Posts Tagged 'Holocaust'

Never Forget: Two Lessons of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

By J. Patrick Mullins, Ph.D.

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme “Democracy in Troubled Times.”That is the focus of the 2018-2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

On October 27, 2018, a man shouting “All Jews must die” entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services and opened fire on the worshippers. The gunman killed eleven persons and wounded six (including four police officers who answered the call of duty) before he was shot and taken into custody. He allegedly explained to police, “I just want to kill Jews.” The Tree of Life Massacre is the largest mass murder of Jews (targeted for being Jews) in American history. That data point should give us pause.

The study of history is not a luxury, not a game, not a contemplative end-in-itself. Historians strive to identify the causes and consequences of human events so the public might benefit from the lessons of the past in making their own decisions, as private individuals and self-governing citizens. Democracy cannot survive without the wisdom afforded by history.

As a professional responsibility and a public service, we historians can interpret and explain current events in their historic contexts, bringing to light long-range causes not necessarily evident to media commentators and policy makers. But what contexts apply here? What lessons might the synagogue attack teach us?

For me, the mass shooting in Pittsburgh is not wholly of civic or professional concern. It took place in my old neighborhood, among my old friends.

Originally formed by an Orthodox congregation over a century ago, the Tree of Life Synagogue is one of the oldest in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The first Jewish immigrants from Europe made Squirrel Hill their home in the 1840s, and the neighborhood became predominantly Jewish in the 1930s. Holocaust survivors settled there in the 1950s and Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

When my wife and stepdaughter emigrated from Israel, we chose Squirrel Hill for our new home. There we could socialize with other Hebrew speaking families, shop at the kosher grocery, and celebrate Rosh Ha’Shanah, Passover, and Purim with neighbors. We had a family membership in the neighborhood’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), where my stepdaughter went to kindergarten for a time and swam in the pool after elementary school classes, and my wife and I enjoyed the gym.

The Squirrel Hill JCC is welcoming to secular Jews as well as Gentiles. Being open and welcoming to outsiders has its risks. About 20 years ago, JCCs nationwide enhanced their security in the wake of small-scale attacks on their facilities motivated by anti-Semitism. For a visit to the gym, I would run a membership card with a picture ID through a card reader that would admit me to a small room made of bulletproof glass. A staff member kept constant vigil at the entrance, observing every person who entered that airlock and making visual confirmation of identity before unlocking the second door.

Many American Jews have internalized the need for such vigilance against anti-Semitism and security against political violence. This habitual guardedness is partly a product of Holocaust memory. The great moral imperatives of Holocaust memory—“Never Forget” and “Never Again”—leap to many minds as the historic lesson which most readily and obviously applies to the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre.

It is disturbing to see the same kind of genocidal mindset responsible for the Holocaust unleashed again—by one man, in our own time, in our family’s old neighborhood—to such bloody effect. This incident is all the more disturbing viscerally for those Jews with a personal connection to anti-Semitic violence. Many of my wife’s relatives went into Nazi concentration camps, and most did not come out. Her grandmother survived Bergen-Belsen.

In the spirit of “Never Forget” and “Never Again,” historians should work—as scholars, teachers, and curators—to help the public understand this mass killing in the context of a long history of anti-Semitic persecution. We should keep the Tree of Life atrocity alive in the American mind, holding it up to our fellow citizens as a tragic example of what can happen when racial and religious hatreds go unchecked or even inflamed by our media, intellectuals, and elected leaders.

But there is another historic context in which we can try to understand the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre. It has a second lesson to teach.

The killing of eight men and three women in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was the largest scale killing of Jews as Jews in United States history. The horror of this fact must not be diminished. But its historic contextualization requires acknowledgment that Jews have not been subjected in the U.S. to the kind of large-scale bloodshed experienced historically by African Americans (for example, in the Colfax Massacre) or indigenous Americans (as at Wounded Knee).

Moreover, the killing of Jews for being Jews has occurred on an unimaginably greater scale elsewhere in the Western world. In many nations of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, Jews have been murdered by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions—by mobs, inquisitions, state-encouraged pogroms, and state-directed, industrial-scale extermination. Nazis are hardly alone in this grisly legacy.

Picture1The International Memorial at Dachau concentration camp in Germany, dedicated in 1967 in commemoration of the Holocaust.

A heritage of persecution and genocide is central to the history and identity of modern Jews, but that is not all there is to being Jewish in America today. Jews have indeed experienced violence, prejudice, discrimination, and other adversities in America. But they have also prospered here, economically, culturally, and spiritually, enjoying greater security of life and liberty of thought in the United States than almost any other nation in the Western world.

This is not by accident.

