Loyola University Chicago

Department of History


Elliot Lefkovitz on Teaching the Holocaust at Loyola

Elliot Lefkovitz on Teaching the Holocaust at Loyola

Pictured (from left to right): Patti Ray (Hillel Director Emerita, Loyola University Chicago), Elliot Lefkovitz, John Coath (WWII vet and liberator of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria), Steen Metz (Danish child survivor of Theresienstadt concentration camp in former Czechoslovakia), Paul Voelker (Director, Information Commons). Photo taken at "Opening the Gates of Hell," Thursday, October 22, 2015.

Dr. Elliot Lefkovitz is a highly accomplished Jewish educator and education consultant. In addition to his 40 years of teaching at Loyola, Dr. Lefkovitz has taught at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and served as the Director of Education at Am Yisrael Congregation for close to 30 years before retiring from that position. Dr. Lefkovitz has also organized several notable events relating to the Holocaust, many of which involved survivors. Here, Dr. Lefkovitz talks with Public Media Assistant Meagan McChesney about one of such events, the upcoming November 7 “Holocaust Rescuers: Overcoming Evil,” and reflects on his experience teaching at Loyola.

Q: This year marks your 40th year of teaching in the Department of History at Loyola. Reflecting on the beginning of your time here, what was it like to come to this longtime Catholic Jesuit school as a Jewish instructor back in 1977?

A: At the time I came to Loyola, I was the Education Director of Am Yisrael Congregation in Northfield Illinois. As Education Director, I was the principal of the synagogue's school in which children from the age of kindergarten through 10th grade were enrolled. Our synagogue did not have a school building so we met at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, perhaps a quarter mile from the synagogue, on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday mornings. Therefore, I was quite comfortable with being in a Catholic institution albeit as a Jewish educator. I had friendly relationships with several priests, and the synagogue rabbi was on friendly terms with the head of Loyola Academy. Any problems that arose, we found solutions for through collaborative efforts. After a time at Loyola, the then Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois and the University collaborated productively in making three Holocaust related films: "Opening the Gates of Hell: American G.I.s and the liberation of the German Concentration Camps", "The Double Crossing: the Story of the St. Louis" and "Kristallnacht: Night of the Broken Glass". Each film contained the testimony of a number of Chicago area survivors and liberators. I greatly appreciated the University's involvement in the making of these films.

Q: For many years, you have been teaching the class on the Holocaust and Twentieth Century Genocide. What was it like to teach the Holocaust in 1977, a mere 30 years after 1945? How has the class changed as we have moved farther away from the time period at hand?

A: Actually, I did not begin to teach the Holocaust class until the mid 1980's. Both the university and the History Department accepted the proposal to teach it for which I am most grateful. Up until that time, I taught the introductory history courses. When I began to teach the course on the Holocaust, I had to delve into the history of antisemitism, which meant dealing with the Church's historical teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism. I wondered how Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism would be accepted by students. Happily, I encountered no problems in this regard. As time went on, and the world witnessed more and more genocides, I decided that I had to find a way to cover those as well. The ideal solution would have been to have a semester course on the Holocaust and another semester course on genocide in general. Due to the emotional and psychological demands of teaching about the crime of genocide, I could not teach about it for two semesters. Therefore, I divided the semester course into two halves; the first covers such topics as the definition of genocide, genocidal commonalities especially causes and results, moral and theological questions arising from genocide (the issue of forgiveness as raised in "The Sunflower" and the question, "Why does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?"), genocidal famines and locations in the contemporary world where there is a genocidal potential. There are two sessions during the first half of the semester devoted to the Armenian genocide and another two to Stalin's genocides. The second half of the course is devoted to the Holocaust-the crime itself; the perpetrators and collaborators; the victims (including Jewish resistance and Nazi victims other than Jews); the bystanders; and finally the rescuers. 

Q: In addition to teaching such an important course, you have also spearheaded the organization of several events relating to the Holocaust, including the upcoming November 7 event “Holocaust Rescuers: Overcoming Evil.” Why are events like this so important? How do such events fit within and contribute to the larger sphere of the memory of the Holocaust in Chicago?

A: With the invaluable help of Patti Ray, Director Emerita of Loyola Hillel, and Dr. Paul Voelker, Director of Klarcheck Information Commons, I have organized not only events relating to Holocaust anniversaries but in connection with other genocides as well. All of these events have been anniversary related. Thus, we held events commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 70th anniversary of the genocide against Hungarian Jewry and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The  first two events featured Kristallnacht and Hungarian Jewish survivors. For the third event, a 91 year old G.I. liberator of Mauthausen spoke. He had recently lost his youngest daughter in a tragic accident in downtown Chicago, but felt that he had an obligation to relate his experiences.

Insofar as other genocides are concerned, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the 40th anniversary of the Cambodian genocide and the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. For these programs, we hosted a survivor of the Rwandan genocide left for dead in a pool of blood, the daughter of a Cambodian genocide survivor born in a refugee camp in Thailand and a local descendant of Armenian genocide survivors and a human rights activist  At the Cambodian event, a young musician sang traditional Cambodian songs played on a traditional Cambodian instrument as part of an effort to resurrect  traditional Cambodian culture that the Khmer Rouge had sought to destroy. A key importance of these events is that Loyola students had the opportunity for most of them to hear from survivors. There is nothing that can replace the power and authority of survivor voices in bearing witness to the memory of genocides. These voices help to fulfill the moral obligation we all have in actualizing the virtue of remembrance. This is especially true when it comes to remembering epochal events of human wrong-doing. In addition, in the words of Elie Wiesel, "Whoever hears the testimony of a witness becomes a witness."

