January 13, 2011 — On the first day of his January Term class, "The Dark Side of the 20th Century: Between Auschwitz and the Gulag," Dariusz Tolczyk poses the question: "Does it make sense to dwell on the historical atrocities and great negative experiences of humanity?"
The students respond that it does, said Tolczyk, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literature in the College of Arts & Sciences, who is leading the course for the third year.
"To forget history means to be doomed to repeat it," he explained.
Second-year history major Phoebe Willis said, "I also think it is important to remember these terrible events in honor of those who were oppressed and killed so that their deaths were not in vain, but taught the world that genocide is not the answer. Ever."
Through literary and cinematic testimonials, Tolczyk leads the students to consider art focused on the "pragmatic advantages of either forgetting or remembering" and to consider the moral perspective. "What do we owe to those who perished?," he asked.
The tradition of European peace treaties since the time of Charlemagne takes the view of "forget and start afresh," Tolczyk said. "But in the 20th century perpetrators counted on physical annihilation and also the annihilation of the memory of those annihilated. So they then control history. By forgetting, we put ourselves on the side of the perpetrators morally."
The course readings include firsthand personal accounts of survivors of atrocities or those close to the experience, including Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born Jew who wrote about his imprisonment in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in his book "Night." Wiesel won a 1986 Nobel Prize for being "a messenger to mankind."
The writings of Polish writer and journalist Tadeusz Borowski, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Dachau and whose family had a long history of imprisonment in Soviet Russia before moving to Poland, portrays the "troubling attitude distance and nonchalance in the tone and language" of the narrator of "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen," a provocative tale of the loss of moral sensitivity.
Russian gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov wrote about his labor camp life in the Soviet Union in a book of short stories, "Kolyma Tales," and Soviet writer Lydia Chukovskaya's works reflect the human cost of totalitarianism in Russia.
Chinese novelist and poet Zhang Xianliang was imprisoned for 22 years as part of the Chinese Communists' 1957 anti-rightist campaign for his politically deviant poetry. His novel "Grass Soup" – the title taken from the prisoners' evening meal – includes diary passages from and commentaries on his time in the labor camps.
Tolczyk also chose films that, although not firsthand accounts, are based on thoroughly researched documentation of the events.
In making "The Pianist," director Roman Polanski relied on his own experiences as a Jewish child saved from the Holocaust by Polish peasants to depict the struggles of Polish Jewish musicians to survive the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
"Polanski knows how things looked, how people behaved. He witnessed the ghetto-ization of Krakow Jews and their deportation to concentration camps," Tolczyk said.
Director Andrzej Wajda's "Korczak" depicts the protection of Jewish orphans by Dr. Henryk Goldszmit, also known as Janusz Korczak during the war. Although repeatedly offered chances for his own survival, he refuses to abandon the children and accompanies them to the German death camp at Treblinka. Wajda's own father was killed in the Soviet massacre of Poles in the Katyn forest in 1940, the subject of his film "Katyn."
The 1994 Russian film "Burnt by the Sun," by director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov, is about Stalin's Great Purge of the Communist Party and government officials.
Roberto Begnini's 1997 film "Life is Beautiful," tells the story of an Italian Jew and his sacrifices to help his family when they are in the concentration camp. To maintain a spirit of hope, he makes up a game to help his son survive the horrors of the camp. And "The Killing Fields," by director Roland Joffe, depicts the cleansing campaign of Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in which 2 million perished.
For both the readings and films, Tolczyk provides historical perspective, explaining the cultural context that allowed the development of totalitarian ideologies and how they gave justification to mass murder. Class discussion provides clarity to the various vantage points presented by the material.
Tolczyk said the firsthand experience reflected in the readings and, to some degree, in the films allows the students to "relate and step into the shoes of someone else. It's important to try not just to relate to someone's imagination but to their experiences."
Third-year computer engineering major Katie Dove said Tolczyk's insights are invaluable to providing the broader view. "Professor Tolczyk seems to draw the less-obvious conclusions from the literature that are typically overlooked by the class as a whole, but these conclusions are often the most valuable lessons intended by the authors and directors," she said.
Willis is interested in the history, but also in what it means for today. She said she took the class to "see which elements of these oppressive regimes are continuing on in society today, such as the mass genocide in Darfur or the persecution of Christians in Middle Eastern countries."
In addition to learning about the dark side of the history of the 20th century and its impact on individuals, what are the students personally taking away from the class?
"Fear is the most lethal of weapons," Dove said. "Throughout the entire hierarchical structure of the death and labor camps, it was fear that motivated the oppressed to in turn oppress others. It was fear of a worse fate that led many to the cattle cars and off to Auschwitz. And it was fear that kept the voices of others silent as they watched these atrocities taking place right before their eyes."
Willis is taking away a practical and personal lesson that everyone can incorporate in life, "a moral lesson to treat others the way you would want to be treated," she said. "It sounds corny, but if people stuck to that one moral rule, the world would be a much happier place."