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In Memoriam: Theodore Z. Weiss

November 30, 2020

In Memoriam: Theodore Z. Weiss
September 12, 1931 - November 25, 2020

     Today we mourn the passing of Dr. Theodore Z. Weiss, the founder and longtime director of the Holocaust Educational Foundation. In late October, he fell and was rushed to the hospital. He had trouble recovering there, and was discharged home, where his family surrounded him with love for the last few weeks.

     Zev, as he was known to his friends, was born in Demecser, Hungary in a traditional Central European Jewish family. In June 1944, German forces deported Zev and his family to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was 12 years old; his parents and younger sister were murdered immediately, his brother a few days later. He survived Auschwitz as part of a work crew of adolescents supervised by an older prisoner; he subsequently survived the death march from Glevitz to Sachsenhausen. He was liberated by American forces at Gunskirchen, not far from Mauthausen in Austria, on May 8, 1945; a Quaker soldier saved his life by forcing – at gunpoint – a German doctor to provide needed medical care. As the sole survivor of his family, and after being chased violently away by Hungarian villagers who had seized the family home in Demecser, he set out for Palestine with other young Jewish survivors, making it into the port of Haifa before being turned back by British authorities and returned to Europe.  In 1947, he arrived in Canada and traveled to Montreal where he began his studies at McGill University and the Hebrew Teachers Seminary – an auspicious decision that not only provided the start to his career in Jewish education, but also led him to what would become his passion for the remaining years of his life. In 1956, Zev moved to the Rochester, New York area and began teaching at a synagogue school, a line of work that would take him from the East Coast to the Midwest and eventually to Wilmette, Illinois in 1971. For 22 years, he would serve as the Education Director at the Beth Hillel Academy in Wilmette. In his personal life, Zev had met and married the love of his life, Alice, an assistant professor at the State University of New York in Albany in 1962 and they began a partnership that endured for almost six decades.

     Despite his professional and personal success, Zev harbored a vision of bringing the history and the experience of the Shoah to the mainstream of public and academic discourse. He once remarked, “Learning remains the best antidote to humanity’s most inhumane impulses.” As Zev and Alice met in their home in 1976 with a group of friends to create what became the Holocaust Educational Foundation, they faced a number of obstacles. At this time, public knowledge of the Shoah was scant and academic courses as well as cultural programs related to the Holocaust were almost non-existent. In the face of monumental odds, Zev demonstrated the resolve and strength of purpose that characterized his every endeavor. Beginning with a project to video survivor testimonies, the HEF by the mid-1980s shifted to the Herculean effort formally to introduce Holocaust courses into higher education institutions. While it is surely difficult to imagine this now, the climate in the US academy in the mid-1980s was such that history departments at numerous universities initially responded with “evasion, postponement, and general disinterest.” Zev did not give up. The first such course, The History of the Holocaust, was launched at Northwestern University in 1988.

     A classic example of Zev’s unrelenting dedication to this vision can be seen in a story that he loved to tell about his efforts to initiate a Holocaust course at the US Air Force Academy. He recalled how he had arrived in Colorado Springs the night before a scheduled meeting with the Department Head to discuss plans for a course for cadets. With only enough money for either a rental car or a hotel room, Zev chose the rental and spent a cold night sleeping in the car before his meeting the next morning. This decision – like everything he did – exemplified his determination and his complete commitment to his duties as the President of the Holocaust Educational Foundation. In the face of such devotion there were few University Presidents or Deans who could say “no” to his request and through the force of his character and his lived experience he carried the day at the Air Force Academy – and eventually at more than 400 colleges and universities throughout the US and Canada. A virtuoso at persuasion, he succeeded in coaxing hundreds of faculty members to center the Holocaust in their teaching – in history, but also in political science, religion, philosophy, psychology, and literature, among many other fields. Notably, Zev’s impulses were consistently democratic; he was as, if not even more, ardently committed to including faculty at smaller or out-of-the-way places than at big-name prestigious schools – and he got everyone to learn from each other. Zev also continued to travel tirelessly to visit these colleges and universities in person, no longer to meet only with administrators or prospective faculty but also to join the students in the classrooms. There, he not only told his own story, but with enormous patience answered any and all undergraduate questions, willing to go into also the most vulnerable and difficult of topics, taking on young people’s searching queries with extraordinary care.

     For Zev, moreover, it was never just about adding courses to a curriculum. It was also very much about appropriately preparing educators to teach both knowledgeably and effectively about this dark chapter in history. Towards this end, at school after school, he offered funding and resources for educator and course development. And – from 1989 on – he also inaugurated a biennial conference, Lessons and Legacies, that brought together a transgenerational community of scholars from across North America, Israel, and Western and soon also Eastern Europe to present to each other the latest research findings and – in intensive workshops – to discuss practical approaches to Holocaust pedagogy. Subsequently, the Foundation developed a world-class annual teaching institute at Northwestern, the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization. At the Summer Institute, faculty embarking on new course development as well as advanced graduate students beginning a career in Holocaust studies can learn about the histories of Judaism and Jewish life before the Holocaust in addition to delving more deeply into interdisciplinary approaches to Holocaust studies.

     In the by now thirty-plus years since that first Lessons and Legacies conference – and in consonance also with the conferences of the German Studies Association – Zev’s labor and inspiration have nurtured a truly remarkable community of scholars and students that number in the thousands. His efforts created a true fellowship bonded to each other by deep mutual respect and seriousness of shared purpose, but in many cases by enduring friendships as well.

     Today we honor his memory, remember his contributions to the organization that he loved, and reflect on the legacy he leaves behind. May his memory be a blessing.

                                                                                                                Dagmar Herzog and Edward Westermann