Jewish history prof stresses importance of remembering history

Joseph Diebold

Jewish history and culture Prof. Michael Brenner of the University of Munich spoke to about 120 people Tuesday at Harris Hall on the subject of German-Jewish responses to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern brought Brenner to campus, as the annual presenter of the Allan and Norma Harris Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies. He currently serves as the Chair of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich and has taught in Budapest, Paris and Haifa, Israel, as well as at Stanford University.

In his lecture, Brenner warned against what he called “historical backshadowing,” the blaming of German Jews for their failure to foresee the dangers of Hitler’s rise. Brenner, who is from Weiden (Oberpfalz), Germany, argued that despite outbreaks of anti-Semitism in 1920s Germany, Jews felt nearly as assimilated into those communities as American Jews do today.

“I see a lot of historians dealing with the Holocaust being very negative on the German-Jewish experience before 1933,” Brenner said. “My emphasis is different. There were a lot of signs of threat, but also a lot of signs of hope. It could have gone in many different ways.”

Several NU students and administration in attendance praised the Jewish Studies department for finding prominent speakers as a means of uniting the NU community.

The department advertises itself as an interdisciplinary study spanning subjects such as history, literature and philosophy, one which attracts over 1000 students to its courses each year. According to Weinberg senior Ben Goldberg, it is this synthesis which helps to unify the Northwestern community.

“Jewish Studies is a very interesting department because it is a program that transcends many different departments,” he said. “Lectures like this bring together professors and students from all across the university and there are very few things on campus that do that.”

Nancy Gelman, program assistant of the department, echoed those sentiments.

“We attract students, faculty, and a good portion of people from the local community who are just looking to continue their education or just keep abreast of current issues,” she said.

Brenner also discussed the importance of studying the Holocaust, as it may have implications for the future, he said.

“We know more of what happened in the past, we are more learned of what can happen in the future,” he said. “I don’t think history repeats itself, but there are patterns.”

The Harris Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies was inaugurated in 1997 to honor support provided to Jewish Studies at Northwestern by Allan and Norma Harris, who played vital roles in starting the program. Previous speakers include Professor Pierre Vidal-Naquet of the University of Paris and Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

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