New Course Helps Preserve the Memory of the Holocaust

November 1, 2009

As time continues to march forward, the men and women who survived and witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust are slowly dying off. And with their deaths, powerful tools for teaching and reminding the world of what happened-their voices and memories-are slowly fading away.

Associate professor Dorothy Clark and her colleague Holli Levitsky, an associate professor of English and director of Jewish Studies at Loyola Marymount University, have come up with a novel idea for preserving those memories and creating a new generation of “witnesses” to make sure that the world never forgets the genocide of more than 11 million European Jews and others during World War II.

The pair has created a joint, two-semester course, “The Holocaust and Poland: Untold Stories and Politics of Memory,” that explores that troubling time in history through literature and interviews with survivors and witnesses of the German occupation of Poland. The course, which begins in the spring, will include a trip to Poland where students will get an opportunity to visit the places their interviewees spoke of and see for themselves the disappearance of Jewish society and culture.

“The survivors have, sadly, been dying for a while,” said Clark, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “That was one of the compelling forces in the construction of this class. We both felt it was very important to continue to document the survivors’ stories and find a way to continue to make their stories relevant to a new generation of young people.”

Levitsky, a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Poland in 2001-2002, said the idea for the course and the trip to Poland grew out of visits both she and Clark independently made to the country. “Visiting the camps as well as towns and villages that once had thriving Jewish communities was a profound, life-changing experience for both of us,” she said. Clark and Levitsky said that when the students interview survivors, the experience has greater impact than reading about the Holocaust or watching a film. The survivors are passing on their memories and stories to a new generation, they said, and those memories now become the responsibility of that new generation.

By taking that new generation, their students, to the places where those memories happened and where they can talk to witnesses in Poland, the students understand more deeply what the Holocaust is and what truly happened, Levitsky and Clark said. Thus, they said, “the Holocaust no longer is just something [the students] read in a book or saw in a movie, it is their story.”

Plans for the CSUN part of the trip are still up in the air as Clark scrambles to raise the funds to take about 15 Northridge students to Poland. Loyola, a private university, has more resources to facilitate sending 15 students on the June trip.

“We’re a state university in the middle of a budget crisis,” Clark said. “Our students really can’t afford the approximately $3,000 per person it would cost to make the trip.Maybe we can’t take all the students, but for those we can take, the experience will be transformative.”

Both professors are determined to ensure that every student who wants to go on the trip has the financial backing necessary. They are working together to achieve that goal, and are hoping for funds and donations for any student in need.

Students at both universities will spend the spring semester doing research about the Holocaust in Poland, which will include conducting and documenting interviews with Holocaust survivors who are members of the The 1939 Club, a survivor organization in Los Angeles dedicated to Holocaust education. The students will document survivors’ memories of pre-war Poland and what happened after the German invasion.

During the June trip, the students will be asked to do additional interviews with Polish witnesses and survivors as well as to document through videos and blogs their reactions to their experiences. The students will then spend the summer compiling it all into a multi-media record that can be used as an educational tool about the Holocaust.

Levitsky said she and Clark have already received assurances from Polish government officials that they will do what they can to help the CSUN and LMU students conduct their research while they are in Poland.

“Now, we just need to get our students there,” Clark said.