Teaching about the Holocaust

A Kenyon course tackles the century's most disturbing manifestation of evil

W hy study the Holocaust? Why devote a course to the enormity of Nazi slaughter?

Rarely does anyone suggest anymore that such a course is "only for Jews" or dismiss it as "victim studies." And yet the most often-voiced, emotionally compelling answers--to honor the dead; to preserve the memory of what happened, especially since the last surviving witnesses will soon be gone; to prevent such a thing from happening again--these answers seem not entirely adequate. Perhaps they are not encompassing, dispassionate, or "academic" enough. Or they are problematic: study of the Holocaust clearly has not prevented other campaigns of mass murder.

Why study the Holocaust?

At Kenyon, a many-faceted answer lies in the course itself, "The Holocaust: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry," which for fifteen years has been leading students beyond what is often superficial knowledge to an experience they describe as powerful, provocative, a personal journey unlike anything else they've ever encountered.

The Holocaust course at Kenyon not only examines the history and background of an event that arguably helped define the twentieth century and that continues to resonate. In true liberal-arts fashion, the course also relentlessly probes difficult issues that range across many fields--history, philosophy, psychology, religion. What drove ordinary people to commit unspeakable crimes? How did Nazi Jew-hatred follow from, and differ from, Christian antisemitism? Why didn't the United States open its doors to more refugees or bomb the extermination camps? How far should blame extend? And, in extending it, must we scrutinize the very definitions of "blame" and "responsibility?"

This course is particularly gripping because it forces students to turn inward, questioning their assumptions about themselves, about human nature, about the trustworthiness of the world. "It made you ask very profound questions," says Brian S. Mason '98. "What is good and what is evil? Do things happen for a reason?"

Kenyon's first course on the Holocaust was taught for about ten years, during the 1970s and early 1980s, by Eugen Kullmann of the religion department. When he retired in 1984, a group of other faculty members applied for a course-development grant from the College to plan a new approach. "We met that summer," recalls National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Peter Rutkoff, one of the organizers. "We developed a reading list; each of us would teach one of the books to the group."

The new course was offered for the first time in the spring semester of 1985, team-taught by historians Rutkoff and National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor of History William B. Scott along with Professor of Religion Donald L. Rogan and Associate Professor of Religion Miriam P. Dean-Otting '74. Though the teaching teams have changed in composition and size (in recent years two professors have handled the course, with guest lectures by others), it has been offered almost every spring since then. "We all felt proud," says Rutkoff. "This was one of the first really interdisciplinary courses at Kenyon."

That fact distinguishes it from similar courses at most colleges, which generally keep Holocaust study within the history department. The team approach is unusual as well. Over the past fifteen years, the team has included professors in music, political science, and psychology, as well as religion and history.

Faculty members cannot imagine teaching the course alone, not only because the subject demands wider perspectives but also because the material is so disturbing. "It's so emotionally laden," says Rogan, who taught the course most recently last year. "If the numbers don't get you, the film images will."

"I have nightmares every semester I teach the course," says Dean-Otting, who is teaching it again this year. "I feel a black cloud hanging over my head all semester. It's hard to take. But we think it's important."

The course typically opens by confronting students with the horror of the event, by having them read Elie Wiesel's powerful autobiographical novel Night and watch Alain Resnais's film Night and Fog, with its stark footage of the camps, the gas chambers, and naked corpses stacked like wood and bulldozed into mass graves.

Then, meeting in smaller seminar sections as well as together in a single group, the students begin to explore the historical background. Dean-Otting believes it is important to introduce them to the history and culture of European Jewry, in part so that those students largely unfamiliar with Judaism don't think of Jews solely as victims. An understanding of the culture also deepens an understanding of the loss. "I often play some Yiddish music in class," says Dean-Otting. "I want the students to think about what happens when a language is killed."

The class examines the history of Christian antisemitism and then studies German nationalism and the rise of Nazism. Students learn about every phase of the Final Solution, from the creation of the ghettos, through the attacks on Jews by the special units called Einsatzgruppen, to the establishment of the death camps. Readings vary from year to year, but the syllabus almost always includes Lucy Dawidowicz's authoritative The War Against the Jews and Primo Levi's firsthand account of concentration-camp life, Survival in Auschwitz. Films, both documentaries and features, are an integral part of the course as well, with most screenings open to the campus community.

Other topics include anti-Nazi resistance, rescue efforts, and the art, literature, and music that emerged from the Holocaust. Student projects sometimes range into intensely personal territory: one student conducted ten hours of interviews with his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor; another student's grandfather had been with an Army unit that liberated one of the concentration camps but had never before spoken about his memories. Almost every year the professors arrange for a Holocaust survivor to visit the class and speak on campus.

One issue that always receives close scrutiny in the class is the psychology of the perpetrators. "I think the Holocaust is much more about the Nazis than it is about the Jews," says Professor of Psychology Allan Fenigstein, who has taught the course a number of times. Fenigstein has a personal connection to the subject--both of his parents are camp survivors--but a professional interest as well. "It comes down to asking incredibly significant questions about human nature. How could this happen? We're talking about ordinary individuals. As a student of human behavior, I want to make sense of this, understand it. One of the important parts of understanding behavior is understanding behavior in the extreme."

