|Holocaust Class Will Present Projects Crafted from Archival Material at Museum in D.C.
April 24, 2009
Contact: Bill Giduz
Nine Davidson history students on Tuesday, April 28, will present research projects related to the Holocaust. Their work was conducted for their History 433 seminar, and was facilitated by a three-day spring break trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that was paid for by a grant from the Davidson Research Initiative. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Alvarez College Smith 900 Room, and there is no charge to attend.
|Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan in class|
The trip was arranged by Assistant Professor of History Thomas Pegelow-Kaplan, a specialist in Holocaust studies who has done extensive research at the facility. He first visited the museum shortly after it opened in 1993. As a Ph.D. candidate, he was in residence working on his dissertation in 2001. He has now developed his dissertation into a book, “The Language of Nazi Genocide,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press this fall. He is also working with museum staffers to edit a volume of Holocaust-related sources for college and university teaching.
The course, History 433 “The Holocaust,” met weekly for almost two months prior to the trip. Pegelow-Kaplan prepared the students for their archival investigation by focusing on the subject matter of the Holocaust as well as the methodology of historical research.
None of the students had prior experience investigating primary sources. Mary Ross Bryant ’09 noted that throughout the class, “Professor Pegelow-Kaplan tried to get us to be critical of sources. When we read a book we discussed not only the material, but the author. We had to understand the background story, and the author’s motivation for writing it. We discussed sources that conflicted with that author’s opinion, and had to cite reasons why we believed one author or the other.”
Bryant was interested in the psychological effect of the Holocaust on children, and found in the archives documents about a post-war United Nations center in Munich for displaced children that proved very helpful in her work. “It was a lucky find,” she noted. “I didn’t discover it until the last day, and then had to scan like mad to bring the material back with me.”
She continued, “You can’t know for certain what you’ll encounter when you do research. You need to be ready to change plans based on what you find.”
Brian Holloway ’10 had a similar experience. His plans to research Nazi torture and castration of homosexuals got off to a slow start when he was unable to find material filed under that heading in the museum’s database. He finally found names of individuals in medical experimentation records from three concentration camps. He searched for those individuals in the museum’s registry files of every individual who was a Holocaust victim, and found testimony from several survivors. “The people at the registry helped me out tremendously. One guy translated from German for me for three or four hours,” Holloway said.
Students selected a topic early in the semester and turned in a proposal to Pegelow-Kaplan. They revised it based on his feedback and proceeded with research both on campus and at the museum in Washington. As they developed their papers following the trip, the methodology included submitting their work to peers for review and feedback, “in a spirit of cooperation and helpfulness” as Pegelow-Kaplan said with a smile.
|Leah Wilson, an applied research scholar in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, wears gloves in handling rare documents to show Andrew Guard ’09 and Mary Ross Bryant ’09.|
Molly Palilionis ‘09, whose ancestors are Lithuanian, wrote about the shifting mentalities of the Jewish populations in the Kovno and Vilna ghettos between 1941 and 1943. Alexander Bust ’10 researched wartime and postwar perceptions of the Jewish councils and their collaboration in Lodz and Czestochowa. Andrew Guard ’09 studied the testimony of survivors as literature.
They learned that it is sometimes frustrating and sometimes rewarding. “Everyone’s proposal changed when we went to the museum!” Bryant said.
They arrived in Washington on a Saturday evening, and received a VIP “backstage” tour of the facility and some advice about research methodology from a senior scholar and from Pegelow-Kaplan. A major snow storm covered the region Saturday night. The Davidson team was lodging within easy walking distance of the museum, but most professional staffers and other researchers stayed at home. “We almost had the place to ourselves,” said Pegelow Kaplan.
The museum is very accommodating to researchers, who can scan, digitize and download to flash drives any of its 43 million pages of paper records they need. A large percentage of the collection has already been scanned, including 7,000 videotaped interviews, and was available to the Davidson students on microfilm. The museum staff continues to search out and acquire material. One of the primary resources for Davidson students was a database compiled by the Shoah Foundation of interviews with 55,000 Holocaust survivors and liberators.
One of the challenges students faced was trying to research material that was not in English. Mike Suiters ’10 was among several students whose language classes came in handy. Suiters researched Spanish language material about Spanish border guards who helped Jewish refugees when they crossed the Franco-Spanish border. Students were also challenged by sources which weren’t dated, and others that could have been forged. Pegelow-Kaplan said he was impressed by the students’ tenacity, and their increasing grasp of proper research methodology. “They kept at it and weren’t deterred,” he said. “Even among history majors, most aren’t going to become professional historians. But work in research methods as in this course will be helpful to them no matter what their eventual profession.”
Pegelow-Kaplan has recently received a research fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to fund his own archival work during his sabbatical next year in Germany. He will examine how social movements and community groups in West Germany of the 1960s and 1970s approached mass crimes and appropriated categories of genocide for their own political purposes. The inflated, inflammatory linguistic practices of student, feminist, and civil rights activists significantly contributed to changes in their society’s memory culture, he contends, without entirely breaking with racist and even anti-Zionist discourse.
A native German, Pegelow-Kaplan opted out of the country’s mandatory military obligation by working for 15 months as a Red Cross nurse assistant. In that job he encountered many elderly former German soldiers, and was shocked that many were unrepentant about the Holocaust. “It was quite shocking to me as a conscientious objector,” he recalled.
Those specific incidents, and West German society’s confrontation with the country’s past crimes, fueled Pegelow-Kaplan’s academic interest in the subject. He came to the United States to study at the University of Oregon, and has been here since.
Pegelow Kaplan admits that his interest in the Holocaust is personal as well as academic. “Every German has a moral responsibility to consider the Holocaust,” he said. “Some of my family members were in Hitler’s army, and other relatives were killed in the Holocaust. It’s a very complicated subject.”
He said he is motivated to teach such an unsettling subject by the fact that the Holocaust was not an isolated historical incident, and pointed to modern-day Congo and Darfur as countries where genocide continues. “That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about work done on campus by student groups like STAND, a student anti-genocide coalition, and why I’m proud to serve as their faculty advisor,” he said.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
Posted By: Bill Giduz