Report from Washington

By Steven L. Jacobs

From the 13th to the 17th of January, 2003, I was privileged to attend the Winter Seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, for Professors Teaching Holocaust-Related Courses in the areas of “Theology, Ethics, and Religion.” Sixteen of us were selected from throughout the United States from both public and private institutions, private and public, to participate in this five-day learning experience, hosted by the Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Our Seminar Leaders were Professor John T. Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL, and Professor Stephen Haynes of Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, both of whom have written extensively on the Holocaust from the academic perspectives of religious and theological studies.

On the first day, our primary topic was “The History of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism,” led by Dr. Pawlikowski, in which we examined and debated the historically-evolved and evolving foundational ideas, again, both religious and secular, as well as the role of the New Testament text, which could be classed in both categories, and how these ideas provided a baseline upon which Hitler and the Nazis and their allies were able to draw in their attempt to annihilate the Jews of Europe. Discussion then centered about the present-day reality of these ideas and what, if anything could be done to combat their persistence.

We were, also, introduced rather thoroughly to the resources of the Museum which could aid us in our work as scholars, specifically, the library as well as the document and photo archive collections. We, also, learned of the work of the Committee on Church Relations, as well as the role of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

On the second day, our morning session was devoted to an historical discussion “Churches and the Holocaust (both Catholic and Protestant) 1933-1945,” as well as a lengthy discussion of the complicated and complex role of Pope Pius XII during this period.

In the afternoon, we participated in a discussion entitled “Pedagogical Issues Related to Student Religious Sensitivities,” which was all the more fascinating because our respective academic disciplines included religious and Judaic studies, criminal justice, history, political science, philosophy, theology, sociology, and law. In addition, some of us have been teaching courses in the Holocaust for many years, whereas others were preparing to teach their first courses in this difficult material. Thus, resources from our various disciplines and experiences gained in the classroom were shared throughout the week; recommended books, articles, video materials, etc. were continuously announced.

On the third day, our discussion redirected itself to “The Holocaust and Contemporary General Ethics,” and addressed the question of the kinds of ethical dilemmas which the Holocaust presents and how these could best be addressed within the classroom context. The topics covered not only issues of life and death in a general sense, but questions of euthanasia and eugenics, war and peace, personal and collective behavior, and the like.

Because each of us was asked to supply one or more of our syllabi related to our teaching, our afternoon session was a “Discussion of Course Syllabi,” and the cross-discipline fertilization as a genuine plus, as each of us felt we could draw upon these materials because the study of the Holocaust itself is, by definition, cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary.
Our next day began with “Debates (!) on the Actions of Religious Figures During the Holocaust,” focusing primarily on the German Lutheran clergyperson Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who participated with others in the plot to assassinate Hitler towards the end of the war and paid the ultimate price. In this context, some of his writings were examined as well as the continuing controversy about whether or not to accord him status as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem in Israel.

Later that same day, we were addressed by Belgian Holocaust survivor Flora Singer whose life in hiding was the result of the clandestine work of Roman Catholic Father Bruno Reynders. Her story was truly unusual as was her informing us of her relationship with Anne Frank. In the evening, we attended the lecture of Professor Steven Zipperstein of Stanford University, CA, who is a Senior Scholar in Residence at the Museum, entitled “Historical Reflections on Contemporary Antisemitism.” In light of our work during the week, his presentation was a fitting conclusion to a strenuous and intense intellectual journey.

On Friday, our final morning session was devoted to an “Open Discussion on Seminar Issues,” and was at attempt to address any topics that we, as a group, felt did not receive a full hearing during the week. Significantly, we returned to our original discussion of those foundational ideas which led to the Holocaust, textual, political, social, etc.
Throughout the week of the Seminar, we were, also, addressed by various members of the staff of the Museum, not only the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, but scholars, both doctoral and professorial, doing research at the Museum. Coming from all over the world (e.g. Israel, Italy, the Ukraine, England, France, etc.), they reminded all of us how very much more there is still to be done in this important and significant work.

Lastly, a word about the participants: Each of us, as noted, was from a variety of disciplines and institutional settings, and, thus, our orientation to this material was somewhat different. (For instance, two of our colleagues were a Jesuit priest from Rwanda studying for his doctorate in Social Ethics at Boston University, who shared insights with us all during the week based upon his own experiences as well as that of his family in that horrendous genocide. And a Seventh Day Adventist Professor of History and Theology at Andrews University, MI, originally from Serbia, who, also, enlarged our conversations based on his own experiences.) The commitment to the material, however, created an instant bond among the scholars present.

Because we, as a group, very much want to continue our conversations and network with each other, drawing upon our strengths, the Museum is now committed to exploring setting up communications for us over the Internet. Because this semester, I am teaching courses in both the Holocaust and Genocide, this week spent at the Museum in this Seminar was particularly valuable. I am finding I am already reflecting differently on the material I am presenting to my students and re-thinking many of the assumptions with which I began this work. The generosity of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and the Aronov Endowment, have, therefore, had an impact on our students here in Tuscaloosa.

(For more information, please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Institute for the Study of Genocide, also the home of the International Association of Genocide scholars.)