It was something of a miracle that the 50th Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches was a great success, given that it came at a time when so many scheduled gatherings and events had been cancelled because of the outbreak of Covid-19.
More than 75 presenters from five continents gathered to discuss various aspects of the Holocaust with one another and more than 250 others, including clergy members, professors in other disciplines, students, and Holocaust survivors. The venue was the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas (UT) at Dallas, which became the new home for the conference founded by two now-deceased Christian professors, Franklin Hamlin Littell of Temple University and Hubert Locke of the University of Washington, Seattle.
There are Greater MetroWest links to this unique conference, which brings together Holocaust scholars, theologians, poets, and artists who teach and inspire one another. For one, Kean University in Union hosted the conference in 2001. Also, Sister Dr. Rose E. Thering, a professor at Seton Hall University and namesake of its Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies, had strong and abiding connections to the founders and other scholars who first grappled with the subject of the Holocaust and religion, including Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski, Rabbi Dr. Richard Rubenstein, and others.
Locke, an African-American, was a highly received keynote speaker at Rutgers University and Ahavas Sholom when the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest collaborated with the City of Newark for one of their annual Interfaith Holocaust Commemorations.
The scholars’ conference founders’ backgrounds were substantially different, although both were professors and Protestant ministers. Littell’s father was the president of Cornell College in Iowa. Locke, who published “Learning from History: A Black Christian’s Perspective on the Holocaust,” was raised in Chicago by working-class parents. Nevertheless, the two were bound by a common thread learned from Israel’s prophets. Promoting social justice based on the belief in the divine spark in all human beings, they taught that inherent dignity pertains to all, particularly in view of the Holocaust experience.
A student and Methodist minister, Littell had attended a 1939 Nazi rally in Nuremburg, Germany. It was a deeply troubling, seminal experience that he said raised his awareness of the horrifying effects of Christian anti-Judaism. The atrocities perpetrated by Germany and other nations at the apex of culture and learning compelled him to dedicate his life to addressing injustice.
Following the war and for 10 years during the American occupation of Germany, Littell served as chief Protestant religious adviser in the High Command assigned to the task of de-Nazification. He was an adviser to three U.S. presidents and became close friends with theologians Martin Niemöller and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as many other scholars, writers, and artists. Among Littell’s many publications was the ground-breaking, “The Crucifixion of the Jews: The Failure of Christians to Understand the Jewish Experience.”
When Littell and Locke founded the conference in 1970, they were pioneers. For half a century their efforts have encouraged both established and emerging scholars in the field of Holocaust studies to educate students and the general public about the greatest global catastrophe that was accomplished by the cooperation of socio-political-religious-artistic-philosophical-scientific-medical and technical communities. The Shoah produced seismic changes that continue to reverberate and cause fatally dangerous after-effects.
As their friend and colleague, Thering always said, “When you teach the Holocaust, you teach everything.” Littell believed in education and commemoration. Many consider him a founding father of Holocaust studies, having created the master’s and doctoral programs devoted to study of the Holocaust at several institutions. He was instrumental in creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A widower, Littell married Dr. Marcia Sachs. In 1998, the two academics established the first interdisciplinary master’s degree program in Holocaust studies at what is now known as Stockton University.
The 2020 conference began with a celebratory dinner on March 7. It was auspicious in that it coincided with the golden anniversary of UT Dallas, which has grown into a global leader in innovative, high-quality research and education. Students there are doing innovative research on the Holocaust.
Although not infected with Covid-19, Prof. David Patterson and his wife were in isolation, having just returned from a trip abroad. The Holocaust scholar, an expert on anti-Semitism and a Jew by choice, attended the annual conference for decades before bringing it to its new home in Texas. Patterson holds the Hillel A. Feinberg Distinguished Chair in Holocaust Studies at the Ackerman Center.
The conference chair was the much admired and beloved Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the author of “When the Danube Ran Red,” a memoir about her childhood in Hungary during the Holocaust. She immigrated to America and earned a doctorate in German literature from the University of Texas, Austin.
The global pandemic we now face should serve as a humbling reminder that we cannot control nature, but we must control ourselves and how we behave toward one another. Littell and Locke were prophetic and mesmerizing orators whose messages were imbued with justified rage. As theologians, they understood that Judaism and its offshoot religions are based on the preservation of memory.
Poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” By fostering an international forum of researchers, scholars, and theologians, who can share their findings with one another and therefore bring this knowledge to teachers, preachers, political leaders, and the general public, the scholars’ conference is determined to pave a path to a better future for all.
Barbara Wind, former director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ, is a writer, Holocaust scholar, speaker, and consultant.