I sat down with returning Director Wendy Lower to learn more about her time on leave from the
Mgrublian Center as she directed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Mandel Center in Washington, D.C. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Q: What called you to the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the USHMM to pursue a leave of absence from CMC?
A: I was approached by the museum leadership and was asked to step in as interim director of the Mandel Center – mostly based on my record as a scholar in the field and my prior affiliation with the museum as a member of the academic committee, as a research fellow, and a historical consultant for their exhibitions since 1994. It was a tremendous honor to be asked to direct the Center, which is the biggest, most active research institute of Holocaust studies in the world. It is situated in one of the largest archives on the Holocaust, and as a federal museum on the National Mall, it serves millions of visitors annually.
Each day I was inspired by the crowds that entered the building and the scholars in the archives who were determined to memorialize the victims and discover their stories. As a matter of fact, while I was there, I oversaw a few different departments and launched a variety of national and international research and higher educational programs. I personally worked with acquisitions staff in Europe who secured agreements to access and digitize millions of pages of state and private collections. In many cases, I had the opportunity to get a first look at these materials and could imagine the new directions the field might go based on these new sources.
For example, in my survey of the postwar tribunal records from France that are just being declassified and copied, I saw hundreds of war crimes cases against French women who were defendants, signaling to me that studies of wartime collaboration may end up returning to where they started in France, but now finally with the actual documentation of events. Back in D.C., in the state of the art labs of the Museum, I saw how humanities scholars and conservators work together on
collections, which deepened my appreciation for the material culture of the Holocaust.
Q: What has been your greatest academic and/or professional takeaway from your time at the Mandel Center that you are excited to bring back to CMC?
A: I am developing a new course that focuses on objects of war in genocide. Besides the value that I believe can be gained from studying these material traces of the Holocaust — many of them imbued with trauma — I also plan to continue to bring my national and international connections forged at the Museum to CMC. As interim director of the Mandel Center, I convened a leadership initiative in D.C. that brought together the directors of other Holocaust, genocide and human rights studies Centers on college campuses.
This new National Leadership Consortium of Human Rights Centers was the result of survey work that the Mgrublian Center’s previous newsletter editor Larissa Peltola (CMC ’18) completed as a summer intern. She identified about 200 other centers across the country that are dedicated to Holocaust, genocide, and human rights studies. One benefit of this national consortium is that it’s now given the directors of human rights centers across this country’s higher educational landscape the ability to mobilize in crisis situations, and address the dearth of human rights work in certain states and localities. Another is the potential to secure and grow on-campus education about the history of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Q: What would you say is the most important idea of your keynote address, The History and Future of Holocaust Research, which you gave last spring at The Future of Holocaust Research conference at City University in New York?
There are a few points that I would like to stress. First is that the field of Holocaust studies is not narrow. It has exploded in the past decades because of the vastness and interdisciplinary richness of source material that attracts scholars in history, literature, the arts, anthropology, psychology, sociology, musicology, philosophy, archaeology, law, digital humanities, and more. Scholars from around the world are posing new questions, illuminating dimensions of humanity that continue to shock and confound — and teach us universal lessons.
There are few such well-documented events that have this power and potential. As I tell my students, in the scheme of history, the Holocaust happened yesterday, we live in its aftermath, we are still sorting it out, and may not figure it out. It is a dynamic, fertile field. Second, research has expanded beyond the focus on Nazi Germany to all of Europe. That the Holocaust was a European (indeed, global event) challenges scholars to discern the local, national, and international forces and patterns. It is also politically volatile as many countries such as Poland and Hungary are resisting an open, critical discussion of their collaboration and their persecution and annihilation of Jews, Roma and other victims, in some cases committed without any German pressure or involvement. National taboos persist, and sadly so do antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
A: What plans do you have for the Center now that you’re back?
I would like to strengthen the research profile of the Mgrublian Center with the models that I learned about at the Mandel Center. I am looking forward to creating a library resource that offers a collection of the most important secondary and primary resources in the field of Holocaust, genocide, and human rights studies that is located on a US college campus. I would also like to digitize personal papers of leaders in human rights to generate more student and faculty research and encourage faculty to utilize these collections in their teaching.
The biographical papers of these human rights leaders might inspire our students to think about pursuing careers dedicated to upholding rights, preventing the suffering of others, and educating about the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides. To date, students at the Mgrublian Center have greatly appreciated and benefitted from our large internships programs which is why I’m working to create formal memos of understanding with leading organizations around the world to offer more of these opportunities to students; for example, we are developing a new internship in Riga, Latvia beginning in summer 2019.
Through the expansion of our research initiatives and curricular offerings, we also hope to improve the academic experience of our interns to better prepare them for field work with grassroots NGOs around the globe, and in major organizations in the US such as Human Rights Watch. Along these lines, we are expanding the current list of course offerings in the Human Rights sequence to provide students with a wider array of eligible courses. Finally, the Center is piloting a new program for graduating seniors, The Elbaz Family Post-Graduate Fellowship, that fully funds one year of work in a human rights organization. Similar to a Fulbright, the goal of this program is to support CMC grads who have devoted their college years to human rights scholarship and activism, and are looking for ways to extend this to their professional lives in a serious and influential way.