This year our program is offering a new course on the Historiography of the Holocaust with Professor Dan Michman, the head of the International Research Institute at Yad Vashem. Our students recently attended the first session of the three-day course. Topics discussed during the firs session included an introduction to the historian’s craft, terminology, and an overview of Holocaust research.
The seminar began with a discussion of what history is and how historians study it. Historians analyze the partial documentation of the past to create a representation of it that is influenced by their background knowledge. Essential questions that were discussed were why historians have different representations of the past and whether their interpretations can be objective. A historical narrative is influenced by the questions historians ask of the past and the evidence they select as relevant to addressing the query. Historians often ask questions that relate to the present and whose answers will thus illuminate contemporary issues. An important aspect of history is how the same issue can be tackled multiple times with different results depending on which sources the historian uses and how the historian interprets the evidence.
The second topic that Prof. Michman discussed with our students related to the terminology used to describe the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazi Regime and its collaborators during World War II. Michman discussed the etymology and history behind the use of several terms such as Shoah, Holocaust, Catastrophe, years of wrath, extinction, cataclysm, extermination, churban, and judeocide among others. Shoah is a Hebrew term for an unexpected catastrophe or downfall that was used in Psalms and Isaiah. It was used as early as the 1930s to describe the initial persecutory measures taken against Jews in Germany. Holocaust comes from the Greek word for sacrifice. Since 1960 the terms Shoah and Holocaust have gained ascendency and become the most prevalent. It is interesting to note that the terms in Yiddish initially used by survivors are no longer used as frequently as Shoah and Holocaust. Prof. Michman explained this phenomenon as resulting the post war emigration of the majority of Jews to English speaking countries, such as the United States, as well as to Israel.
The final topic of the first session was an overview of Holocaust Historiography, which has only been analyzed since the 1980s. Michman divided Holocaust research into four stages. The first stage occurred during the period from 1933-1945 and was conducted by the participants or victims of the events. An advantage of this period is that it was seen from close proximity and many issues that were later overlooked because the Final Solution overshadowed them were studied. A disadvantage of this period was that there was no long-term perspective and the internal documentation of the Nazi Regime was unavailable. The second stage of research occurred after the war and consisted of two unrelated historiographies. First, there was a Jewish historiography that focused on physical resistance and instances of rescue. Second, mainstream historiography of the period used released internal documents such as that connected to the war crimes trials to focus on the perpetrators. The third stage of Holocaust historiography saw the expansion of the role of perpetrators to include mid to low level functionaries of the Regime; a study of bystanders such as the Catholic Church, the Yishuv, and Allied and neutral countries; local studies; and a new focuse on social history. The fourth stage of research was influenced by the opening of archives in the Eastern Bloc and the release of more documentation in the west. This allowed for greater focus on refugees, research on the evolution of the Final Solution including on the Eastern Front, and a biography boom as scholars studied the personalities of central perpetrators.
Our students benefited greatly from the discussions of the first session with Prof. Michman and are looking forward to the rest of the course that will include a study of key historical debates such as the intentionalists vs. the functionalists and analysis of key documents.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website:/