Zahava Moerdler earned her BA from Columbia University, majoring in history with a focus on late 20th century European history. She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the use of witness testimony during the Eichmann trial and how it changed Israeli memory of the Holocaust. As a granddaughter of a survivor, Zahava has always had an interest in the Holocaust. She went on a heritage tour with her grandfather and father and was able to see where her family came from through the eyes of her grandfather. Her MA thesis will analyze the effects of war trials on Holocaust memory and representation. We are please to share part of Zahava’s story with you today:
I never planned on getting a Master’s degree in Holocaust studies. My life has been a series of clear, well-planned steps: Jewish day school, gap year before college, and then Barnard College. The next step was supposed to be law school. Somehow along the way things changed.
My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor and I grew up hearing about stories from his childhood and stories about the family members who perished. My family narrative was one of rebirth and growth: a huge family reduced to four living relatives and now we’ve grown by leaps and bounds. My first “intellectual” pursuit regarding the Holocaust was in 8th grade. My class heard a survivor’s testimony and then, through his book, wrote a play that we then produced and starred in. I started to become more interested in my family heritage because of that course. Then, in 12th grade, for my final paper for my European history class, I wrote about a US Supreme Court decision that enabled a Holocaust survivor to reclaim stolen property. Finally, for my undergraduate thesis I wrote a paper about the way Holocaust memory changed in Israel because of the witness testimony at the Eichmann Trial. Every final project along my educational path I chose to study the Holocaust, yet I firmly believed I would finish college and go straight to law school.
When circumstances pushed me to look for a program in Israel I pursued every avenue I could think of. Then, I learned about this program: multi-disciplinary, amazing internships offered, study tours and volunteer work. I applied, put my law school dreams on hold and pursued something that had been a part of me for a long time. I don’t feel like I have sacrificed one dream for another, rather I am gaining tools now to help me fulfill everything I have planned.
The courses offered in the program encompass a wide range of subjects—history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology and more. My favorite class this semester is “The Final Solution” with Dr. Silberklang. Although the class is incredibly difficult to deal with emotionally, Dr. Silberklang makes all the dynamics of the years 1939-1945 come alive. He keeps the subject matter interesting and diffuses the tension that always arises when studying the Final Solution. Another really interesting component of the program is the language requirement. Although intimidating at first, German has become one of my favorite classes. I happen to love languages and I find that the experience of learning German while reading documents that use the language makes the learning feel immediately useful.
The most amazing part is that my studies are incredibly relevant to my hopes of becoming a lawyer. I am writing my Master’s thesis on Austrian restitution and how international pressure is the only way restitution claims are granted. While studying the history of Austria during and after the war, I also get to engage with legal texts and documents. Although I am learning a lot from my courses, I am also learning a lot from my peers. Each one comes from a unique background with a unique view of the world. Through them I see national and international issues in a new way. This past week two of my classmates presented on their social advocacy initiatives. They presented with passion and poise. Afterwards, I had an incredible discussion with a group of peers about advocacy in general and Israeli politics. These encounters have helped me grow as an intellectual, and individual and have shaped my visions of what a better future might look like.
Ultimately, my plans haven’t changed much: I am going to law school next year. But what has changed is how I engage with my interests in the Holocaust and through them, plan to make a difference in the world I live in.