The event on November 7 will focus on Holocaust rescuers. It will feature the testimony of Ida Kersz who was saved by Polish rescuers. Ida was a child at the time, the most vulnerable of Nazi victims. There will also be a brief discussion of Germans who rescued Jews during the Kristallnacht pogrom. Although only a small fraction of the populations under Nazi rule had "the courage to care", it is of the utmost importance to recall the deeds of the rescuers especially in the times in which we find ourselves. The rescuers demonstrate that it is possible to take action on behalf of their fellow human beings in need and in peril even in the darkest of times. They can inspire us to do no less.

These programs have been archived and can be viewed online here. 

Q: As you look back at what you have most wanted to communicate through your classes and events, are there any particular points that you have found indispensable to impart to your students and/or audience?

A: This question would require quite a lengthy response but, in brief:

  • To provide a recognition of how extensive genocide has been both in the past and in the contemporary world as well as an awareness of the unique characteristics of each genocide. Nevertheless there are genocidal commonalities and some general causes and effects of genocide. 
  • To show how genocide denial seeks to murder the victims a second time by erasing their memories.
  • To describe the psychological mechanisms that can turn ordinary human beings into genocidal perpetrators thereby providing a reminder that civilization is often but "a thin veneer" and that democracy and the rule of law are fragile and must be safeguarded at all times.
  • To illustrate how a sense of humiliation and victimization combined with a pernicious and destructive ideology can lead to scapegoating and dehumanization of one's supposed enemies turning them into "the other."
  • To explore why it is often so difficult to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.
  • To stimulate an awareness of the indescribable suffering of the victims of genocide and the losses they endured.
  • To promote cognizance of potential genocidal situations in today's world. Along with this comes the need to examine individual stories of survival "one by one by one" because each is unique. What binds all of them, however, is the determined will to survive demonstrated by survivors, their resilience in doing so and their courage in renewing their lives after all the devastating losses they experienced.
  • To demonstrate that there are many forms that resistance to genocidal acts can take. For German concentration camp inmates, living one more day was an act of resistance.
  • To give examples of the truth of the observation that all that it takes for evil to succeed is that most people choose to be bystanders. Bystanders include as well self-interested nations lacking in political will to halt or prevent genocides. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center has coined the word "upstander" and seeks to teach students who visit that they must not only remember the past, they must transform the future by engaging in acts, however modest, that will make this a better world, a world less prone to stand by while innocent human beings are murdered.
  • To encourage students to reject despair and cynicism by teaching about the "Righteous Among the Nations" and exploring the roots of altruistic behavior.  Those recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and research institute, are given a medal which says, "Whoever saves one life saves the whole world." Conversely whoever destroys one life destroys the whole world.
  • To discuss ways in which future genocides might be prevented, which international organizations are involved in this effort and which individual actions might be taken in order to do so.
  • To offer students the opportunity to reflect on key issues in short assignments, some in-class, such as the appeal of conspiracy theories as seen in "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and the dilemmas of resistance in the Nazi ghettos.
  • Finally, to give students choices for a course project including an interview with a survivor, visits to the Illinois Holocaust Museum or the "Killing Fields Exhibit" at the Cambodian Association of Illinois, an artistic rendering of of genocide, a discussion of the book and exhibit, "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race", an analysis and commentary on selected films dealing with a genocide or a paper on a post-World War II genocide. The individual course project has proved quite meaningful and worthwhile for a number of students.

Q: You have accomplished and contributed so much to the Loyola community over the past 40 years. Can you share with us a bit about your plans for the future?

A: I hope to continue to help organize programs at Loyola in collaboration with Patti Ray and Dr. Paul Voelker that will feature survivor witnesses. Again and again, I have heard from Loyola students that hearing survivor testimony has been an unforgettable experience for them. In addition, I will continue to serve on the Board of Directors of the local Holocaust museum. Not long after the founding of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1981, I began recording survivor oral histories and have continued to do so. About a year and half ago, I thought that this undertaking had reached an end, but then I was approached by Holocaust Community Services of Chicago's Jewish Federation and asked to record the testimony of local survivors from the Former Soviet Union. Their stories had not been videotaped due to the language barrier. With the invaluable assistance of a translator, herself a child survivor from Kiev whose grandmother was murdered at Babi Yar, we have thus far recorded close to 30 interviews. One survivor spoke for many when she said, "I want my words to be like flowers on my family's graves." Most are stories of survival in Belarus and Ukraine. DVD copies of these interviews are given to survivors' families, and one copy is placed in the archives of the local museum. These will eventually be digitized and send to the Washington museum. There are still at least 20 interviews yet to be recorded, and conducting these interviews figures prominently in my immediate plans. In addition, I have an adjunct faculty appointment at Spertus Institute where I teach in the Distance Learning program and have several online courses.