Leah Hansen earned her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and her MS degree in Theatre History and Criticism from Illinois State University. Her experience in theatre and interest in the Holocaust brought her to Haifa, where her MA thesis will focus on the Jewish Kulturbund Theatre in Berlin. Her areas of interest include audience reception theory, Shakespeare in Nazi Germany, censorship, cultural politics, and German-Jewish identity. Hansen discusses her experiences as a student in our MA program below:
My name is Leah Hansen. I’m originally from central Illinois, but came to Haifa from Chicago. I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature and creative writing and a master’s degree in theatre history and criticism.
What led you to pursue an MA degree in Holocaust Studies?
I had sort of an existential crisis while working on my previous degree. I found that I was studying simply for the sake of studying, which was not something that gave me fulfillment. I felt like what I was doing wasn’t really making a difference in the world, and therefore it was not something I was interested in devoting my life to pursuing. While considering a new career, I returned to what interested me from an early age, a topic which filled rows of my bookshelves. Holocaust Studies is a field where I have no doubt as to whether or not the work matters. Even the short time I’ve been in this program, I’ve found it to be incredibly fulfilling, both personally and professionally.
How did you pick the University of Haifa?
There were several reasons why I chose to study at the University of Haifa. One reason is that it’s very rare to find a specific degree in Holocaust Studies. Typically Holocaust studies programs are divisions of other departments, such as Jewish studies, or you might find a professor in a History department whose academic interest is in the Holocaust. I wanted to be in an interdisciplinary program solely focusing on Holocaust studies, with professors who represent all areas, from history to anthropology to art.
Another reason why I chose the University of Haifa is because of the resources available in Israel. There are a variety of museums and archives which are all easily accessible. As a student in the program I not only have access for research, I also have the opportunity to have an internship in pretty much any area that interests me. I see Israel as being the center of Holocaust research. I have a pretty good idea of where Holocaust education stands in the United States, and getting an international perspective (not only from Israel, but from other international students in the program) is invaluable to my education and is something I couldn’t get if I stayed in the States.
The idea of doing an intensive year of coursework, followed by an independent year of writing my thesis also appealed to me. In my previous program, I wrote my thesis while taking classes at the same time. Even though this year is extremely challenging, I like the idea of learning as much as possible in the classroom, then having the freedom to go conduct research and write my thesis without worrying about coursework.
Do you have a favorite course so far?
All of the courses and professors are excellent, but one course that really stands out for me is Rachel Perry’s class on Visual Culture and the Holocaust. We’re learning how to think critically about work created during the Holocaust as well as that which was created after the Holocaust in areas such as paintings/drawings, photography, film, and graphic novels. Coming from a performance art background, this topic completely fascinates me.
What kind of volunteering work are you involved in (or will be in the future)?
I am volunteering with a Holocaust survivor named Reuma, who is originally from Hungary. I just met her last week, so I am still getting to know her, but she’s extremely friendly and I really enjoy being with her. I’ll be visiting her every week and I’m really looking forward to developing a strong friendship with her.
What kind of interning are you involved in (or will be in the future)?
I will be interning in the archives at Yad Vashem. I’ll be working with new acquisitions to the archives, figuring out what items are before they go onto the next stages of conservation and getting catalogued. I just met with the director of the archives this week, so I haven’t started working there yet, but I’m really excited to gain experience working with original material.
This summer I will be interning at the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum. I will be working with Nazi propaganda film, which will be incredibly interesting. I’m extremely grateful for both opportunities and the way in which the staff at both museums worked with me to find out where my interests are and then to figure out the perfect internship for me.
What do you think of this MA program? How is it different from other academic programs you’ve been involved in?
Overall I’m extremely impressed with the program. Besides the highlights I’ve already mentioned, one thing that really stands out to me is the attitude of the faculty and staff in the program. I’ve often encountered a lot of ego involved in higher education which has always turned me away from academia. This program is completely the opposite. There is a humbleness and awareness of the importance of this field of study. It goes beyond the individual.
The people involved in the program are also extremely well connected to others in the field. For example, I am writing a seminar paper on an artist we discussed in my Visual Culture class, and Dr. Perry connected me with the author of the definitive book written on the artist. I’ve mentioned that I’m interested in going to Germany after I’m finished in Haifa and Dr. Granot-Bein sent me a list of all the organizations and institutions in Germany with whom the program has connections and relationships. She is also arranging meetings for me with scholars and professionals from Germany who come to Haifa to give lectures on their current projects. The other students in the program are also an incredible resource, and while discussing my research interests, two
people have offered to connect me with people in Germany and the Netherlands. The people you surround yourself with in this program will truly do everything they can to help you achieve whatever professional interests you have.
What ideas do you have for a thesis topic?
I would like to write about the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Berlin. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be writing about yet, but will most likely focus on some aspect of the theater. This semester I’m writing a seminar paper on the Kulturbund Opera and a shorter paper on the Kulturbund Filmbühne. I’m extremely excited to work on both of them, particularly because there isn’t a lot written about those two divisions of the Kulturbund.
What do you hope to do after you finish your degree here?
When I started the program two months ago, I wanted to work in a Holocaust museum. Now, after being back in academia, I am remembering how much I love researching and writing. I’m considering pursuing a PhD as my long-term goal. Immediately after the program, I hope to get an internship in Berlin while I write my thesis. This program has gone completely above and beyond my expectations, and I know no matter where my professional interests take me, I will be more than prepared to make an important contribution in this field.