Opening the Symposium on Genocide and Human Rights for the academic year, Stephen Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College, spoke on campus on Sept. 20. Berk delivered his talk “The Holocaust Revisited,” after leading a workshop and roundtable discussion in the Fisher Center earlier in the day.
An article in the Finger Lakes Times the next day noted Berk, “told students that the ‘postgenocide world’ they plan to discuss this semester might be a bit utopian.”
He is quoted, “It ain’t going to be. I doubt that we will see the last genocide. It just happens again and again. But if you study the Holocaust … just maybe we can make your century and my century, the 21st century, the best century that humanity has ever experienced.”
Frequently consulted by the world’s top news organizations, Berk has spoken about the Holocaust, Russian and Jewish history and anti-Semitism as a consultant to the Wiesenthal Holocaust Center in Los Angeles and as a renowned lecturer for many years. He is the author of “Year of Crisis, Year of Hope: Russian Jewry and the Pogroms of 1881-1882,” and is currently at work on “Our People Are Your People: American Jewry and the Struggle for Civil Rights 1954-1965,” which examines the Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement.
The full article about Berk’s talk at HWS follows.
The Finger Lakes Times
Genocide speaker: Make 21st century better
Heather Swanson • September 21, 2012
GENEVA – Reconciliation and justice were little touched upon at Thursday’s Genocide and Human Rights Symposium.
Though “reconciliation, justice and witnessing” is the theme of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ fall take on the ongoing symposium, the first speaker hardly mentioned them.
In fact, Stephen Berk, a professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies at Union College, told students that the “postgenocide world” they plan to discuss this semester might be a bit utopian.
“It ain’t going to be,” he said succinctly. “I doubt that we will see the last genocide. It just happens again and again. But if you study the Holocaust … just maybe we can make your century and my century, the 21st century, the best century that humanity has ever experienced.”
The note of optimism came at the close of an animated speech that traced anti-Semitism back to the birth of Christianity and through history to the Holocaust.
“This will antagonize a number of people, but any historian … will argue the point, and I think convincingly, that the origins in a significant way of anti- Judaism begin with the emergence of Christianity.”
Early teachings taught Judaism was “spiritually bankrupt,” he noted, adding New Testament descriptions of Jews were in part to blame.
Later, folklore born of contempt taught that “Jews had tails, Jews had horns” and tales spread that they killed Christian children, he noted.
“It is a nonsensical charge, but thousands of Jews will die as a consequence,” said Berk.
Fast forwarding though the Crusades to the 20th century, Berk noted that the German defeat in World War I played a role, as did the rise of fascism and ultimately a single personality – Adolf Hitler.
“We now know the importance of personality in history. Not everyone would agree with me, but most historians will,” he said. “No Hitler, no Nazi succession to power. No Hitler, no Second World War. No Hitler, no Holocaust.”
No written documentation of a direct order by Hitler to exterminate the Jews has been found, but Germans were “marching towards the Fuhrer” acting on what they believed he wanted, he said.
“All that we get is statements from a number of Germans, ‘the Fuhrer said to me, it is time to settle accounts with the Jews.’ That’s all we have,” said Berk.
He touched on other key elements of the Holocaust – the Jewish resistance, Polish crimes and complacency, and the ubiquitous rape of Jewish women by German soldiers.
“There are many more things we could say, but we’re running out of time,” Berk said before asking for questions from his audience.
In true professor style, he put audience members on the spot, asking what they thought of each others’ questions.
Despite the “gloomy subject,” Berk ended his lecture on a positive note.
“It’s in the Jewish tradition that we never end on a negative note,” he said. For the first time in history there is a Jewish state, an entity, an institution “that can defend the Jews,” he concluded.
Björn Krondorfer, a professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University, will speak Oct. 29 for the Symposium on Genocide and Human Rights in a lectured titled “Dialogue and Reconciliation in a Post- Holocaust World.”