The Impact of Surreal Silence

The Impact of Surreal Silence

The Impact of Surreal Silence
The monument at the site of the Majdanek concentration camp.

With the goal of better understanding the Holocaust – emotionally and intellectually – one of recent history’s most terrible events, students and faculty participated in the fifth Year of Holocaust Studies in the 2009-2010 academic year. They traveled to Europe and Israel, took academic courses, conducted research, listened to history as told by survivors, and built memories they will never forget. 

More than 500 students have participated in the Year of Holocaust Studies during the five academic years it has been offered. It is designed to be offered at least once during a four-year student’s time at BVU.

Students often take trips and courses offered by the program out of a love of history or a special interest in the World War II era. In past years, the program has offered courses on theatre from and about the Holocaust, World War II history, and art labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazis.

“The Year increases students’ depth of the understanding by looking at the stories of perpetrators, survivors, and bystanders,” says Peter Steinfeld, associate dean of faculty, who has relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. “The ultimate battle cry is never again – but how simple that is as an imperative and how difficult it is to accomplish! Look at the genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, Serbia – even though everybody says ‘never again,’ it still happens.”

During the 2009-10 academic year, Steinfeld and Dr. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, dean of the School of Social Science, Philosophy & Religion, offered four full-length courses on the Holocaust. Steinfeld taught the class, God and Human Suffering, and a Holocaust-focused first-year seminar, while Bartholomew-Feis taught History of the Holocaust and The Holocaust in Film and Literature. The two jointly led a single-credit film course, part of the goal of which was to discuss and compare the depictions of the Holocaust on film to the actual locations the students would visit on the interim trip. All these studies served to help students understand – intellectually and emotionally – one of the darkest periods in recent history, something that, like all parts of history, seems to become harder with which to connect with the passage of time.

“It’s difficult for even survivors to describe what they saw, and that gets even more complicated by documentations by people who weren’t there,” says Steinfeld, referencing his dissertation on the Holocaust, which concerned issues of representation and memory and which he was completing at the time of the first Year of Holocaust Studies. “These issues are at play within our courses.”

While at BVU, Jacob Flaws, Class of 2009, visited the Dachau concentration camp as part of a European cultural January interim trip in 2008. Jacob is currently earning his master’s degree in history at the University of South Dakota. For his thesis, Jacob is focusing on Jewish-Polish interaction during the Holocaust.

“Being on-site helped my research,” says Jacob. “I’m looking at questions like why the Poles didn’t do more to resist. Majdanek was less than a mile from Lublin. They undoubtedly could smell the smoke of burning bodies.” 

The group visited seven concentration and death camps throughout Poland and the Czech Republic. During the trip, the students reflected on their experiences through journaling and group discussions.

“Majdanek and Auschwitz were both concentration camps that worked their prisoners or put them straight to death,” says Scott Radke, a sophomore biology major from Alta. “There were some survivors – these weren’t strictly death camps. Majdanek is relatively untouched. At Auschwitz there is some reconstruction going on. Terezín is a ghetto. Among other things, it was used by the Nazis to house Jewish prisoners and families so the Red Cross could film them, to show that they weren’t being mistreated. After that, though, everyone there was shipped to a death camp.”

“Treblinka was not a work camp,” says Jacob. “Most of the prisoners were driven straight to the gas chambers. It took us a long time to travel there. When we arrived, light snow was falling. It was a cloudy day. I’d never heard silence quite as it was out in that field. It was so surreal. That experience confirmed for me that history, and the Holocaust in particular, was the right field of study for me.”