Studying the Holocaust

Studying the Holocaust

Two local students and its director talk about Yeshiva University’s new graduate center

Sari Sheinfeld with her family; from left, Eytan, Yaakov, Binyamin, Sari and Yonah. Leora is in front.
Sari Sheinfeld with her family; from left, Eytan, Yaakov, Binyamin, Sari and Yonah. Leora is in front.

Students come to the brand-new Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University for a number of reasons and from a number of backgrounds.

Most but not all are Jewish; most but not all already know a great deal about the Holocaust; most but not all are the descendants of victims and grew up with survivors.

But just about none of them are right out of college, blithely embarking on a master’s program in Holocaust studies for their first career.

Instead, the Fish Center — which just this week was granted the authority to give master’s degrees to its students from New York State’s department of education — attracts students whose life experience, emotional maturity, and sense of challenge and overwhelmingly of mission has drawn them there.

Sari Sheinfeld of Teaneck is one of those students. “This really is more a third act than a second one,” she said; she began her career, right out of college, as a graphic designer, but a move from the New York metropolitan area to Washington DC with her husband made her rethink. “If you want an entry-level graphic design job, you have to be near New York or on the West Coast,” she said. But as the mother of young children, she found that her volunteer job in her kids’ school office led to a job as a substitute teacher, and then to a short-lived but intense career as a teacher.

This story is important because it illustrates something about Ms. Sheinfeld, and by implication about other Fish Center students.

Her children’s Jewish day school was not some little place hard up for teachers; it was the Jewish Primary Day School, which since has become the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. “It was amazing how many kids in that school shared a bedroom, but there was a room in the house that was the homework room,” she said. “Any random mom in my class could be a member of, maybe, the Senate Judiciary Committee. And on Wednesdays, when they had hot lunches twice a month, these women in their power suits would leave work and come serve the kids lunch.” It was not a school that would settle on a teacher because they needed a warm body.

Instead, JPDS sent Ms. Sheinfeld — who’d already worked in informal Jewish education as an NCSY adviser and as an afterschool Hebrew school teacher —to graduate education courses, recognized her gifts, nurtured her talents, and ended up with a trained, committed, devoted educator.

After three years, the family moved to Teaneck, where Ms. Sheinfeld soon became one of Yeshivat Noam’s first middle-school teachers as the school expanded into those grades, and she spent the next decade teaching math there. So her passion for teaching was developed, rooted, and deep.

That’s the teaching part. There’s also the connection to Jewish history in general, and the Holocaust in particular.

Three of Ms. Sheinfeld’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and the fourth a refugee who escaped in time but never saw his parents again. Every Holocaust story is different; she has four of them, each one devastating.

This is the spoon that Ms. Sheinfeld’s grandfather took with him when he fled. She has it hanging on her wall.

“There’s a lot of talk about intergenerational trauma,” Ms. Sheinfeld said. She feels it. “I still cringe when I see a Jewish person buy a German car. It’s instinctive. Not letting my kids get up from the table until they finish what’s on their plate — it’s ingrained. My grandparents are all embedded in the fibers of our being.”

One of her grandparents, D’vora Schwartzroth Wachtel, the sole survivor of a family of 13 children, “rarely spoke about the Holocaust. Period. End of sentence,” Ms. Sheinfeld said. D’vora’s husband, Zev Wachtel, escaped to Palestine in 1936. Ms. Sheinfeld’s other grandfather, Tzvi Zivodnik, ran from the Russian army in 1941. As he left home, “his mother gave him a spoon, because they were poor, and that is what they had. I keep a picture of it on my wall.” And his wife, Tova Ciechanowski, went from camp to camp; she and her older sister survived although the rest of their family did not.

These are bland short summaries of complicated and emotionally devastating life stories that end in survival, yes, but also in great pain and studded with great, always-sharp loss; Ms. Sheinfeld knows and tells the full, unexpurgated versions, and they are hard stories to hear, much less to live with.

She also has a story about her great aunt, Masza Rosenroth, the sister who kept her grandmother alive in labor and then death camps. Masza eventually moved to California; she’s full of life still, in her late 90s. One day, Ms. Sheinfeld said, she called one of her grandchildren, summoning her over as quicky as she could get there. The young woman complied. It was worrying. Then Masza pointed to the trees. “The lemons are ripe!” she said. It’s a classic lemons to lemonade story, but with a specific twist.

