From the Academy: Holocaust Studies

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Avinoam J. Patt serves as the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford, and also directs the George and Lottie Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization. He previously served as the Miles Avi PattLerman Applied Research Scholar for Jewish Life and Culture at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His first book, Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust appeared in May 2009, and his second, a volume he edited on Displaced Persons—We are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany—will be published in February 2010. His research and teaching manifest the extraordinary vitality of the field.

What is Holocaust Studies?

Scholars of Holocaust Studies cover a tremendous range of topics and approach the field from almost every single discipline in the academy: History, Literature, Religion, Judaic Studies, Politics, Psychology, Sociology, Film, Architecture, Archaeology, Forensics, etcetera. As a tragedy of unprecedented proportions that in certain ways defies the human capacity for comprehension, the Holocaust has attracted scholars from all of these disciplines who seek to add to our understanding of human behavior. A scholar of the Holocaust might focus on the history of Germany or anti-Semitism; or literary responses to catastrophe; or theological explanations for the destruction; or Jewish responses to persecution; or the political appeal of the Nazi party; or the social dynamics of collaboration, resistance, or rescue; or the Holocaust on film; or the architecture of the death camps; or the legal theory involved in the post-war prosecution of war criminals. All of these approaches and topics fit within the field of Holocaust Studies.

Does the study of the Holocaust require scholarly approaches that differ from those that would be brought to any other catastrophe in Jewish or non-Jewish history?

Is the Holocaust so unique in history that it requires its own unique scholarly approach? As you can tell from my previous response, the answer is no: scholars from various disciplines must approach the Holocaust with the same scholarly approaches they would bring to other events in history in order to gain a true understanding of the aspect of the Holocaust they investigate. If we suggest that the Holocaust is so unique that it cannot be understood, then there is little purpose in studying it; instead of accepting that conclusion, we can seek to learn from the past in order to better understand the human capacity for evil (or, for that matter, resilience, compassion, and courage) and thus perhaps prevent future or contemporary acts of genocide.

What does scholarly research about the Holocaust—as opposed, say, to memorializing the events—offer to the Jewish community?

There is a tendency within the Jewish community to believe that we know everything there is to know about the Holocaust—that everything that needs to be uncovered has already been discovered, examined, and studied. This concerns me for a number of reasons: first, what we know about Jewish responses to the Holocaust only touches the tip of an iceberg. There is a vast amount of material that has not been examined from the war period, from which we can learn so much about how Jews responded to the threat of Nazism (at times successfully, but generally not so). Very few Jews know the story of Emmanuel Ringelblum, who devoted himself to documenting both Nazi persecution and Jewish responses in the Warsaw ghetto, and without whom we would know little about Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto.

I am currently working on a project that is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Jewish Source Study Initiative, called Jewish Responses to Persecution, that draws attention to the millions of pages of unexamined material that most people do not realize survived the war. These sources offer a window onto Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. If we view the history of the Holocaust as only fated to end in Jewish destruction, and merely memorialize the destruction by the Germans, but not the courage of those who resisted both physically and spiritually, or if we fail to examine the efforts of Jews to continue Jewish life during and after the war, then we miss much of the significance of these events for Jewish history and for the Jewish community.

Furthermore, there are still those who seek to deny the Holocaust, whether for political reasons (Ahmadinejad, for example) or out of admiration for Nazism or Hitler (like David Irving)—and the deniers know that time is on their side. As the survivor generation disappears, and the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust pass on, Holocaust studies must continue to gather evidence and establish the historical record to refute the claims of the deniers, whose numbers, I fear, will unfortunately grow over time.

What are the most pressing questions that remain to be answered by scholars of the Holocaust?

The field is moving in so many directions now. Twenty years ago, the field was largely focused on the intentionalist/functionalist debate, which focused on whether the Final Solution was always the intention of the Nazi leadership or whether it evolved over time as a function of factors related to the war effort and the search for other solutions to the Jewish question.

