The UPenn Prof Who Makes His Students Watch Lanzmann's Shoah in One Sitting

Using testimonies of survivors in books, video clips and movies, Al Filreis – a literary scholar, not a historian – teaches a popular but painful class aimed at leading students to develop their own ethical view of humanity.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. While tears are often shed during his class on the Holocaust, Filreis nevertheless occasionally encounters students who are indifferent to the subject matter.
Auschwitz. While tears are often shed during his class on the Holocaust, Filreis occasionally encounters students who are indifferent to the subject.Credit: AP
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

As time passes, memories of the Holocaust are beginning to fade. The last remaining survivors are dying off. In Israel schoolchildren still learn about it – but around the world, the annihilation of six million Jews, as well as the mass murder of homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, receive less attention than in the past at many schools and institutions of higher learning.

Somewhat exceptionally, then, during the last few months I’ve enjoyed a most fascinating experience related to the field of Holocaust studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, attending some lectures as part of a course called “Representations of the Holocaust in Literature & Film,” taught by Prof. Al Filreis.

In the course which he has taught for some 30 years, albeit not on a yearly basis, Filreis exposes his students to the harsh experiences of those cataclysmic days, as well as to the post-trauma of the survivors. Some would define the class as offering a lesson in life. While tears are often shed during the lectures, Filreis nevertheless occasionally encounters students who are indifferent to the subject matter. “Everyone responds differently,” he explains. “Some respond with indifference and if that’s what they feel that’s okay too.”

Al Filreis is not a historian: He specializes in English literature, from the early 20th century up to the present, and his expertise is poetry; he is also director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the university. His class on the Holocaust does not fit the usual mode of presenting a certain narrative, but is rather based on studying the events of the period by means of the testimonies of survivors in books, video clips and movies.

The reading and visual materials include, among others, Aharon Appelfeld’s book “The Story of a Life”; two books by Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz (Ecce Homo)” and “Periodic Table”; as well as “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman.

Fireis teaching his class in the Holocaust at the University of Pennsylvania. Careful to allow his students to speak out. Credit: Haim Handwerker

The bibliography also includes video testimonies by survivors, from the archives at Yale University, and the movies “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg, and “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann. Students see the latter film all at once, over nine-and-a-half hours, uninterrupted. On a Sunday, usually a free day. Filreis believes that watching it this way, with all the difficulty and fatigue involved, is a vital experience, which sends a message to students: If it’s hard to watch a movie for that long, imagine the hardship of what these people went through.

While Filreis is very dominant in the class, held in the Kelly Writers House on campus (which he also directs), he is careful to allow his students to speak out and aims to provoke discussion. His hope is that they will be able to look at the world with sober eyes, and to contemplate decisions made by leaders of various countries while developing their own ethical view of humanity, to ensure that what happened in World War II doesn’t repeat itself.

Asked why he only teaches the course every other year, he says, “It’s too sad. I couldn’t bear doing it every year. There are too many emotions involved. Too much pain. Too much sadness. I like to view myself as a lecturer and a happy person. If I taught this course every year, I’d spend too much time in darkness and that’s too much for me.”

Filreis adds that he doesn’t want to be perceived as a “Shoah scholar,” which is why, when such studies were popular in the 1980s and '90s, he consistently turned down invitations to lecture – because “I don’t want to surround myself with non-stop Holocaust.”

Des Pres disciple

Al Filreis, 59, was born in Brooklyn to a family which had lost many members during World War II. He grew up in New Jersey and attended Colgate University, where he was a student of Terrence Des Pres, author of “The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps." Filreis' students read that book as well. Indeed, he sees his class as a continuation of what he learned from Des Pres, who, the professor says, delved so deeply into the Shoah that one could say he never emerged from it. (Des Pres died in 1987 in unclear circumstances; while some say he committed suicide, Filreis is skeptical but doesn’t really want to know what happened.)

The classroom in Kelly Writers House is full, and it's hard to find an empty seat. There are only 38 students now, as opposed to the past, when Filreis taught up to 110. He prefers smaller groups and maintains close contact with the students, some two-thirds of whom are Jewish, throughout the course.

He believes that some students project events they learn about into their own personal lives. In the past, the professor recalls, he has had students from countries that have undergone "ethnic cleansing” – including one student from South Sudan whose father had been murdered for political reasons. After taking his class, another student managed to get her parents, who had come from Vietnam, to “open up” about the horrific wartime experiences they had gone through.

Filreis’ screens “Schindler’s List” in class to elicit discussion, but says he really doesn’t like the well-known Holocaust movie. As presented there, the story of Oskar Schindler, an exceptional and courageous man, is too easy to digest.

“I’m not against Oskar Schindler," Filreis explains. "I’m against Spielberg who does all the work for us and tells us what to feel. Many people disagree with me. Many feel that this is a wonderful movie and that it’s an excellent way to tell young people what the Holocaust was. I’d prefer that they watch something more complex and difficult such as 'Shoah,' or that they read books by Primo Levi in which one goes through a difficult process – entering the victims’ world.”

This week, the last class will be held. I asked to attend. Usually, Filreis looks favorably on requests to sit in on his class. However, it turns out that this one is closed to outsiders. Why? This is the time when each student has the opportunity of saying parting words about what is in his or her heart.

“They’ve gone through a difficult emotional experience,” Filreis says. “These can be very emotional moments so I want to grant them the necessary privacy and freedom to express what bothers them without any hindrance.”

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