Weinstein Holocaust Symposium meets at Wroxton College

By Dr. Jason Scorza

The Stephen S. Weinstein Holocaust Symposium convened from June 22 to June 26 at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Wroxton College.  This was the ninth in a series of biennial symposia organized by Leonard Grob, FDU Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Humanities, and his long-time partner, Henry (Hank) Knight, Director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College.

The symposium is named in honor of its benefactor, Stephen (Skippy) Weinstein, a prominent New Jersey trial lawyer and member of the FDU Board of Trustees.  Previously, the symposium had been supported by Ms. Pastora Goldner, from its inception in 1996 until 2008.

The interdisciplinary group, consisting of leading Holocaust scholars from academic disciplines including history, philosophy, theology, psychology, literature, sociology, art, theater, and medicine, meets at Wroxton College every two years.

Most members of the highly selective group of thirty-eight have been part of the program since its inception, when Grob and Knight chose thirty-six from among more than eighty applicants.  The group includes scholars from the United States, Canada, England, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Italy.  Roughly half of the participants are Jewish, while the remainder are Christian.

Although additional members are occasionally invited to join, on the strength of their scholarship, the symposium is kept small in order to foster the continuity and intimacy of the discussions and a sense of shared purpose and camaraderie.  Each meeting of the symposium includes optional Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic services, as well as artistic, musical, or dramatic presentations, and time for informal discussions and work on collaborative research that continues between the biennial meetings.

Although Wroxton presents a beautiful backdrop for scholarly discussions, Knight says, “The magic is not the place, but what happens between and among the participants in and through their intensive reflection, personal renewal and concentrated work."

So far, ten volumes of related scholarship have emerged from the symposium.  Most of these books, several of them published by the University of Washington Press, include titles such as Testimony, Tensions, and Tikkun: Teaching the Holocaust in Colleges and Universities and Anguished Hope: Holocaust Scholars Confront the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, involve symposium participants in dialogues concerning complex moral and philosophical concerns.  Three additional volumes, including Encountering the Stranger: a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue, are at different stages of development

Topics included reconsideration of classic Holocaust texts, such as Elie Weisel's Night and Primo Levi's Survival at Auschwitz, the influence of anti-Semitism and nationalist ideology on the rise of the Third Reich, and the relationship between Holocaust studies and related fields such as comparative genocide studies.  However, new research and perspectives were also presented.

"There is still much work to be done to fill in the historical record, to tell the stories of both victims and survivors, and to understand the lessons of the Holocaust for modernity," said Grob, who underscored the central mission of the Symposium as contributing to tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

Father Patrick Desbois, a member of the group who was unable to attend the symposium due to illness, provided a videotaped report on his investigations of mass graves in Nazi occupied Ukraine and elsewhere.  Desbois and his organization, the Yahad–In Unum Association, have discovered more than 800 such graves, accounting for hundreds of thousands of murders, primarily by correlating archival evidence with interviews with elderly residents of neighboring communities who had been children or adolescents during the Holocaust.

The group also addressed emotionally and politically sensitive topics such as the role of humor, laughter, and jokes when dealing with the Holocaust.  Recognizing that there are some topics, such as the Holocaust, which are so solemn that jokes may appear unforgivable, participants explored the benefits that humor might have have for healing or empowerment.  Arie Galles, Professor of Soka University of America and Professor and former Professor of Art at FDU, said, "There is a certain way for laughter to mitigate things, to make you feel more powerful than your oppressor.... Laughing with others shows us that Hitler has not driven all of the joy out of the world."

Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita at Montgomery College, presented new research on the prevalence of rape inflicted upon Jewish women and girls during the Holocaust, and the general obsession of the Nazis with Jewish sexuality evidenced by criminal prosecutions of Jewish men suspected of sexual relations with Aryan women.  Goldenberg also highlighted the unsettling issue of Jewish men who preyed on vulnerable Jewish women, who exchanged sex for survival (e.g., food for themselves and their families).  Goldenberg challenged the symposium to think seriously about the apparent neglect of rape and sexual violence as a topic within Holocaust Studies.  Goldenberg asked, "Is this evidence of the broader marginalization of women in Holocaust Studies?  Does respect for the privacy of women require silence both by the victims and researchers?"

John Roth, Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, observed that while rape was prevalent during the Holocaust, it was not official policy.  This stands in contrast to later genocides, in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan, where rape was adopted as a policy of violence, coercion and terror inflicted upon victims.  Only in the late 1990s was rape identified in international law as an act of genocide.  "This is very important but was very late in coming," Roth said.  The symposium was challenged by Amy Shapiro, Professor of Philosophy at Alverno College, to actually answer the question of why rape is not a more central element of Holocaust research and Holocaust museum exhibits.  Shapiro said, "This is often asked as a rhetorical question and that is a problem."

Highlights of the ninth biennial symposium included dramatic readings from "The Model Apartment," a dark comedy by Donald Margulies about the effects of the Holocaust on its survivors and their descendants.  The scenes were performed by symposium members directed by Bob Skloot, Professor Emeritus of Theater and Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The keynote presentation was delivered by special  guest Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.  Although it is tempting to think of the Holocaust in purely historical terms, she said, the antisemitic ideas which underwrote the genocide of Europe's Jews endures in many countries. 

Rosenthal cited the 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights, which reveals that seventy-five countries had significant incidents of antisemitism in the previous year, while thirty-eight had significant increases in such incidents.  These include prominent incidents of conspiracy theories, vandalism of synagogues, Holocaust denial in school textbooks, antisemitism directed against athletes, and even glorification of Nazis and the Holocaust. 

Strategically, Rosenthal argued, it is important to enlist non-Jews to repudiate anti-semitism, just as it is important for Jews to repudiate other forms of hatred such as Islamophobia.  Rosenthal said, "Antisemitism is alive and well but other forms of hatred are alive and well and need to be called out."  Coalition building among vulnerable populations is an important way of combating antisemitism, she explained, as is public diplomacy that circumvents officials and addresses the press and the public directly.

The Weinstein Holocaust Symposium will meet next in the summer of 2014.

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