So given Ms. Sheinfeld’s background, she felt compelled to do more. “As time was ticking — I have only that one great aunt left and my youngest was starting school — I felt that the timing was good to start looking into masters’ programs.” There are only five that offer degrees in Holocaust studies in the United States, and one in Israel; Yeshiva University’s new program seemed perfect.

She is driven to the study of the Holocaust because “I think that in some way I need a way to make sure that it doesn’t end with this generation of survivors,” Ms. Sheinfeld said. “I don’t know what it will look like for me, but this is where I am going.”

Right now, of course, being “at school” or “in a program” are relative concepts, generally meaning being in a home office, a living room, or at times holed up in a bedroom. The program is entirely on Zoom.

That’s not altogether a bad thing, Ms. Sheinfeld said. Students come from all over, and their perspectives both add to all the students’ combined understanding and also allow the lessons of the Holocaust to be taught in unlikely places. “There’s a non-Jewish man in the program who teaches in a Catholic school in Alice Springs, Australia,” she marveled. “And he’s taking a course at Yeshiva University. And a student at another one of my classes is the chief compliance officer at Disney. He’s in Los Angeles.”

But the tone darkens again. It’s no accident that no one in the Fish Center is a twentysomething, brimming with hope. “There is nothing exciting or hopeful or optimistic about this work,” Ms. Sheinfeld said. There are stories of survival and promise and life — look at her great-aunt and the lemon trees — but it’s too easy, too sentimental, too untrue, in the end, to focus on them. The Holocaust is not about happy endings, but we cannot shy away from its horrors.

Lois Roman of Haworth, another student at the Fish Center, is not the descendant of Holocaust survivors — all her family got to the United States in the 19th century — and perhaps it is not coincidental that her view is less bleak than her friend Ms. Sheinfeld’s.

Lois Roman

Her story does fit with the typical Fish Center profile in other ways, though. “This is really Chapter Three for me — and I’m not that old!” she said, echoing Ms. Sheinfeld before detailing a different path to the same oasis. She graduated from Brandeis, earned an MBA from Columbia, and “then I spent 25 years on Wall Street as a money manager,” she said. “It was fantastic. I learned something new every day. But then I hit a point in my career when I wondered if this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“So after this long and fun career on Wall Street, I decided to step off the train and pursue some entrepreneurial ventures.” So she and her children moved back to Haworth, where she had grown up and where her mother still lived and was dealing with health issues. “I needed to be around to take care of my mom, but because I can’t just sit still, I got involved in several nonprofits.”

Chief among those nonprofits was the Memorial Scrolls Trust, a London-based organization that takes sifrei Torah that survived the Holocaust and places them in synagogues around the world. Ms. Roman, who now is the nonprofit’s only American trustee, “spearheaded the effort to have a scroll gathering in New York,” she said. “In 2019, we gathered 75 scrolls — there are 1,564 in the collection — and about 800 people showed up at Temple Emanuel,” the huge, stately synagogue on Fifth Avenue.

“So I realized that I could use some of my Wall Street skills, especially in presentation, and continue to tell the scroll’s survival story,” Ms. Roman said. “When the pandemic hit, I created some Zoom programming, and I’ve spent the pandemic giving Zoom lectures in congregations, museums, and schools.

“As I did that, I realized that this is Holocaust education.” As survivors are aging and their ranks are diminishing — the war ended in 1945, so the youngest survivors are in their late 70s — the importance of having some kind of tangible, physical artifact of the Holocaust grows, she said.

“When I heard about the Fish Center at YU, it seemed like a great way to continue what I’m doing, so I signed up. In essence, I’m a perpetual learner — I find the threads in my life and tie them together. I know how to present difficult facts in an easy-to-understand manner.” She uses those skills to talk about the Torah scrolls.

“Wall Street can be confusing; it’s a mess of abbreviations and words. I found that what clients really valued was having someone who understood what it meant boil it down to easily understandable words.” Not to oversimplify, just to recast in clear English. “In some ways, it’s the same thing with the Holocaust. It’s a giant, confusing mess. I think that when people learn about it, we mostly do it from the perpetrator’s view. We should learn it from a Jewish perspective, using tangible artifacts.

