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Beyond Self

Susan Nowak and filmmakers

Susan Nowak '77 (far right), chair in religious studies, worked with a videographer and others from Yahad - In Unum (including Fr. Patrick Desbois, second from left) to record testimony from witnesses to mass murder.

Documenting Evil

Students explore the Holocaust to prevent future violence

by Chris Farnum


“Everybody can be a killer. Everybody can be a survivor. Everybody can be a victim,” said Holocaust researcher Father Patrick Desbois to a Nazareth College audience in March. The author of the 2008 Holocaust by Bullets, which won the National Jewish Book Award, explained: “If your life was threatened, you could become a killer, a bystander, or somebody who tries to help. The good and the evil that people are capable of is as much a concern now as during the Nazi regime,” said Desbois. “It’s a human question.”

Nazareth College is taking on that question and the work of understanding evil through teaching, learning, and international educational trips that touch people at their core and challenge them to make the world better.

To further that work, Nazareth hosted Desbois and four members from Yahad – In Unum (which means “together” in Hebrew and Latin), a Paris-based organization dedicated to systematically identifying and documenting sites of Jewish and Roma (gypsy) mass executions. In two days at Nazareth, the visiting experts presented on the particularities of teaching the Holocaust, met with campus and community leaders, and talked with students and others connected to The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, a nine-day Holocaust educational trip to Poland and Germany for students and faculty from Nazareth College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and for community members.

Learning and interning

Until recently, Yahad hadn’t welcomed interns from the United States, nor undergraduate interns. But Nazareth’s deepening connection to Yahad is providing new opportunities for Nazareth student interns to help advance the documentation and understanding of genocide. Holocaust historians estimate that six million Jews were murdered between 1933 and 1945. Of that total, 1.5 million died not by poison gas in concentration camps, but by bullets, which is the focus of Yahad’s research. Following the German invasion of the USSR, Nazi death squads rounded up and shot Jews, Roma, and Soviet prisoners in thousands of forests, fields, and villages across Eastern Europe, often demanding villagers dig graves, transport victims to the execution site, and collect belongings after the execution.

Nazareth students can now help uncover and spread the word about the lesser-known and almost-lost history of the Holocaust by bullets. Interns with appropriate language skills can join a Yahad team in the field, recording and translating interviews with now-elderly witnesses who know the location of unmarked mass graves and can recount what they saw. In its first decade, Yahad has recorded interviews with more than 3,600 people. Interns at Yahad’s Paris headquarters can help post information and video segments onto the organization’s online interactive map, available to families of the victims—some of whom reach out to Yahad for information—as well as historians. Work such as this directly supports Nazareth’s vision to cultivate students into aware and engaged human beings who are committed to upholding a dignified history for a dignified future.

Candice Gage ’14 became Yahad’s first undergraduate intern from the U.S. in February, accompanying one of its teams to Guatemala. According to the official registry, about 250,000 indigenous people were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1994, when peace accords were signed.

Gage, an anthropology major, helped translate witnesses’ transcribed testimony—some originally spoken in a Mayan language—from Spanish to English. She wrote in her blog that witnesses spoke of “the fear that permeated every village: fear for the guerrilla, fear for the military, fear of the unknown.”

Teaching the Holocaust

Susan Nowak ’77, Ph.D., S.S.J., chair of religious studies at Nazareth, accompanied Desbois and Yahad’s research team to Moldova in August 2013. There, with the team’s videographer, interviewer, translators, and other specialists, she heard emotionally wrenching testimony from aging witnesses—translated from Russian to French to English—about mass murders of Jewish and Roma people. “They’re our only link back,” Nowak says of the witnesses, struck by “the power of their stories.”

Nowak, a Holocaust scholar who teaches about the Holocaust, evil, and ethics, also participated in a seminar in France for teachers from East European countries where the Holocaust is taught very little, if at all.

The March: Bearing Witness to Hope

For more than a decade, Holocaust education at Nazareth has included The March: Bearing Witness to Hope. The trip, which took about 50 people to Eastern Europe last May, combines students, faculty, and staff from Nazareth and from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, along with people from the community. Through Yahad, organizers hope to add to the itinerary a meeting with witnesses to the mass shootings.

At Nazareth in March, Michal Chojak, Yahad’s team leader for Poland and Lithuania, met with about 30 students, faculty, and community members who had been on The March or who were preparing to go. Chojak, who is Polish, explained that many elderly Poles who witnessed mass killings are still afraid to speak.

Nazareth’s participants on The March commit to take action in some way when they return, to help transform how people treat each other on campus and in the broader community, Nowak says. Gage’s experience on the trip in 2012 launched her interest in genocide research and justice, with an eventual goal of working for international tribunals.

A dangerous disease

Yahad now has 24 people working full-time in its Paris office and five research teams, supplemented by local people in the field, but Desbois estimates that there are a million mass execution sites that are still not identified. The work is challenging, to say the least.

“It changes your nightmare,” says Desbois. “Each trip into the field lasts about 17 days and takes days to recover from. You feel like you lost somebody.”

Desbois’ public talk at Nazareth, which received a standing ovation, emphasized the need to understand history to build resistance against today’s violence.

“Everyone has to take responsibility for violence,” Desbois says. “Tuberculosis was a disease that couldn’t be treated until it was recognized. Violence is really a dangerous disease.”


Chris Farnum is the content writer and editor in Nazareth’s marketing department.

How Holocaust History Hooked Them

Father Patrick Desbois
Susan Nowak '77
Candice Gage '14

To learn more about Yahad, visit yahadinunum.org.

Read about how Sarah Cudzilo Spoto '00 edited the memoir of Holocaust survivor Henry Silberstern at go.naz.edu/lost-childhood.