At a time when non-Anglican Protestants—let alone Catholics or Jews—were banned from the vote and public office in Britain, the legal equality of all religions was a founding principle of the U.S. government.

On August 18, 1790, in a letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington noted that the new U.S. Constitution recognized that “[a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . . May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

The American Republic’s constitutional protections for religious minorities—including naturalization of non-Christian immigrants and the prohibition of church establishments, religious tests for national office, and acts of Congress abridging the free exercise of religion—are as central the Jewish American experience as persecution and the Holocaust.

The full logical implications of the equal rights principle were not rendered explicit for women, African Americans, or indigenous Americans in the U.S. Constitution as they were for religious minorities. And too often America’s founding principles have been honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is specifically when the U.S. government and its citizens forget America’s original commitment to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” that the rights of minorities, immigrants, and individual dissenters are most urgently in peril.

The two lessons of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre are therefore tragically interconnected. We historians must teach the evils that humans have done to one another and exhort the public to remember the horrors and crimes of the past, lest we be doomed to repeat them. But we must also help our students and readers never to forget the human capacity for goodness and the positive achievements of the past, lest they slip away.

Historians have an important role to play in civic life by affirming and renewing within our local communities and our national culture the values which have made possible peaceful coexistence among humans, despite our differences and disagreements, such as the moral right of each individual to think, judge, choose, and live by the light of her or his own reason and conscience. Only when such principles are secure—not just under law but in the hearts and minds of the American people—can we all sit in safety under our own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make us afraid.


  1. Patrick Mullins, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history and Public History Director at Marquette University. His first book—Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution—was published in 2017. He is working on a new book about the role of public memory in the cultural origins of the American Revolution.


Further Reading:

Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas P. The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pencak, William. Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Wenger, Beth. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America. New York: Doubleday, 2007.


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


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.

Here Lived Herbert Frank: History, Art, and Memory

By James Marten

A few weeks ago I literally stumbled across some of the most moving historical monuments I’ve ever seen. I was attending a conference on the experiences of military veterans through the ages and around the world in Hamburg, Germany, where I stayed in a lovely late nineteenth century neighborhood unscarred by the massive bombing of this northern German port during the Second World War. As I walked the streets lined with trees just coming into full autumn color, I occasionally came across little bronze plates hammered into the concrete or nestled i10646672_10154718720320623_5441253725156192487_nnto the cobblestones; in fact, two were right outside my hotel. The simple inscriptions consisted of names, dates, and a few German words; their meaning became clear after I recognized a few words that have been seared into the world’s historical consciousness seventy years ago: Theresienstadt, Lodz. They were concentration camps, and the information etched into the brass were the names of victims who died there, with their dates of birth, dates of “deportation,” and, if known, dates of death (some simply had question marks rather than death dates). The first words on each were “Here lived . . . ,” and, indeed, the memorials have been placed outside buildings or at least addresses where the victims had actually lived when they were taken away.

A little on-line research revealed that the stones were the idea of a Cologne artist named Gunter Demnig, who installed the first fifty-five plagues as an art project in Berlin in the 1990s. Since then tens of thousands have been placed in dozens of cities across Germany and in some cities occupied by Nazis during the war. Individuals, religious congregations, schools, and others have come up with the €120 (about $150) and have done much of the work of documenting the homes, names, and fates of the people remembered on the markers. Several websites can locate stolpersteine in various cities by the victims’ names or addresses (click here for Berlin’s searchable website).

Some Jewish groups have complained that the constant traffic of humans and dogs and other urban pedestrians over the brass plates (in fact, all of the ones I saw were more or less scuffed) demean the memories of the victims. However, Demnig claims that the markers highlight the personal, individual experience of the holocaust. And they are, indeed, memorable, even riveting. They provide a specificity to our mind-numbing knowledge the millions of victims of Nazi genocide that I found extraordinarily moving.

Most of us have seen movies, documentaries, or other images of the genocides of the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other ethnic groups, the disabled, Communists, anIMG_0360d other enemies of the Nazi state. They offer appropriately horrifying images that most of us probably can’t get out of our heads (the skeletal corpses stacked like cordwood, the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List, the weeping, confused men, women, and children waiting to be chosen for death camps or work camps beside waiting box cars.

But these tiny 4” x 4” brass markers, despite their subtlety, are equally haunting to me. They’re nearly invisible, but they mark a spot where a real person on a specific day was dragged to his or her doom across this little square of space. They don’t say much, of course, and it’s a tragic statement on how little we know about the people whose names are etched in brass. But maybe, in a small way, it’s all we really need to know about them.

For more on the “stumbling stones,” see:

James Marten is professor of history and has been chair of the history department at Marquette since 2004.

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