'I Take Long Walks': The Emotional Lives of Holocaust Scholars

A poignant exchange between Wendy Lower, author of Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, and a Holocaust survivor and scholar

On Friday afternoon, Wendy Lower, the author of Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, participated in an interactive interview with The Atlantic’s Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. Lower had discussed her process of researching and writing Hitler’s Furies, now a National Book Award Finalist, then they turned to the online audience for questions.

An elderly woman popped up onscreen via webcam. “Can you suggest any strategies to take care of the emotions?” she asked in accented English. “Sometimes I manage and sometimes I don’t.”

After a moment, the woman clarified: “I’m a survivor. So sometimes I can put on my teacher hat and I manage. And sometimes at the end of it, I’m exhausted. It’s very hard to deal with the events as history alone.”

Liz Igra, as she identified herself in the online conversation, went on to say that she’d spent many years giving presentations on her experience as a Holocaust survivor. Because she’d seen “how poorly the subject was taught, not for lack of information, but rather of a deeper understanding of how to connect with students,” she started an organization of her own five years ago that trains teachers how to present the Holocaust in classroom settings. Lower, who teaches Holocaust history herself at Claremont McKenna College in California, had plenty of thoughts on that subject. What ensued from there was a conversation between two teachers about how to best research the Holocaust as well as convey the magnitude of the atrocities carried out against European Jews during World War II to students, while also protecting the students’ emotions and their own.

“If I’m about to go teach or give a speech, there’s something performative about that,” Lower told Igra. “You come up with ways of pulling yourself together emotionally.”

But in managing her own psychological state, Lower said, “When I’m on my own ... I take long walks, I spend time with family, I pick up poetry. I do things that bring me into the world and what’s beautiful in life. And when I experience that, it’s that much more profound, and that much more wonderful, in light of some of these other horrors that I read about.”

She also stressed the importance of spending time with colleagues and fellow researchers at other institutions who do the same research. “We meet, we share our research, we support each other,” she said, and added that while retreats and conferences with other scholars in her field can be intense, “I think informal interactions are very important. We tend to over-structure academic programs—you know, everybody stand up and give a paper, or sit at a panel, and you have 20 minutes. But I find that in the gatherings in our field, the most productive time, most rejuvenating, kind of intellectually rewarding time is this down time; that’s when, emotionally, people reach out.”

Watch their full exchange in the clip above.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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