Natali Beige was 14 years old when she discovered the medallion of the German Iron Eagle, a symbol used by the Nazi Party, in her grandfather’s drawer. “It was like a slap in the face,” she recalled. “There was something so vile about it – especially the swastika.”
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Her grandfather had died a few years earlier. Beige's grandmother tried to explain that the medallion hadn't actually belonged to him, but to his brother, and that despite the looks of it, Beige's great-uncle had actually opposed Hitler. He had paid for that opposition with his life, her grandmother added.
The story did little to console the teenaged Beige.
Later on, while digging for more information about her family history, Beige learned that her great-grandmother had been a “devoted Nazi” who insisted that her grandson – Beige’s uncle – join the Hitler Youth (but thanks to a grenade accident that blew off three of his fingers, the young boy was spared that ordeal and allowed to stay home).
It would seem like yet another story about a German child coming of age in the post-war era and stumbling into her family’s shady past. But this particular tale is more complicated, because Beige, born in Germany and raised in Israel, is also the descendent of Holocaust survivors.
On her mother's side are Jews from Lithuania and Poland. Her maternal grandfather, Gershon Taz, was the first mayor of the northern Israeli town of Nahariya.
Today, as a student in the brand-new international graduate program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa, Beige is trying to come to grips with her family's twisted history, a history that gave birth to her unique legacy as the descendent of both victim and perpetrator of the 20th century's darkest hour.
It is the first master’s degree program in Holocaust Studies to be offered in Israel, and the latest addition to a growing list of international graduate degree programs – all taught in English – at the university.
It turns out that Beige, 37, is not the only member of the inaugural class who discovered skeletons in the family closet at a young age, an event that prompted a lifelong quest to understand the origins of racism.
Her classmate Jonathan Kaeppeler, 23, grew up in a family of German descent in a small rural town in western Wisconsin. As a child, he heard that his great-grandmother, who died when he was 1 year old, was “a bit eccentric,” but only when he was in high school and became interested in World War II did he begin pestering his father for more details. “My father then told me that my grandmother was a Holocaust denier,” Kaeppeler said. “She believed it was part of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination.”
Kaeppeler's grandfather referred to Jews as "kikes." There wasn't a single Jewish family living in his hometown, so it wasn't until Kaeppeler was studying international relations at the University of Minnesota that he first met a Jew in person.
He decided he needed to see more of the world for himself. In his junior year of college, he headed to Istanbul on a study abroad program, and it was there, during a lecture on European immigration, that he had his Eureka moment. Sitting in the lecture hall, Kaeppeler realized that the tendency to deny the suffering and victimization of others was not restricted to his own family.
“The teacher began discussing what she called the Armenian question – she used the word ‘question,’ not ‘genocide’ – when suddenly one of the Turkish students interrupted and said it was a total lie that Armenians were killed," he said. "If anything, they got sick and died. I remember yelling out in class: ‘Are you kidding me?’ I had never heard anything like that before.”
From there Kaeppeler proceeded to Ireland, where he immersed himself in the history of that nation's protracted Protestant-Catholic conflict. “It was fascinating to me how two groups that lived together for so long could hate each other,” he said. “It was kind of like the Jews and Germans in Germany.”
When he returned home, without great prospects for a job upon graduation, he saw a brochure for the new Holocaust studies program in Haifa. “I said to myself, ‘Hey, this sounds interesting. Not much of a chance I’m going to find a job here, so I might as well go to Israel.’”
For Beige, the seeds were planted when she participated in what has become a tradition in Israeli high schools: the senior class trip to Poland.
“It was my first real encounter with evil,” she said, “and after I visited Auschwitz and saw the fingernail scratches on the wall, it was hard for me to recover. I felt like I was in a dark hole.” After her Jewish grandfather died, she set out to discover whatever she could about the whereabouts of the family during the Holocaust, which involved using her professional skills as a librarian to wade through volumes of archival material, both in Israel and abroad. “After about a year of devoting myself to this project, I noticed an ad for the Holocaust studies program, and I decided to sign up,” she said.
Professor Hanan Alexander, the dean of students and head of the international school at the University of Haifa, describes the new program as the "flagship" of the university's international graduate programs. He sees it, he says, as a nesting ground for the next generation of Holocaust scholars.
There are 30 students enrolled in the program. Half are Israeli, while the other half hail from abroad.
In addition to their regular course work, students in this one-year program will visit archives, museums and sites relevant to the Holocaust in Germany and Poland. Many have already begun volunteering with Holocaust survivors in Israel as part of their degree requirements.
According to Professor Arieh Kochavi, the program’s academic director, if students choose to write a thesis, they will have an additional year to write it. “Of the 30 students we have enrolled, already 28 have opted for the thesis,” he said.
Beige has not yet decided what she will write her thesis on, but Kaeppeler said he is committed to focusing on either Holocaust denial or Holocaust education.
By virtue of the subject matter, Kochavi said he believes the program will continue attracting applicants with compelling life stories. “Among those who have approached us about applying next year,” he said, “we have a woman from Rwanda, a survivor of the genocide there, who is currently living in the United States, where she’s set up a non-profit dedicated to preventing genocide around the world.”