Nation & World

Where the intellectual and spiritual intersect

4 min read

HDS professor talks candidly about how he was inspired to teach the Holocaust

Kevin Madigan wishes he could have saved Anne Frank. Today, he repeatedly saves her memory.

Madigan, professor of the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), teaches the College freshman seminar “The Holocaust, History and Reaction,” which addresses the Jewish genocide through the study of a variety of texts, literature, and film. The course offers students a historical perspective on the Holocaust, and examines religious and theological reactions to the tragedy.

Why an Irish American would want to teach the history of the Holocaust was the question the Harvard scholar explored last week at an informal discussion at the Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions.

The talk was part of a series sponsored by the School’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life titled “In Conversation: The Spiritual and Intellectual Life in Communion and in Tension,” which gives HDS faculty members the opportunity to explore the intersection of their intellectual and spiritual lives.

From his earliest days, Madigan said, he had an affinity for other cultures. That, combined with his strong Catholic upbringing, which fostered in him a fierce sense of right and wrong, would later influence his desire to study and teach the story of the Jewish genocide.

For Madigan, the fascination took hold when he was in sixth grade, when the nuns at his Catholic school assigned “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” the moving writings of a Jewish teen who hid from the Nazis for two years with her family in Amsterdam, until she was discovered and sent to Auschwitz, from which she was soon transported to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus in 1945.

In addition to a strong antipathy toward Nazis, the book spurred in Madigan an adolescent love for Anne and her persecuted people, and a strange “inchoate” desire to be part of them.

“It’s as if I were destined to be a Jew, but that through some cosmic hiccup my ancestors landed in Ireland. … I realize this is at least slightly strange; I have no ready explanation for it,” he said.

In addition, Madigan explained, he developed a “narcissistic” desire to have “been able to do something heroic to save those I conceived fantastically as mine.”

It’s a desire, he said, that hasn’t died.

It was “luckily, providentially, miraculously,” said Madigan, that he was recruited when he was a young teacher by an institute in Chicago eager to instruct historians in the Holocaust in order to encourage them to teach the event’s history at their respective institutions. The seminars it sponsored were immensely rewarding — as is the class he teaches now, he said.

Madigan speculated on some of the reasons others teach the history of the tragedy. To remember lessons learned from past horrors that might help prevent their recurrence is a worthy motive, he noted, but it isn’t his.

It’s his profound and ongoing empathy with the Jews that is behind his dedication and interest. Instead of focusing on the perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes or the bystanders, complicit in their silence, he chooses instead to remember the victims.

“My desire, perhaps illusory, is to help reconstruct the vanished world of the 6 million … to give them life in history of which they were cheated in their day. … I’d like to restore to memory those who the chancellor of Germany promised to consign to historical oblivion.”

He accomplishes this using literature and film, including works like the graphic novel “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, as well as the poems of French writer Charlotte Delbo and the work of author Elie Wiesel, both Holocaust survivors.” Those writings as well as films like “Au Revoir Les Enfants” and “The Pianist,” he said, put “a face on the anonymous 6 million that moves our soul.”

Madigan’s other personal connection to the story has an eschatological dimension — he envisions a world to come where the pain and suffering of those in the Holocaust have been erased by a loving God.

“I imagine the victims’ physical and emotional wounds healed; the loss of their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers restored; their deaths swallowed up forever by the God who keeps his promises, who loves, and who has never forgotten his people. … I imagine the joy and gladness of these innocents with every tear wiped away forever.”