This June, a Wagner College symposium on “Heroines of the Holocaust” brought 50 scholars from seven countries together to examine the role of Jewish women who fought the Nazis’ “final solution.”
The conveners of the symposium were two longtime Wagner College faculty colleagues, history professor Lori Weintrob and art historian Laura Morowitz. They had been part of the original faculty team behind the 1998 launch of the Wagner Plan. For about 10 years, they taught a freshman learning community — a set of three connected courses — titled “Close Encounters: Creativity, Conquest, Exploration.”
“We did great work,” Morowitz said. “We just felt that 10 years was a really long time. We went our separate ways — and then we came back together to work on the Holocaust Center.”
The idea for the Wagner College Holocaust Center was born out of Lori Weintrob’s work on another project: the 2011 commemoration of the 350th anniversary of Staten Island’s European settlement.
“The slogan for SI 350 was, ‘One Island, Many Stories,’ ” Weintrob said. “From there, in a way, is how I came to Holocaust survivors, because I felt that they were one of many groups on Staten Island whose stories had not been told.”
Since the center’s inception in June 2014, it has organized an astonishing number of events foregrounding the Holocaust, including annual commemorations of Kristallnacht each fall and Yom Ha’Shoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — each spring.
In 2018, two productions highlighted the stories of Holocaust survivors on Staten Island that had originally inspired Weintrob. One was a play, “In Light of One Another,” co-authored by Weintrob and Wagner theater professor Theresa McCarthy, in which 12 students performed the curated testimonies of six survivors.
The other was a 25-minute documentary film, “Where Life Leads You,” produced by Staten Island Advance reporter Shira Stoll with the Holocaust Center’s cooperation. It told the story of 10 survivors now living on Staten Island.
But this June’s symposium surpassed everything else the center had done.
“Together with Laura,” Weintrob said, “we have been able to open up a conversation within the international field of Holocaust studies. The whole theme of resistance is really just in its infancy.
“Jewish women were shooting machine guns and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Nazis — and they were also art teachers, nurses, mothers, creating strategies for survival.”
Laura Morowitz’s involvement in organizing the symposium arose from her own scholarship as well as her family’s experience. “I remember the moment I learned about the Holocaust,” she said. “I was 8 years old, and I was at my grandmother’s house. I remember my grandmother’s niece, Rose, went to get a turkey out of the oven and her sleeve flew up, and I saw the tattoo,” her prisoner ID number from one of the Nazi concentration camps. “Even as a kid, I remember there was something so frightening and wrong, and I immediately said, ‘What is that?’”
As a scholar, Morowitz began delving deeply into Nazi atrocities while investigating the fate of a painting by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” for a historic novel.
Both Morowitz and Weintrob played key roles in organizing the June symposium, “Heroines of the Holocaust: New Frameworks of Resistance.”
“In the end, we had 50 people from seven different countries who came in,” Weintrob said. “People really took this symposium seriously as a turning point in the field of Holocaust studies.”
“Several people said that they felt it was one of those watershed moments where things just kind of came together,” Morowitz said.
A summary of the symposium will be published by the USC Shoah Foundation.