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.

Posted on January 15, 2010

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