How a group of Appalachian students spent their spring break at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Over spring break a group of ten students from Appalachian State University traveled to the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. in order to conduct independent archival research.

Assisted by USHMM archivists, ASU professor Amy Hudnall, and the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies (CJHPS) director Dr. Thomas Pegelow Kaplan, the students in History 3530 carried out primary source research for their term projects, ranging from issues of Jewish resistance against the Nazi state to the role of Muslim Albanians and their efforts to rescue European Jews during the Holocaust.

As part of the research visit, the Appalachian students gave short research presentations at the USHMM and received feedback from USHMM scholars, including Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice, the acting head of the Division of the Senior Historian at the Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Dr. Heberer-Rise, one of the leading scholars on the Nazi Euthanasia murders, also gave a talk on her latest research.

Additions to the trip included a meeting with Agi (Laszlo) Geva, whom the Germans deported from her native Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944. Geva did not only survive the infamous Nazi death camp, but also the Plaszow concentration camp and the 1945 death march to Germany. She impressed the students by recalling how she openly defied SS-officer Dr. Joseph Mengele during a selection, when Auschwitz's "angel of death" was about to send her to be killed in one of the crematoria. The research group also learned from an alumni of Appalachian State University, who now works at the USHMM, about internships and seminars for advanced undergraduates at the Museum.

Alena Billingsly, a multidisciplinary History Major with a concentration in National Security and Foreign Service, and a minor in Judaic,Holocaust, and Peace Studies, attended the trip to research direct connections between the Warsaw and Treblinka Uprisings. "It was great to meet other historians who were experts in the Holocaust and to gain feedback from them about my own research and sources to use. Being able to work in the archives gave me experience that I would not have been able to get from just using the library at Appalachian. I was able to work hands-on with primary source material, which I had never done before," says Alena.

[[{"fid":"329","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Students at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","link_text":null,"field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Students at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Students at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum","height":"400","width":"300","class":"media-element pull-right file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]Margaret Phillips, a junior majoring in International and Comparative Politics with a minor in Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies, was impressed by the museum content at USHMM, exhibits on the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, and the current Syrian crisis. However, her experience in the archives proved to be transformational: "It is rare to get such a wonderful opportunity to gain real world experience that is applicable regardless of your major and be able to do so free of charge. Though it was hard work, my spring break proved informative, moving, and accessible to students of all backgrounds. Throughout my time at the archives, it never ceased to amaze me how many resources - both primary and secondary were available to us."

The purpose of the research visit and course goes beyond studying the history of the Holocaust, however. According to Dr. Pegelow Kaplan, "There are a number of objectives: How does one deal with issues of mass murder, how does one commemorate genocide, and what are the politics of memories? These questions are tied to pertinent debates that are still very much with us today."

Dr. Pegelow Kaplan organized the Holocaust class around the trip, which was made possible by a generous donation by Nancy and Chuck Rosenblatt and the Rosenblatt Foundation. With this donation Dr. Pegelow Kaplan was able to ensure that all the students enrolled in the course were able to attend cost free.

"These students have the opportunity to work in one of the foremost archives on the Holocaust. The 5th floor of the Museum is home to archival collections totalling a quarter billion documents. The first half of the class aims at getting them ready, introducing the students to the main debates, completing readings, and obviously also familiarizing them with how an archive actually works," says Dr. Pegelow-Kaplan, in regards to organizing the class trip.

This course was listed as special topics in Advanced Holocaust Studies held through the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies at Appalachian. However, beginning in 2016-17, the course will be taught on a regular basis as JHP/HIS 3154.

In Spring 2017, this class will visit and conduct research at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in Poland.

All photos by Dr. Thomas Pegelow Kaplan

Published: Mar 18, 2016 12:00am