Teaching the Holocaust, 2011

April 7, 2011 — Q&A

Each fall semester, I have the privilege of teaching a course titled “The Holocaust in Literature and Film.” Marsha Markman, professor emeritus of English, created this course and nurtured it for many years until her retirement. Her strong, humane spirit still inhabits it and continues to inspire my own teaching and learning. As we enter the second decade of the new millennium and my 39th year of teaching at CLU, I’m reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned!

The enormous body of work across virtually all disciplines that comprises Holocaust studies tries to come to terms with a human context forever changed after 1945. Whether it is Quentin, Arthur Miller’s protagonist in After the Fall, or the array of characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague, or a host of other literary points of reference, including many eloquent survivor stories, the inherent post-Holocaust question always goes something like this: Who are we as human beings and who shall we become and based on what, now that we know more comprehensively than ever before that we are both a dangerous and a glorious species?

I have been stunned by the window into all human suffering and transformation, perhaps even a kind of illumination, which Holocaust studies opens. It requires and therefore teaches empathy.

One of my favorite responses to such an impossible question comes from Kurt Vonnegut. In his poignant, funny, horrifying World War II anti-war novel Slaughterhouse V, he asks a question of the question, “What does one say to a Holocaust?”

The reply is the song of a bird, “Po-tee-weet,” which suggests there are no adequate words to honor the existential suffering we humans experience, nor is there a language to measure the anguish and injustice we so often inflict on one another. On the other hand, the bird still sings, an aspect of mystery, a yearning for meaning abides.

Clearly, the crucible of Holocaust studies is rich, almost endless, in its curriculum and perpetually relevant in its lessons, but here are a few things I’ve learned from teaching this particular class. First, I have a renewed appreciation for CLU’s legacy of respecting diversity imbued with a prevailing concern for peace and justice in the world as well as for the many trail-blazing individuals (faculty, administration, staff and students) who are part of that legacy.

Second, teaching this class not only prompts me to remember and to be thankful for legacy but also to reaffirm a liberal arts education, a teaching environment directed to the whole person not just to a professional or skill set piece of one. Harvard scholar Robert Coles, an academic hero of mine, suggests in The Call of Stories that literature and all the arts resonate with moral imagination.

To me, this idea means that as a teacher I am obligated to make those qualities that define the best in us … visible, even as we attempt to acknowledge and comprehend the worst. In the Holocaust class, I think this happens most effectively when a survivor comes to be with the students.

The late Piri Bodnar, mother, wife, author, insatiable reader, Holocaust survivor, was a great friend of CLU. If there was ever a person who embodied the best in us and made it visible as a teaching for our students over many years in many classes, it was Piri.

And it is always Piri who whispers the third lesson, a kind of chant really, that still reveals her to me, bent over a table at Barnes and Noble, reading Tibetan Buddhism: Wake up. Be grateful. Be humble. Be kind.

I have been stunned by the window into all human suffering and transformation, perhaps even a kind of illumination, which Holocaust studies opens. It requires and therefore teaches empathy.

There is a scene in Elie Wiesel’s Night where Francois Mauriac in his Foreword says he wants to comfort Elie, the inconsolable survivor, and perhaps himself by sharing with him the consolations of his own (Mauriac’s) beliefs, but that he “… could only embrace him weeping.”

Empathy for the reality, the anguish of others, walking within the spaces that are not us, to be active healers in the world wherever prejudice and injustice rear their hydra-like heads – that is the mandate of teaching the Holocaust and of ceaselessly learning from it.

Sigmar J. Schwarz, a past Woodrow Wilson Fellow and NDEA Fellow, is a professor in the English Department. He is interested in non-Western and minority studies and currently teaches a seminar in non-Western writers. He emphasizes the African-American, Chicano and Native American “voices” in his writing and literature courses.