Today’s post is written by Jordanna Gessler. A member of our first cohort, who was recently hired as the Education Coordinator at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Jordanna writes about the presence the Holocaust had in her family life, what brought her to our program, and how it shaped her to be the professional she is becoming today. We are extremely proud of Jordanna for her scholarship, hard work, and new found success. We look forward to seeing what she does next, and are proud that our name will be part of her CV.
“I have two vivid memories of being a four year old child at my great aunt and uncle’s house for their annual Passover seder; one was being terrified of reciting “the four questions” in front of my all-adult relatives, and the other was a simple comment that my sabba said with tears in his eyes: “my mother made the best gefilte fish.” My sabba, Elek Gessler, was born in 1927 in Bielsko, Poland, so by the time the Nazis brought their murderous ideology to Poland in 1939, he was old enough to remember his mother’s cooking, but still too young to lose her to the Holocaust, which was unfortunately what happened. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the presence of the event, what it represented, and its subsequent emotional effects were apparent to me since childhood. However, most of my family remained silent about their experiences; the void drew me in. My family history on my shoulders coupled with my passion for history resulted in both a bookshelf filled with books on the Holocaust and a mother wondering what her child was up to. I was enthralled by the subject, constantly asking and learning more about that specific time in history.
Without knowing about their Holocaust Minor program, part of the great Holocaust Historian, Raul Hilberg’s legacy, I decided to attend the University of Vermont. It was not until my second year at UVM that I discovered the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies and realized that my passion could be pursued at the academic level. The plethora of classes related to the Holocaust afforded me a place where my interest and knowledge could flourish.
After my graduation from the University of Vermont, I found myself working a mundane desk job, yearning for more satisfaction and fulfillment from my work. Following countless hours of contemplation and self-reflection, I realized that I would benefit both emotionally and academically from going back to school and pursuing a Masters degree in a field that I was passionate about, which was without question Holocaust Studies. With a little help from Google, I discovered the Weiss-Livnat International MA Holocaust Studies program at the University of Haifa. I was immediately drawn to their assortment of classes with riveting titles such as History of the Final Solution and Representation of the Holocaust in European Literature and Film. I loved the notion of studying and exploring with students who not only covered a wide age range, but also hailed from numerous countries across the globe.
I truly enjoyed my unique experience studying the Holocaust in Israel and all the opportunities the program afforded me. The Weiss-Livnat International MA allowed me to work intimately with the Ghetto Fighters House and Yad Vashem, visit memorial sites in both Germany and Poland as part of a moving, educational study tour, interview and bond with Holocaust Survivors, hear from researchers and activists in the field all while growing with an amazing group of people.
While working on my degree, I interned in the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, where I analyzed, collected, and organized data and evidence in order to initiate potential righteous candidacy files. This research highlighted the few, but remarkable, benevolent moments that took place during the Holocaust; as such a horrific and abhorrent time in human history, people somehow mustered the courage and exhibited true heroism. This reminder remains with me. The work is additionally important to me on a personal level; my grandfather and his siblings were rescued by a non-Jewish Polish Volkdeutche.
I am currently in the process of completing my MA thesis, tentatively titled, “You’re Jewish, So What?: An Examination of Jewish and Non-Jewish Couples in Nazi Germany.” One of the interesting aspects of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust is the rare situation where a Jew was able to survive amid such terror and death; this becomes even more fascinating when their survival involved the participation of non-Jews, especially Germans. This thesis will explore the complex, courageous, and rare relationships between mixed couples who met after 1935, the pivotal year of the Nuremberg Laws, but remained together despite the tremendous danger. The non-Jewish partners saved the Jewish partners and married them after the war. Material on these relationships is obscure. Research on these couples is imperative, because the hardships and degradation that they faced was unlike the experiences of other German Jews or mixed couples in other countries.
I have recently accepted the amazing position as Education Coordinator of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH). LAMOTH was founded by Holocaust Survivors in LA in 1961 and a few years ago moved into a subterranean, LEED certified, gorgeously designed building. The two main missions of the museum are commemoration and education, which are both done magnificently. LAMOTH provides free Holocaust education to the public and focuses specifically on under-funded schools throughout the city. There is frequently a Holocaust Survivor walking around the museum, willing to share, inspire, and teach. The museum houses a large collection of artifacts from Europe from before, during, and after the Holocaust. These are used as a tool as part of the visitors’ exploration and interaction with the material and history. The team at the museum is wonderful and dedicated; I am honored to be a part of this great non for profit organization.
My tremendous experiences thus far have not only provided me with sentimental satisfaction and intellectual growth, but have furthermore affirmed my desire to continue working in this field. My grandfather’s personal narrative passed with him due to his aversion to discussing his experience I hope to work to guarantee preservation of survivors’ stories, memories, and experiences. I believe that preserving the experience of struggle, perseverance, belief, and freedom is an imperative for all humanity.”