“Jews are almost always represented as a mass, not individually. What does six million mean? Children collect paper clips and buttons to try to understand, but they weren’t paper clips or buttons. They were people.

“Holocaust education is really important going forward, and in order to reach young people today, we have to figure out a way to present it that is engaging, modern, and easy to understand.

“So I decided to formalize what I’m doing with learning about the Holocaust and Holocaust education at YU,” Ms. Roman said.

Lois Roman spearheaded the Memorial Scrolls Trust’s meeting in at Temple Emanuel in Manhattan in 2019.

After she finishes the program, “I’m interested in doing something at the broader strategic level,” she said. “It might be working in a Holocaust center or museum or setting curriculum or strategy.”

This is not easy work. “There is a huge emotional element to studying the Holocaust,” Ms. Roman said. “I don’t have the direct lineage of Holocaust survivors, but I’m part of the Jewish world, and part of humanity, and I can’t wrap my head around how in the 1940s, well into the modern age, the world allowed this mass genocide to occur. The world went cuckoo for a very long time.

“Some of the memoirs we read are very difficult. I have learned not to do any reading right before bed.”

She does find some hope, though. Part of it comes from her work with the Torah scrolls. “Every scroll has its own story,” she said. Like the Fish Center students, some of the scrolls are beginning their third acts; sometimes they go from synagogues that are closing to new ones. “There’s one that found a second home in a California shul. Now, after 40 years, the shul is closing, and the scroll is being sent to Australia.

“Each scroll gathers mementoes,” she continued. “They came to London naked, just in bags, not even with mantles. Now, if we pick one up in a closing shul, we send it with a new mantle and silver and documents and pictures and old programs. It’s all connection. It’s all dor l’dor.” Generation to generation.

Ms. Roman, who sees her own orientation as American, cites an understanding that she said is widespread among sociologists. “Americans look for happy endings,” she said. “Other cultures don’t.” Still, “I am going into this field to make sure we don’t forget.”

Dr. Shay Pilnik is the Fish Center’s founding director. Like Ms. Sheinfeld, he’s the grandson of three Holocaust survivors; like her and Ms. Roman, he found his way to the Fish Center somewhat circuitously, although he’s always been an academic.

Dr. Pilnik was born and grew up in Haifa, “exactly 20 years after my parents arrived in Israel from Lithuania as children in the late 1950s,” he said. “The Holocaust always was a big part of my life — but I wanted to concentrate on life rather than death.”

His undergraduate degree, from the Hebrew University, is in comparative literature and Jewish thought, and his master’s, in Jewish studies, is from McGill, in Montreal. His doctorate is in modern Jewish studies; he earned it at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “My entire academic journey was the study of Jewish life before and after the Holocaust,” he said.

So did he know his grandparents, who carried lived history? “Mamash, my grandparents raised me,” he said. “The first one died when I was 19. I was busy recovering the culture they came from. I spent years learning Russian and Yiddish to understand their language.” But he didn’t study the Holocaust. “I was deterred,” he said. “It seemed too difficult. Too painful. When I was 22, I was far more interested in Russian literature. But then I realized that the subject is too important to be neglected, and that if I didn’t step up to it and do it, then who would?

Dr. Shay Pilnik, director of YU’s Fish Center

“But at first I was put off, and I only started studying comprehensively in the later stages of my doctorate. The moment I started studying it was when I was offered the chance to teach about it. And then I started to read about it systematically, and I went through a torturous learning experience.”

That was in Wisconsin. Dr. Pilnik did much of the work on his doctorate remotely, even though it was quite a few years before the pandemic. His wife, Dr. Orli Hauser, is a professor of sociology, then at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, now at YU’s Stern College.

After he earned his Ph.D., Dr. Pilnik “was recruited to run the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee,” he said.

And then, in 2019, Dr. Pilnik became the director of the Fish Center.

When he taught at Oshkosh, and then at Wisconsin’s branch in Milwaukee, “I had the privilege of looking at the Holocaust through the prism of rural America,” he said. “There were only 35 seats in the class, and they would fill up immediately. None of the students were Jewish.”

