Yesterday, Jan. 27, marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, by Soviet troops. Although more than 10,000 people and a dozen world leaders were expected to attend the week’s observances in Poland, the Holocaust—arguably the most horrific historical event of the 20th century—was a subject avoided by scholars for more than 15 years after the end of World War II. Due to the efforts of Alvin Rosenfeld, IU became a leading center for research in Holocaust studies.
Photo by Chris Meyer
“The students are very diverse, many are not Jewish, and they represent many different majors. They have more awareness of the Holocaust than I did at their age, because it’s in mainstream culture—they’ve all seen ‘Schindler’s List.’’’
In the early 1960s, Rosenfeld was a graduate student at
Brown University writing his dissertation on Emerson and Whitman.
It was during this period that he “discovered” the Holocaust—initially
through Andre Schwarz-Bart’s masterpiece, The Last of
the Just, and Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night—and
his future as a scholar was forever changed. Hired by IU as
an assistant professor in American literature in 1968, Rosenfeld
is today recognized internationally as one of the creators
and advocates of the fields of Jewish and Holocaust studies.
“I began running on two tracks, the official one—teaching American literature—and the unofficial one—Jewish and Holocaust studies. I am very grateful to IU for being so open to my interest in Jewish studies. At that time, there were almost no Jewish studies programs in the nation, but it was part of an era of growth in what is now called the ‘new humanities.’ Programs in women’s studies, African-American studies and the like were being developed. So the timing was right, and the administration was receptive to the idea,” said Rosenfeld, founder of the Borns Jewish Studies Program (JSP) at IU.
Rosenfeld credits the late IU President Herman B Wells with providing the support necessary to get the JSP launched in 1973, but he notes that Wells’ commitment to the Jewish people and culture was evident decades before. “After World War II, Dr. Wells went to Germany and played a major role in the denazification effort, especially the revamping of the educational system there. Here at IU, he fostered an environment that welcomed Jewish refugee scholars and artists,” he said.
Now in its third decade, the JSP is thriving, with 85 majors in 2003-04 and courses offered in nearly a dozen departments at the university. “We were one of the pioneers in interdisciplinary programs, and it was a strategic decision to remain so. All appointments to the JSP are joint appointments, so we have representation in anthropology, language studies, history, religious studies, political science—you name it,” said Rosenfeld, who also has played a key role in developing the IU Press into one of the leading academic publishers in Jewish and Holocaust studies.
Rosenfeld’s national and international reputation as a Holocaust scholar led to his appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by President George Bush in 2002. The council oversees the operations of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., which has attracted more than 20 million visitors since opening in 1993.
The general public’s desire to learn more about the Holocaust is mirrored in the popularity of courses on the subject at IU, where, according to Rosenfeld and Mark Roseman, there is no “typical” student of the Holocaust. Roseman, who came to IUB in January 2004 with a joint appointment in history and Jewish studies, is currently teaching a history of the Holocaust course.
“The students are very diverse, many are not Jewish, and
they represent many different majors. They have more awareness
of the Holocaust than I did at their age, because it’s in
mainstream culture—they’ve all seen Schindler’s List,”
said Roseman. “There is a horrible fascination with the subject,
which is somewhat unthreatening, because you know who the
bad guys are. I tend to complicate things when I teach the
course, because I try to illustrate that there was not one
clear directive. People got caught up in the Holocaust for
To underscore his statement that students are more aware of the Holocaust, and at a younger age, than were their predecessors, Roseman and his colleague, Maria Bucur-Deckard, recently visited a Bloomington middle school to talk to a group of students and their teacher who were to attend the observances at Auschwitz. The group, which produced an award-winning documentary on a Holocaust survivor, called on the two historians to help prepare for seeing the site of industrialized mass murder of an estimated 1.5 million men, women and children.
“This kind of outreach is very important,” said Bucur-Deckard, who said she and Roseman were asked to talk to the students by a parent whose son was going on the trip. “I was 32 when I first went to Auschwitz and found it a very heart wrenching and emotionally depleting experience. These are children 12- and 13- years-old! Because there are parts of the camp where there are no guides, visitors must be very proactive in gathering information beforehand to understand what they will encounter. I talked about the various groups they will see at the commemoration by reminding them of the different categories of victims and the different purposes of national representatives.”
Roseman focused on putting Auschwitz into the context of larger historical and political issues, such as the rise of the Third Reich and the Final Solution. “I talked about the ‘twisted road to Auschwitz,’ so that the students had a sense that the policy towards Jews and the function of the concentration camps evolved piecemeal and often independently, so that the Auschwitz camp they encounter is one that had many different functions, even if its role as extermination center is what makes it such a dramatic symbol of the 20th century,” he said.
Even though the number of living Holocaust survivors and witnesses is rapidly declining, and although this is likely to be the last decadal anniversary at which many will be present, Rosenfeld is confident that the groundwork has been laid to ensure that future generations will never forget one of the greatest state-enforced crimes against humanity.
“We have large archives of survivors’ stories at places like Yale and the USHMM. There is generous financial support from individuals like Steven Spielberg, who founded the Shoah Foundation. There are museums, from the USHMM to relatively modest ones in small communities,” Rosenfeld said. “Good teachers, cultural media and an established educational effort will continue to transmit knowledge of this terrible event.”
IU Jewish Studies Program:
IU Press Holocaust studies list:
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Web site:
Holocaust memorial day:
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum:
Sixtieth anniversary link:
Suggested reading on the Holocaust
Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits (memoir)
Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (novel)
Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know: The History
of the Holocaust as Told in United States Holocaust Memorial
Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, eds., The Holocaust
and History (non-fiction)
Sara Tuvel Bernstein, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After (memoir and
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (memoir)
Susan Gubar, Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What
One Never Knew (literary criticism)
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered
Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, Children
of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the
Twins of Auschwitz (non-fiction)
Hermann Langbein, People in Auschwitz (non-fiction)
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (memoir)
Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz : A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account
Mark Roseman, The Wannasee Conference and the Final
Solution: A Reconsideration (non-fiction)
Alvin Rosenfeld, Imagining Hitler (non-fiction)
Elie Wiesel, Night (memoir)
Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities
and Limits of Forgiveness (memoir with commentary)
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