For the past few years at Northwestern’s Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization, history professor Peter Hayes has led the participants in an exercise that for him has become a highlight of the two-week-long experience.
Before the 25 scholars in the program leave their colleges and universities for Evanston, they have read Landscape with Smokestacks: The Case of the Allegedly Plundered Degas (NU Press, 2000) by Howard Trienens (EB45, L49, H95). Trienens, an attorney and member of the University’s Board of Trustees, represented an American family fighting to retain ownership of a cherished Degas painting (Northwestern, fall 2001). The plaintiffs in the extremely complicated case are descendants of a Dutch Jewish couple who claimed the Nazis stole the work of art during World War II. The defendants, however, insisted the owners had shipped the painting to Paris before the war to be sold.
Although the suit was settled out of court — the Degas now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago — Hayes, also Theodore Z. Weiss Professor of Holocaust Studies and a professor of German, asks the Summer Institute’s Fellows to act as a jury of sorts. He gives them four options: support the plaintiffs, support the defendants, call for a Solomonic compromise or declare both sides morally wrong. The participants divide up according to their feelings about the dispute (the largest number almost always finds the attorney’s arguments compelling, while only a couple support the Jewish claimants). The participants, who range from full professors to graduate students, caucus in their groups and reunite to engage in a spirited but good-natured debate.
“We’re following the principles of the American judicial system regarding ownership of property,” says Kari Foster, one of the 2002 Summer Institute Fellows and a third-year graduate student in history at the University of Notre Dame. Speaking on behalf of the six others in her corner who supported the defendants, she contends that it was never proven the painting was stolen and that the plaintiffs had signed off on restitution.
Not so, responds Kevin Spicer, assistant professor of history at Stonehill College in South Easton, Mass., and one of two who favor the plaintiffs. He and the other person siding with him on the issue point out some contradictory evidence and urge the entire group to consider larger contexts. “The Jewish people were put into an impossible situation,” Spicer says. “National Socialism created illegal losses.”
Hayes seems pleased at the high level of discourse flowing around him. For him this restitution case provides a wonderful lesson on the search for truth and on the difficulties of finding that truth even when the issue is the 20th century’s greatest atrocity. “Restitution is like de-Nazification after World War II,” he says afterward with a slight smile. “It’s as necessary as it is impossible.”
Preparing for the Experience
Now in its seventh year, the institute, supported by the Skokie, Ill.– based Holocaust Educational Foundation, sees its mission as encouraging and deepening the training of academicians who either already teach courses on this dark chapter in world history or are considering doing so.
About half of the Fellows tend to be modern European historians. Yet Hayes knew quite well when he established the institute that Holocaust educators come from many points of the academic compass, from literary theory to film criticism to Jewish studies and more. And even those with backgrounds in German history might not be aware of all facets of the topic. “They may know about Goebbels and Goering but may not know a great deal about the people they were intent on massacring,” Hayes says. “The main challenge was making sure the Fellows didn’t miss some terribly important dimension of the entire subject because they might not happen to be conversant with it.”
So he and the foundation devised what Hayes describes as a “doughnut” approach. Although participants receive a heavy reading list to prepare for the program (usually about 10 books), relatively little of those requirements and only a few of the lectures actually deal directly with the Holocaust itself. It is presumed that the participants have already compiled bibliographies about the event on their own or soon will do so.
Instead, the Summer Institute typically offers lectures by leading professors from around the country on such topics as Judaism as a religion, modern Jewish history and civilization, anti-Semitism, Holocaust literature and film, and Holocaust historiography (historical interpretation).
Each segment of the course structure invariably enriches the Fellows’ body of knowledge, and many participants — such as the historians who must veer from their more familiar domains to analyze literary works and films — are challenged to stretch themselves.
Roger Brooks, an authoritative scholar on the Talmud and Elie Wiesel Professor of Judaic Studies at Connecticut College, was one of the first lecturers Hayes had in mind for the institute. Brooks has discussed Judaism as a religion every summer, and for many of this year’s participants, his insights are eye-openers.
“There was so much I didn’t know about Judaism, such as the meaning behind so many of the things Jews do, like keeping kosher,” says Foster, whose dissertation is about the wives of the Nazi High Command. “I knew there were two temples built on the same site in Jerusalem’s Old City but nothing about their function. Now I have a better understanding of the broader significance to Jews of the destruction of the temples.”
Institute Fellow Oliver Griffin, assistant professor of history at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, has taught a seminar on genocide and ethnic hatreds (focusing on the Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia) and hopes soon to offer a class that deals exclusively with the Holocaust. Although already knowledgeable about the subject, he learns from institute lecturer Steven Katz, professor of religion at Boston University, about the enormous influence of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophies on the emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe. “That was new to me,” Griffin says.
And Katz serves up other information that clearly is new to the group. Emphasizing the importance of population in the political and social advancement of Jewry, for instance, he points out that at the time of the Roman Empire, 6 million Jews lived within its borders and 2 million outside them, which surprises everyone. Disease decimated their numbers until around 1600, when the Jewish population started soaring. By the time of the Holocaust there were 16 million Jews worldwide. All of these factors, especially the last (“There were now Jews in Europe where they hadn’t been before,” Katz says), had a major impact on history.
Steven Carr (GC87), who lectures on the Holocaust in film, also has some surprises for the Fellows. An associate professor of communication at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, he begins by showing the participants snippets of classic documentaries — Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, to name two — that many of the Fellows employ in their own courses. But then Carr shifts gears and raises such seemingly roundabout possibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; To Be or Not to Be, a comedy in which Jack Benny plays a Polish actor who outwits the Nazis; and even Rancho Notorious, a Western about revenge that ironically stars the German-born Marlene Dietrich. None of them is a documentary and all were Hollywood productions, but to Carr each one is obliquely influenced by the Holocaust.
“Some films that don’t explicitly say they’re about the Holocaust are nonetheless very important to understanding the representation of the Holocaust,” says Carr after the screenings. “Looking at nontraditional materials will only result in Holocaust education getting a lot smarter.”
A Focus on the Jews
Hayes is acutely aware that millions of non-Jews — Poles, Russians, Gypsies, homosexuals, leftists and others — also perished in the camps. Yet the institute’s primary focus is on the attempt in Europe to rid the world of Jews.
“We made an intentional decision to keep a fairly tight focus on why this people was assaulted,” Hayes says. “They provide an emblematic case of intolerance. Toward other victims the animosity overlaps, but it isn’t identical.”
Asked how this relatively small group became the target for mass murder, he turns pensive. “In the first place, it was a habit, a reflex with a tradition of religious rivalry that dates from the first century of Christianity,” Hayes notes.
“With the haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jews, a derided, marginalized minority, virtually immigrated into the mainstream of society,” he continues. “They did so at a time of tremendous changes in that society — urbanization, secularization, industrialization, all of which had victims as well as beneficiaries. Many of these victims were attracted to anti-Semitic movements that blamed Jews, the newcomers, for the changes that merely accompanied their emergence. It was a mistake of taking correlation for cause, and it was a simple enough line of reasoning to attract many people desperate for a quick solution to what irritated them.”
Hayes attributes his own interest in European Jewry partly to his sympathy for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Also, a non-Jew himself, he grew up in a heavily Jewish community outside Boston, “so they were not exotic to me.”
A side trip to Düsseldorf when Hayes was a Keasbey Scholar at Oxford University kindled a lifelong love of the German language. That combined with a commitment to history eventually led to Holocaust studies.
But there’s another, deeper element at work. “I suppose I’m attracted to questions that have moral impact,” he adds thoughtfully.
An Emotional Topic
Academicians strive, of course, for objectivity in their work but are well aware it’s inevitable that their personal perspectives will intrude. And that is especially true for an emotional topic like the Holocaust.
Spicer is a Catholic priest who is researching the Catholic clergy of Berlin under the Nazis. He wrestles with the church’s response to German atrocities and points to Berlin’s Cardinal Adolf Bertram, who recalled the Kulturkampf of the 19th century, when Catholics were treated abominably. “He had seen it before,” Spicer relates, “parishes without priests, Catholics not being able to receive the sacraments. It was in the mind of every Catholic. You can read it in their statements: What’s going to happen to the Jews is going to happen to us.”
Yet Spicer laments that Pope Pius XII and many in the church hierarchy failed to make even a symbolic statement about the abuses. “It might not have saved a single individual, but at least it would have let the world know that what was happening could not be condoned in any way,” he says.
Matthew Girson, a Summer Institute participant, a Jew and an assistant professor of art and art history at DePaul University in Chicago, has quite consciously incorporated Holocaust images in many of his landscapes. In fact, one series of paintings was based on photos of concentration camps. “There’s been a shadow over my family because of the relatives who never made it out of Europe,” Girson says. “It’s something that I was introduced to as a child.”
Like many Jews, he is concerned about how the event will be treated when no witnesses remain. “Memorialization seeps into a lot of Holocaust scholarship today,” Girson says. “How can we best perpetuate the knowledge and the legacy in the most useful way? There are almost no good answers to that question yet.”
For Anna Ziebinska and Charles Thomas, the question of victimization clearly enters into their perceptions. Ziebinska is a Polish doctoral candidate in history at the University of Lublin. Thomas, professor of 20th-century European history at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, is a native of the South, a region with its own tortured past.
Ziebinska notes that Poles also consider themselves Holocaust victims. Complicating the picture is the fact that after the war, many Poles believed that the real power behind the communists was the tiny number of surviving Jews. “Many Poles have said, ‘They are also guilty,’” she says. “‘They were communists, and they persecuted us.’”
Yet Ziebinska is guardedly hopeful. “What we need now in Poland is knowledge, knowledge about Jews, about Jewish culture, about the Holocaust,” she says. “Only through this knowledge can our society change. And with the freedoms we now have, we can do it.”
Thomas, too, may have a more resonant understanding than the norm of how the Germans felt after the war because he has had to confront the entire tangled history of U.S. race relations. “I’m interested in the whole issue of guilt when the members of a society exploit or persecute,” Thomas says. “How do they justify it and how do they come to terms with it when the realization begins to set in?”
However, not everything at the Summer Institute involves self-reflection and serious scholarship. At one point, Hayes states that the question of many non-Jews — is the Holocaust relevant to them? — is misplaced. “After all,” he says, “Jews didn’t do it, non-Jews did.”
Without missing a beat, Summer Institute Fellow Rosalie Franks, a Jew and a professor of rhetoric at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., brings down the house by asking, “Are you sure? We get blamed for everything.”
Archeology of Memory
After completing the institute, most participants journey to Eastern Europe for a two-week seminar-tour, sponsored by the Holocaust Educational Foundation, of former Jewish cultural centers and labor and death camps. For practical reasons Sally Kent took the tour first and saw all six of the death camps there.
“It’s intensely moving to stand at the place where hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of people were killed,” says Kent, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.
While touring Auschwitz, she traversed the distance from the Stammlager, or base camp, to Birkenau, the death camp, the final walk to the gas chambers. “That was important to me,” Kent says. “I wanted to see how long it took.”
At Auschwitz she saw period photographs of older people, women and children outside the gas chamber moments before their deaths. “It was just overwhelming,” she says. “The photos are placed right on the site where it occurred. It’s a very complicated archeology of memory.
“I’m not Jewish, but I think that’s partly why this seminar is so tremendously valuable. It’s critical for everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, to come to some understanding of the meaning of the event.”
Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern magazine.
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