California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

History’s Schwartz Makes Holocaust Real for Students

Published: September 1, 2010

History’s Don Schwartz led a tour of Eastern Europe this summer with the goal of making the Holocaust real to 21st century CSULB students and found that he not only reached his goal, he did it on a budget.

“We did the whole thing for much less than anybody anticipated,” said Schwartz, who joined the university in 1987. With a judicious balance of youth hostels and group rates for European rail, the tour of Holocaust memorials in Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland in June, gave CSULB students a close look at the worst crime in human history without going broke to do it.

From June 15-30, the History 304 class under Schwartz’s leadership introduced the grandchildren of the World War II generation to such landmarks as Sachenhausen, Theriesenstadt, Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Schwartz found that while it was easy to forge an emotional connection between the students and the Ultimate Solution, it was just as easy to burn out on those emotions.

“Emotional burnout is most dangerous when we try to wrap our minds around the evil of the perpetrators. It is almost incomprehensible,” he said. “Germany had been in the forefront of progressive social legislation, science, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Yet its legacy was death. It can be bewildering for the students.”

Personal stories were key to staying afloat spiritually. “There is a memorial in Berlin profiling five families affected by the Holocaust,” he explained. “It was a way of changing the figure of 6 million deaths from a statistic to an emotional reality. We saw that emotional reality everywhere we went. For instance, in Prague, there is a list of names of the 77,000 Czech Jews who died in places like Theriesenstadt. There was a display of children’s artwork. You would need a heart of stone not to respond to that. What I tried to do was to balance that kind of heart-wrenching emotion with something lighthearted.”

Schwartz recalled how Game Seven of the Lakers-Celtics contest proved to be a surprise boost. “We couldn’t find a single sports bar in Berlin that broadcast the game,” he said. “However, CSULB student Brian Rose was absolutely determined to see it. At 2 a.m. one night, he announced his intention to find a TV somewhere that broadcast the game and he did it. He hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the largest youth hostel he knew. He found his game.”

It was spirit like that which made the tour possible. “I have to say this group of 10 students was just absolutely fabulous to work with,” he said. “They really bonded with each other. The bottom line for me was that I never heard one single complaint during the entire tour. I was amazed, especially so because we walked nearly everywhere. I remember one student used a pedometer to measure how far we walked and we found we averaged 10 miles a day. Personally, I lost eight pounds and I ate very well.”

The trip began on June 15 when the travelers met in Berlin and opened their tour with a look at the Sachenhausen concentration camp and the nearby site of the Wannsee Conference that planned the mass murders. The next stop was Prague and a trip to the Theriesenstadt concentration camp capped by Warsaw’s Treblinka as well as a look at Krakow’s sinister twins of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The trip was capped by a six-course, hours-long meal in a Krakow restaurant funded by a CSULB supporter.

Students were required to keep a daily journal and to read a Holocaust text as well as a novel or memoir. They wrote papers on how things they saw on the trip related to what they read and concluded with a take-home exam based on the text and experience.

Don Schwartz

Photo courtesy of Don Schwartz
Don Schwartz (r) with student group on his most recent trip.

Schwartz sees the class as offering a strong answer to Holocaust deniers. “It is true there is no single document signed by Hitler ordering the death of Europe’s Jews,” Schwartz explained. “This class examined the Ultimate Solution stage by stage. The Wannsee Conference house displayed a host of documents related to the Holocaust planning. There was a particular document I recall that was dated July 31, 1941, that was sent to high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich ordering him to set up the implementation of the Final Solution. We all looked at the Wannsee minutes and the plan was clear. I feel confident that, if any student on this trip is ever confronted by a Holocaust denier, they will be well equipped to dispute that person.”

Schwartz received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York, his master’s from Indiana University in 1966 and his doctorate from New York University in 1977.

Schwartz sees a contrast between how the Germans confront World War II and how the Japanese deal with it. “The Germans deal with their crimes openly while the Japanese seem to spend a lot of time in denial,” he said. “All German grade school students visit Holocaust sites. I remember German students at the Wannsee House. One German teacher told me that German students receive so much Holocaust education that they are in danger of burning out. The nation has its heart in the right place. They own up to the past and make sure that they recognize the dangers of militarism and nationalism.”

The war has left the Germans wary of nationalism. Schwartz was interested in how Berlin reacted to the World Cup.

“There was plenty of flag-waving in support of Germany’s soccer team but there were many Germans who were uneasy with nationalist displays,” he recalled. “A lot of Germans were shocked by that. Nationalism has been downplayed for years. It was something new and something they saw as a little dangerous. I believe the Germans are acutely aware of the past and I think they do a really effective job of pointing out their responsibility.”

One inevitable consequence of walking the streets of the Holocaust is anger. Schwartz handles his rage against the gruesome legacy of evil by directing his feelings more at Holocaust deniers than at Germans.

“In a way, it is a sad situation for contemporary Germans,” he said. “I remember being shown around Berlin by a German high school student. When I asked the student about the impact on her life by the Holocaust, she replied that she was asked about Hitler the minute anyone discovered she was German. The guilt is not on her nor is it on her parents. I didn’t pick up on a lot of vengeful feelings toward Germans. What I picked up on was hostility to Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism.”

Schwartz encourages other CSULB faculty members to consider using travel in their teaching. “CSULB is a teaching university. Taking students abroad and having them visit the very sites where historical events transpired forges an emotional as well as an intellectual connection. It has a different kind of impact,” he said. “It results in a kind of knowledge that has more staying power and lends itself to deeper insights. It encourages students to raise questions.”