Rutgers Students Explore Visual History Archive in Douglas Greenberg’s Comparative Genocide Class

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 5:00pm

Just two years ago, professors who wanted to use the Visual History Archive to teach about genocide could only share Holocaust survivor testimonies with their students.

Now, they can use the Visual History Archive’s new Rwandan Tutsi Genocide and Nanjing Massacre collections. Former USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Douglas Greenberg is utilizing all three collections in his Comparative Genocide course at Rutgers University, and it has had a profound effect on his students.

Greenberg, who served as executive director from 2000-2008, is a professor of history at Rutgers and formerly its Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. He has taught an honors seminar course called Genocide in Comparative Historical Perspective for the last several years. The course includes discussion of the Holocaust, Rwandan, Cambodian and Armenian genocides, in order to understand the historical roots, immediate causes, implementation and aftermath of these four acts of collective state-sponsored violence and then to attempt to make comparisons among them.

In addition to reading a variety of primary and secondary sources and watching films, students watch testimony in the Visual History Archive. The course culminates in a final paper on a topic of each student’s choosing.

Greenberg said he does not assign specific testimonies to his students, but rather encourages them to search the archive on their own and watch anything that interests them. This semester was the first time his students had access to the new Nanjing Massacre collection.

Throughout class discussions and their final papers, this semester’s class has made use of all the collections in the Visual History Archive, and some students even had personal connections to genocide. This made for lively, passionate debate in class, Greenberg said.

He said his students’ reaction to watching testimony for the first time is often shock, followed by an immediate emotional connection to the survivor onscreen.

“They have the feeling that they’ve begun a conversation. It’s very powerful,” Greenberg said. “It’s very hard for them to turn it off; they feel like they’re interrupting.”

Greenberg said students love to share stories from the testimonies in class discussions. Most likely, no two students have watched the same testimonies, so they each feel like “experts” on their survivors and are eager to talk about what they have learned.

Sophomore Lauren McGowan chose to watch the testimony of African American veteran Floyd Dade Jr. because he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated a concentration camp just like her own grandfather. Not only did Dade’s testimony help shed light on her grandfather’s experience in the war, but it also opened her eyes to the deep racial divide that still existed in America at the time.

“The Americans were there fighting the forces of a man with nothing but hatred and resentment in his heart. And yet, Americans still saw black people as being lesser than white people,” McGowan said. “I think it bothered me so much because they were fighting injustice and yet our society was racist and ignorant.”

Freshman Colette Prideaux said she didn’t know anything about the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide before taking Greenberg’s course, but was particularly amazed and inspired by the testimony of survivor Arsene Nsabimana. She was surprised to hear him talk about wanting to forget everything about the genocide, even his family members who were killed. It was the first time she had ever been exposed to such a “heavy and complicated” topic before.

But, she’s grateful that she could watch Nsabimana tell his story in his own words.

“I think that’s the most vital part of the testimony, or any kind of genocidal study in general – there has to be this sentimental tie between the people affected and the people studying it for any comprehension to arise. This is the best and most beautiful part of the USC Shoah Foundation,” Prideaux said. “Before I was introduced to the archive I lacked the connection between me and those involved. But now I understand. “Genocide” is no longer just a term, just a word that flicks off the tongue. Instead, it’s tangible – I can feel it, and I know it is something innocent people have unfortunately experienced.”

Greenberg said it is a pleasure to read his students’ final papers, many of which raise innovative and thought-provoking questions about the nature of genocide and its consequences. By analyzing multiple sources, they make arguments that are topical, intellectually stimulating and very personal.

“They tend to feel their eyes have been opened, and that the subject is more complicated than they realize,” Greenberg said. “They realize that they live in a world that is genocidal.”