The outcomes of the Holocaust are tangible: among them, the stone mausoleum at Majdanek holding ashes of the people who died there, the near total absence of Jews from Poland where before World War II there were over 3 million, and the creation of the state of Israel. With the goal of better understanding – emotionally and intellectually – one of recent history’s most terrible events, students and faculty participated in the fifth Year of Holocaust Studies in the 2009-2010 academic year. They traveled to Europe and Israel, took academic courses, conducted research, listened to history as told by survivors, and built memories they will never forget.
“The quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem – Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian – flow together, but we crossed into Palestinian territory when we went to Jericho and Bethlehem,” says Emily Einck, a senior Spanish and corporate communications major from Perry. “Our guide was Palestinian; he was originally from Jordan.”
Israel is the eleventh country Emily has visited through BVU programs. She and 12 fellow students and professors were in Israel at the conclusion of a two and- a-half-week trip, the centerpiece of BVU’s Year of Holocaust Studies, a special multi-disciplinary emphasis of courses, travel and speakers on the subject of the Nazi genocide that killed six million Jews. Altogether, the Nazi’s systematic program of extermination ended 12 million lives.
In Israel, the students saw the salty expanses of the Dead Sea. They walked through the histories of three religions at Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, and in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. They saw the contested areas of the West Bank, and observed firsthand the contemporary challenges in the country. They stayed overnight at the Sde Boker kibbutz with the second cousin of Dr. Peter Steinfeld, professor of religion and, at the time, dean of the School of Social Science, Philosophy and Religion, who co-led the trip.
Patches of fertile land in the desert, the kibbutz – collective agricultural communities – were built to be selfsufficient refuges for their residents.
They are one of the many embodiments of the contrast between sparse beauty and hardened conflict that dominate the area. The modern state of Israel was founded in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. By then, Jewish settlers had been actively trying for nearly half a century to establish communities in their ancestral homeland. Today, the region is still famously steeped in conflict. For Israelis, military service is compulsory, and soldiers regularly patrol the streets with assault rifles.
“Even liberal Israelis are very conscious of security and security issues,” says Steinfeld, “Israel is the absolute claim that the Holocaust will not happen again. If another country attacks, Israel will counter, as they’ve done before.”
“We saw Poland and the Czech Republic before we saw Israel,” says Tiffanie Drayton, Class of 2001, of the Holocaust Studies trip she took in 2000, the first year the program was offered. “Sitting in the classroom and reading books, you learn what happened intellectually, but being at the camps and ghettos you see it emotionally. We visited Auschwitz and Majdanek, and then we finally got to see Israel, where the Jews got their freedom. Israel is a place of hope. We planted a tree there at the Jewish National Forest to symbolize that.”
“I know there’s a correlation between the history classes I took and my current career,” says Tiffanie, who is an investigator with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in Des Moines. “Plus, I’vealways had an interest in civil rights. I’d gone on trips before and since then with big groups, but this one felt like it had a larger purpose. Our professors weren’t jaded by their years of studying. They wanted to see everything just as much as we did. It was a group of history majors that took the trip – 22 of us, plus our three professors. Many of us had taken a lot of classes together, and also taken a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I was 20, and it was exciting.”
Over 500 students have participated in the Year of Holocaust Studies during the five academic years it has been offered. It is designed to be offered at least once during a four-year student’s time at BVU. Students often take trips and courses offered by the program out of a love of history or a special interest in the World War II era. In past years, the program has offered courses on theatre from and about the Holocaust, World War II history, and art labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazis. About 60 students took Holocaust-related classes this year, while many others heard presentations by the two Holocaust survivors who spoke on campus as part of the Academic and Cultural Events Series (ACES).
“The Year increases students’ depth of the understanding by looking at the stories of perpetrators, survivors, and bystanders,” says Steinfeld, who has relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. “The ultimate battle cry is never again – but how simple that is as an imperative and how difficult it is to accomplish! Look at the genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, Serbia – even though everybody says ‘never again,’ it still happens.”
“I taught my first class on the Holocaust in 1997 my second year at BVU,” says Dr. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, who became dean of the School of Social Science, Philosophy & Religion this July as Steinfeld became the University’s associate dean of the faculty. “Afterward, I went to academic conferences and traveled on a seminar trip to concentration camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. I thought it would be wonderful to do a program where we would link courses in science, the humanities, and social sciences together on the subject, as well as have cultural events programs and bring in speakers.”
During the 2000 January interim, Bartholomew-Feis, her husband Dr. William Feis, professor of history, and Steinfeld led their first Holocaustthemed interim course to Europe and Israel. The previous fall, Bartholomew- Feis had taken students on a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Throughout the year, the professors offered classes on different aspects of the Holocaust.
During the 2009-10 academic year, Steinfeld and Bartholomew-Feis offered four full-length courses on the Holocaust. Steinfeld taught the class, God and Human Suffering, and a Holocaust-focused first-year seminar, while Bartholomew-Feis taught History of the Holocaust and The Holocaust in Film and Literature. The two jointly led a single-credit film course, part of the goal of which was to discuss and compare the depictions of the Holocaust on film to the actual locations the students would visit on the interim trip.
All these studies served to help students understand – intellectually and emotionally – one of the darkest periods in recent history, something that, like all parts of history, seems to become harder with which to connect with the passage of time. “It’s difficult for even survivors to describe what they saw, and that gets even more complicated by documentations by people who weren’t there,” says Steinfeld, referencing his dissertation on the Holocaust, which concerned issues of representation and memory and which he was completing at the time of the first Year of Holocaust Studies. “These issues are at play within our courses.”
“It’s important that students hear first-person testimony, because they likely wouldn’t otherwise,” says Bartholomew-Feis. “There aren’t a lot of survivors clustered in the Midwest.” “You’re becoming a witness to a witness, because your children will never have a chance to speak with a Holocaust survivor,” survivor Phil Gans told students during his speech at an ACES event Oct. 19. Out of 21 members of his father’s side of the family who entered the Nazi concentration camps, Gans (numbered Auschwitz prisoner 139755) was the only one to survive the war.
While at BVU, Jacob Flaws, Class of 2009, visited the Dachau concentration camp as part of a European cultural January interim trip in 2008. “Mark Twain wrote, ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,’ and I’ve found that to be true,” says Jacob. “My trip lingered in my mind. It gave me a chance to see what I was studying and what I was interested in.”
Jacob is currently earning his masters degree in history at the University of South Dakota. For his thesis, Jacob is focusing on Jewish-Polish interaction during the Holocaust. “Being on-site helped my research,” says Jacob. “I’m looking at questions like why the Poles didn’t do more to resist. Majdanek was less than a mile from Lublin. They undoubtedly could smell the smoke of burning bodies.”
“Part of the trip is getting students to see the results of the war and the Holocaust,” says Steinfeld. “In Warsaw, guides held up pictures to compare the buildings that had been destroyed in the war with the buildings of today. The synagogues are like little museums now, next to Jewish restaurants where no Jews ever come.”
Because no accurate census data exists, it is difficult to estimate the sizes of Poland’s historic and current Jewish populations. Sources place the number of Jews living in Poland at over 3 million before the war and between 50,000 and 5,000 today. Approximately half the total Jews murdered by the Nazis were Poles. About half of Poland’s population was lost in the war. After the war, while some Jews moved back and stayed, others left once again amid continued anti-Semitism in the country.
“Poland is largely free of Jews,” says Bartholomew-Feis. “The Czech Republic is the same way. And of course, we’re part of a tourist population that comes in to see these sites. There is some tension with the locals. ‘Why are you coming to Auschwitz?’ some say. ‘You should go see Wawel Castle.”
The group visited seven concentration and death camps throughout Poland and the Czech Republic. During the trip, the students reflected on their experiences through journaling and group discussions.“Majdanek and Auschwitz were both concentration camps that worked their prisoners or put them straight to death,” says Scott Radke, a sophomore biology major from Alta. “There were some survivors – these weren’t strictly death camps. Majdanek is relatively untouched. At Auschwitz there is some reconstruction going on. Terezín is a ghetto. Among other things, it was used by the Nazis to house Jewish prisoners and families so the Red Cross could film them, to show that they weren’t being mistreated. After that, though, everyone there was shipped to a death camp.”
“Treblinka was not a work camp,” says Jacob. “Most of the prisoners were driven straight to the gas chambers. It took us a long time to travel there. When we arrived, light snow was falling. It was a cloudy day. I’d never heard silence quite as it was out in that field. It was so surreal. That experience confirmed for me that history, and the Holocaust in particular, were the right fields of study for me.”
“At Treblinka, there was nothing original left, except the old unloading dock and stones to commemorate the towns from which the Jews were taken,” says Scott, who has been giving presentations on his experiences to area civic organizations. “The Nazis planted the camp over with trees to disguise what they did there. It may have been the most efficient camp. 900,000 people died there and it was only in operation for one year. It was by far the most eerie place I’d ever been. It was totally silent.”
“The day we were at Majdanek, it was blustery and cold, about 10 degrees with a 30 mile per hour wind,” says Steinfeld. “We spent a lot of time walking through the camp. A comment almost every student had was, ‘I could barely survive here for half an hour – I just can’t even imagine how people survived a winter’.”
“The students develop an enormous respect for survivors, understanding the mental fortitude it took to survive,” says Bartholomew-Feis.
“It’s more of an emotional reaction than anything when you see how big the camps were and how many people were killed there, when you walk through barracks full of shoes, seeing suitcases that were brought to the camps.” says Scott. “In Israel, they had bomb bunkers that I refused to go inside because of how it reminded me of the gas chambers. That was how big an effect it had on me.”