That brings him to one of the central tensions of the Fish Center, and of Holocaust education in general. It’s specifically Jewish and generally human; it’s absolutely necessary to keep both those truths in mind.

Holocaust education often is “a partnership between Jews and non-Jews,” he said; there is deep interest in programs around commemorations of Kristallnacht, and of other interfaith occasions. He worked with a non-Jewish teacher in a small town in Wisconsin “who ran an entire curriculum on the Holocaust,” he said. “All it takes is one good teacher.”

Why was that teacher so interested? “I think the raison d’etre is that the Holocaust stands alone as a unique and unprecedented event,” Dr. Pilnik said. “It is a story that we have to be aware of in the 21st century — the story of a perfect storm of hatred, which started with rhetoric and was converted to a program of mass destruction.

“It’s the story of the Jewish people, who have been persecuted for 2,000 years, and helped form Western civilization. Who lived among Christians in the Western world for millennia, faced discrimination and persecution that culminated in a program of extermination that no people in history have ever faced on this scale — that’s part of the DNA of the Jewish people, and the DNA of all the societies where the Jews lived.

“It’s because of these unique features that this subject must have a future. That it must not be confined to an archive and become the interest of only a small circle of scholars.”

Dr. Shay Pilnik said that this 1944 painting, by Russian Jewish artist Zinovii Tolkatchev, is totemic.

Many states, including New Jersey — and as of last week, Wisconsin — mandate Holocaust education, and that’s a good thing, “but to me the most important thing, the thing that’s proven to be most effective, is the grassroots interest in the subject by community members and teachers.”

The other central tension that Holocaust education faces — a tension that Ms. Sheinfeld and Ms. Roman confront, from different directions — is between the subject’s inherent, irreducible darkness and the desire to pull some hope, some spark of light from it, to keep students from plunging too deeply into despair. “How do you balance it?” Dr. Pilnik asked. “This is the 64 milliondollar question. On the one hand, if you make it dark in a way that is truthful to the story, you may not educate as much as you depress and traumatize. At the same time, if you constantly sugarcoat it and concentrate on the ray of light, you end up telling a different, dishonest story.

“Our students learn how to find the balance. Americans have a tendency, influenced maybe by Hollywood, to find the bright spots and happy endings that over time distort the meaning and the significance of the story.

“It’s a really hard balance,” he said. “But it can be done.

“We had a series on Jewish responses to the Holocaust — it’s on our website — where we talked about the works of rabbis as community leaders, and about art created and poetry written during the Holocaust.

“It’s depressing, but it’s also inspiring to see what human beings are capable of under the most extreme conditions.”

In an odd way, Dr. Pilnik — like many other educators, employers, employees, and so many others — has found that the pandemic hasn’t been all bad for his new school. “It made us realize that the center’s mission is global,” he said; the pandemic forced the school to act on that understanding immediately. “I believe that the traditional instruction has to change.” And so does the understanding of Holocaust education. “Traditionally, it was taught by volunteers and survivors,” he said. But the survivors are aging out of that job, and there are fewer other volunteers. “Today, lots of indicators show a decline in knowledge about the Holocaust, as well as the decline in its centrality as a topic, both inside and outside the Jewish community,” he said. “I’m quite dumbfounded by how little even Jewish teenagers from Jewish day schools know about it.”

The Fish Center and the education it offers is for everyone, Dr. Pilnik said; at the same time, its position as part of YU means that “there is some focus on traditional Jewish life in Europe, which usually is marginalized in Holocaust studies.” We know more about assimilated Jews, like Anne Frank and Victor Klemperer, than about the rabbis and the communities that they served, Dr. Pilnik said. But “that leaves the majority of the Jews in the shadows. The story of the Holocaust is the story of the Jewish people, which already was a diverse group on the eve of World War II.”

He and the school’s founder share a set of beliefs about the curriculum and its mission. “Emil Fish is a modern Orthodox Jew who survived Bergen Belsen as a child and firmly believes that Holocaust education is for everyone,” Dr. Pilnik said. “And we do not want to preach to the choir. We want to share our values with the greater society, and with posterity.

“We are committed to the memory of the Jewish people, to the entire mosaic of the Jewish world.”

Learn more about Yeshiva University’s Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at

read more: