During an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” discussion at Eckstein Hall on Sept. 11, Michael Berenbaum, a prominent scholar of the Nazi Holocaust, described the Wannsee Conference held near Berlin on Jan. 20, 1942, when 15 leaders from branches of the German government met to develop ways to cooperate effectively in killing Jews by the hundreds of thousands. The leaders did not set the policy of killing Jews, he said, but they greatly increased the pace and efficiency of the genocide. At the time of Wannsee, four out of five of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust were still alive, Berenbaum said. Fifteen months later, four of five were dead.
What Berernbaum noted about the conference was that all 15 participants had university degrees. Eight had doctorates. Seven were lawyers.
A responsibility of all teachers, he said, is “to make sure that we do not create educated monsters who have all the skills and the abilities of modern men and women, all the genius of modern technology, all the capacity for creative thought, and no moral core.”
“I want to make sure that I don’t educate monsters,” Berenbaum said in summarizing his goal as an educator.
Berenbaum previously taught at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, and now is director of the American Jewish University’s Sigi Ziering Institute in southern California. He said he enjoys teaching at religious institutions that have a mission to enhance the character and decency of people and not just give them technical abilities.
Berenbaum is best known for his close involvement in launching the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and his research work. He is author of 21 books and other scholarly works.
The last survivors of the Holocaust are now elderly people, Berenbaum said, and the way people will learn from the events of that time is changing. “We’re going from living memory to historical memory,” he said. “We are about to lose the last survivors.” He added, “I hope we don’t lose the soul” of survivors’ personal testimony.
He has been involved in responding to and increasing awareness of other terrible mass killings, such as the genocidal killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda in 1994. Understanding “the other” and treating people different from us as brothers and sisters created in the image of God is one of the biggest issues at a time when new means of communication have created “an increased freedom to express hatred” globally, Berenbaum said.
Berenbaum said the Catholic Church provides the best example of change in the last few decades that has increased understanding of others. He praised Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as leaders in improving human relations. On the other hand, he said, the many centuries of moderate and accepting practices in the world of Islam are being undermined by the vicious intolerance and actions of some Islamic groups. “We have to recover that tradition” and find “the common language of moderation,” he said.
Asked whether he shared concerns expressed by some that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, Berenbaum said, “Yes, no, and maybe.” He said much of the anti-Semitism recently is “in Europe, but not of Europe.” It has significant differences from what led to the rise of Nazi Germany. “The anti-Semitism of today is not the anti-Semitism of the 1930s,” Berenbaum said. “It’s the anti-Semitism of 2014. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.”
In introducing Berenbaum, Marquette University President Michael Lovell praised him as “arguably the most notable scholar on the Holocaust in the United States.” Lovell also expressed appreciation to Marianne Lubar, whose support made Berenbaum’s visit to Milwaukee possible.
The one-hour “On the Issues” session may be viewed by clicking here.