Why a Lutheran University Is a Leader on Holocaust Education

Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and Yad Vashem just signed a historic agreement.

Today I have the distinct pleasure of sharing this interview with Prof. Beth Griech-Polelle, the Kurt Mayer Chair of Holocaust Studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. PLU recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Yad Vashem to work together toward the goal of promoting remembrance and education of the Holocaust. This is one of the very first such agreements between Yad Vashem and an American university.

A Lutheran university? In Tacoma? Holocaust studies? Yad Vashem? I had the same questions. We’ll get there.

First, some things that are on my mind, and what I’m reading.

Last Shabbat I finished the excellent book Jerusalem 1913, about the beginnings of the Zionist movement under Ottoman rule and into the British Mandate. With deep research and stunning scene-setting, Amy Dockser Marcus paints an illuminating picture of what this Ottoman outpost looked like on the eve and throughout World War I, how the various leaders interacted with one another, how close the Zionist enterprise came to collapsing, and how the animosity between Jews and Arabs emerged and evolved.

It made me think about the “it’s complicated no it’s simple no it’s nuanced” arguments that volley around when we talk about the conflict today. It’s not that complicated. But it helps to read a few books, something that takes more effort than scrolling.

But some books are leading readers to unique conclusions.

Exhibit A: “Settler colonialism.” You might think that this is just another way of saying colonialism, but it’s not. I’ve been watching this language shift with interest, because all of a sudden everyone is talking about Israel as “settler-colonialist.” Why? I don’t recall hearing Israel described this way five or 10 years ago, and certainly not when I was immersed in campus life. Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

Turns out, it is a newly popularized idea, and one that likely guides indigenous studies in a meaningful way.

Settler colonialism, unlike regular colonialism, is defined as “the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples in order to take the land for use by settlers in perpetuity.”

It’s become an easy filter to apply to the Israel narrative, especially among academics, whose livelihoods are threatened by a shortage of theories to apply to things. It has become a dominant way to think about Israel, for reasons that are obvious on the surface. But back to the “is it simple or is it complicated” fight. History needs to be looked at through a wide-angle lens. And we need to pay more attention to language. It turns out that Prof. Griech-Polelle wrote an entire book about how language was manipulated to “other” German Jews. I think it behooves us to be cautious and curious about language shifts and new terminology. Don’t assume you know what something means. Be aware of new terms. Look things up. Language matters.


P.S. The Cholent is likely going to be on the back burner for a couple of weeks while I take some time off. Be back soon.

“What was it in Christianity that allowed people to justify this type of behavior?”

A dark history motivates PLU to commit to “never again.”

Beth Griech-Polelle is the Kurt Mayer Chair of Holocaust Studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where students can take classes and minor in Holocaust and genocide studies. PLU is one of the first American universities to officially partner with Yad Vashem for shared educational goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let me just start with: this is a Lutheran university. Lutheran is in the title. How did you end up with this this deep level of Holocaust education?

That’s an excellent question. I’m the inheritor of this legacy. I’m what’s called the Kurt Mayer Chair of Holocaust Studies. Kurt Mayer was a local person whose family had escaped from Nazi Germany on the last legal ship to leave Germany, I think around 1938, ’39. He became very interested because he heard that a Lutheran university was teaching courses on the Holocaust. This is really kind of a tribute to one of the world's leading Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning.

He wrote Ordinary Men, right?

Yep. Well, he taught beginning in 1979 at Pacific Lutheran University, fresh out of grad school. He came to PLU, and he really insisted that he teach a course on the Holocaust. At least from my perspective, you really do have to ask yourself when you have the word Lutheran in your title of your university — the majority population of Nazi Germany in 1933 was Lutheran Protestant. There were over 41 million predominantly Lutheran Protestants in a country of 66 million people. They were about 63 percent of the population. It’s a tribute to PLU that they are committed to enforcing this recognition that Lutherans made the Holocaust possible.

You could reach further back into the history of Martin Luther and his preaching. Ultimately, for Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, he was hopeful that he could convert Jews. Right? His goal was to save souls. Over about a 20 year time span, he realized that not many Jews were converting to Lutheranism, and he grew increasingly angry. This culminates in 1543 with him publishing this horrible screed called, “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies.” And in that document, he recommends basically burning the Talmud, burning all Jewish, holy books, destroying the schools, putting Jews into cities where they can be watched, and banning them from access to the countryside. There are parallels with what the Nazis ultimately will do beginning in the 1930s to the Jewish population.

