Archive for October, 2017

From Evanston to L’viv: Reflections on Two Holocaust Educational Fellowships

By Benjamin R. Nestor

I was recently given the opportunity to participate in two Holocaust history seminars. The first was at the Holocaust Education Foundation at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. The second was a research seminar in Lviv, Ukraine, funded and organized by the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure. Both proved immensely valuable in terms of learning, networking, and even having some fun, which was much needed given the intensity of the topic. Both of these experiences were important in my continuing development as a historian and future educator – and hopefully my reflections can inspire readers, in particular graduate students, to consider applying for similar short-term fellowships in their respective fields.

Fellowship I

The Holocaust Education Foundation (HEF), a nonprofit organization recently integrated into Northwestern University, offers an intensive two-week seminar titled the HEF Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization, where roughly twenty fellows convene with top scholars in the field for a crash-course in recent Holocaust research and teaching methodologies. HEF was founded in 1976 by Theodore Zev Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, with the aim of increasing Holocaust education within university-level curricula.

My acceptance came in March, and in June I set off for what would be a two-week stay in one of Northwestern’s dorms. In the interim, the accepted fellows received a list of content to read and watch ahead of time, which included around fifteen books, ten documentaries, and course-packets assembled by the participating scholars, with each packet running from three-hundred to four-hundred pages. All of this was capped off with a twenty-page syllabus. Upon reviewing the material, I suddenly recalled my advisor Dr. Staudenmaier, who was a fellow in 2010, smirking and warning me when I was accepted that HEF was “quite a bit of work.” I spent most of May and the first half of June frantically preparing.

After settling in to the dorm I was provided, the seminar began on a Sunday night with an opening reception where I met the other fellows. Included among them were tenured professors, current fellows at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), post-docs, employees with nonprofits, and a few other graduate students at various stages of completing doctoral work. The fellows’ disciplinary backgrounds were diverse, which contributed to the quality of the discussions. The night ended early since bright and early the next day we were set to begin what would be an intensive two weeks of full day intensive seminars with an impressive list of scholars: Peter Hayes (Northwestern University), Barry Trachtenberg (Wake Forest University), Alexandra Garbarini (Williams College), Stuart Liebman (City University of New York), Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University), Leo Spitzer (Dartmouth College), among others.

There were around thirty hour-and-a-half sessions divided into the following categories: the history of the Holocaust, the history of Jews in Modern Europe, Judaic theology, photography and film of the Holocaust, memory and commemoration of the Holocaust through museums, Jewish responses to the Holocaust, gendered approaches to Holocaust studies, and the psychology of perpetrators. Besides enduring the work-load, the fellows also spent every meal together getting to enjoy dorm-cafeteria food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, often accompanied by several of the scholars that led the day’s seminars.

Each seminar was a combination of lecture on past and recent scholarship, discussion on the readings, and workshopping ways to translate recent scholarship into effective teaching. Discussions often moved from the specific (e.g. how do we incorporate Rabbi Halivni’s theological reaction to the Holocaust into a discussion with students?) to the broad (e.g. why should students take a class on the Holocaust?). Taken together, these seminars made for an extraordinary two weeks exploring numerous disciplinary and methodological approaches to the study of Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust.

In my own analysis, and through frequent conversations with other fellows, some of whom I can now call friends, it seems that everyone found the two-weeks extremely informative and provided each of us with greater confidence in our own research and designing our own Holocaust courses. There were also two “field trips,” which included a Chicago architectural tour with Paul Jaskot (Duke University), and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. I often capped each day with a walk next to Lake Michigan to think about the many issues raised throughout the day. After two weeks of sleeping in a dorm and eating cafeteria-food, it was nice to get home.

Fellowship II

Before leaving for Evanston, I received another acceptance letter—this time for a week-long seminar in L’viv, Ukraine, organized by the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI), EHRIwhich began operating in 2010 through the support of the European Union. The seminar was also organized in conjunction with other institutions, such as the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (IfZ). I was thrilled to receive news of another unexpected opportunity – who would complain about an all-expense paid trip to Ukraine, including flight, hotel accommodations, airport transfers and food.

I read Tarik Cyril Amar’s The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists (2015) on the airplane to better acquaint myself with the famously contested city – Львів (L’viv), Lwów, Lemberg – that the EHRI seminar was held, and was delighted on my ride from the airport to the hotel at how well-preserved L'vivthe city is, albeit with an expected layer of decay common to eastern European cities. The hotel was centrally located and even came with a balcony that offered a nice view of the city. The itinerary for the program promised to be intellectually stimulating: full days of in-class seminars, discussions and participant research presentations, but also “field trips” and arranged dinners at local restaurants.

Seminar themes ranged between broad Holocaust scholarship and research methodologies to topics specific to L’viv. They included round-tables on the current state of the field, presentations on Jewish artists in L’viv, the Holocaust in Galicia, the 1941 pogrom, the Babi Yar massacre, and spatial approaches in Holocaust scholarship, in addition to informational seminars such as how to “decode” German documents and finding sources. Presenters included Karel Berkhoff (NIOD), Andrea Löw (IfZ), Frank Bajohr (IfZ), Dieter Pohl (University of Klagenfurt), Mykhaylo Tyaglyy (Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies), Niccolai Zimmermann (Bundesarchiv Berlin), Kai Struve (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg), Waitman Wade-Beorn (University of Virginia), among others. Also, as mentioned above, each of the roughly ten fellows, ranging from tenured professors to doctoral studeL'viv 2nts, presented on our current research.

The “field trips” were also a highlight of the seminar and helped situate the Holocaust within a local context. The excursions included going to the Lysynychi forests, the site where tens of thousands of victims were killed in mass shooting operations on the outskirts of the city, the Lontsky Prison Memorial Museum of the Victims of Occupation Regimes, St. George’s Cathedral, Janowska camp area, a visit to the “Space of Synagogues,” and a Rosh Hashanah service at a Jewish community center. Visiting these sites drove home the contested memories and meanings of the city’s Jewish past, Ukrainian involvement in the Holocaust, and the history of occupying regimes in L’viv.

Each day ended with a group dinner. The fare was often delicious, and the dinners gave us all the opportunity to decompress, to get to know one another, and to talk about our current research. Everyone I spoke to about the quality of the seminar had exceedingly

dinner

Ben Nestor is third from the front, on the left side of the table.

positive things to say. I made new friends and professional connections, learned a lot, and got to leave with some great memories. These are reasons alone why I hope other graduate students spend time searching for, and applying to similar seminars and conferences.

 

As I complete my final year of course work and prepare for my doctoral examinations back in Milwaukee, I continue to grapple with some of the larger questions raised in both seminars: What should students take away from a class on the Holocaust? Is there a balance between commemoration and the touristic nature of Holocaust memorials? Do educators and museums unintentionally “functionalize” victims of the Holocaust, especially in the use of photographs? Is “Never Again” impractical, and if so, how can I express the importance of my research and teaching to non-academic audiences, especially when the humanities in general seem to face an unrelenting crisis in American society? I hope to develop some answers to these questions while researching and writing over the next few years.

Benjamin R. Nestor is a second-year history PhD student at Marquette University specializing in Modern Germany, the Holocaust and Täterforschung. His dissertation will focus on the intellectual and cultural world of the Einsatzgruppen in the so-called “Holocaust by Bullets,” with particular interest in ideology and contingency, masculinity, and the role of mid-level functionaries in the advancement of the program to murder the European Jews.

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