Expert analysis

Clark’s Dwork delves deeply into history of Holocaust


WORCESTER — Not long after Deborah Dwork became the founding director of the nation’s first center for the study of the Holocaust, she found herself fielding phone calls from teachers, parents and reporters.

She had for some time been a scholar and professor of the Holocaust, but her new job at Clark University came with a certain prestige and status — and she was now viewed as the expert on the topic.

The newspapers were full of reports about Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s Jewish ancestry and the looting of Swiss bank accounts belonging to Jews murdered during World War II. Teachers wanted direction in building a history unit; reporters were seeking comment on compensation and restitution issues.

And the movie “Schindler’s List” had been released. It told the true story of industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,100 Jews during the Second World War by placing their names on a list of essential workers needed to run his factory.

Parents asked Ms. Dwork, “How do I explain this? What book do you recommend?”

Ms. Dwork, who, with her friend and fellow scholar Robert Jan van Pelt, had just completed the book “Auschwitz,” considered how to respond to the many inquiries.

“There were books about Jewish life and about rescuers, collaborators and the machinery of death,” Ms. Dwork said one recent afternoon as the sun streamed through the windows of her book-lined office at the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “There was no one single book. I thought I would like us to do it.”

So began a six-year research and writing project that culminated last month in the publication of “Holocaust: A History.” The 444-page volume immediately triggered an avalanche of praise for its comprehensive treatment of the subject and its groundbreaking conclusions on how centuries-old anti-Semitism transmuted into the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the Nazi death camps.

Kirkus Reviews called “Holocaust: A History” a “monumental, sobering attempt to make sense of collective insanity.” Publishers Weekly, which described the book as “exhaustive as well as consistently insightful,” recently placed “Holocaust” on its list of best books of 2002.

Ms. Dwork and Mr. van Pelt, a native of the Netherlands who is a professor of intellectual and cultural history at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, knew they had a daunting task on their hands. They had to decide the breadth of their story and at what point it would begin.

With Kristallnacht in 1938? With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933?

“We stepped back and widened the lens and said, `This is a book about Jews and gentiles in the western world,’ ” Ms. Dwork said. “We knew we wanted to cover the Jews and how they respond to the pressure Germans put upon them. (And) those who aid and rescue Jews. How did this all come about?”

They started their inquiry with the Middle Ages.

The scholars dug through and analyzed archival material in Europe, including Poland and Russia. Continuing a project begun in 1984, they gathered gripping, firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors, rescuers and witnesses, which are woven throughout the narrative.

In hashing out the meaning and shape of the story, the two argued incessantly, Ms. Dwork said, before finally coming to conclusions that were very different from what they had expected. Their groundbreaking theory is that medieval anti-Judaism, with its ghettos, patches and pogroms, was not the precursor to Hitler’s racist, murderous brand of anti-Semitism. Rather, the real ancestor of the Holocaust was the Catholic Inquisition’s systematic killing of heretics and the Reign of Terror, in which French revolutionaries aimed to eliminate an entire social class.

“It was annihilatory,” Ms. Dwork said. “That’s the heart of it.”

There were other surprises. They learned the Italian military was far more principled and effective in rescuing Jews than Pope Pius XII, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic world during World War II. Allied leaders’ calls for complete eradication of Nazism prevented any attempt to negotiate the rescue of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.

The authors were perplexed about why the Allied nations refused to take Jewish refugees. They found western Europe had been dealing with enormous groups of displaced persons from World War I.

There is no silver lining to the Holocaust, Ms. Dwork said. There was tragedy, and there were rescuers.

“I believe the legacy is hope,” she said.

Ms. Dwork’s professional life has been dedicated to seeing that a new generation learns, studies and understands what happened and why.

Holocaust studies did not exist when she was a student at Princeton University in the mid-1970s. She majored in history and then went on to earn a degree in public health at Yale University.

She soon realized she wanted to pursue a history of the family unit, and she headed to England, the center for that type of work, to study at University College, London. Her doctoral dissertation became her first book: “War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children.”

She first met Mr. van Pelt at a gathering in London, where his mother, a child survivor of the Holocaust, recounted her history.

“I said, `There’s no book about the histories like your mother’s,’ ” she recalled. “He said, `Write it.’ ”

His directive was the impetus for her second book, “Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe.”

Ms. Dwork returned to the United States to teach Holocaust history at the University of Michigan. From there, she moved to Yale, where she taught in the history division of its Child Study Center.

In 1996, when Clark invited her to become Rose Professor of Holocaust Studies and to found the Strassler center, she was ecstatic.

“I saw Holocaust museums and programs cropping up, but there was no Ph.D. program to train those who would run those museums and programs 20 years down the road,” she said.

The center would be the first of its type; it was up to her to create a model. Six years later, a renovated, peach-colored Victorian house at the corner of Woodland and Hawthorne streets serves as the headquarters. The interior, with its blond hardwood floors and white walls, is light and airy.

On this day, every room was filled with students in classes and seminars; the sounds of lively discussions filtered into the corridors.

Besides Ms. Dwork, the center now has two other full-time professors. Robert Gallately is a scholar of the Holocaust, and Simon Payaslian teaches about the Armenian genocide. There are 10 doctoral candidates, and Ms. Dwork estimated a quarter of the undergraduate student body takes one or more courses at the center each year.

“We have a significant intellectual presence on campus,” she said. “That has not been lost on colleges and universities across the country. We get questions and inquiries about starting courses. It goes like this: `How did you do it?’ ”

Ms. Dwork, a compact, energetic woman, was about to team teach with Marion Pritchard, whose experiences as a rescuer in the Netherlands during the war are recounted in “Holocaust: A History.” Ms. Pritchard, an 82-year-old psychoanalyst, travels to Clark from her home in Vermont once a week.

“The Germans were slow in Holland,” Ms. Pritchard said. “In Holland, there was very little anti-Semitism. They thought they could educate us about the wisdom of persecuting the Jews.”

Many Dutch would have done more, she said, if they had known how. She estimated that of the 150 Jews she tried to help, no more than 15 survived.

“Most people who weren’t involved, it seems they never get it,” Ms. Pritchard added as she prepared to enter the classroom. “Deborah gets it by osmosis.”

Given the nature of her work, Ms. Dwork’s easy laugh and relaxed manner come as a surprise. She describes herself as “pathologically cheerful.”

She was married at the age of 18, while at Princeton, to another student, Ken Marek, “the one nice guy in the class of ‘74,” she said with a laugh. She and Dr. Marek, a neurologist, have two daughters, Miriam, 14, and Hannah, 12.

Ms. Dwork said her daughters like to joke that their mother’s immersion in the Holocaust has completely warped them. In truth, she said, it has had an effect. When walking with her girls, she keeps one on each side of her and holds their hands by interlacing her fingers with theirs, then puts that arm under hers.

“I hold them completely close to me,” Ms. Dwork, 48, said.

The need for such closeness is no doubt intensified by the global increase in anti-Semitism over the past year. Some of it is attached to the Arab-Israeli conflict and some is not, Ms. Dwork said.

“Jewish children in France riding in a bus that is stoned because of the Arab-Israeli conflict? That makes no sense,” she said. “In France, six of seven days there is some sort of anti-Semitic attack against property or persons.

“I’ve come to think of anti-Semitism as an opportunistic infection when the body is weakened,” Ms. Dwork said. “Since Sept. 11, the body politic is weakened.”