Antisemitism has been on the rise, with recent months seeing public figures making hateful comments about Jewish people and the Holocaust.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that 2021 saw the largest number of antisemitic incidents in 40 years. An annual audit by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation has also tracked a significant recent spike in antisemitic acts in Wisconsin.
Count the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as among those who are working to meet the moment. The goal is to do so through education.
UW-Milwaukee offers both degree-seeking students and community members the opportunity to pursue a certificate in Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies, a multidisciplinary course of study that uses the Holocaust as its foundation to explore the social forces that lead to genocide.
“Getting a group of students together to study the Holocaust, or a different genocide, or looking at human rights in a unique way, to really focus on recommitting to the values of humanity, of humanism, kindness, compassion and democracy… all of these core values, and seeing what happens when values are abandoned, is so powerful right now,” said Rachel Baum, the deputy director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Milwaukee.
To obtain a certificate, a student must complete at least six courses, including three core classes pertaining to Jewish studies and the Holocaust and three electives ranging from Introduction to African American History to Modern Ethical Theories. It is possible to complete the requirements completely online, an option that gives nontraditional students a pathway to obtain the certificate away from Milwaukee or at their own schedule.
First offered in May 2019, there are eight to 10 students currently enrolled in the program and a handful of recent graduates. Baum said the program is expanding each year and is exploring ways to make the certificate more accessible to community members who could benefit from learning about the Holocaust and genocide.
Michael Cangiamilla graduated in May 2022 with the certificate and a major in Jewish studies, completing all of his coursework virtually from the West Coast. It was important for him to study the Holocaust because his father was one of the soldiers who liberated the concentration camp Dachau in Germany during World War II, he said.
“The Holocaust has been an event that’s been in my life for a long time,” Cangiamilla, who is not Jewish, said. “From a very young age, I heard the stories of what they found when they went in there, that they were horrified, not really knowing what they got into, and I heard first-hand accounts from him about it. So I learned about the Holocaust from way early on.”
Cangiamilla was able to participate in a study abroad class in eastern Europe where he visited Auschwitz and several other concentration camps, a course that was offered as a partnership between UW-Milwaukee, UW-Oshkosh and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
During the Vietnam War, Cangiamilla was stationed outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the site of a genocide that would kill more than a million people.
“The certificate is a little bit broader, and that’s why I think it can be included in many other majors, for people that are taking other courses,” Cangiamilla said. “It’s a very important certificate, not just from the Jewish sense, but from a whole overall worldly sense.”
Also a May 2022 graduate, Denise Wadzinski earned the certificate and a major in Jewish studies. She is an online ESL tutor for Israeli adults and was a second-grade teacher at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. After obtaining the certificate, she is hoping to volunteer with HERC and work with Holocaust survivors.
“I feel it’s really pressing because we are losing our first-hand accounts every day, and my fear is that once we lose these first-hand accounts, it will become more and more easy for people to discount this and get into Holocaust denial,” Wadzinski said.
Wadzinski appreciated that the certificate allowed for a broader study of genocides to uncover the commonalities that lead humanity to go down destructive paths. This way, she believes it will help people learn from the mistakes of the past to make progress in the future.
“It’s really easy, it’s kind of a human trait, to fall into cynicism. By studying this, we learn that we cannot cooperate with these forces of evil. We cannot go down these steps and these paths toward hatred,” Wadzinski said. “As Jews we are called that we have to choose life. So we can’t go down that path.”
In Baum’s view, the flexible nature and topic of the program attracts students who are looking to come out of their education with a deeper connection with the world like Cangiamilla and Wadzinski.
“Some people do want to be a Holocaust educator or work in a Holocaust museum and so on, but some find value in it beyond that,” Baum said.
UW-Milwaukee is not the only institution to have a certificate in Holocaust and genocide studies. Pennsylvania State University, Boston University, the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are just some of the other schools that offer similar programs. According to Center for Jewish Studies Director Joel Berkowitz, faculty is in frequent conversation with colleagues in institutions across the country about the rise of hatred and bigotry and the role a certificate like this can have in combating it. He is seeking to steer into that in Milwaukee.
“I think of a very talented African American student we had a few years back who was active in her church, and said to us, ‘When I’m teaching Sunday school and I hear someone say something that I know is not correct because of my studies at UWM about Jewish history or Jewish thought, I will gently correct them,’” Berkowitz said. “And that’s one of the little snapshots of the kinds of things that happen with this program.”
In one of Baum’s courses on the Holocaust, she recalled having a student who said she related to the Jewish experience because she was forced to be vaccinated in order to keep her job. Connecting today’s vaccinations with the Holocaust is misleading, harmful to survivors, and even dangerous, according to experts.
“I really appreciate that the university’s core value is civil discourse,” Baum said. “What I said to her, it was at the very beginning of the course, was to stay in the class. That I don’t think she knows enough yet to make those comparisons, so learn the history and then let’s have this conversation.”
The certificate curriculum is intended to allow students to challenge assumptions and learn together about the Holocaust, other genocides and the importance of human rights.
“The certificate is important to me because it gives me some credence in the ability to forcefully speak about the Holocaust,” Cangiamilla said. “We need people to still be a voice as these survivors are leaving. There still needs to be a voice about the Holocaust so that we don’t forget the lessons.”