The question of the killers' motivation remains controversial, as evidenced by the debates that greeted the publication in 1996 of Hitler's Willing Executioners, by Daniel Goldhagen. Goldhagen argues that the Germany's pervasive antisemitism--and not external factors such as economic hardship, social-psychological pressure, or political coercion ("I had no choice; I was following orders")--moved thousands of ordinary Germans to participate in the genocide.

Fenigstein agrees. While acknowledging the importance of external pressures, he asserts, "The perpetrators were driven by inner forces. They defined themselves by Jew-hatred. They regarded their victims as vermin, as disease, subhuman. And in destroying the other, there was a sense of enhancing the self. These brutal acts were a way of affirming, `We're better than you.'"

The class also takes up the question of whether the Holocaust should be seen as unique. Is it unfair to focus on the fate of the Jews when the Nazis also systematically killed gypsies and homosexuals? Or is it intellectually dishonest to ignore the central place of antisemitism in Nazi ideology? And what of other genocidal atrocities? How should we assess the Holocaust in a world that produced Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda and Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s--or, for that matter, slavery in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America?

For many, such questions lead to a reaffirmation of the significance of the Holocaust. "When you think about the history of the Western world in the twentieth century, this event stands out," says Dean-Otting. "It's a watershed. Before the Holocaust, nobody could have imagined that human beings would have done this, on such a scale, in such great numbers. And since the Holocaust, we can imagine just about anything."

The Holocaust "is not just an historical event that needs to be remembered, but in many ways the most troubling event of the twentieth century," adds Rogan, "an event that probably informed the character of the century more than any other single event. The whole Western world was involved."

And it is an event that remains very much with us today. As the professors point out to their students, in any given week the media are likely to report on issues related to the Holocaust, from revelations about Swiss banks to questions about art works in American museums. The class has explored the subject of Holocaust memorials and museums and the controversies they sometimes occasion. This spring they examined the recent Vatican documents addressing the role of the Church in responding to the Final Solution.

Most striking about the course, perhaps, is the extent to which it challenges assumptions and ultimately engages students in highly personal terms. Many students come to the course with a sketchy historical background and a general impression that the Germans were "bad guys," the Jews were all victims allowing themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter, and the United States led the heroic "good guys." They learn that many scholars, most notably David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews, criticize the American government for knowing about the death camps but not doing more to save Jews or destroy the camps. They learn that Jews did resist the Nazis, sometimes through armed struggle and sometimes through art work, religious ceremonies, or musical performances. And they discover that some Jews actively cooperated with the Nazis.

The entire experience can be profoundly disturbing. "The Holocaust course was fundamentally different from any other course I took at Kenyon," says Mason, who works as a legislative assistant for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. "It was a personal journey for me. You can't just pick up some Holocaust literature and not become personally attached to it. I couldn't put the books down.

"In my Christian upbringing, I was taught that things happen for a reason. This course really changed my view about that. Six million Jews didn't die for a reason. This wasn't part of God's plan."

David A. Shargel, a senior religion major from New York City who took the course as a sophomore, says, "I was disturbed with how little I knew. And I came out disturbed with how little everyone around me knew. Most Kenyon students would say, `I'd never go along with the Nazis.' What we really learned was, that's questionable.

"Sometimes I've thought the Holocaust course should be required of everyone," he adds. "This isn't ancient history. It's right behind us."

Fenigstein notes, "It's comfortable to think about the Holocaust as `other,' as being perpetrated by horrible monsters. But the students come to realize that the perpetrators were ordinary human beings. When they realize that, they must accept that anything is possible. And they try to resist that. It's a tremendous blow to their sense of the world."

Rogan adds, "This happened in the modern world, our own world, and it involved people like us, and it happened by steps that most of us could see ourselves taking. We can imagine these things happening, and we would be helpless to stop it, and as a result millions of people die."

"The more thoughtful students wonder, `Where would I be in this scheme of things?'" says Dean-Otting. Would they really have the courage to resist? Or would they be bystanders, even collaborators?

The professors, too, find that the course has a personal impact. "I've been profoundly affected by the role of religious people in all of this," says Professor of Religion Royal W. Rhodes, a scholar of Christianity who has taught the Holocaust course seven times. "The long history of Christian anti-Judaism provided a context in which the Holocaust was legitimized. Christians were often perpetrators or silent bystanders in the Holocaust. I take seriously the obligation of Christians to look at the dark aspects of their religious history."

As a teacher, Rhodes sees the Holocaust as a "defining issue," one that calls into question the longstanding assumption that "teaching the humanities, teaching Western civilization, will humanize us, will make us empathetic, sympathetic." He points out that many of the early organizers of the SS had doctorates from prestigious German universities.

"For people like ourselves at Kenyon," says Rogan, "affluent, secure, well educated, optimistic, it's important to realize how horrible human nature can sometimes be. You need to know: this is part of our humanity, too."

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