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Words, History and the Holocaust: Scholar Leads Exploration

Arielle Korman ’17 (left), president of Davidson’s Hillel chapter, and Dan Michman, head of the International Institute of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
Arielle Korman ’17 (left), president of Davidson’s Hillel chapter, and Dan Michman, head of the International Institute of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

When they were 8 and 10 years old, the boys who would become the grandfather and great-uncle of Arielle Korman '17 were rescued by Kindertransport and hustled onto one of the last trains out of Poland before Hitler invaded. They ended up in New York by way of England, and after the war, surviving family members joined them there.

Korman '17 grew up in that close-knit Jewish family in New York City. It was a family made even closer by the absence of some of its members.

"I could only know survivors," she said. "There's this void you don't really understand.... What is Jewish identity beyond remembering?"

Korman had a chance recently to deepen her personal exploration of Jewish identity during this fall's campus visit by Israeli historian Dan Michman, one of the world's most eminent Holocaust scholars.

Himself the son of survivors, Michman heads the International Institute of Holocaust Research and is incumbent of the John Najmann Chair in Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Established by the Israeli parliament in 1953, Yad Vashem is the State of Israel's official memorial site to the victims of the Holocaust and today's foremost global center for Holocaust research, education, documentation and commemoration. Michman also serves as professor of modern Jewish history and chair of the Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan.

The first Yad Vashem official to visit Davidson, Michman accepted an invitation by Associate Professor of History Thomas Pegelow Kaplan.

"The Holocaust is a defining event in world history," Pegelow Kaplan said, "and Davidson students can develop greater analytical and interpretative skills from studying it, while simultaneously reflecting on social and civic responsibilities. They can do so in a classroom setting and in meetings with survivors or renowned visiting scholars such as Professor Michman."

After his time at Davidson, Michman flew with Pegelow Kaplan to Florida to participate in a panel on the language of genocide and Holocaust scholarship, an event that Pegelow Kaplan had co-organized at the latest conference of the Holocaust Educational Foundation.

Michman's talk at Davidson, "What Exactly is ‘The Holocaust'?," tackled the vocabulary, methodology, conceptualization and politics of Holocaust studies and the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.

Korman, president of the college's Hillel chapter, was among more than a dozen students and faculty members invited to a History Department seminar and kosher luncheon in the Carolina Inn the following day. History major Andres Franco '15 also attended, eager for insights for his senior history paper on Nazi refugees in Chile and Argentina and the U.S. government's knowledge and involvement.

Language as History

Michman has published numerous books and articles in a variety of languages on the history of Dutch and Belgian Jewry, Israeli society and various aspects of the Shoah, ranging from historiography, ghettos, religious life and Jewish leadership to problems of Jewish refugees, migration, resistance and survivor communities.

In the seminar, Michman's points ranged freely from etymological and archaeological considerations of Semitic and Hebrew linguistics to contextual representations of European Jewry in 18th-century Western Europe.

The use of language in history is, at some level, history itself, Michman said. That simultaneous intertwining and untangling of words and deeds holds true, too, for the individual student-and for the teacher, he added, recalling a story from his earlier days in the classroom.

"Language is not just for communicating, but for understanding yourself and what you want to say. I was reminded that the most important thing for a scholar to do can be to teach. Non-expert students can lead to new thoughts," he said. "Anti-Semitism is just a word. You have to show how it is at work as a driving force."

Michman took a retrospective view of his own scholarly career to make the point that history is, by definition, a moving target.

"All victims are victims from the moral point of view," he began. "When we study what actually happened, we should pay attention to differences. We look at the past and want to know what was different in the past and how the world changed.... I wrote that [article] 24 years ago. Today I would formulate it differently, so I, too, have changed! We ask different questions over time.

"There were good people who did bad things and there were bad people who did good things. We want to put them in boxes. It doesn't work that way. What was their intention?"

Korman, seated next to Michman at the seminar, picked up on this idea of intention, as the discussion circled around to the semantics of the Greek word holókaustos ("burnt whole") and the Hebrew word shoah ("catastrophe").

"Different survivors had different terms," Michman said, noting that many Yiddish terms for the Holocaust have disappeared from common use with the passage of time and the migration of people and language. "I would prefer to call it X, with no name...."

Peeling standard labels away from historical events, even for a moment of academic discussion, can help bring light to the void, Korman said: "Being really clear about what you are talking about is really important."