Conversation with…Dr. Avinoam Patt
Professor says Jewish GIs went beyond the call of duty to help Holocaust victims they liberated
By Judie Jacobson
WEST HARTFORD-Avinoam Patt arrived at the University of Hartford this fall to become the first Philip D. Feltman Chair in Modern Jewish History. In addition to his appointment as the Feltman Chair, Patt is also assistant director of the University’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and director of the George J. Sherman and Lottie K. Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization.
Formerly the Miles Lerman Applied Research Scholar for Jewish Life and Culture at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Patt has taught at New York University (where he received his PhD), Rutgers University, and American University in Washington, D.C. He has also worked at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and contributed to the DVD series, “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.”
The son of Israelis who now live in Houston, Patt has two books soon to be published: “We Are Here: New Approaches to the Study of Jewish Displaced Persons in Post War Germany” and “Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust.” He is also completing an archival document collection, titled “Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution,” for use by university professors and scholars.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Patt about the exhibit “Our Greatest Generations: The Untold Stories of Jewish War Veterans” that will open at the George J. Sherman and Lottie K. Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization at the University of Hartford on Nov. 4 with a lecture by Patt entitled, “Our American Liberators: Concentration Camps and the American Soldiers.”
Q: Why is an exhibit on Jewish war veterans important for our community to see?
A: I hope this exhibit will appeal to all segments of our community n from our students at the University and student groups throughout the area, to adults and children who I think will be fascinated by the many untold stories that will be revealed in this exhibit.
It is sometimes easy to forget, but we are basically in the middle of a war in Iraq right now and many Americans (especially young children) need to hear the stories of local people n their friends, family members, and neighbors- who have bravely served their country. All members of our community should find this one of the most illuminating local exhibitions ever staged on war veterans in general, and Jewish war veterans in particular. With the Ken Burns PBS special coming into all of our homes each night, we are reminded of just how significant a topic this is for us to teach our children.
Q: Tell us about the programs and events that are scheduled to take place surrounding the exhibit.
A: Starting on Sunday, Nov. 4 with my lecture on Jewish GIs and the survivors of the Holocaust in Germany, we will have a full series of lectures that will continue until the spring.
We hope that elementary, middle and high school teachers, as well as local Hebrew schools, will bring their students to view the exhibit.
As with most of our exhibitions, we try to integrate the subject matter into the courses we are teaching. This semester, in both my American Jewish history and modern Jewish history classes, my students will have the opportunity to write papers on the exhibition, as will Dr. Freund's students in Ancient Jewish History. We have also created a unique catalog in conjunction with the exhibition on the “Untold Stories of Jewish War Veterans throughout Jewish History.” The catalog documents the contributions of Jewish soldiers from the ancient period until modern times. It will continue to be available on our website once the exhibition has closed. Even though the exhibition will close on Feb. 24, we will soon follow with an exhibition on the remarkable efforts of Jewish displaced persons to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The exhibit will honor the memory of Holocaust survivor and activist Sigmund Strochlitz of New London.
Q: You will be giving a talk on American liberators of German concentration camps at the opening of the exhibit. Were American Jewish liberators impacted differently than those who were not Jewish?
A: First, it must be noted that Jewish GIs who liberated concentration camps like Buchenwald and Dachau in Germany (or the Jewish soldiers serving with the Red Army who liberated the death camps in Poland) encountered a situation for which they and their non-Jewish comrades were completely unprepared. Testimonies from the time use words like “indescribable” and “beyond belief” to convey the unprecedented brutality that no one had ever seen before.
For Jewish GIs, the confrontation with the camps was in many ways more complicated than it was for non-Jewish soldiers. Like most Americans, they were obviously fighting for their country in order to defend what America stood for, but they were also very much involved in a fight to save their people. Many had closely followed events in Germany and throughout Europe, where some still had families. There were many Yiddish speakers among the Jewish GIs and a few thousand had in fact immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1930s. Just to name one noteworthy example, the great Holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg, had immigrated to New York from Vienna in 1938 and was among those who captured the Nazi party offices in Munich in 1945.
