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Surviving the Holocaust: Adaptive Choices, Survival, & the Mechanics of Death                        
Sheri Karmiol,
Core:  Humanities



As Vilma Grunwald was about to board a truck to take her the gas chambers and her death, she wrote a quick note to her husband, who was also a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She wrote, “Take care of the little golden boy . . . I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life; we must board trucks. Into eternity.” Vilma’s husband and son, Misa survived the death camps. Vilma’s son, Frank (Misa), donated the letter to the USHMM, where it is available for study.


The texts that we will read this semester—the diaries, letters, and memoirs—that have survived the Shoah remain the best evidence of the Holocaust’s existence.  Our experiences with these texts will give voice to Europe’s Jewish population and refute the claims of Holocaust deniers.  In these texts we will learn about the choices that Jews made and the choices that were made for them.  In their descriptions of daily existence, we have the opportunity to learn about the kind of strength and resilience that enabled a culture and religion to survive, even as millions of people perished.  We will examine a selection of letters, diaries, journals, and individual memoirs written during and immediately after the Holocaust.  We will also watch several short film documentaries that depict the experiences of Jews, who will reveal how they survived and what decisions and adaptions helped ensure their survival.  Through interviews with survivors, a selection of interdisciplinary readings, documentaries, and discussions, we will explore what it meant to be a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe and Belorussia.  Many of the texts that we will read are eyewitness accounts; some of them will be painful to examine, but they remain our best hope to never forget, to never allow this to happen again.  In recent years there has been a movement to discount the reality of the Holocaust.  When this denial is considered in light of the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Sudan it becomes more imperative that we continue to read and discuss the literature of the Holocaust.


What students have said about this class:

  • “I feel I am leaving this class with a better understanding of how people behave.”
  • “This course really showed us so much more of the Holocaust than is generally taught. It is a very emotional and powerful class that teaches us about what humans are capable of doing to one another.”
  • “I learned a greater appreciation for life. I feel I can talk about the Holocaust and help prevent it from happening again.”
  • “I would consider this one of the most valuable courses I have ever taken.”
  • “This class made me change my major to history.”
  • “Everyone should take this class. It changed my life.”



Deborah Dwork, Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust
Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower

Browning, Ordinary Men

Levi, If This is a Man  



Several documentaries, where Holocaust survivors tell their stories.






2 short papers, presentations, research/term paper



Dr. Karmiol has a Ph.D. in British literature. Much of her academic research had focused on behavioral and social anthropology and the ethical and philosophical decisions that people make to adapt to changes in their lives.  Most of the classes that she teaches have centered on issues of social inequity, prejudice, and the marginalization of groups of people, who are classified as expendable members of society. Dr. Karmiol has been honored with awards for her teaching and has received two fellowships, including one for study at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  She also teaches classes on the Holocaust and on intolerance.