In S.F., prof calls for greater focus on Holocaust studies

With attendance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reaching 2 million each year, American interest in the Holocaust is "at a high point right now," notes historian Deborah Lipstadt.

Nonetheless, Lipstadt is concerned about the future.

"The question is what is going to happen past 2000, when fewer survivors are left," said Lipstadt, a museum board member and historical consultant.

"In a few decades, World War II will be ancient history."

Lipstadt, who is also a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Atlanta's Emory University, was in San Francisco last week to speak at the first program of the Judith Chapman Memorial Women's Leadership Fund.

Chapman, who died last year, was a long-time Jewish community activist. The fund, which is under the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, will provide grants for study and community programs.

Lipstadt asserts that solid scholarship is one way to compensate as the first-hand memories of the Holocaust recede.

"The need for another generation of historians is pressing. If we produce more good students, I'll be optimistic."

In addition, she said, museums need to play a stronger role in promoting intellectual inquiry. She called the recent political battles over leadership at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum an "embarrassment" to both Jews and researchers.

"The museum is a public, federal institution. It can't be a litmus test for Jewish politics," said Lipstadt, who helped design the section of the museum on American responses to the Holocaust.

Currently, she is at work on a book on how the Holocaust entered the American consciousness in the 1950s.

Generally, she said, people assume the `50s were the low point for Holocaust discussion. But while exploring how pop culture and the 1950s Jewish community dealt with the Holocaust, Lipstadt said, she was surprised to find plenty of material.

By today's standards, she admits, much of that era's attempts to confront the Shoah were childish and naive. "If you look at the movie of the diary of Anne Frank, it's almost laughable when you think this a presentation of the Holocaust," she said.

By contrast, graphic movies like "Schindler's List," which unflinchingly plunge into the horrors, surprise Lipstadt.

"When I first saw it, I didn't think America was ready," she said. "But it indicates there were a lot more [people] ready than assumed."

Still, Lipstadt said, "there is a tremendous amount the world hasn't yet learned from this."

That includes the Jewish community, she said, which sometimes places too much emphasis on the Holocaust as a tool to reach the unaffiliated.

"I have a holistic approach. You can't deny tragedies. They are there and overwhelming. On the other hand, those tragedies should not be a basis for Jewish identity."

So her discussions on the Holocaust these days tend to finish with an emphasis on practical, enriching aspects of Judaism, rather than on tragedy.

"Judaism starts with how one can build a better society," she said. "The message I hope to give is that the pay-off of being Jewish is so great. The tradition is a treasure that is yours for the asking."