I’ve taught at PLU now six years, and every time when I’m teaching about the long history of anti-Semitism and where many of the stereotypes and myths about Jews come from, I almost inevitably have a student who raises his or her hand and says, “I’m Lutheran, and I’ve never learned this about Martin Luther.” I want them to recognize that there is this lengthy anti-Judaic, anti-Semitic tradition in both Catholicism and in Lutheranism. And that you have to be able to confront that honestly in order to understand how was the final solution possible. So it’s really a credit to Chris Browning when he, a young professor, said, “Nope, we have to have a Holocaust course at a Lutheran university.” And it’s attributed to the administration that said, “You're right. You should teach this.” And so we have probably now 45 years of unbroken teaching on the Holocaust.

We’ve broadened it out, where the primary focus is on the Holocaust, but then we also teach some comparative genocide. We’ve had faculty that have organized trips for students to Rwanda. And we are interdisciplinary. We have experts in American literature. We’ve got people in social work that deal with trauma, and they talk about Holocaust survivors and the subsequent generations dealing with the trauma.

Have you seen an actual change or effect that Holocaust education has had on students?

There have been a few scary studies about the absolute abysmal lack of knowledge on the part of American students in general, about the Holocaust, where they can’t even name one concentration camp. That particular study was really quite demoralizing. But there have been other studies that have said that students that have learned and done units on Holocaust studies tend to stand up to bullying; if they witness someone else being bullied, they tend to take action. They’re more likely to stop somebody from saying something that’s insulting and hateful and things of that nature on a personal level.

The college students, many of them, are really driven to then either go on to grad school, to become educators themselves to teach about the Holocaust. Beyond that, we have many students who are very interested in working for NGOs. We’ve had students that have decided to go live in Rwanda and work for a government agency there. I feel that the students really are getting some real, tangible benefit from studying the Holocaust. They tend to want to change the world for the better, right? It’s kind of a motivating, they’re armed with this knowledge of what happens when a society turns against itself and against its own populations and what can happen, how that society can unravel, and it can lead to death and destruction.

Interesting. Do they notice other areas of genocide or persecution that you think people should start to pay attention to?

I think they do. We’ve had a lot of students that are interested in studying the extreme far right in America. They have been doing a lot of research about how to group the Proud Boys and the national socialist movement in America. What kind of language do they use when they’re trying to separate people and divide people, and what can we do to counter that?

I think that at the very least I can see students becoming at least more sensitive to, you know, there’s a lot of angry, hate-filled language floating out there. We can’t kind of poo poo it away and say, “well, it’s just words.” Hitler was a master of manipulating language. This is where it begins. I think that for the students, it at least makes them stop and think about, Oh, I heard this, now what does that really mean? And if they’re becoming better critical thinkers and they’re able to analyze things more clearly, I feel like, okay, job done, right?

I’m thinking a lot about the issue of language. It’s interesting that you bring it up. There are a lot of words being used that make me pause. People have been saying Israel is wrong since forever, you know, but there is new language that’s kind of come up as a dominant way of talking about things. For instance, “ethnostate.” Automatically, we’re led to believe that that’s a bad thing. I said, wait a second, what’s an ethnostate? Actually, the thing that comes up under “ethnostate” is basically what the white supremacists want, like, in Eastern Washington. And I was like, gosh, I wonder if that’s a dog whistle.

My fear is that people are forgetting why Israel was officially created after World War II. From the time of Biblical times forward, the idea of a Jewish homeland, a Jewish nation state, a place where Jews are the majority population, where they will be protected from anti-Semitism. And particularly nowadays when anti-Semitism is again on the rise, it’s openly flouted and practiced, I worry about that kind of language, right? Calling Israel and ethno nation-state and attacking it really doesn’t pay attention to why Israel even is a necessity.

The last piece I wrote is basically a textbook on language and rhetoric and how the Nazis used and co-opted language to convince the German people that Jews were something different and that they were a problem that had to be dealt with.

Whenever there’s a flare up between Palestinians and Israelis, you will find that there are people who say that Israelis are acting just like the Nazis did. And they’re trying to, again, co-opt language from the Nazis and flip it to then use it against Israelis. It’s a scary and fascinating technique that they’re using. And so to use that particular language of an ethnostate, once you look it up and you think, wow, they’re likening this to what white supremacists want in America? That really is scary to think about. Maybe it is kind of a kind of hidden dog whistle and that people who are part of those conversations look at it and say, Oh yeah, that makes sense to me.

