A brief history of the Stephen S. Weinstein Holocaust Symposium
By Katy Koch Campbell
As it happens, a sustained practice of hospitality — “making respectful room for the other” —yields rewards during a socially isolating pandemic.
From its inception — at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, England, in 1996 — the Stephen S. Weinstein Holocaust Symposium, formerly the Pastora Goldner Holocaust Symposium, had a noble, ambitious vision. It wasn’t a meeting where scholars shared academic papers, but a place to commit to sustained dialogue about issues surrounding the Holocaust. The mission? Aspirational tikkun olam, repair of the world.
“The Holocaust was, in part, neighbor turning against neighbor, and it strikes me that this is what lies at the heart of the tikkun of our group — a repair of human connection,” explains Rachel Baum, a senior lecturer and deputy director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Baum, then a graduate student, was the symposium’s youngest founding member.
As the symposium coalesced in the early days, 80 prospective members were asked three questions —
- “How are we to respond in word and deed to a world radically transformed in which ‘business as usual’ no longer applies?”
- “How are we to utilize our learning from the Shoah (Holocaust) in order to face, responsibly, the genocidal potentials inherent in our own world?”
- “Do you want to join us in an intergenerational, interdisciplinary, international and interfaith venture committed to post-Shoah healing and responsibility?”
Ultimately, 36 members (an intentional number that remains consistent today) hailing from United States, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Italy joined. About half are Jewish and half are Christian.
Today the symposium, which is more collegial than competitive, has more than a dozen book titles and multiple research papers to its credit. In the pipeline now in Scotland, for example, is “a ground-breaking collaborative volume on the Holocaust and military ethics,” says George Wilkes, a University of Edinburgh research fellow and founding director of the Religion and Ethics in the Making of War and Peace Project. The meeting matters, but so does the process. At the Wroxton College gatherings, working groups are paired. They commit to continue afterward in dialogue, reading each other’s work and asking questions which authors answer in essay.
“Sharing thoughts, learning from one another and modeling respectful, critical scholarly interchange among Wroxtonites” is reflected in the dialogical composition of the books, says co-founder Leonard Grob, a philosophy professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey (FDU owns Wroxton College). A 10-volume series published by University of Washington Press examines Jewish thought, forgiveness, reconciliation, trust, hope, justice, God and evil. All of that scholarship stemmed from time spent in-person at Wroxton.
Biennial meetings, an intensive three days, are carefully structured and include a kind of “Salon of Reconnection” to share life-changing moments, stories, objects of significance, art and performance. In 2000, a one-man play, “Remnants,” based on interviews with Holocaust survivors, was performed by symposium member Henry Greenspan, a lecturer emeritus in social theory and practice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2004, symposium member Gottfried Wagner, the great-great grandson of famed composer Richard Wagner, presented a multimedia opera project based on a Holocaust survivor’s memoir.
“We experience moments of insight, disclosure and bonding, often with laughter and tears,” explains co-founder Henry Knight, a Methodist minister and former University of Tulsa chaplain. Baum described the “complex between” of learning to live with contradictions as where many in the group find themselves.” Together they work it out. Hannah Holtschneider, senior lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Edinburgh, says when she joined years ago as a graduate student, “some pretty major tensions showed how differently members connected to the Holocaust and its consequences.”
She continues, “These threatened to break the group apart, but we worked through them and chose deliberately to include the emotional challenges in our scholarly conversations.” Not only are Jews joining with Christians from around the world, but also with others who are secular or atheist. They are multidisciplinary scholars, artists, activists, musicians, psychoanalysts and more. Some have direct personal connections to the history they study, others don’t.
Co-founder Grob is a Jewish man who lost family members in the Holocaust. Co-founder Knight is concerned with “the implications of Christian complicity during the Shoah and the consequences for Christian theology in its aftermath. Hospitality — making respectful room for the other — has been at the heart and soul of our gatherings and projects. In a world wounded by genocidal violence, hospitality to the other matters more than we may know; particularly when it can be embodied across interfaith, interdisciplinary, international and intergenerational boundaries,” says Knight.
One way that fellowship is expressed is through the observance of multi-denominational religious services, including Jewish, Protestant and Catholic worship. A symbolic “high table” in Wroxton Abbey’s historic 17th-century Carriage House dining hall is reserved exclusively for the lighting of Sabbath candles and the recitation of liturgical prayers. Wroxton’s Abbey chapel, featuring historic Jacobean carved-wood panels and architecturally significant painted glass, offers another meditative space.
Apart from the people and the ritual, the place itself can be healing. Wroxton College is a 17th-century Jacobean mansion with monastic roots and features a gilded Regency room, chandeliered library reading rooms and stately bedrooms. The 56-acre estate in the heart of England’s beautiful Cotswolds was once home to the family of Prime Minister Frederick Lord North, who famously governed during the loss of the American colonies. Surrounding grounds hold centuries-old trees, cascading ponds with heirloom water lilies, a Victorian knot garden and architectural follies. Place matters to scholars as they navigate, as Wilkes described it, being “willing to look unsparingly at what is bleak historically and what failings of the scholarly and public communities have been while devoted to a holistic, multi-sensory approach.”
The nature of Holocaust work is solitary, Baum notes. “Some members of our group are the only people working in Holocaust Studies on their campuses. It can be lonely work, spending your life focused on the Holocaust in a world that often seems to have moved on from thinking about it. At Wroxton, we meet people who share our nightmares in one of the most serene and nurturing places on Earth. We can unfurl when we are at Wroxton, and that loosening allows us for the building of trust and the creation of a foundation for tikkun olam.”
“By being together in intensive conversation over three days, and in a stable group, we learn so much from each other and forge connections that go beyond the professional,” Holtschneider explains.
The pandemic delayed in-person gathering at Wroxton by a year, but scholars hope to return in 2022. Meanwhile, they join each other’s classrooms virtually — by Skype or Zoom, a book club and listserv manuscript-sharing.
“The fact that they are there, and that members of the symposium reach out to each other regularly, is personally significant,” Holtschneider says. Wilkes, also in Scotland, is grateful that, during the pandemic, colleagues joined him generously in financial support of a torture survivor’s quest for freedom. This affirmed the Wroxton cohort “is practically committed to walking the walk, and not to distilled academic discourse alone,” he says.
Baum remembers one exceptional gathering shared by 23 colleagues. A trip to Auschwitz concentration camp, following the 2016 symposium. “It was a deeply meaningful time to be there with such treasured colleagues and to be led by two members of our group who are Auschwitz guides. We lit memorial candles at several locations throughout the camp. Martin Rumscheidt, a German pastor and theologian in his 80s, hung back in order to give his Jewish friends the space to grieve,” Baum recalls. “Several of us reached out to him to invite him to say mourner’s Kaddish with us. It was a moving moment of repair for Rumscheidt, and also for me, to be together: American Jew and German Christian, different generations, saying Kaddish for the murdered at Auschwitz.”
Baum credits that moment of repair to Wroxton, the time spent together at the symposium. Another lesson she endeavors to bring home from England to her classroom teaching in Wisconsin: “We are changed by dialogue,” she says.
“It’s not only good to listen to other people, but also, our very being — who we are — is changed by it. Fostering a classroom space where people can deeply listen to each other and be changed by the experience is the closest way I know to get to Wroxton College without buying my students a plane ticket.”
Katy Koch Campbell is a volunteer on the Wroxton College Advisory Committee, and is a member of the Wroxton College class of spring 1982.