July 18, 2024
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YU’s Fish Center to Present: ‘What Is the Holocaust Today?’

It was the fall of 2019 and Teaneck’s Sari Sheinfeld was ready for a change. A teacher at Yeshivat Noam for many years, she realized that she now wanted to be the student. She just wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. But having grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, she felt herself being pulled in that direction.

When the pandemic hit, she realized that because of Zoom, she was able to pursue this endeavor in earnest. She began looking into various programs, but none seemed like the right fit.

Coincidentally, at the same time Yeshiva University began advertising its brand new program in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. “Pretty much every person I had spoken to about it sent me a YU ad. Literally I was getting like four or five emails a day…So I thought, let’s give it a shot.”

Now, more than a year and a half later, she is the series designer of a compelling group of discussions called “What Is the Holocaust Today? A Series of Contemporary Explorations with the Yeshiva University Fish Center,” presented by the Yeshiva University Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Dr. Shay Pilnik, The Fish Center’s founding director, explained the significance of calling the series “What Is the Holocaust Today?” as opposed to “What Was the Holocaust?”: “It is a series that looks at the Holocaust as a historiocal phenomenon that is relevant to our life in this day and age. We look at the Holocaust as something that impacts our life in the present moment.”

Sheinfeld met with Pilnik over the summer and he explained that he wanted her to build something for the greater community. Pilnik introduced Sheinfeld to a colleague of his at Sarah Lawrence College, Polish-Jewish history professor Dr. Glenn Dynner, who works with Dr. Katarzyna Person, the author of the book “Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service During the Nazi Occupation.” Person agreed to be the first presenter in the series, and her talk will be followed by a panel discussion that will feature three of the nation’s leading Polish-Jewish history scholars, including Dynner, Dr. Natalia Aleksiun and Yeshiva University’s own Dr. Joshua Zimmerman.

When looking for inspiration on how to come up with a theme to string the presentations together, Sheinfeld looked back to the first course she took with Pilnik. At the time the course was titled, “Cultural Response to the Holocaust,” and every week the course examined a different discipline as it related to the Holocaust and how this event impacted each of these fields. Each week a scholar was brought in from each of these fields to explain it further.

Sheinfeld decided to adapt that same theme and feature speakers that specifically deal with 21st-century Holocaust study.

For the second presentation in the series, the speaker will be Dr. Beata Schulman, a noted historian who’s talk is called “Preservation, Commemoration, Restitution and Politics of Memory: Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Sites in Poland.” Before the pandemic, she served as the executive director of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Faris Cassell will be presenting the third talk in the series on her book, “The Unanswered Letter,” winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust studies. A journalist, she hails from Eugene, Oregon. Her husband is Jewish and a doctor, and those details are significant as they figure prominently in her story. One day, one of her husband’s elderly patients, knowing that he was Jewish, handed him an envelope with a letter in it. She explained that the letter had been in her family for decades and was not sure what to do with it, so she handed it over to Faris’s husband, convinced that he would have the answer.

He brought the letter home and immediately shared it with Faris. Written by a man named Alfred Berger in Vienna, it was dated August of 1939. Alfred Berger somehow found the address of somebody in Los Angeles with the same last name and begged him to send him an affidavit to get out of Austria. He wrote how his life depended on it, that both he and his wife would work and do anything to get out of the country. That letter became the premise for this book and Faris spent the next 10 years tracking down the history of this family and what happened to them.

In May, Yitzchak Mais will round out the series. He was the director of the permanent exhibit at Yad Vashem in the ’80s and ’90s and designs narratives for museums. He was the founding chief curator of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park and is now working on the House of Fates museum in Budapest, which has been steeped in controversy for the past several years. His discussion will center on public memory and what society is remembering.

The series will be held over Zoom, and Sheinfeld said that it “is a unique opportunity to hear from premier scholars and professionals across the globe.”

Pilnik said that “we have student leadership that will blaze a trail for future students who will come through the program … My feeling is that if we don’t let our students take a lead and shape Holocaust education based on their own understanding, in their own image, we are not going to achieve anything,” adding, “We have to fight to uphold the integrity of the subject, to uphold its significance. We cannot take it for granted, especially given what we see today with both Holocaust denial, Holocaust distortion and other efforts to sideline the issue.”

To learn more or to sign up for the presentations visit www.yu.edu/fish-center/events.

By Ronit Mershon

 

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