Holocaust Literature class returns in wake of concerns over Immigrant Detention Centers

By McKenzie Johnston, Staff Reporter

The Holocaust has been a trending topic over the past several months as immigrant detention centers around the United States were compared to concentration camps for their poor conditions and a string of immigrant deaths by many, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-N.Y).

SIU’s English Department will be offering a Holocaust Literature course again in the spring semester, this time open to undergraduate and graduate students.

Dr. Michael Humphries, associate professor of literature and literary theory, is offering his Holocaust Literature. It was first offered in 2011 and had last been offered in 2015.

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When asked to discuss the aim of the course, Humphries said it was to “understand the nature…of the process of dehumanizing.” The purpose of studying the Holocaust is to not forget, he said. He posed the question, “What are we supposed to remember?”

Humphries’ course will focus on the stories of Holocaust survivors, but will also touch on genocide and slavery around the world and America’s own dark past. Japanese internment camps, black slavery, the relocation of Native Americans to reservations and the current mass incarceration of black men are all topics his course will touch on.

Sharing concerns that recent study of the Holocaust has become a “fetish narrative,” Humphries said. He said he emphasizes that while such narratives communicate the Holocaust, they also “[relieve] us of responsibility.”

“We are, as human beings, implicated to a certain extent,” he said. The readings selected for the class will, “instill in us a certain kind of empathy,” Humphries said.

He said he also hopes his students will gain from the course the ability to “turn our gaze back upon ourselves.” Self-reflection, Humphries said, is the first step toward prevention.

Regarding the comparison of Holocaust concentration camps and the ICE detention centers, he said, “we do not need concentration camps to engage in dehumanization.” 

“We see this happening, again,” Humphries said, citing attacks on science, the press and the rise of white nationalism. “We should be starting to worry.”

“What we sometimes find, under the guise of patriotism is racism, denigration, xenophobia and isolationism,” Humphries said.

It is this refusal to identify with the other that is the root of the issue, he said, in his eyes. “The moment that happens is the moment we lose the possibility to think.”

Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum once said of the Holocaust: “It started with little acts of racism and discrimination and eventually led to the murder of millions of innocents. We must never think the Holocaust cannot happen again.”

Spring of 2020 will mark 80 years from the establishment of Auschwitz, the same camp that Elie Wiesel, Jean Améry, Charlotte Delbo and Primo Levi were imprisoned in. Their writings are included in Humphries’ course. 

Anne Frank was also imprisoned in Auschwitz for three years.

The Holocaust Literature course is a special topics course listed as ENGL 493-001. The class will be held 3:35 p.m. until 4:50 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Faner Hall 3514.

Staff reporter McKenzie Johnston can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @TheMcKenzieJ.

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