UWM’s Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights certificate teaches students to make the world a better

April 17, 2023 marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust, perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany from 193345, claimed the lives of six million Jewish people.

This year, Rachel Baum would like you to remember something in particular:

“Every single person has a story that we get to hear if we’re lucky,” she said. “There are so many stories that we’ll never get to hear. The number of Jews killed is enormous, are big, but it’s important to see that it was six million individual human lives.”

It’s one of the most important lessons that UWM’s certificate in Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies tries to teach.

UWM began offering the certificate in 2019. Housed in the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies, the certificate asks students to take a variety of courses focusing on not only the history of the Holocaust, but also on global politics and human rights, philosophy and ethics, and slavery and African American politics and history.

The certificate is designed to prepare students for practical careers, such as museum curation, social work, or nonprofit work, but it’s also meant to give students the perspective and tools to make a change in the world around them.

“Even though the Holocaust ended in 1945, these issues are still very much with us,” noted Baum, who is the deputy director of the Stahl Center. “The world is wrestling with issues of discrimination and hatred, and unfortunately, still genocide. We really want to prepare students to intervene in that world.”

The components

Jewish people have been the target of violence throughout history, but the Holocaust marked the largest and most systemic, organized effort to eradicate that population. The stories of ghettos, gas chambers, and concentration camps are taught in history classes across the country. Six million Jews were killed in the span of 12 years.

But the certificate’s classes ask students to look beyond the Holocaust.

“(I noticed) students came in with the thought this was a terrible event, and … it ended in 1945,” Baum noted.

But in reality, added Joel Berkowitz, “These issues still come up. The Holocaust is unique but also connected to other genocides. We need to understand the phenomenon if we’re ever going to keep it from happening again.”

Berkowitz is the director of the Stahl Center, and he, Baum, and their advisory committee designed the certificate to look at the Holocaust and other genocides from many angles, including through literature, film, and social science. The variety is meant to give students multiple perspectives and insights into learning the driving forces and the staggering costs of the Holocaust and other genocides.

And there have been a multitude of genocides throughout history, and many in recent memory in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Myanmar, to name a few. Even today, experts have debated labeling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as genocide.

Because this type of persecution and prejudice is still happening, Berkowitz says the certificate strives to teach student the patterns that perpetrators seem to use to foment fear and hatred against a particular group.

“One of the things we see in these kinds of courses is how language is often perverted and distorted in very deliberate ways,” he pointed out. “For example, (Russian president Vladimir) Putin has very deliberately co-opted historical ideas and twisted them in that the pretext of the ‘special operation’ was to de-nazify Ukraine. In a very powerful country where the state runs the media, from what I understand, it’s been largely accepted by the Russian people because that’s what they’re hearing from all of their broadcasters relentlessly.”

Pushing back against extremism language and the patterns that precede persecution is where the ‘human rights’ portion of the certificate comes in. The certificate includes a number of philosophy courses to choose from, each asking students some hard questions: Are there inviolable human rights? Must they be codified or are they understood? How should our understanding of human rights affect laws and public policy?

By asking students these big questions, Baum and Berkowitz are preparing them to think critically and engage thoughtfully in the situations they might encounter beyond the classroom.

Combatting antisemitism and prejudice

Those skills are increasingly important. As Chris Nuzum can attest, prejudice is alive and well in America today. He is majoring in Jewish Studies and working towards the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies certificate. As a Jewish person who is also a veteran and queer, he is no stranger to prejudice.

“There is so much antisemitism right now. It seems there is an agenda targeting minorities and creating a frightening ‘other’ – frightening Jews and frightening Chinese and frightening Mexicans coming over the border, without really understanding what is happening,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve grown up with and spent the bulk of my life absorbing. I’m at a place in my life where I’m no longer willing to accept it. … It is personal.”

That’s why his experiences taking classes within the certificate have been so impactful. He says that he has enjoyed all of his classes, and particularly the course “Representing the Holocaust in Words and Images.” The class was balanced with the stories of survivors, something that Nuzum felt gave an uplifting note to his studies.

The classes are challenging – not only academically, but emotionally as well. Nuzum describes the imagery as “crushing,” but smiled as he recounted how Baum often sends her students pictures of baby hedgehogs to help them de-stress after a grueling lesson.

Sometimes she assigns homework: Step away from your books and do something life-affirming.

Baum, in turn, said she has been impressed by the sensitivity of her students.

“Some of them have talked openly about their own trauma … but also, they just have such deep insight,” she said.

Holocaust education

This certificate comes at an especially crucial time for American Holocaust education. A recent survey by the Claims Conference revealed that over two-thirds of Millennials and members of Gen Z know very little about the Holocaust, with one in 10 reporting that they had never heard the term before.

Baum and Berkowitz have noticed the trend, though Baum is proud that Wisconsin ranks among the best-educated states about the Holocaust. The solution, they said, is not only programs like the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies certificate, but also building community partnerships and increasing opportunities for students to learn about the material. For example, Berkowitz said, UWM’s Stahl Center for Jewish Studies works closely with the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center – Baum sits on the organizations Board of Directors – and UWM instructors take students to visit Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

It’s especially important because Holocaust survivors are growing older and passing away. Someday soon, no one will be left to tell their personal stories.

Baum and Berkowitz hope you remember those – and the untold stories – this Holocaust Remembrance Day.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science