I could talk about this all day, but let’s talk about the Yad Vashem MOU, because it sounds like it’s one of the first of its kind with an American university.

They have an agreement with university of Notre Dame, and of course that’s a Catholic university. I will also say I’m Catholic as well, but when I saw the press release of the University of Notre Dame — and one of our key donors and this kind of human dynamo of energy, a lady named Nancy Powell, she’s a sponsor for the Powell-Heller conference and really the inspiration for that conference — she and I had conversations about, “Hey, look what Notre Dame did with Yad Vashem. We could start some talks with the American society that represents them.” That then led us into conversations with people in Israel at Yad Vashem, which then again became kind of this wonderful opportunity. Yad Vashem is really looking to establish connections with American universities on American soil.

I’m pretty sure we’re the first Lutheran-affiliated university. And we might be the second university in America to have this kind of agreement hammered out. It’s in motion, and fortunately we’ve already been able to collaborate together. I had put together a training for masters of teaching or a graduate education program for how to teach units on the Holocaust in seventh through 12th grade. We were able to bring in the director of the Echos & Reflections online Yad Vashem program. We’ve already started to do this kind of cross collaboration. We’ll probably, in the beginning, have to do a lot of stuff virtually, partly because of COVID stuff, but, but also because of the expense and the distance and those kinds of constraints, but we really are now in the brainstorming mode of what can we do? We’re thinking about opening up the possibility of our students getting internships that are virtual, where they get to work with mentors and scholars who are at Yad Vashem.

Ideally, I would love to see this program grow to the point where our Holocaust and genocide studies faculty get to travel to Yad Vashem and go through a kind of two-week training at their Institute for Holocaust studies, and come back re-energized with new up-to-date material that they can incorporate into their classes. Of course we want to have Yad Vashem scholars come to PLU campus, once travel becomes easier as well. So really the sky’s the limit at this point, right?

I’m curious, does Yad Vashem have relationships with any — we don’t have that many specifically Jewish institutions in the country — but there are many, many Jewish studies departments and liberal arts universities with strong Jewish history programs. I don’t know if there is this strength and depth of Holocaust education happening at those schools. It seems quite exceptional that it’s happening at a Lutheran university in Tacoma and not in, like, New York or Los Angeles.

That’s a fascinating question. I don’t know. I mean, you would think that Brandeis University or Jewish Theological Union, these would be places that would be kind of the natural starting point. Perhaps from Yad Vashem’s perspective, maybe because those schools have a particular focus, they feel okay, they’re already covering Holocaust education. I don’t know. I just think that it was, to me, so gratifying to have these conversations with people at Yad Vashem. They were actually curious: why is a Lutheran-affiliated university reaching out to us? And I said, “Look, you know, part of it has to do with understanding, what in the teachings of Martin Luther and in Lutheranism in general led so many German people to at least accept Hitler as a legitimate leader, right?”

But then the other part of it is that we have this unbroken tradition of being dedicated to teaching about the Holocaust. I remember one of the gentlemen that was on the zoom call from Yad Vashem, when I said, “there were 41 million people affiliated with the Lutheran church in Nazi Germany in 1933.” And it kind of hit his body. He sat up straighter and he’s like, “I never thought of that.” I’m going to quote a Catholic theologian who said, “One day I was reading about the Holocaust, and I realized, it takes a lot of people to murder a lot of people.”

And for every Jew, for every homosexual, for every Jehovah’s Witness that was being murdered, the murderers, the traitors, the profiteers, the onlookers were mostly baptized Christians. And you have to really think about that. What was it in Christianity that allowed people to justify this type of behavior? And so I think Yad Vashem was fascinated by, “You are this Lutheran-affiliated in university. And you really do want to force the students to think deeply about this and to confront some really painful truth in both the history of Catholicism and the history of Protestantism.” I think that they appreciated that, and that could be why they’re open to an agreement with Notre Dame and with PLU.

We’ve got an established track record of trying desperately to educate students about the Holocaust and to then have them extrapolate from that and say, “I need to be alert to dangers in our modern-day world. I need to be savvy enough to not just read something in the newspaper or to listen to a news report and just accept it, hook, line, and sinker. I need to be this critical thinker. And I need to, again, listen to how language is being manipulated in order to be aware that people that are putting this information out are doing it as a way of directing you in a particular way to focus your attention on a certain idea.” Maybe from the admissions perspective, maybe that was what they’re thinking: here’s a school that is dedicated to developing critical thinking skills and grounding it in this very, very organized minor program.


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