the Department of Marketing at the College of Management for the last 8 years.

Gila graduated with a Ph.D. in Marketing at Ben Gurion University of the Negev under an unusual title for a business-oriented dissertation, related to the emotional experience of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. This brings us of course to our current interview. Gila was the only child of two holocaust survivors. Her personal interest in Shoa, as a second-generation child, brought her to study and become an expert in the history of the holocaust and to lead visits of many Israeli high school groups to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

Gila has participated in three PCCA conferences, at Kliczkow, Poland 2016, at Den Dolder, The Netherlands, 2018, and in Cyprus 2019. Gila is an Ofek member, participated in group relation conferences in Israel and in Leicester, UK.

I thought that her wide scope and perspective in so many issues that surround PCCA, could be interesting to explore and hear about. I asked Gila to describe her PhD study and to give us some insights how it could correspond with her PCCA conferences’ experience.

I left the writing in first-person, so as to speak with Gila’s voice:

My main motivation for doing a Ph.D. was not very inspirational, it had to do with my career path. In my area of expertise in advertising and marketing, age is a disadvantage, so, when I got a bit older, I decided to complete my Ph.D. and deepen my career path in academia. But it didn’t go so smooth and I did not find a subject that attracted me enough.

The beginning of my Ph.D. was not smooth, and I found it difficult to find a good subject to explore. At the same time, I started to study a course in Yad Vashem for becoming a Shoa (Holocaust) Educator and a licensed guide for high school students who visit Auschwitz as part of the “March of the Living”. I found these studies very interesting and I invested myself into it deeper and deeper. At the end of the process I went to Auschwitz. It wasn’t my first visit there, I had visited Auschwitz about 20 year before, but this was a different story. And while walking around in the museum there, and spending these intensive days focusing on the holocaust, I suddenly realized something that became the trigger for my Ph.D. research; I am coming from years of working in advertising and marketing, and there we deal a lot with branding, memory and perception. Talking about the holocaust as a “brand” and about the memory of the holocaust as a target for marketing, may sound like a rude provocation. However, in the Department of Tourism, where I did my Ph.D. study, it could fit into the niche of “Heritage Tourism” studies. Nevertheless, if we start to define the field of the Holocaust in the framework and language of marketing, we should understand that the memory of the holocaust, like any heritage, has to be kept and managed. It’s not enough that we want to remember. It has to be professionally dealt with. There is a lot of competition in the world on narratives, and the exclusive horror the Holocaust had brought along might be diluted as years go by. Therefore, you cannot just leave it in the arbitrary hands of history – this was the insight that inspired my idea to use marketing and managerial perspectives into the concept of Holocaust and its memory. This was a radical perspective, of course, not easy to digest, at least when I did my Ph.D. study about 10 years ago. Talking about the Holocaust and business in the same sentence was not politically correct. Researchers that dealt with the Holocaust were historians, psychologists, psychiatrists, but definitely not business people and business researchers.

A contemporary popular dimension of marketing is the “customer experience”, everybody talks about UX, UI (user experience, user interface), influenced of course by the internet and the digitalization of businesses and marketing. So I decided to explore this popular dimension of experience in the context of the visit of people to Auschwitz. Such a visit is considered to be hard, influential, full of impact that stays with the visitors for a long time. The idea was to check the experience, and also to check segmentation of, for example, Jews versus non-Jewish visitors, of those who were affected directly by the Holocaust, and those who were less involved.

I took the advantage that I speak Polish, and I translated the questionnaires, and ran it in four different language versions: Hebrew, English, Polish, and German at the Auschwitz camp. I managed to get the support of the Museum of Auschwitz, and they helped me in collecting the data. They even offered me a room in the camp itself. It was a dreadful experience and after one night there I ran away and took a hotel nearby, which was also quite strange, because this hotel used to be part of the camp, too, during the war. I stayed there for two weeks for collecting the data and got 600 questionnaires.

The most interesting thing about the emotional visiting experience was the emotional DUALITY. Usually in marketing, but maybe almost anywhere, we are looking and searching for an experience of positive and good emotions. Even if you go to the bank to take a loan, and you have negative emotions and experiences there, it would be unfortunate for the bank, and people would prefer a nicer experience. Negative emotions are related to negative experiences and therefore people tend to reject and avoid such circumstances. Even in basic psychological research, we see that people and even laboratory animals try to seek positive emotions and avoid negative ones. BUT… when we talk about the experience of visiting a horrible place like Auschwitz we are talking about the dark side of emotions, and therefore, it is not surprising that the professional-academic expression for visiting touristic sites like this is “Dark Tourism” – referring usually to historical sites that display wars and atrocities in places like Waterloo, Hiroshima,  the Normandy landings site, and of course, concentration camps like Auschwitz.

