Seventy years ago, American soldiers stumbled upon a traumatic sight that beggared description in its horror: piles of skeletons and humans rendered unrecognizable from starvation, abuse and disease. The depravity and human degradation that these G.I.s witnessed would leave many haunted for life.
For the bewildered and unbelieving survivors of the Nazi death camps, the appearance of these soldiers meant the end of their suffering. Sadly, many would never truly recover – if they survived at all – and for most, the suffering was far from over.
It is this moment in time that intrigues Professor Paul Shankman, who will deliver a Scholars Series lecture on Tuesday, March 31 at 7 pm at the Boulder JCC, “The Gates of Hell: The American Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps.”
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This talk explores this important period as Allied troops came face-to-face with the Holocaust. What were these camps, such as Bergen Belsen and Dachau, like at the very end of World War II? What was the liberation like for the liberators and the liberated?
Shankman, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, began teaching the Holocaust as a small part of a class on power taught at CU in the ‘70s. By the 1990s, as interest grew, he was teaching an entire class dedicated to the Holocaust. Today, his class attracts 90-120 students. The Holocaust: An Anthropological Perspective is one of the largest upper-level division courses at CU. Two thirds of the students are not Anthropology majors and the vast majority are not Jewish.
When invited to participate in Menorah’s year-long series of lectures, A Scholars Series: CU at the J, Shankman chose the topic because he felt the liberation of the camps is not well understood. As the 70th anniversary approached, he wanted to dispel several lingering myths – including “American heroes liberate camps!”
In reality, these soldiers had no idea what they were doing,” Shankman explains. “They were uninformed. And what they saw was really the last chapter of the Holocaust. By mid-1943, most of the Jews had already been killed. This was a tiny remnant that was left behind.”
Shankman first became interested in the Holocaust in junior high school, when he visited a summer camp in Canada run by his aunt. There he discovered a book with pictures that disturbed and fascinated him. As a graduate student he read “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” and the idea that evil could be ordinary shocked him. Although he believes that author Hannah Arendt was essentially wrong about Eichmann, he does think her central argument – the famed “banality of evil” – has validity. At that point his interest in the Holocaust began in earnest.
As his interest grew, the world also began to grapple with the genocide. It took a long time for people to realize what had happened, he notes. The capture of Eichmann and the 1967 War – when Israel’s existence was threatened – helped jar the public’s conscience. “Survivors had so much to deal with to return to some semblance of normal life, they didn’t talk about their experiences for a long time,” he adds. Holocaust education became a huge phenomenon as subsequent generations struggled to fathom what had happened.
As a renowned Holocaust scholar, Shankman was dismayed when he learned that Hillel at CU had dropped the annual Holocaust Awareness Week that had been its signature program for many years. Determined that the students should have an opportunity to learn about the Holocaust from survivors, experts and from film, he has organized a series of events on campus around Yom HaShoah, April 16-17. Look for a full listing of Holocaust Remembrance programs in the BJN later in the week.
With no funding and no partner on campus, Shankman is putting this together on his own. He’s not one to shy from challenges. Along with Professor Zilla Goodman, he created the Program in Jewish Studies, taking on its organization without compensation. Today the program is a thriving department.
I just felt that when Hillel dropped Holocaust Awareness Week, it left a huge void,” he says. “I think students are interested. I know my students are.”