Dr. Waltzer’s Welcome Reception Comments
Comments by the Winegarden Visiting Professor for 2011-12, Kenneth Waltzer
Delivered at the UM Flint Welcome, Thompson Library, Nov. 1, 2011
I want to thank Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Gerard Voland for selecting me to serve as the Myron and Margaret Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint this year, I want to acknowledge the Winegarden legacy in gifting a fund to UM-Flint with which to do potentially creative things, and I want to thank Teddy Robertson of the History Department, Jacky Zeff and Julie Colish of the English Department, and also Jan Worth of the Thompson Learning Center for nominating me and supporting the application. Sue Fabbro in the Provost’s office has been wonderful getting all things ready for the year – “she’s fabbrolous”; and Teddy Robertson has been advising and tutoring about how best to make things happen at UM Flint. Finally, I want also to thank Bob Houbeck, head of the Thompson Library, and his staff Emily Newberry, for facilitating the completion of a UM-Flint connection to the Shoah Visual History Foundation archive of survivor testimonies at the University of Southern California through a link at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Apparently, one doesn’t just show up – it takes a village to host a Winegarden fellow.
Let me say a few things about myself. I came to Michigan 40 years ago from the East Coast because I believed in the promise of public higher education and particularly in the idea that recognized the power of harnessing community in a residentially based setting for purposes of higher education. I had attended a public residential college, Harpur College, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, as the first in my large family to go on to higher education, and I had been fortunate enough to go on to study history as a Prize Fellow at Harvard, where I also worked in the residential colleges. Coming as a fresh recruit to build a new institution at Michigan State University was what I wanted to do, and I reflect with gratitude that we (basically a group of young faculty fresh out of graduate school) were able to build a terrific college that weathered the challenges of time and Midwestern political economy, that has educated about 10,000 graduates to date, including numerous Rhodes, Truman, Marshall, and Fulbright winners, and that has been organized around the simple elements of challenging and actively engaging students, holding them to high standards, demanding that they do a great deal of writing, all the while doing our best to help them find their own voices and achieve such standards, and above all honoring and celebrating the magic of teaching and the value of being teacher-scholars.
I see in what the University of Michigan Flint is seeking to do in the current period an updated version of the constellation of ideas that animated me long ago and shaped my choice to come to Michigan. The significant emphasis here on faculty-student interaction, the idea of undergraduate learning as a collaborative process, the honoring by the institution of good, committed teaching and teacher-scholars, the emphases on writing and on civic engagement and democracy, and the effort to build a more residentially based community of learning are familiar and make me feel at home. The opportunity to participate and pitch in, to interact with good teacher-scholars and eager students, and – in a new era, to harness new things, like the new technology -- to undertake new exciting initiatives makes me feel younger again. I am truly thankful about and look forward to participating in this wonderful opportunity.
Now, when I came to Michigan the subject of the Holocaust was not yet a major preoccupation of scholarship and did not yet have a significant imprint on the broader culture. I went to graduate school to study immigration and urban immigrants from Europe (my grandparents); I did not go with the thought in mind to study the subsequent catastrophe of 20th century Europe. Survivors of those events we dub the Holocaust who came to America were mostly silent about their experiences, they were busy making new lives, and the world in all its complexity and insensitivity had simply moved on from World War II to the Cold War, and then to the Vietnam War and then to other nasty engagements in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur. Concern with what many today have come to understand as one of the central sets of events in the 20th century -- a moral tremendum – was only just building. My own training as a social historian, focused on urban, immigrant, and minority social and political life, led me to teach and research at the outset mainly about American society and politics, but over time I was personally deeply affected by the new scholarship that began appearing about what happened in Europe and also about how nations and peoples had responded or not. As one historian has written, Europe was the dark continent, not Africa, and human behaviors and actions had erupted there in what was supposedly an advanced civilization that belied all the pride in place about Europe as a center of Enlightenment, progress, and democracy.
Gradually, but only in retrospect, and only slowly and belatedly, people began to recognize that Auschwitz stands as the absolute negation of the promise of our civilization, the polar opposite of Enlightenment; it is the thing that gives the lie to simple formulas linking the modern with progress. Moreover, all too many Europeans had been willing during the Holocaust to go along with radical anti-democracy and to live with or alongside mass murder. Gradually, as Europe returned to democracy only at the very end of the 20th century, accountings started to be made involving an undigested and unmastered past, and such confrontations and accountings continue to this day.
Also only years after I came to Michigan, there developed a remarkable social movement of memory among Holocaust survivors who after 1945 had spread all over the world. Having remained silent for a long time, protecting their new families and their children from their experiences, they now began to speak out publicly, write memoirs, and ultimately give their testimonies about human experience beyond extremity. Risking the return of old wounds that never disappeared, and embracing their own past stories from those dark times, these courageous men and women joined in an effort to make us all take notice and confront the undigested past. The scores of museums that have been established in Washington DC and in many North American cities as well as in European, Canadian, Israeli, and Australian cities, the films and stories that have entered our culture – Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and so many more -- are the distinctive products of this belated social movement of memory. And now -- we stand at a critical juncture, at the close of a period during which we have started attending to that past, and at a moment when the survivors are now passing, and it is clear that their voices will be silent again and their memories will now turn to history. Are we at the end of an era? Are we at a close in the absorption of this set of events into our understanding of the human condition and our world?
