It has been more than 70 years since the end of World War II, but researchers are still uncovering new insights into the tragedy of the Holocaust—especially in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust remains a contentious topic in the former Soviet Union, where political considerations have influenced historical interpretations.
Dr. Daniel Newman, the Program Manager of the Initiative for the Study of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke to the Ellison Center about why this is an important time to study the Holocaust. Dr. Newman also offered advice to graduate students planning for life after academia.
Why is the Holocaust an important field of research right now?
I would say that in Eastern Europe, it is particularly important. If you look at the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, you notice that both sides are using history against the other. They throw out terms that don’t resonate quite the same way here. If you’re called a fascist there, it means something different than if you call someone a fascist here. Both sides are accusing the other side of committing misdeeds during the war and throwing out accusations about history.
It’s really important at this point in time to do real research based on archival sources that can help clarify what is an incredibly murky and contentious issue—Holocaust studies in Eastern Europe. It’s an area that is incredibly current, probably more current than during any time in my lifetime. In general, I would say that Holocaust studies is one of the few fields where there still seems to be steady employment, and not just in academia but also in the museum world. That might come as a surprise, but there are also a number of think tanks that focus on genocide studies, for example. Often, individuals who come from a Holocaust studies background are viable candidates for positions at think tanks that focus on comparative genocide and contemporary genocide, and they might not even know it. So I would say in general it is one of the few areas in which it seems there are still ample opportunities if you are a graduate student.
In a few years there won’t be any Holocaust survivors left. How will that impact the way we view the Holocaust and how we study it?
This is a real concern of the Holocaust Museum. It’s thought that once all of the survivors pass on, the Holocaust might well fade into memory, like a lot of other events. So what we hope to be able to do is to bring Holocaust studies to the fore—not only in terms of Holocaust studies itself, but also in terms of bringing the Holocaust in comparison to other genocides and to make it more current. Once all of the survivors are gone, there will be no living memories of what happened. Currently, you can go to the Holocaust museum and interact with survivors, who will tell you stories and explain what happened to them and what happened to their families. Once the are gone, it’s pretty much up to scholars to investigate what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. I think most people would agree that when you’re talking about something as vast and destructive as the Holocaust, that it’s extremely important not to repeat anything like that. The only way to do that is to understand clearly what happened and why it happened.
How are attitudes shifting in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe or the United States?
I think it’s very difficult to compare because in a lot of Eastern European countries you are starting from a different base level knowledge of the Holocaust. For example, there was a Russian game show recently in which participants were asked about the Holocaust, and they thought it was a musical group. These were teenagers who claimed they had heard about it. I think in a lot of those areas, we are more focused on just spreading general awareness of what the Holocaust was than to go to the next level to get people focused on serious scholarship by going to the archives. There is plenty of material in Russia, in the Baltic states, in Ukraine, in Belarus, but there are actually very few scholars who look at it.
How did you get interested in this field of research?
My mother’s side of the family were Dutch Jews who survived the Holocaust. So I grew up with that in my household. I was told stories about my grandfather, who was not a Jew, who protected my grandmother and fought for the resistance. This was the narrative I grew up with. Then I kind of put that aside and I focused on Russian studies while I was an undergraduate—simply because I had interest in that field. I just kind of put Holocaust studies aside for a while. At the end of my graduate career, when it became clear that there were a few directions I could possibly take, I knew through a contact that there was a position available at the Holocaust Museum for a generalist in the Soviet Union, not somebody who specifically focused on the Holocaust through their graduate training but who focused on the Soviet Union in general. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to marry my background with the skills that I have. So it was a roundabout way, not the the typical story by any stretch of the imagination.
Thinking about life after grad school, what do you think is valuable for students to think about when they are preparing to enter the “real world?”
I would like to say that there is a job in academia for everyone out there. When I entered grad school, that was this notion everyone had—that everyone is brilliant and everybody will get a great job in academia. And I’m gratified to see that graduate schools are not saying that anymore. They are making it very clear to their graduate students that while you might get a job in academia, you probably don’t want to put all your eggs in that one basket, because there just aren’t that many positions.
I would say that you want to—as early as possible—get an internship at a museum, look into different think tanks where the types of work that they do somehow ties into the work that you’re doing in your dissertation. And, to some extent, craft the work that you do to fit what your work is going to be after graduate school. It’s great to do a very particular topic that you’re interested in, but if it’s not something that can translate into general skills or a job that focuses on that topic, it’s going to be difficult, unless you find a job in academia.
Look into internships at museums, internships at think tanks, look at the government and see what positions are available. Look into graduate programs that deal with how to maintain archives, and simply look outside the academy.
What other advice can you offer graduate students who are thinking about work outside of academia?
There is a difference between a CV and a resume. When you are writing a CV, you are writing for an academic audience—and only an academic audience. When you are writing a resume, you want to be talking about job experience, skills. You can make your graduate career reflect job experience and skills. As a teaching assistant, for example, you can talk about how you helped students learn how to write, you can talk about how you gave public lectures, to some degree, in which you talked about complex issues and talked about how to apply real world solutions to historical analysis. You can frame it in a lot of different ways, as opposed to saying, “I TAed,” because normally on a CV you would just say, “I was a TA,” and everybody knows what it means. But on a resume, they don’t. You have to explain it in a way that makes your skills more marketable. I would recommend non-academics look at your resume.
Graduate school teaches you how to think, it teaches you how to write—it teaches you a range of things, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you how to get a job outside of academia. I think over the last few years that is starting to shift, and that is a good thing.