Jewish Studies Week at UAlberta looks at the Holocaust as world history

Dr. Doris Bergen delivered the annual Saul and Toby Reichert Holocaust Lecture during Jewish Studies Week at University of Alberta on Nov. 23.

By Regan Treewater-Lipes

(AJNews) – On November 23 the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, housed at the University of Alberta, hosted the annual Saul and Toby Reichert Holocaust Lecture. It was a timely, and much needed engagement with this not-so-distant tragic history, and in light of the overwhelming international uprising of antisemitism, the Edmonton Jewish community seemed comforted to know that larger audiences still feel compelled to understand more about the Holocaust. As a part of Jewish Studies Week, Dr. Doris L. Bergen from the Department of History at the University of Toronto delivered a lecture titled: “The Holocaust as World History.” Dr. Bergen holds the distinguished position of Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust studies at the U of T and is currently J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar In-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A former U of A graduate, Dr. Bergen was received warmly by the Edmonton Jewish community, and the University’s academic faculty alike. Emotions were understandably high amongst attendees who were concerned about security at the North Campus Telus Centre, but Dr. Bergan gracefully addressed these anxieties, and put the crowd at ease. She explained that with the events of October 7 still painfully fresh in everyone’s minds, a long-lasting wound had clearly been inflicted on the collective consciousness of world Jewry. Her paper contextualized this global impact through the lens of Holocaust history, most notably, the examination of surviving diaries and uncovered testimonials from the Emanual Ringelblum Archive.

What was an interesting and stirring choice for her lecture delivery was that her colleagues and friends seated in the audience read out the quoted material in her presentation. This gave the resonance of each individual’s words a character and texture that provided depth and impact. As she cited material, different voices would attempt to capture the tone and emotions from Holocaust-era diaries and testimonials. This was a profoundly captivating choice as it fused Dr. Bergen’s academic content with the individual stories she invoked in her analysis.

The lecture branched out from just examining the Holocaust, and looked at what the world can, and should, learn from it. In her final synthesis, she discussed other acts of genocide inflicted upon the world since the World War II, and challenged the audience to see how engaging with Holocaust history could provide onlookers with a better understanding for how to advocate for human rights globally. Her concluding message seemed to be that everyone, as a citizen of the world, bears responsibility for safeguarding the right to dignity and humanity of those around them. The universality of her message inspired a lively question and answer session where people felt open to sharing their own stories of emigrating from war torn regions of the world.

Other programming for Jewish Studies Week included a Zoom discussion with Joanna Krol-Kolma the Head of Digital Collection at the Polin Museum in Warsaw, and a conversation with MFA candidate Ben Smith who was the director of the recently staged Paula Vogel play Indecent. Jewish Studies Week came at a very important moment in modern Jewish history this year. World Jewry continues to feel mounting fear with blatant and unapologetic acts of antisemitism frighteningly being sanctioned and condoned within the public sphere.  Educational efforts like those of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies go a long way towards creating more compassion and understanding of the history of European Jewry.

Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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