June 4, 2003: Reading Room

Widening the lens
Debórah Dwork ’75 examines the Holocaust in a broader context

By Maria LoBiondo

Photo: Dwork is founding director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.

In Holocaust: A History (W. W. Norton), scholar Debórah Dwork ’75 and coauthor Robert Jan van Pelt break new ground by examining the Holocaust from many perspectives — combining in one book the narratives of perpetrators, victims, rescuers, and bystanders, and analyzing the social, political, and intellectual factors that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

By delving into a terrible past, Dwork sees her work as a service for the future. For her, exploring what went wrong is relevant today and may prevent another such atrocity. “The Holocaust raises questions that remain important,” says Dwork, whose book was published last fall. “For example, what is the appropriate response to refugee problems? What do we say to tyrannical governments?”

Dwork and van Pelt, a professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo, traced the roots of the Holocaust to ideologies of the 15th-century Spanish Inquisition and the 18th-century French Revolution. “The Inquisition sought spiritual perfection, the kingdom of heaven. The French Revolution sought to establish heaven on earth. Those who sought that perfection were prepared to murder those who stood in the way,” she explains.

“We can never underestimate the role of ideology,” says Dwork. “Ideology — not sadism — fueled the Holocaust. Greed fed that fire, too. But the driving force of this genocide was the Nazi ideology of a racial Utopia, which necessitated the murder of the Jews.”

Dwork and van Pelt thread individual stories – like that of Austrian-born painter Jacques Kupfermann, who managed to get to the U.S. while his Polish-born parents died in a concentration camp – with larger subjects, such as the plight of refugees. They look at the experiences of Gentiles, discuss state-sponsored rescues as well as individual efforts, and address the denial by some that the Holocaust ever happened.

“The challenge we set was to step back, widen the lens, and gain perspective. It’s not that we discovered a world of new facts; we analyzed what was already known differently,” says Dwork, the Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark University and the founding director of its Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies — the first such center in the country, and the only one to offer a doctoral program. The Strassler Center trains Holocaust historians and genocide-studies scholars who become professors, teachers, museum directors, and curators.

The authors have collaborated on another work about the Holocaust, Auschwitz (1996), and Dwork undertook the now-classic study about children and the Holocaust, Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (1993).

“I hold the hope that analyzing the past will enable us to understand the process that led to mass murder,” says Dwork. “Once we understand, perhaps we can look to political prevention and humanitarian intervention.”

Maria LoBiondo is a writer in Princeton.



SYNC: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order — Steven Strogatz ’80 (Theia). The author explains how a feature of nature known as synchrony — order and coordination of action — emerges from chaos. A pioneer in the science of synchrony, Strogatz discusses the mathematical patterns underlying spontaneous order in the universe and explores questions such as why fireflies flash in unison and why our body clocks synchronize with night and day. Strogatz is a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell.

Ballpark Blues — C. W. Tooke ’98 (Doubleday). This novel tells the story of minor-league catcher Casey Fox and his friend Russ Bryant, a lonely sports reporter. When Casey joins the Red Sox and becomes a star at Fenway Park, Russ’s career takes off, too, as his proximity to baseball’s hottest new player attracts the notice of Sports Illustrated. But in spite of their newfound success, both men struggle to reconcile professional achievement with personal happiness. Tooke is a former PAW editor. For an interview with Tooke, click here.

Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy — Kwame Anthony Appiah (Oxford). Appiah explores why philosophy is important for people who want to live thoughtful lives, and he explains not only what philosophers think, but also how they think. Organized around eight topics — mind, knowledge, language, science, morality, politics, law, and metaphysics — the book looks at how philosophers have considered these subjects, and major questions that engage philosophers today. Appiah is a Princeton philosophy professor. By Jeanne Alnot ’04

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