University of Wisconsin-Madison law student Ben Levey examined how complicit lawyers and judges were in Nazi atrocities at a fellowship in Germany and Poland that provided a historical lens to study contemporary ethics.
“Obviously, laws and our legal systems aren’t inherently just,” he said, “but to see that they can be actively used for evil in that way, that fascists would think it fitting and appropriate to do this under the cover of law, it was really interesting.”
Levey, whose Fox Point family belongs to Congregation Shalom, spent two intensive weeks in Germany and Poland, visiting Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites, and participating in rigorous seminars led by ethics experts and historians in several fields.
Since 2009, The Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics has offered professional development to students and early career professionals pursuing degrees in law, business, journalism, medicine, seminary and design and technology.
“They did a good job of finding people who are interested and skilled at having these difficult conversations and who care deeply about historical issues,” Levy said.
Levey, 27, returned on June 10, 2022, with many takeaways, one being “the importance of working collectively with others because there’s not a lot that any one person probably could have done to resist the Nazis. You need collective action, working with other lawyers and people in other fields to address structural issues.”
Levey plans to work with refugees seeking asylum after he completes law school in two years. For two and a half years, he worked at HIAS headquarters, in Maryland; the refugee resettlement agency is closely linked with the American Jewish community.
The Auschwitz fellowship frequently touched on modern-day controversies, he said. “Something that came up was America’s legacy of anti-Black racism and how Berlin in particular does a really good job of telling the history of the Nazi years in public spaces and how America often fails to do that.”
Following his fellowship, Levey interned at the ACLU of Wisconsin where he worked on civil rights in the schools. There’s a movement across the country and in Wisconsin school districts to ban LGBTQ books from school libraries or restrict access to them.
“On the fellowship, we went to the site of the first big book burning in Berlin and (censorship in America) was very much top of mind.”
The fellowship had a deep effect on his Jewish identity. “I’ve never felt so Jewish as I did on that trip. I really felt community and support among the other Jews who were there.”
Levey recalled attending Shabbat services on a Friday night in Krakow. “I was the first person in my family to celebrate and observe Shabbat in Poland in probably a hundred years. It felt really, really meaningful, but it also felt fraught and complicated because there just aren’t many Jews left in Poland and there was such a richness and diversity in the Jewish community before the Holocaust.”
The experience gave him “a much stronger sense of the history of the Holocaust and how it happened. It was not inevitable by any means. I also learned the importance of memorialization.”
Witnessing Auschwitz was deeply disturbing. “I was on this trip for the specific intellectual process of learning how this unfolded and talking about history and thinking about ethics. Then you have an experience (Auschwitz) and all that kind of recedes. For me, it’s just overwhelming despair and sadness.
“I got a much richer understanding of what was lost and of Jewish history. I think I got connected with my family story in a deeper way.”