People are coming to visit Dark Tourism sites not for having fun. On the contrary, they are seeking negative and even horrifying experiences. However, we should be more specific and differentiate now between emotions and experiences. In visiting the concentration camp, people would feel negative emotions, and this would give them positive and enriching experiences of learning, remembering, connecting, getting a deeper meaning of life. So, negative emotions as anger, fear, sorrow, sadness, are expected in such visits, and paradoxically, unless you feel those bad emotions, the experience of the visit will be disappointing and meaningless. So, the study found that in parallel to the negative emotions of visiting Auschwitz, there are also positive emotions. The visitors experience the duality of emotions. They feel sad and bad about the victims and the horrible things that had happened there, but at the same time they feel satisfied and good for visiting and witnessing these historical events; they feel anger towards the Nazi regime but feel proud about the winning of the Allies and the release of Europe from them. The duality creates a unique situation. It’s not common that people are expressing a complex duality of emotions. We say in Hebrew “Lo Bachiti, Lo Haiti” – (if you didn’t cry, it is as if you weren’t there at all); we say it in a cynical way about those people who come for crying, but in a way it’s true, because people are coming to endure these bad emotions, for experiencing the inspiration and the positive emotions that come along sometimes with the pain of learning. They feel more connected to their heritage or to the general human kind heritage, they are touched and know that they “did their duty”, committed some personal obligation to the dead, to the family, to something which is important for them and bigger than them.

We analysed the PSOH (Perception of Site as Own heritage) of different nationalities and language-speaking groups of visitors and found no differences between them. Most of the participants in this research belonged to some group of people that were affected in this way or another by the Holocaust. Future research could study the experience of visitors from countries that were less affected by the Holocaust, like China, India, and Korea. It will be interesting to find out whether their reaction was different.

The main difference we did find was between people that perceived the site as their own heritage, and those who perceived it as someone else’s heritage. In this segmentation, many Jews, Germans, and Polish were on the same side, because they perceived Auschwitz as part of their own heritage, as part of their own history.

The outcome and application of the research was that any heritage site should promote itself as connected to the people’s heritage. Auschwitz is probably one of the most known heritage sites of the world that many people perceive as their own heritage. And this may connect us to the PCCA that gathered Jews and Germans from the different sides of the Holocaust to the same room in order to work through the trauma.

This was my first encounter with the second generation of Germans. It was shocking for me. The possibility to sit and talk with them was new. But even more shocking was the understanding that they might experience the story even stronger than we do. They have to deal with guilt and blame, and it seemed to me harder than dealing with being a victim. In addition, we as victims that arrived in Israel were occupied in addition to the Holocaust with the issue of “TKUMA” – the establishment of Israel, and this probably helped in overcoming the victimhood.

The unique feeling of being together in the PCCA conference was very special. I definitely felt less lonely there. The Ph.D. is quite a lonely process, and in this terms, the Ph.D. and being a second-generation and only child of two survivors… it’s a huge feeling of loneliness. And in the PCCA conferences, I didn’t stay alone with the story, which was very interesting, especially because the two sides of the war shared the same conference and story. In this sense, I see a parallel process between the duality of vising Auschwitz and participating in PCCA conferences, because being in such a conference is not an easy task. You have to confront your demons and the unknown demons of the others, but at the same time you feel inspired and satisfied that you went and visited these unconscious shadows.

I participated in three different conferences of PCCA, and the feeling was different. In a way I was surprised that in Cyprus the issue of the Holocaust was much less present than in Kliczkow, as if the main issue in Cyprus was the Brexit and the right-wing movements. It felt as if people didn’t care anymore about the Holocaust– “this is history”, “give us a break”, “now we deal with contemporary things”. In a way it supported my first claim that the memory needs to be managed, otherwise it will be gone. But this could also be related to an unconscious part of the society as Germany and the UK are now part of one big country – the EU, and this gives the illusion that war cannot happen again. The anxiety of Brexit could have carried something much deeper that was mirrored in the title of the Cyprus conference, whether the history might repeat itself, 80 years after the war. So maybe people were avoiding it and preferred to talk about the Brexit as a defense mechanism.

And we cannot ignore the current Coronavirus crisis. Though by itself it was not dangerous like the Black Death or a war, still many post-traumatic people experienced a threat. The unconscious doesn’t know the difference between the Anna Frank whose family hid from the Nazis, and a quarantine peaceful citizen that hides from the Coronavirus. For both of them, the danger is outside, for both of them, a cough symbolizes uncovering of the shelter, for both of them, death is just a matter of luck. So, our challenge is to uncover the duality of experience, to be alert when genocide is a symbol, and when a real holocaust might repeat and happen again. I think that the work of PCCA is a unique and a courageous way to confront these sensitive issues.

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