“Sooo…why Holocaust Studies?”
During the past year in Israel, before it, and after I’ve returned home, people ask me this question with curiosity, confusion, and concern. The reactions often range from an enthusiastic “Oh, cool!” an indifferent, “Oh..cool,” or a blunt, “Wow, that’s depressing.” Even though I repeatedly answer the “Why?” question, it gets harder to do so every time. Like any geographical, occupational, or educational shift in life, you begin with one narrative or purpose, and somehow, unbeknownst, almost subconsciously, those original goals and outlooks, which at one point were so clear and concrete, morph and fragment into something unrecognizable, but nonetheless meaningful.
My initial narrative, as I recall, went something like this: “Out of the roughly 100,000 (no one knows the exact number) gay men (and men who might have been falsely accused as being gay but were arrested nonetheless) who were harassed, tortured, incarcerated, and murdered during and after the Nazi regime, (in Germany, Paragraph 175, the law that criminalized same-sex relationships, was not repealed completely until the early ‘90’s), there are only ten known survivors (according to the documentary Paragraph 175, however that number may be disputed). Lesbians were also arrested and put into concentration camps under the guise of “asocial” or “political prisoner.” I want to research who these women and men were, uncover their stories, and write creative nonfictional or fictional stories about them.” All of this is true and still holds true – I’ve spent the past year reading memoirs, essays, biographies, short stories, and poems, skimming official Nazi documents and reports, and watching movies and documentaries about the queer victims of the Third Reich. The books and papers I’ve accumulated overwhelmed the narrow shelving in my Tel Aviv apartment, a personal library of queer literature, Holocaust literature, and a combination of the two genres.
And yet, that original winded, statistic-filled, eager-grad-student answer has shortened to a simple sentence: “Why do I study the Holocaust? Well, the topic has always interested me, and I wanted to study it more in depth.” I know, it’s bland. Painfully bland. But what most questioners don’t understand is how that single “Why?” involves complex family histories, and conjures memories of self-awareness and introspection. These scattered tidbits of memory can’t always be translated into a fluid, verbal narrative. So instead of delving, I stay on the surface, at least for those brief interactions.
But what I really want to say is this:
I grew up listening to my Grandma (who recently turned 99 years old and is very lucid) tell me stories about her family and living in Romania. As I got older, I started to make connections between what she was telling me and the Holocaust (she was never in a concentration camp or labor camp, but she lived in an extremely antisemitic country, and still managed to get a degree and work as a pharmacist). In high school, I interviewed her for the “Pre-Me” chapter of a nine-part autobiography writing assignment, which turned into my college essay. In college I took a Jewish Literature course where I read Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, and Lesléa Newman short stories, one of which, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” made me aware that gay men were Holocaust victims. Curled up on a swivel chair in the library’s abandoned Reading Center during finals week, I procrastinated essay writing to watch Paragraph 175, a documentary in which the remaining survivors of the Third Reich’s persecution of queer individuals tell their stories, some for the first time. It was released in 2000 and, until the release of The Pink Triangle and the Nazi Cure for Homosexuality in 2014, was the only documentary on the subject. In Giovanni’s Room in Philly’s Gayborhood, I come across a book of Lesléa Newman short stories and a back-pocket-sized book of poetry entitled Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry. That same year, I found a first edition copy of Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943. Jewish Lesbian literature started to become my favorite and most sought out genre. At some point I even invented the word “jesbian” as away to declare an identity for myself and the literature I surrounded myself with (it’s also quite catchy). My interest in all things jesbian and Holocaust related works was known by my friends, and, come senior year, one of those friends asked if I wanted to come with her to hear a lecture about resistance movements during the Holocaust. While listening to that Ohio State University PhD student talk about The White Rose and Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I had an epiphany – I could do this, I could study the Holocaust, in depth, exploring this lifelong interest of mine. After the lecture, I searched online for programs and found this one at the University of Haifa. Later, once accepted, my Israeli born dad told me that he grew up in Haifa, that this is where his family had lived before immigrating to the States. This detail reinforced the notion that events can sometimes come full circle in unexpected and somewhat profound ways.
Initially it was an innate allure. Now, I see parallels between Holocaust education and LGBTQ activism. Although each are seemingly separate movements, their missions and histories overlap – understanding and eradicating intolerance through education, promoting social awareness, and elevating and showcasing marginalized voices.
(Photo taken at Sachsenhausen concentration camps in Oranienburg, Germany)
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/