The 40th annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches took place this past weekend at St. Joseph's University, attracting academics and Holocaust survivors from across the country and from abroad. For three days they presented papers, networked and sang the praises of the late Dr. Franklin Littell of Merion Station, who was credited by all with being the father of Holocaust studies in America.
Dr. Littell was an ordained Methodist minister as well as an accomplished academic and, in many ways he became the conscience of the world. The conference had as its theme "Crisis and Credibility in the Jewish-Christian World: Remembering Franklin H. Littell."
His wife, Marcy Sachs Littell, who worked side by side with her husband in teaching the Holocaust and organizing the conferences, had brought together several hundred of the world's leading researchers on the Holocaust. It was amazing how each speaker was connected to Franklin Littell in some way.
Dr. Hubert Locke, who co-founded the conference four decades ago with Littell, reminded the audience that the original title was "The Holocaust and the German Church Struggle" as the focus was on the failure of the Christian church to save the Jews under Hitler or even to speak up about the Nazi persecution.
Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage showed a video he had created, using clips from various lectures and sermons through the decades, highlighting Franklin Littell's examination of the church's role and silent complicity with the Nazis.
Sauvage is himself a Holocaust survivor, as he was hidden by "righteous Gentiles" in France from the Germans who had taken over the country. Sauvage reiterated Littell's finding that educated people with Ph.D.s and M.D.s had built the death camps and operated them so education is not necessarily a remedy for prejudice and hatred.
But the whole point of studying the terror of the Holocaust is to insure that it doesn't happen again.
People weave in and out of our lives at different times, in different ways, and Dr. Littell had intersected with my life through Temple University, through his wife, Marcy, and through his strong relationship and collaboration with the Jewish community, the former Jewish Community Relations Council and others.
When Dr. Littell died last year at 91, he left a hole in the universe but he also left a legacy of scholarship and compassion which has enlightened, enriched and motivated several generations. He founded the nation's first doctoral program in Holocaust studies when he was chair of the Religion Department of Temple University. He and his wife created the master's program in Holocaust studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, where Marcy still teachers.
And clerics who respect the "plurality" of the human condition, like Professor Richard Hughes of Messiah College, even dedicate their own books to Dr. Littell who inspired them with his writings and his teaching.
Although Jewish-Christian relations were the hallmark of Dr. Littell's work, all of humanity came into his circle as exemplified by one of the panels which I was privileged to attend. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a Muslim academic from San Diego State, enlivened the deliberations of the panel, "Encountering the Stranger: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue," analyzing the phenomenon of "the other" and how we all tend to dehumanize the outsider.
I spoke with one of the presenters, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, who had served as project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, working with Elie Wiesel and Miles Lerman in creating the museum. Berenbaum, now at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is also a consultant to Hollywood filmmakers who want to make certain that a film about the Holocaust is historically accurate. He consulted on "Defiance."
By coincidence, as we were talking Sunday night at St. Joe's, the Academy Awards were giving an Oscar for best supporting actor to one of the stars of "Inglourious Basterds." Dr. Berenbaum explained that, since this was a fantasy film conjuring the vision of Jews planning to assassinate Hitler, his expertise was not needed until after the film was completed. He considers the film very worthwhile, though, and said it is the second most watched Holocaust-themed film in history, second only to "Schindler's List" by Steven Spielberg.
And Dr. Berenbaum also chaired Spielberg's Shoah Institute for several years. It was Lower Merion resident Beth Reisboard, by the way, co-director of the Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation based in Narberth, who pointed me in Dr. Berenbaum's direction. Gerda survived a concentration camp; her husband, Kurt, was her American soldier-liberator.
And the threads connecting everyone at the conference included Pierre Sauvage, whose documentary about Gerda's life and work won him an Oscar.
Holocaust survivor Felix Zandman, the founder of Vishay Intertechnology in Malvern, an international company with 16,000 employees, and his wife, Ruta, received the Eternal Flame Award for their efforts in educating the community about the Holocaust. Dr. Zandman recounted his 17 months hidden in a pit underneath the cottage of a Polish Catholic woman who saved him and his uncle from certain death. Zandman's hometown of Grodno, once the home of 29,000 Jews, had only 90 survive the Nazi takeover.
On Monday the legendary Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg paid tribute to Franklin Littell in his presentation "After 40 Years in the Wilderness — The Unfinished Agenda." Citing Dr. Littell's "passion for truth-telling," Rabbi Greenberg credited him for transforming Christianity and the churches in their view of Judaism and making them see that Judaism is still a valid religion. And he charged everyone in attendance to continue Dr. Littell's work.