As a scholar and teacher, I am deeply involved in thinking about “so what now?” “Where are we in all this and what might be the next steps?” What are new directions we might embrace in teaching about and writing about the Holocaust and using it as a social laboratory to study human behavior? Are we at a crossroads that marks the end of the Holocaust, as scholar Alvin Rosenfeld has recently worriedly observed, writing that the more the Holocaust is absorbed into the broader culture, written about, put onto film, or represented in museums, the less we understand and know about it or comprehend it in its specificity and with the appropriate moral gravitas. Confronting the unmastered past means confronting difficult knowledge. Why then do so many of our stories and cultural representations turn upward at the end, marking happy closings? Can difficult knowledge be obtained from redemptive stories?
Despite the spread of knowledge, the growth of museums, and the explosion of cultural representations about the Holocaust, it might be said we have fallen into a morass when Holocaust memoirs continue regularly appearing that are fraudulent, misleading or fictively embellished, and the culture makers and arbiters and many others nonetheless find them authentic and praise-worthy and interesting. What breadth of knowledge has been shared and absorbed in our culture when something like “Angel at the Fence,” a fraudulent memoir about furtive meetings daily at a concentration camp fence between a young boy and a young girl, the blossoming of young love, and an apple a day keeps the Nazis away, could be published by a major publisher, Penguin, prepared for global production and distribution, with a massive multimillion dollar mega block buster movie soon to follow? Those furtive meetings, as we know, never happened. The youths were hundreds of miles apart and met only in the late 1950s. The story was concocted in the mid-1990s. People did not throw apples over concentration camp fences. They did not meet and become friends at such fences.
How shall we view comparative work that has begun taking place in the study of genocide, which has grown in recent decades against the backdrops of the more recent terrible events in Rwanda, Darfur, and other places? Does such comparative work throw added light onto understanding of the Holocaust or does it diminish the sense of distinctiveness and moral trespass that once struck us hard in our first encounters with the Nazi destruction?
And what shall become of the thousands of testimonies that the survivors have left during recent decades stored in numerous archives around the country – at Yale in New England, at the UM-Dearborn in Michigan, in the huge Spielberg Shoah Visual History Foundation archive at USC in California, over 50,000 testimonies – can they be used and will they be used to write history and other works and to deepen our understanding? Or are survivor testimonies too subjective, recalled too long after the events, too contaminated by intervening years and influences, and too imprecise for us to rely on to write and study history, social relations, psychology, and other aspects of behavior under conditions of extremity?
These are big questions, and one of the things I hope to do amidst the fellowship of community here is to convene an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on “New Directions in Study of the Holocaust.” With tremendous support from UM-Flint, this seminar will meet nine times in the evenings (Tuesday evenings) mid-January to March, 2012, each time preceded by dinner, and with the required books provided to faculty participants gratis and with long advance, in order to enter creatively together as a learning community into the rich conversations and debates that are now going on and to add our own insights and views to the mix about study of the Holocaust and its future. It is possible to sign up on line for this seminar – first come first serve, to obtain the books, and to peruse on a UM Flint blog that I have already created all the best reviews of the books we’ll be reading. We hope faculty in the humanities, including history and literature, and in the social sciences, in particular, will be especially interested to participate and will bring with them the rich insights of their own disciplines and own teaching.
The other thing I want to do while I am here is to create a state-of-the-art undergraduate research seminar (with graduate participation) -- a community of inquiring scholars, old and young -- to create new knowledge utilizing survivor memory, testimony, and interviews. I want UM-Flint to be at the cutting edge here offering a local demonstration project to a national audience about what is doable in terms of new directions in the study and teaching of the Holocaust. Survivor experience – human experience beyond extremity – as told in narrative form in memoirs, testimonies, and life interviews – permit us to go where the documents do not, offering rich insights about human behavior under the most difficult conditions and amidst the worst challenges. Survivor memory, while imprecise and sometimes flawed, as traumatic memory, we’re finding, is in some respects remarkably resilient and enduring. If used carefully and critically, survivor memory can be used to create good history. I also believe undergraduate students can do this – I believe not only teaching with testimonies but researching in testimonies will be a wave of the future – and I look forward to working with committed students who want to get a first-hand experience doing and writing original work.
As I mentioned, it is wonderful to have this opportunity, and I look forward to being here at UM Flint during winter 2012. As a beginning, I invite you to attend my opening lecture, the Kristallnacht lecture, planned jointly with the Flint Jewish Federation, to take place Thurs., Nov. 10, at 7:00 pm in the University Kiva in the Harding Mott University Center. I will speak on “The Rescue of Children and Youths at Buchenwald,” the book I’m currently writing, which involves the kinds of research I will be directing in the undergraduate research seminar. We’re also making a movie, “Kinderblock 66,” which will debut in the late spring 2012, and I hope one of the final things I’ll be able to do while I’m at UM Flint is host a showing of the film in early April, with the executive producer and some former boys of block 66. This is unsettled, because the strategy is to take the film to big film festivals first, but we’ll see what happens or can be made to happen.
Thank you for this terrific invitation and opportunity and this wonderful welcome.