Jewish GIs were also forced to confront anti-Semitism in the United States n from the radio addresses of Father Charles Coughlin, to Henry Ford’s publication of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the 1920s, and increasing isolationist tendencies in the United States that targeted Jews and immigrants. This pressure informed Jewish participation in the military for the more than 500,000 Jews who fought in the U.S. armed forces, eager to demonstrate their American patriotism.
At the moment of liberation, Jewish GIs also possessed a sense of kinship with the Jewish survivors who they managed to save -- although many thousands would still perish in the days and weeks after liberation. Jewish soldiers usually knew enough Yiddish to even say “Ich bin a Yid” (I am a Jew) and this expression of solidarity and pride was often enough to bring a smile to the faces of survivors.
In my talk on Nov. 4, I will highlight the efforts of Jewish GIs and Jewish chaplains in particular to help the Jewish DPs (displaced persons) build a thriving community soon after the war. Jewish chaplains and GIs were instrumental in helping to bury the dead, enabling survivors to mourn those who perished, organizing prayer services, helping those whose families had survived manage to locate one another n basically, helping survivors come back to life. Jewish chaplains helped young survivors form kibbutz groups in Germany after the war, they performed weddings, organized schools, facilitated the publication of Yiddish newspapers and even a U.S. Army Talmud. These are all stories of a remarkable rebirth of Jewish life that are often unknown, and I look forward to sharing them with the community.
Q: How would you describe your role as the first Philip Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History?
A: In my new position, I wear at least three different hats, as a professor of modern Jewish history, as director of the Sherman Museum, and finally as the assistant director of the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. And so, I see my role as Feltman Professor developing in three distinct, yet parallel fashions.
As a professor, my job is to add to the already diverse range of Judaic studies course offerings that we provide at the university, by offering courses which convey the broad range of Jewish experiences in the modern world. So, first and foremost, my role will be to broaden our students’ understanding of how the encounter with modernity has changed what it means to be a Jew. There is a growing demand for courses on modern Jewish history n from classes on the history of the Holocaust, to the study of Israel, and to the examination of Jewish life in America, and I am looking forward to responding to this need.
While I love teaching in the traditional classroom setting, one of the things that has excited me most about this position has been the opportunity to teach outside of the classroom. We have this wonderful museum here on campus, which provides us with the opportunity to reach a different audience on another level. Our most recent exhibition on “Jerusalem in the 19th Century” has been viewed both by students and various groups from the community. On Sept. 16, we hosted a break-the-fast with both our Muslim and Jewish student groups on campus at the museum and this enabled us to highlight the ways in which our shared traditions can bring people together rather than drive us apart.
I hope that our upcoming exhibition on Jewish war veterans will be able to function in the same way.
Finally, as assistant director of the Greenberg Center, I have been able to see how our educational mission extends to the community at large through public lectures, workshops for teachers, and even spring break trips to view the Jewish world that is open to the community. Teaching can be done in many different settings and I am excited to be part of a place that seizes every educational opportunity that it can.
Q: I see that you are teaching a course on Israeli culture and the arts. How would you describe the current state of Israeli culture/arts and its impact on world culture?
A: I am very excited to teach this course. We are organizing a number of events in conjunction with Israel’s 60th anniversary next semester, and I think this is a perfect way to celebrate the remarkable achievements of a very young and very small country that in a short period of time has managed to produce a vibrant world-class culture. Wonderful literature, eclectic music that combines Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Middle Eastern traditions, a film industry that each year produces award-winning films, and much more: Israel has developed as a cultural and artistic center despite all of the challenges that the country has faced. This is a story that students must learn. At a time when Israel’s existence can be questioned, when the need for a Jewish state is thrown into doubt, I think it is incredibly important to teach about Israel not in the context of conflict or controversy, but as a legitimate subject of study with topics that transcend the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For the first time, we will be a part of the Jewish Film Festival and I have some very exciting news that I will be sharing in a few weeks. We will be also be featuring an Israeli Folk Dance evening on Feb. 10 and it will be a chance for students and the community to join together for a Rikudiyah taught by a nationally recognized Israeli dance instructor.
We will be starting out the semester on Feb. 7 with a talk on Israeli folk songs by Barry Serota thanks to the Waltman Family Fund. Our spring brochure will be coming out in January, and as you will see, Israel will be very well featured in many of our programs in conjunction with this course.
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