Honoring the Past: Students Seek Opportunities to Learn About the Holocaust

Through diverse course offerings, study abroad opportunities and lectures on campus, students can explore all facets of Judaism
April 12th, 2018 by 

Students gather at one of the few remaining sections of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall that was erected to seal off the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Poland, on a Maymester trip through central Europe.
Students gather at one of the few remaining sections of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall that was erected to seal off the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Poland, on a Maymester trip through central Europe. Photo by Dan Bitran

“Never forget” is a phrase that’s long been used to remind people, Jews and non-Jews alike, to remember the pain of the Holocaust, which is being commemorated — on campus and around the world — as A Day of Remembrance or “Yom Hashoah” until sundown on April 12.

Never forget also sums up the experience of Chris Fulco ’20, a physics major who is currently taking the course The Holocaust: Confronting Evil with Alan Avery-Peck, Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

“I found it so interesting to learn that with ‘Halakha’ — religious law — Jews were able to keep practicing throughout the Holocaust even though they didn’t have any of their synagogues or religious books,” says Fulco. “Jews maintained their faith, even though they weren’t able to worship.”

The course is one in a selection of Judaism and Holocaust-related offerings at the College. With only a small population of Jewish students on campus, is there a real student interest in learning about the Holocaust and Judaism in general? Avery-Peck says absolutely.

He believes students on campus are interested in Judaism and the Holocaust because they’re invested in living lives that make the world a better place.

“When students think that the Holocaust happened barely a generation ago, in one of the most civilized countries in the world, they really wonder how this is possible and how this relates to us. It’s not a history that they think is irrelevant.”

Teaching on the Holocaust isn’t solely reserved for the religious studies department.

Daniel Bitran, professor of psychology, teaches an upper-level psychology class called Science, Medicine, and the Holocaust. He also leads a Maymester trip through central Europe with Thomas Doughton, senior lecturer in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, which explores history and memory in relation to the Holocaust.

“Initially, students are attracted to the Holocaust because they’ve had some exposure to Holocaust education at the high school level,” Bitran says. In his classes, he tries to get away from the sensationalist aspect of the subject matter and focus more on the deeply personal experience.

“We de-emphasize the numbers of people who were killed, we de-emphasize the atrocities that were committed. Instead, we emphasize the human story, individual stories, so that students come to know people for who they were. That allows them to identify with the subject in a much more personal manner.”

And then, Bitran says, the barriers fall.

“Students are no longer saying, ‘Well, this happened to Jews’ or ‘This happened to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ or other groups that were persecuted during the Holocaust, but they think, ‘It could happen to people like me.'”

Of course, students come to these courses with a consciousness of the involvement of Christianity, Avery-Peck adds.

“They know that anti-Semitism is a problem historically within the church, and that the relationship between Jews and Christians has not been an easy one,” he says. “They also know that for all that the Nazis themselves proclaimed to not be Christian and did not hold Christian values, they come out of a Christian heritage and a Christian nation. I tell students they can’t feel guilty for this by any means — it was not them. But they’re conscious of wanting to think about their own heritage and how they want to shape that heritage.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Bitran and Doughton, who teaches a Holocaust course in the history department, will once again team up to lead a Maymester trip through Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic and Germany this May. On the trip, students will visit concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka and museums in Warsaw and Berlin, connecting deeply to aspects of the Holocaust memorialized throughout central Europe.

“Our goal there is to break down barriers,” says Bitran. “We look at individual stories — families that have survived or perished, getting to know the kinds of lives they lived before the war, characterizing the wide variety of Jewish life that took place in Europe.”

Corey LaForest-Roys ’18, a psychology major, found the trip helped him to view the whole notion of memorials more critically.

“I hadn’t really considered how things are memorialized and commemorated before. Just seeing different memorials, around campus and elsewhere, makes me think: Why was this built? Who was this built for? Who funded it?”

Natalie Czelusniak ’18, a mathematics major with a minor in statistics, says the Maymester is the most impactful course she has taken in her time at Holy Cross.

“Not only was it because of the extensive history I learned, but also because we were able to be present where the historical events physically occurred. I am Polish and I was so excited to visit the country where my family is from, which made learning the history of what actually took place in Poland that much harder to swallow.”

Outside of coursework and study abroad opportunities, students, faculty and staff can expand their Judaic knowledge through a series of anti-Semitism lectures on campus.

Last semester saw Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, former Google data scientist and author of “Everybody Lies: Big Date, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are” (HarperCollins, 2017) presenting on Anti-Semitism on the Web.

Upcoming lectures include The Story of Hebrew on April 16 with Lewis Glinert, professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College and author of “The Story of Hebrew” (Princeton University Press, 2017); and Jews, Intersectionality and Contemporary Anti-Semitism on April 19 with Katya Gibel Mevorach, professor of anthropology and American studies at Grinnell College and author of “Black, Jewish and Interracial: It’s not the Color of Your Skin but the Race of Your Kin, and Other Myths of Identity” (Duke University Press, 1997).

Students like Mairead Forrest ’18, an English major with a minor in medieval and renaissance studies taking Avery-Peck’s Holocaust course, keep an open mind when learning the intricacies of a different religion.

“Every week we read a new book that proposes a new reason for the atrocities that occurred and each week we find ourselves saying, ‘Yes, that’s it. That’s why,’ only to have it turned on its head after reading the next book. There is no one ‘ah-ha!’ reason for the Holocaust.”

For Fulco, learning about the Holocaust has sparked an interest in furthering his knowledge on Judaism as a whole.

“It’s one of the oldest religions in the world, so there’s a lot to go off of. I’m a Catholic, so the Jewish religion is so interesting to me because it all connects so well.”

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