In the 1990s, much of the focus was on the Browning/Goldhagen debate over whether the perpetrators were “ordinary men” or “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” Scholars have now moved on to topics that in many cases focus on a number of developing areas not related specifically to German history: more localized research that focuses on the role of local groups in collaboration throughout Europe (in Romania, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland, or western Europe, for example); the role of the Church; research on the aftermath of the Holocaust (Jewish life in the DP camps); and research on comparative genocide. Recently opened archives, including the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and newly available materials that continue to emerge from Eastern Europe also drive new areas of research.

Are there particular challenges, whether institutional or intellectual, facing students and scholars of the Holocaust today?

As I mentioned above, there is an acute sense of urgency regarding the passing of the survivor generation. The survivors not only constitute a valuable resource as eyewitnesses, but they also value and understand the importance of this field. While thousands of hours of testimony were painstakingly recorded by various groups over the past twenty years, we often discover that in many cases, this material is only partial or misses important subjects, such as the postwar experiences of the survivors.

Another issue, also related to time but in a different way, has to do with the increasing focus on contemporary genocide and the topic of comparative genocide. While I certainly believe that the mantra of “Never Again” remains vital in the aftermath of the Holocaust and with the continued acts of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries, I worry that with the passage of time and the loss of the survivor generation there will be less of a general agreement about the need to study the Holocaust as a historical event, and more of an effort to draw simple, basic lessons from the Holocaust that can be applied to the mission of contemporary relevance. As this happens, we will lose some of the nuance of what needs to be understood from this complicated history, and be left with an oversimplified understanding of this time period.

What drew you toward this field?

Like most Jews, I have family members who died in the Holocaust (great grand-parents, great aunts, uncles, and cousins), but this is not what drew me to the field. It was the realization that Jewish studies scholars had barely sought to investigate the Holocaust from the perspective of Jewish history—that is, that there has been little effort to understand the Holocaust within the broader scope of Jewish history, or to seriously investigate the troves of unexamined Jewish materials that had survived the period before, during, and after the Holocaust to give us a better sense for Jewish life in this period. This failure to study Jewish life during the war does a disservice not only to those who perished, but to those who sought to continue Jewish life under the most impossible of circumstances.

Truthfully, in my first book on Jewish DPs and Zionism, I was much more interested in the question of Zionism and the immediate events leading up to the creation of the state of Israel than I was in the topic of the Holocaust; I was drawn to a topic that looked at the resilience and rebirth of the survivors after the Holocaust rather than the destruction of European Jewry during the war. However, through my research on the Jewish Displaced Persons, I also discovered that this was a fascinating period of time that had barely been examined by historians.

If someone wanted to know more about where Holocaust studies are headed, what would you recommend he or she read?

It is hard to single out just one or two books from the many excellent volumes that are published in the field. However, a few recent works stand out: Saul Friedlander’s second volume, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II: The Years of Extermination, where he masterfully combines German, Jewish, and other sources in an extremely readable volume. Sam Kassow, in Who Will Write Our History?: Emmanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbes Archive (Indiana University Press) integrates the field of Jewish history into Holocaust studies through his focus on one of the most important but least known Jewish figures from the Holocaust, the historian, political and social activist, and educator Emmanuel Ringelblum.

My two books on the She’erit Hapletah (Surviving Remnant)—Finding Home and Homeland and We Are Here—are part of the larger field of developing research on Holocaust survivors after the war.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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One thought on “From the Academy: Holocaust Studies

  1. Robert Stiskin

    My mother’s maiden name was Patt–most of the family was lost in the camps–her uncle Jakob wrote a book about returning to Poland after the war called Ashes and Fire—–I saw your name in the current Reader’s Digest—my mother’s cousin in Canada; Morry Patt is the keeper of all things Patt for our family–he would love to contact you to see if there is any relation. I live in Stamford.

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