Gabriel Finder / German

I teach the introduction to the Holocaust and Holocaust-related courses, including the postwar trials of Nazi criminals. When I teach the Holocaust, I do my best through the liberal use of diaries and memoirs to impart what the protagonists in this drama, the perpetrators, their victims and bystanders alike, thought and felt. Central to my introduction to the Holocaust is the study of the Nazi concentration camp system with a focus on Auschwitz, the deadliest of the camps. For this purpose, I assign Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz. Levi, a Jewish prisoner, describes with scientific precision not only the topography of the camp but also the process of dehumanization to which the Nazis who ran it subjected its Jewish and non-Jewish victims. That said, Levi portrays several inmates who like himself overcame the efforts to dehumanize them, finding within themselves the wherewithal to emerge emotionally intact from their horrific ordeal. Along the same lines, one writing assignment for the course requires students to identify a diary or memoir of a perpetrator, a victim, or a bystander in the library and to analyze it. The unit on concentration camps and Auschwitz exemplifies how difficult this task is, however, because, understandably enough, the inverted world of the concentration camp system, not to mention Nazism in its totality, is so far beyond the ken of our students.

Transformative in my own life have been my many personal encounters with Holocaust survivors. Listening to their testimony has been instrumental in my decision to teach the Holocaust. My own area of research, the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Second World War, has been inspired by listening to survivors describing how they reassembled their lives from the ruins in a remarkable myriad of ways. If I am able to understand and reconstruct even a small part of the Holocaust and its aftermath, it is due not only to my studies but in large part to my interactions with survivors.

Knowing this, whenever I can I bring Holocaust survivors to class to share their stories and interact with the students. The students, with rare exceptions, have never had the opportunity before enrolling in my course to meet and listen to survivors. Invariably, students have found these encounters with survivors invaluable to their understanding of the Holocaust. Indeed, many students are deeply affected. However, these encounters are by necessity fleeting. Although time seems to stand still when survivors speak to students, after an hour and fifteen minutes—the length of one class period—the survivor has only been able to scratch the surface and students are always left wanting to learn much more. Moreover, under the circumstances there are practically no opportunities for the students to speak privately or in small groups with survivors after the class ends. It is important to note that the number of survivors, the youngest of whom are now in their mid-seventies, dwindles dramatically year by year and that the opportunity for personal encounters with survivors will eventually come to an end sooner than later.

In this spirit, my “dream idea” is to take students enrolled in my course on the Holocaust, which I will teach again in the spring semester of 2012, on a chartered UVA bus to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. for a one-day retreat with 4-5 Holocaust survivors who volunteer there. (I have excellent contacts at the Holocaust Museum, where I am a former fellow.) I have in mind not only formal presentations by survivors to the 50 or so students enrolled in my course but also, and equally importantly, various opportunities for students and survivors to interact in informal, more intimate settings, for example over lunch and in small groups. As I envision it, my role would be not only to actively facilitate interactions between survivors and students when they meet but also to help the students prepare for and then process the experience. To prepare for the retreat, I would have students read and then lead small-group discussions of a recently published book entitled Approaching a Holocaust Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and its Transformations, which asks, among other things, how we can learn and how willing we are to learn from the experiences of a survivor. After the retreat, I would meet with the same small groups of students to help them reflect on what they saw, heard, and learned. Of course, I anticipate that there will be ample opportunities on the bus ride to and from Washington for lively exchanges between my students and myself on the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors.

Expenses for this one-day retreat would include purchase of approximately 50 copies of the book Approaching a Holocaust Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and its Transformations and transportation on a chartered UVA bus to and from Washington. I would ask the Holocaust Museum to provide lunch for both survivors and students. An itemized budget is as follows:

50 copies of Approaching a Holocaust Survivor ($24.95 each): $1247.50

Transportation on UVA charter bus to Washington: $1250.00

Total:  $2497.50

A retreat with Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Museum would constitute an incomparable educational and personal experience in the lives of my students and help me get to know them as well as help them get to know me better. I’m grateful to the Mead Endowment for this unique opportunity.